Saturday, February 26, 2011

If It Ain't Broke . . . Don't Fix It

This is the road to the Foundation.  Left at the pile of dirt, carefully round the dead tree behind it (avoiding the gaping pit the mound is evidence of), circle the stack of bricks, duck under the low hanging lichee tree branches and emerge dusty and victorious at the office gate.

When this trail of destruction first began in Vasant Vihar months ago, I have to admit I was impressed with the heavy machinery in use. Accustomed as we are to seeing men "breaking up the rocks in the hot sun,"

it was amazing to see bulldozers and steam shovels hard at work. It almost seemed like progress.

But as the weeks dragged into months and the roads continued to be chewed up with no concern for putting them back in order so that people could walk and drive on them, it began to seem more like more of the same, only worse.

The bulldozers provide a stamp of professionalism to what turns out to be just another big PWD scam: a World Bank loan to the government of Uttarakhand to lay sewage pipes throughout the neighborhood.

Sounds good, right? Except that our neighborhood is perfectly well-served by our own individual septic tank systems. Why would anyone pay for the privilege of linking to a system that may or may not actually function when the system we already have is working fine?

But the state government has gotten the money!!! Who cares that it's a loan that will have to be repaid eventually??? There are contractors right here, right now who are more than eager to do the work that doesn't need to be done, and to share their profits with whomever it is who makes sure that their bid is the one accepted.

And the wreckage left in their wake? A new twist on the old phrase:

If it ain't broke, break it, and THEN don't fix it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

High Heels, Part Two

I know there is a lot to look at in this picture, but I'd like to draw your attention to the shoes. You can't see Sumita's or Neha's, but you can safely assume they are in the same neighborhood as mine. You can't see Rajesh's either (he's the guy between me and Neha), but you can safely assume his are not. His are almost certain to be like Suresh's (brown suit), Rizwan's (white kurta/red scarf) and Ramesh's (white kurta). That is: sturdy, sensible, comfortable.

Not us. Height, elegance and agony - that's what we women like. This particular day, I liked that combination so well I decided to walk all the way home in this get-up. Our fashion show had been a surprise and I had come in jeans and sneakers and changed just before our appearance. There was nothing to stop me from changing back and walking home happily. Except that I thought I looked so cool and haughty.

Or just plain stupid?

Coming over, I had worn my pedometer, as I always do. At a fast clip (I was late), it took 800 steps door to door. I was still wearing the pedometer on the return trip, little black dress, high heels and all (devotion, what else can I say?). This time? 1756 steps door to door and every one of those steps was an effort. I couldn't stride. I alternated between a mince and a plod. My toes were curling in on themselves by the time I reached our gate and the moment I climbed down from my heels, my feet began to cramp. It took 15 minutes of massaging to get them back to normal and it wasn't over. That night as I fell asleep I was woken by more cramps, this time shooting up my legs.

The next morning, I made a decision. It would be sneakers, from here on in. (Mostly.)

They may not look elegant and they certainly don't go with that little black dress.  But they allow me to walk. They give me permission to move and the freedom to stride. They let me take to the streets. I feel like myself when my feet are happy. I know who I am and I never think twice about the next move.


Because (sigh) there are still those moments, and always will be (face it) when the little black dress and the long, sleek legs want to come out to play. And women, unlike men, are more likely to say - ah, what the hell?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Hard Hats for the Core Group

Our senior staff meets once a week, almost religiously, almost like clock-work. We call ourselves the Core Group and we've been doing this for the past fifteen years. This week, we met at the construction site for the new Early Intervention Centre at the Doon Hospital and while we didn't exactly get our hands dirty, standing there in the middle of the sky, with open windows looking out toward the Himalayas, walls going up before our eyes and decisions being taken with rapid-fire and immediate effect (These guys have a DEADLINE. They are working FAST.) was almost painfully exciting.

So many dreams and hopes have come together in this project. It's difficult to believe it is actually taking shape. When we started Karuna Vihar 16 years ago, we talked in lofty terms about our vision for the future but I don't think any of us really believed it would come to pass. The problems were so enormous and we were so young and small and inexperienced. We wanted it to be true, but we knew in our hearts that it was unlikely.

But just as we asked our children with disability to take things one tiny step at a time, just as we counseled their parents not to expect overnight miracles, we did the same. We took our own advice. We kept our heads down and went on putting one foot in front of the other.We worked on the moments and the years took care of themselves.

Miracle followed miracle and wonders never ceased.

And now, here we are. In a joint venture with the government of Uttarakhand, building a state-of-the-art centre for our youngest citizens with disability - an EIC for babies from birth to five, proving that the most vulnerable among us are every bit as important and precious as anyone else. 

