Tuesday, March 29, 2011

If Tiles Could Talk They'd Be Text-Tiles

My friend Ana of I Made It So has this wonderful weekly feature on her blog where she invites readers to dig into their blog archives and recycle a favorite old post. She provides a theme each Friday, we all get to fish around for something appropriate to share AND we get to read everyone else's offerings. Sometimes, her themes are so interesting I am inspired to do a new post just for the occasion. This is one of those.

Ana's theme this past Friday was "text, tile, textile" (she doesn't use capital letters).

I've been thinking about tiles so much I see them in my dreams and talk about them in my sleep. We are building an Early Intervention Centre at the government run Doon Hospital. Building! We are building - from scratch! state-of-the-art! - one of our own centres right inside a government hospital. There are days when I go to the site and I am so overcome I just stand there in a daze while everyone else moves purposefully around me.

You have to know, first, what a government hospital in India is like. The Doon Hospital has improved considerably since the first time I saw it over 20 years ago. Then there were open drains running along the corridors, the walls were stained red from people spitting paan juice on them, and the wards were stacked with people, sometimes lying three to a bed.

Now it is much cleaner and better organized, but those are relative terms. Glance out of any ward-window and you will still see piles of refuse rotting on the ledges. Walk past any bathroom and you still have to hold your breath to make it by without gagging. And step into any ward and you will still see patients lying in various levels of pain and suffering, huddled beneath flimsy blankets they had to bring in themselves from home.

But all around them, as far as the eye can see, are miles and miles of white tile. It's a new innovation, meant to convey hospital-like cleanliness and hygiene, and, to a degree, it works. White tiles can be washed. Paan stains are regularly removed. Good move, Doc!

The tiles in our Early Intervention Centre are not white.

This is the kitchen.

And here's the counseling room.

And here's a close-up of the blue-ish purple tile we chose for the children's play area:

Each room is different. Each room says that people are not all the same. The text of our tiles is a celebration of the unrepeatable special spark that lies within each child, just waiting to be fanned into flame.

And this is the real wonder. This is what amazes me. How did we slip this revolutionary idea past the white tile wallas, the ones who believe that all of India's problems will be solved by hygiene and systems and objectively verifiable indicators?

So ssshhh. Don't tell anyone. Those tiles are talking.

The Fab India Legend

My friend Radhika Singh's book on Fab-India has just been published (you can order it here). At the Dehradun launch for the book this past Sunday, people shared stories about what the shop meant to them and I found, to my surprise, that I had a few stories of my own, though in the heat of the moment, the first one came out a bit garbled and the second one didn't emerge at all.

So I thought I would give it another try - because they are both good stories.

Fab-India, for those who don't live here, is "an Indian chain store retailing garments, furnishings, fabrics and ethnic products handmade by craftspeople across rural India." (I lifted that from wikipedia.)

It was started in 1960 by an American man named John Bissell who came to India as a Ford Foundation consultant and ended up marrying an Indian woman (Bimla Bissell) and staying here for the rest of his life. It's a store that, in spite of being a chain, people feel passionately about and intimately connected to.

So here are my stories.

The first time I set foot in Fab was in 1981. I was 23 and I was going home for my first visit since moving to India with Ravi. Gifts for my family were obviously in order and my friends Libbie and Amitav told me I would love Fab India. "It's got an American sensibility," Amitav said. "You can pull things off the racks yourself - you don't have to point at stuff and hope the guy behind the counter knows what you mean." Amitav was right. What a beautiful store! Full of the most wonderful fabrics!

So there I was, walking wide-eyed through the place, running my hand appreciatively across the cloth, loving the fine weaves and the dazzling colors. But the price tags! Ravi and I were dirt poor in those days. I wanted to get something for each one of my family, but there was no way I could afford to do it.

Just then, John Bissell and an American woman appeared on the shop floor. It was clear to me that she was a buyer for a large US firm. They stood just a little way from me and I could hear John saying "See. That's a typical American buyer. She appreciates the weave, the 100% cotton, the design."

The woman said: "And yet, she walks past without buying."

John: "She's worried about the ironing."

No, John! I wanted to say. I'm worried about the money! Because, of course, I wasn't a typical American buyer at all. I might have looked like an ex-pat or a tourist, but in fact I was a very poor American girl on an Indian rupee budget.

Fast-forward to 1996. By now, Fab-India was a force to be reckoned with. It was wildly popular and known throughout the country.

