Thursday, April 28, 2011

We Go To Bed With Corruption and It Joins Us On Our Morning Walk

"Well, who's behind the anti-corruption bill?" she said. "I have friends in Allahabad who say that Prashant and Shanti Bhushan aren't quite as clean as they make themselves out to be."

I don't quite know what happened to me when I heard my friend say that. There we were, having a sensible discussion about the Right to Education Act and there I was thinking how smart and well-informed this woman was. Then I made a point about the importance of the anti-corruption bill being passed if we were to address the issue of corruption in education and she said what she said about Prashant and Shanti.

I was stunned. "Stop right there." I said, my voice trembling a bit. "You are speaking about people I know and love. These are people I would stake my honor, my name and my own integrity on - to my last breath. No one will slander them in my presence."

"Don't you see what they are doing?" I asked. "This is divide and rule. They get people like us to start doubting our own and then it's just two steps to victory. The charges against the Bhushans are baseless, fabricated! How can anyone believe them?"

To her credit, my friend - who is brilliant, thoughtful and well-read - immediately backed down. She apologized, and said she would clarify things with her friends in Allahabad. But it got me thinking. If someone like her, who reads widely and thinks analytically, could be taken in by the lies being spread about these two good men, what about the general public? Those people who mostly just glance at the headlines and accept what is printed in the daily papers as Gospel? Is there any hope at all?

Has corruption so infected our souls that we can no longer even tell good from evil? Have we become so distrustful, so willing to believe ill of others that we can't see what is in front of us?

If you think corruption means just having to pay a bribe to get a service which is rightfully yours, think again. It's part of everything we do, every single day. It determines how we think and what we believe. It defines our relationships and dictates our behaviour. Our health, our safety, our routines and our attitudes are all created, infected and reinforced by corruption. Corruption now defines who we are.

Corruption is why my mother-in-law broke her back on a car ride from Delhi to Dehradun. It was corruption that diverted traffic from the national highway so that kanwaria pilgrims could take it over for their annual walk to Haridwar. Corrupt politics ensures that religious vote banks determine highway policy. Corruption in the PWD allows the village roads to which we were diverted to be neglected and full of potholes. Elderly lady breaks her back? Blame corruption.

Corruption killed a child I know who was electrocuted at a wedding, for what but corruption allows tent wallas to set up shamianas anywhere they please with live wires trailing here and there in blatant violation of safety codes?

Corruption is why we all still boil our milk every morning in spite of it being pasteurized and - supposedly - safe to drink as is. None of us trust the dairies to have followed standard refrigeration protocols - and inspectors can always be paid off.

Corruption means I have to drive out each night to pick up the woman who works as a night nurse in our house. If her son drops her off on his bicycle, he will be hassled and possibly beaten up by the cops at the corner. Their rule is unquestioned. They got their jobs by paying huge bribes and they will recoup their losses by extorting money from innocent victims.

Corruption means that our hearts and our souls have been invaded. We are so accustomed now to assuming the worst that it simply doesn't occur to us that people can still be genuinely good at heart, can still be willing to sacrifice their comfort and security for the good of the nation, can still put their own reputations on the line in the service of a greater good.

I'm here to say publicly that Prashant and Shanti Bhushan are men of honor and integrity, that they don't care two figs for the slanderous campaigns being waged against them and that if enough of us stand with them, then corruption will lose and the truth shall prevail.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


A little girl and her mother came to see me last night. "She's got these white patches on her legs," the Mom said, trying to sound casual. "It started with just one, but then they spread."

My heart sank. I sat down and tried to sound casual too. "This is NOTHING!" I said emphatically, failing in the casual department, but determined to reassure both mother and child, and to reinvent the reality of their lives in a single stroke.

Maybe I'm wrong (please, God, let me be wrong), but I'm pretty sure it's vitiligo. 

Vitiligo is a common, genetic, autoimmune skin disease in which there is loss of pigment from areas of the skin resulting in irregular white spots or patches. 

Big deal, right? I mean, it's not like cancer or AIDS or tuberculosis. It's not painful or life-threatening. It's not contagious. It's just a skin condition which results in a few white patches.

Except that in India, it's a disaster. It means that a girl is off the marriage market with a resounding thump. It means that her sisters will be viewed with suspicion too.  And right now, today, it means that a child who once was popular and well-liked suddenly has no friends either in school or in her neighborhood. She is ostracized.

"Really?" I asked, unable to stop myself from sounding incredulous. "REALLY?"

I know this girl. She is a jewel. She is known for her kindness, her concern for smaller children, her willingness to give up her own pursuits to join in theirs. She has a reputation for being sweet in a world where sweetness is rare and treasured. How could she, overnight, be dropped like a hot stone?

"They'll still talk to me," she says valiantly, protectively, about her friends in school. "But they won't sit next to me. They're afraid they'll catch it too." 

I sit beside this brave, darling child and her heartbroken mother and I want to cry and I want to scream and I want to grab the world by the scruff of its neck and shake it.  "Is this the best we can do?" I want to ask. "Do we really want to judge a person this way? Is this really how we want to make our decisions?"

The world won't answer me. I'm on my own here, and so are you. So, more importantly, is that child who came to see me with her mother. Maybe she will find the strength to say that it doesn't matter, that a few white patches on her skin are not the sum of her character and that what she looks like has nothing to do with who she is. Maybe, less likely, she will even believe it.