But let's not get carried away.

We had requested the use of a conference room at the hospital so that we could complete our Core Group meeting after the inspection of the construction site. Well, the conference room wasn't available, but would this room in the private ward do?

All squished together with several of us perched on the bed (luckily there was no patient in it at the moment), it was a good way to get over ourselves, to remember how we started and to remind ourselves that that big or small, it's still heads down, one foot in front of the other. We are learning all the time, we are so grateful we could sing, we are amazed that we are here, that this is happening, that the babies we want to reach have actually been given a centre all their own and that we are the ones who get to open the door for them.

Deo Gratias!

Sunday, February 13, 2011

All Present and Accounted For

Like everyone else in the field of disability in India, I've been waiting eagerly yet with trepidation for the Census takers to come to my house. Getting the number of people with disability right is so vital for so many reasons. I wanted to be here when they arrived and I was worried I would miss them. I was anxious to see how they would handle Question # 9, yet afraid they would flub it.

I had so many possible scenarios going in my head, the last thing I was prepared for was what actually happened.

What happened was that two very fine gentlemen - Mr Jagdish Prasad and Mr K N Singh - presented themselves at our gate, forms in hand and our names on their list, and announced proudly that they were here for the Census.

It was the pride that struck me. 

They worked in the Water Department, they informed me, but for the moment, they were taking the Census.  For a temporary assignment, their conviction and investment was remarkable. They sat down in our garden (our living room was full of the guests we had invited for lunch) and, after refusing my offer of tea, they got down to business.

One by one, they slowly and painstakingly took me through the process - asking each and every question on the list carefully and diligently, making sure I understood not only the questions but the logic behind each one.

When we came to Question #9 (the only one I really cared about - sorry, but it's true), they asked it first in its bald form: "Does anyone in your family have a disability?" and then immediately paraphrased by saying: "Does anyone have any difficulty seeing? Or hearing? Or moving? Or understanding? Or any combination of these? Or in any way at all?"

They asked without judgment. They wanted to know.

I answered matter-of-factly. They wrote it down just as calmly. 

Moy Moy was counted as a person with multiple disabilities. So was Mummy (hearing and movement). So was Masiji (movement). 

Jagdish Prasad and K N Singh did their work well today. I was proud to be counted, along with my family. But more important, they were proud to make certain we were counted accurately. What more can we ask?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hope and Need

How many times have I felt like this? That could be Moy Moy: peacefully asleep in my arms, oblivious to all, secure in the knowledge that Mom is there, that Mom has everything under control and I am safe. And that could be me: pensive, overwhelmed, all-too-aware of how little I actually have any control whatever over and how powerless I am in my desperate desire to protect my child.

Being the parent of a child with a disability is a tightrope walk - we are constantly calculating wind velocity, tensile strength and the distance from point A to point B. We never stop plotting. Our babies lie sweetly in our arms while our minds race through the next set of hurdles to be negotiated for them. We love their simple, trusting faith even as we curse the labyrinth we have to guide them through. Not fair! We shout inside our heads. Not fair!

Muir Adams took this picture. His teachers told him that when photographing for voluntary organisations, it's important to capture both need and hope. He got it right with this one. The need is all too clearly etched on that Mom's anxious, beautiful face. But the hope shines forth from her baby's peaceful repose: I've got my mother, he says. What more do I need?

Thursday, February 10, 2011

How Inclusion Works

Here's Lakshi (again). OK, so I am a little besotted. But there she is in my kitchen every morning and my garden every afternoon. Last night she saw I was serving cake to some guests and she crept into the living room, snagged a piece and somehow managed to fall fast asleep in my arms a bit later.

I'm hooked. So when I see her at Latika Vihar, I can't help but feel proprietary and fascinated. She's such a little bundle of energy and mischief. And so fetching.

She is ALSO a text-book case of being three. Watching her is instructive and fun.

Lakshi adores Latika Vihar. She counts the hours for it to be time to go and she refuses to leave until the last possible second. But one day a few weeks ago, she suddenly announced that she no longer wanted to be a member. When her older brother got ready to leave, she simply refused to budge.

It finally emerged that one of our special kids had frightened her. Kritika is adorable, but she has a habit of suddenly lashing out at other children without warning or provocation. Lakshi had been hit a few times too many and she wasn't willing to chance it happening again.

Enter Hema. In spite of her tiny size, she has a larger than life presence and, as the Coordinator of Latika Vihar, she is determined that every child have the best possible time while there. She is Miss Inclusion and she makes sure every kid feels special and wanted.

Slowly, steadily, she wooed Lakshi back, encouraging her to take part in events she enjoyed:

helping her to develop friendships with older girls with whom she felt safe:

while simultaneously working with Kritika to help her develop better social skills. Inclusion doesn't just happen miraculously. It needs time and thought and a lot of attention.