I had changed too. By now I had a little more money and didn't feel quite as daunted by the Fab-India prices.

So there I was in the same N-Block Market shop and there, in a little deja-vu moment, was John Bissell again. And again, there was an American buyer beside him. Only this time, there was also a nurse. John Bissell had had a stroke a year or so earlier. He was no longer able to speak and he had trouble controlling his saliva. The nurse was there to wipe his chin, but John Bissell was still clearly in charge.

I had only recently gotten involved in the field of disability so I didn't really understand what the communication board he held in his hands was all about. What I did understand was the tremendous courage and dignity I was witness to.

John Bissell was not going to allow a stroke to change his ability to engage with the world. With determination and tenacity, he got himself back up on his feet. He worked out a way to communicate - with staff, with customers, even with American buyers - and he carried on.

That image of this strong, lovely man - out on the shop floor, doing what he had always done - has stayed with me all these years as an icon, as a vision, as a dream come true of what it looks like to prevail, to hold fast, to stand tall against the odds.

We all have much to learn from his courage and from his grace.

Friday, March 25, 2011

English Mem, Hindi Bolni-Walli

When we first moved to Dehradun I bought groceries at a local shop, occasionally on credit. I was friendly with the shopkeeper, but we didn't know each others' names. One evening while making my purchases, I asked him how much I owed him and he pulled out his little register and leafed through to find my page. Curious to see what he called me, I leaned over and saw that, in his book, I was "English Mem Hindi Bolni Walli".

The English Lady Who Speaks Hindi! A title to treasure.

Learning Hindi is the single most important investment I ever made toward my life in India and one that I consciously enjoy almost every single day. It's hard to explain why being able to speak it is such a pleasure. I don't have complicated exchanges; I don't discuss deep philosophical issues. Political debates almost never happen, nor am I capable of a nuanced discussion on the pros and cons of the Right to Education Act.

Indeed, I think the pleasure comes precisely from the simplicity of the conversations I have, from the fact that almost all of what I talk about is tangible and real. How high a child's fever went last night. The price of cauliflower.  How sparkling that dress is in the sunshine. The way to Sethi Market (left at the gol chakka, phir bilkul straight jana).

Because my Hindi is not as good as most educated people's English, my talk tends to be with poor people, people who are unpretentious, simple and absolutely delighted that they can understand me and that I can understand them. This innate hospitality amazes me. Where I come from, it is expected that immigrants should learn the language. The natives have nothing but scorn for people who live in their country but haven't bothered to master English.

Here it is just the opposite. Here, I am treated with reverence and awe because I can converse. I have mastered a few stock lines for this situation, deprecating remarks about how strange it would be, if, after 30 years in the country, I didn't speak the language. These lines invariably cause laughter and more admiration. I play to the galleries.

Living in India, for a girl who grew up in America, accustomed to a range of comforts as long as your arm, isn't exactly easy. How to explain the joy of being able to discuss the price of onions, the benefits of polyester vs cotton, the value of listening to your mother-in-law versus the pleasure of charting your own path? I can't explain it. I just know that life feels more real in Hindi, that the complications that ensnare me in English are manageable in Hindi and that this English Mem gets a glimpse of pure happiness when speaking in Hindi about what would seem inconsequential and unimportant in her native tongue: bread, water, the kitchen garden, the neighbours' grandchildren. 

Lacking vocabulary and grammar, we pare it down to the essential words, the present tense. No Guru could do it better.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

WrongDiagnosis.Com OR The Masi Who Cried Wolf

This is a post in which no one is going to look good, least of all me.

Masiji had a fall over two weeks ago.  I took her to the hospital immediately (me being good) where an x-ray revealed that her ankle, though badly swollen, was only sprained, not fractured. After a couple of days of tender loving care (me good again), with wheelchair rides to the bathroom, night-time vigils and all meals served in bed, I decided it was time for a little tough love.

Knowing that bedsores - to say nothing of pulmonary embolisms - are common problems for elderly patients who have fallen and become immobile, I insisted that Masiji get up and move. Every day, ignoring her protests, I hauled her to her feet and forced her to walk a few shuffling steps. I made her use the walker rather than the wheelchair. I hinted that very soon we would discontinue the night nurse and expect her to get to the bathroom on her own.

She was equally insistent that moving was impossible. The pain, she said, was unbearable. I had no idea. She was not a complainer by nature. She wanted to get up and move.  She hated being dependent. but she was in agony. I had no idea.