But when all those things come together, miracles (of fun and play and joy) do occur:

Lakshi is back! And engaged!

And here she is with Kritika, the girl she was so afraid of just a few months ago.

Proving once again that miracles do occur, and inclusion does happen - but not out of nothing, not just by wishing. It's based on skill and hard work and unswerving belief. It's what we owe our kids and what we know can come true if we want it enough.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Little Girl at the Window

Can there be anything more delightful than finding a child at your window, just inches below the sill and eye-level with your desk, peering in at you - you, so seriously engaged, all hunched over your laptop and thinking about really important things - and grinning?

That's my Lakshi. She bursts into my life whenever it suits her. She has no concept of my time or my pre-occupations or my need to get to the office before noon. "Mom'" she says arms up in the air. I melt.

When her Dad (Our Man Vickers) had his stroke, she and her brother Vijay turned to me and Ravi for security and safety in a time of turmoil in their little world. Now she is an everyday part of MY world and she comes running to be scooped up  each morning.

Lakshi is tiny and that is part of her charm. She is also fierce and opinionated and full of curiosity about everything under the sun. She is my delight and my sunshine, a little corner of the world which is simple and clear and complete. Lakshmi is the Goddess of Wealth. That's what Lakshi does for my life.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Grey Hair Part 3!

What was I thinking?

It wasn't a sudden decision.

It wasn't a decision taken after long and careful thought.

It wasn't a decision at all.

It was an order from on high, delivered in no uncertain terms by God's Own Elder Sister, Nutan.  "Stop dyeing your hair," she said.

Though she is seven years older than me, she has almost no grey herself. In anyone else, this would seem to disqualify her from dispensing advice as to whether I should dye or not. God's Elder Sister had no such qualms.

And though I thought I had decided for myself, clearly, I was wrong. Just ask Nutan.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Grey Hair, Part 2

Well, maybe I have a few more things to say about going grey.

It wasn't actually a sudden decision. I first began thinking about it when my oldest friend - Martha Rose - came to India for a visit last year. Like me, she had been dyeing her hair for over 20 years. This is how she looked when I last saw her in America:

Adorable. But when she arrived in India, look what she had done! Now she looked regal, full of the wisdom of the ages:

Yet, somehow, no less adorable, no less fetching:

I began to think seriously about following her example.

Over the next few months, images of other friends kept flashing through my mind:





And Vina, the ultimate in white-haired beauty.

Oh, yes, there were men, too . . . (beautiful men, in fact)

. . . but we all know it's different for men. I needed women as role models.

And one fine day, I decided that not only did I need role models for the white-haired life - I wanted to BE one. And now here I am: still a fledgling, still taking baby steps, but having such fun! About to fly!

High Heels, Grey Hair

This is how I looked six months ago. Long (by my standards) hair. Dark brown.

I am over 50 in this photo and with my family inheritance, there is no way my hair can be this color naturally. Dad was completely white by the time he was 35; Mom was grey in her 40s.

Had I left it to nature, I think I would have followed Dad's path: my first grey hairs appeared in my late 20s; the sexiness of pure white on a youngish face would surely have followed.

But we all know that what is sexy on a man is dowdy and over-the-hill on a woman.

Or so I thought. So I started with henna when I was just over 30. My friend Deepa and I did it together and we made a pact: knowing how hideously the auburn sheen of henna veers into glaring orange without the host head seeming to realize, we promised we would tell each other when it was time to stop. She told me when I was 35. I told her a year later. I went on to chemical dyes. She just stopped altogether.

Well, we aren't all as beautiful as Deepa. Nor as confident. Nor as experienced. One of the reasons she didn't want to get into dyeing was that she had watched her own mother do it for years and years. She had seen first-hand the mess, the expense and - worst of all -  the dreadful and inevitable return of the "skunk-line." She wanted no part of it.

MY mother had never dyed (she barely wore lipstick) so I had no cautionary tale before me. What I had was these pesky white hairs which were always there to remind me of things I preferred not to think about.

So for 18 years (18 YEARS!) I spent $6 every 6 weeks  (nearly $1000!) to keep up the pretense that I was not, in fact, getting older.

Six months ago, I had suddenly had enough. And just as suddenly, I stopped. No more dyeing. I have surprisingly little to say about it. Just that it is a release and a delight to relax, to agree with what everyone already knew: I'm getting older. And once that is agreed upon, to use it. For India is the place to be when growing old.

There is deference to be had: a seat on the train, the first to be served, one's advice sought. And carte blanche when one wishes. Now that my hair is grey I feel reckless and uninhibited: who cares?