The trouble is that Masiji is most certainly a complainer by nature. By profession. By avocation. It is her passion in life. There is literally nothing she cannot find to complain about. It's too cold. It's too hot. The fan goes too fast. The fan doesn't work. There's too much salt in the sabzi. The dal is tasteless. The dalia is too watery. The halva has too much oil. Nobody calls. Everyone arrives at the same time. Nobody ever takes her anywhere. It's so tiring when she goes out.

Forgive me if I didn't take her complaining about the unbearable pain in her ankle seriously.  I didn't. I know my Masiji. So when she protested that she couldn't possibly put any weight on her injured foot, I nodded sympathetically, all the while insisting, implacable me, that she get up and do just that. Day after day.

Then finally, two weeks into this saga, I took an objective look at that ankle. It was still swollen, 16 days after the accident. I called a friend who happens to be an orthopedic surgeon and asked him to make a house call. He took one look and said it was fractured. Not sprained. Fractured. She needed a cast and a whole lot more sympathy and I needed a large rock to crawl under.

Masiji, vindicated, was thrilled. (I imagine her gravestone reading: I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK.) There were many phone calls made.

I, exposed as both heartless and wrong, was chastened and distressed. My little core group of friends reassure me that I am still actually a good person but Masiji and Mummy look at me with wounded expressions and a vaguely hunted air, as if wondering what I might do next.

Fair point. I wonder too.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Fighting With Myself

When I was in 6th grade, the nun who taught us religion said something I've never forgotten: "Think of the person you like the least. THAT's how much you love God." Another day, she offered this helpful observation: "The thing you dislike the most in another person is your own worst trait."

Sr Raeanne was all about hard truths.  She made you think. But she was also a tyrant, a vicious disciplinarian. There was a rumor that  - after years of shocking displays of temper and power-mongering over defenseless young children - she had finally been committed to a mental institution. But in fact, as I learned a few months ago from an old friend from the same class, she merely left the convent and got married.

I can still recall how she beat Jimmy Dillon because he wasn't singing "Spirit of God in the Clear Running Water" during our practice session for Mass the next day and how when Jeffrey Costa giggled (out of sheer nerves) while she was doing it, she hauled him up in front of the class to be beaten next. Jeffrey - a gentle boy - ended up becoming a policeman. I lost track of Jimmy Dillon, but the awful memory of his quavering voice, as he tried and failed to sing the song she forced him to perform alone in front of the class, remains with me to this day.

Common wisdom has it that experiences like those shape us more permanently than the words that were spoken. I'm not so sure. I remember that awful day vividly, but it did not cause me to lose my faith or to leave the Church. I just thought she was nuts.

Yet I still remember her words of wisdom. How much you love the person you love least is how much you love God. What you hate in another is what you hate in yourself.

I've been thinking about that a lot lately as I struggle with the care of an elderly, cantankerous relative. Her neediness and attention-seeking irritates me beyond reason and each time I manage to step back and observe myself (which is not as often as I would like), I wonder if Sr Raeanne was right. I wonder if I am so annoyed with her fretfulness and self-absorption because they are traits I dislike in myself. Seeing them lived out loud reminds me of how close to the surface they are in me.

And Sr Raeanne's thoughtful teaching style yet nasty way with the children in her class reminds me how easy it is to talk about inclusion, and how difficult it is to live it.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Keystone Policies

Yesterday as I was walking in Delhi a woman walked toward me. She had a young girl with her and I was struck, as I often am, by the way that she was dragging the child, rather than walking companionably, as one might with a friend. I'm sure she meant no harm, but she was clutching the little girl by her wrist rather than her hand and pulling her along as she walked.

A small thing, hardly worth mentioning.

The title of this blog is "By Little and By Little." It comes from something Dorothy Day (my hero!) often repeated: "It is by little and by little that we are saved." I believe this with all my heart. What is life, after all, but a series of individual moments? In each one of them, we are making choices, developing habits, creating our lives. It is the tiny everyday things which we do over and over which define us.

When we started Karuna Vihar, one of my first resources was a simple, down-to-earth book called "Teaching Children with Mental Handicaps". It was written by a woman who had worked in Pakistan for many years and it was a warm, loving collection of commonsense and experience. I have never forgotten her advice to "always hold a child by the hand, not the wrist, and walk with her as you would with a friend."

Try it both ways and see what different messages your body sends you:  you clutch a wrist or you hold a hand. As my friend Rachel puts it, there is nothing quite like the feel of a little paw in yours. It evokes tenderness and regard and reminds us that there is a real person attached to it, however small, and that that person has thoughts and ideas and places to go, too. She's not just an appendage to be dragged wherever we are heading, someone we can commandeer simply because we are bigger than she is.

So we made holding hands, not wrists, a policy at Karuna Vihar. Old staff do it automatically, and remind newcomers until it becomes second nature to them, too. Soon it becomes so ingrained it just feels strange and awkward to do it any other way, like wearing your shoes on the wrong feet. And I notice that the children now do it too, taking their cues in this, as in so many things, from the grownups.

I think of this as one of our keystone policies - a simple rule that says it all, a rule that illustrates the principles we hold dear and which we can use to guide all our other actions: Be kind. Be fair. Remember the child. Go at his pace. By little and by little, we'll get there.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Monday Morning Train, 4 AM

The alarm rang at 3:45 and I got up almost immediately, pretending I was Ravi, for whom such unearthly risings are second nature. I had copied his night-before rituals, too: clothes neatly laid out in the bathroom, bags packed and standing by the door, ticket in my purse in an easy-to-find spot, phone all charged.

But my usual last-minute flurrying  happened anyway. You can only pretend to be someone else so long. 3:45 is still too early for me to function well and even though I had tucked my ticket in my purse myself, I panicked at the last moment and searched fruitlessly for it in my computer bag. My thyroid pills! Toilet paper for the train! And that ticket! Where was it again?

But in amidst all the scurrying back and forth from the kitchen to the bedroom, I made myself a cup of tea and sat down gratefully to drink it, in honor of a Russian custom which I love: apparently, in Russia, everyone travels the way I do. Total chaos with the entire family racing madly in all directions, shouting instructions to each other which no one pays the slightest attention to, while luggage piles up in teetering stacks, only to be opened again to shove in some forgotten item.

Then suddenly, on some private family signal, everyone sits down together for a moment of calm and repose. They pause, breathe, and sip a bit of tea. Then they all leap up again and continue hurtling about as if that moment of quiet and reflection had never happened.

But it had. And it did. I'm on the train now and that sweet pause in my preparations is with me even now as the train hurtles forward, intent on getting us to Delhi. I sit by my large window, gazing out at the sun rising over the crest of hills we are leaving behind and feeling lucky to be here, however sleepy, grateful that I slowed down even for two minutes to drink the tea, to take the photo, to find a quiet pocket in the morning, to remember.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

My Mother's Beautiful Shawl

A few years ago, my mother noticed me shivering. It was a cool May evening in New Hampshire and I had only recently arrived from India where, having lived for over 25 years, my blood had thinned and my tolerance for cold had evaporated. Mom could relate. British by birth, she had grown up in California and Florida and she hated the cold with a passion surprising in one so generally non-judgmental. When she saw me shivering, she gave me her shawl. Later that night, when I tried to give it back, she told me it was mine to keep.

I held that shawl close and I felt my heart fill. By that point, Mom's Alzheimer's was far advanced. By then, she seldom noticed if she was cold herself - let alone if anyone else was - and so her sudden awareness of my discomfort was like a gift: a reminder of the person she had once been and of the generosity and selflessness which had always defined her.

But it was more than that.

The shawl she gave me was a special one. Made of Scottish wool, it was soft and warm, with beautiful muted colors. Her sister (my godmother) had given it to her as an engagement gift in 1953. She loved it so much she wrapped each one of her seven children in it when bringing them home from the hospital (or, with Moy Moy, from the airport). She wore it herself on special occasions (I have photos of her in various fancy gowns with that shawl on top).

And then, 53 years later, she gave it to me. Here in India, far, far away from the world she knew and the babies she wrapped it around, I wear it as often as I can. When it's too hot (which is most of the time), I drape that shawl on this blue chair in our bedroom where I can see it every day and remember the darling mother who wrapped the baby I once was in its very fabric, who held me close (and my brothers and sisters) in its lovely folds and who then released me, and sent me forth, with her blessing and her love, to become the person I am today. How lucky we all are! How fortunate to have been once enclosed and protected and now strengthened and renewed by her love and care and nurturing spirit.

The shawl she gave me is an emblem of all that she stood for: justice, grace, generosity, the warmth and protection of a loving presence.

Now that she is gone, I feel it passed on to me like a sacred trust. That shawl is a symbol of our best selves, a reminder of what we might be if we let ourselves achieve the dreams our mothers had for us when they held us in their arms, wrapped in the most beautiful shawl they possessed.