But in-between, here we stand. We are her champions. We are the ones she may turn to. Our son may marry her if we teach him how irrelevant a patch here or there really is. Our daughter may befriend her if she knows we know she could also be her given one slight genetic change. She is our own dear child. She is our own dear child.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Everybody wants a job.

"Jo, there's a woman at the gate. Says she knows you. She looks like a job-seeker. What do you want me to do?"

That's my husband speaking and I am in luck because I wasn't the one who opened the door this time.

"Ask her to give a biodata. Tell her to submit it in the office." I say this casually, over my shoulder, because it's Saturday and I am busy and I don't have time to deal with yet another person with no qualifications, no education and no skills who still expects me to give her a job.

This is a situation I know by heart. If I go out to the gate, the woman will tell me how desperate she is for a job, how her husband is dead or a drunkard, how she is a widow or a single mom, how she has three chote-chote bacchae to raise on her own (she will make a hand-cupping gesture to indicate just how tiny the children are) and how many hopes she has pinned on me (though we have never met before this moment).

This woman has no concept of the right person for the job, no idea of there being more to getting a job than desperate need and no thought that I might have more going on than her pathetic situation. This woman is desperate. She needs a job and in her universe, I have jobs in my pocket, just waiting to be handed out.

I feel this same exact way about funding agencies, and I know where she is coming from, but I still don't have a job for her.

So I fob her off with the biodata line. I hope it will be enough to stop her in her tracks (Just what IS a biodata? Where does one get one made? What should it contain?) while I go on with my day. Those men and women who appear at my gate and who accost me on my way to work and who want me to hire them or their children or their wives or their brother's daughter - they can almost all be diverted and defused with a request for a biodata.

Almost all. Today, Vimla Kaintura arrived with hers. By biodata standards, it wasn't up to much. Folded six times and placed in an envelope far bigger than required, it had all the markings of having been prepared by someone who had been paid for the service. There were misspellings and grammatical errors (Martial Status: Married), but overall, I was impressed.

It was neat, it was typed, and it showed effort and resolve.

It is so easy to dismiss people who don't have the background and the skills we are looking for. It is so easy to insist on a degree or a diploma, to demand experience and job application savvy.  And in so doing, we need to understand that we are rejecting some of the finest, most reliable people on God's green earth.

At the Latika Roy Foundation, the most skilled people - the ones with the gorgeous resumes and the flawless qualifications - come and go and come and go. They are on their well-planned career paths and God Bless Them. I sincerely wish them well.

But the Vimla Kainturas of this world are here for the long haul. They will be with us to the end of time and their skills and gifts are no less real and no less valuable. I wish it were possible to hire them all. It isn't. And so we continue to make it easier on ourselves by making it more difficult for them. While they, paradoxically, make it more difficult for themselves by trying to conform to our ridiculous weeding-out techniques.

It's a wicked and insane world; one in which the people who are the most important, the ones without whom everything we love and want would come to a screeching halt, are somehow made to feel superfluous and irrelevant because their biodatas aren't quite up to the mark.

So I put this out to the universe, in the hope that we may remember what is real and what is imaginary. That we might keep in mind that being able to cook a meal or wash clothes will always trump being able to operate a computer or produce a resume. Always. We eat food and we wear clothes. Everyday.

Resumes? Dust in the wind.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Why I Hate Vodafone

A few months ago, I switched my pre-paid cell phone connection to a post-paid. This seemed like a major step to me, proof that I was here to stay, a well-established adult with a fixed address and a long-term plan. It seemed serious and mature, like owning a house or investing in a retirement plan.

Pre-paid, by contrast, was temporary and fly-by-night.

While pre-paid, I often ran out of money on my phone in out-of-the-way places, frequently with no options for recharging. I would simply forget to add money to my account and then, arriving at 11 PM in Delhi with a balance of 35 pesae, I would trudge to my hotel hoping in vain to find a paan-walla still open from whom I could buy a recharge coupon. When that didn't happen, I would hope that my husband would think to call me, rather than waiting for me to call him. The next morning, I would be stranded in my room, unable to confirm my appointments because I couldn't call out (people who have pre-paid connections are constitutionally unable to use hotel phones because every call costs five times as much as it should) . . . I thought and acted like all my fellow-travelers on the pre-paid route: "I'll give you a missed call," I would say. "Call me back."

Post-paid meant an end to all that. I would have options. I would walk with my head held high. I would be given credit for my timely payment of bills. I would be viwed as a good risk, a safe bet. If, while traveling, I needed to run up a large bill, no problem! I would now be a post-paid customer, a known factor, a person who could be trusted.


Phone companies are desperately keen to convert pre-paid customers to post-paid, but short sighted in their rush to sign us up. Almost as soon as I switched, I began to regret it. My bill came due on the 22nd of each month, for example. By the 15th, the SMS messages would begin. Five, six, sometimes seven times a day, I would get a reminder: Your bill is due by the 22nd. Please pay today to avoid discontinuation of your services. If I made a particularly long phone call, the messages would come even earlier: You are reaching your credit limit of Rs 1500. Please make an interim payment of Rs 500 to avoid discontinuation of your services.

Paying my bills was complicated by the fact that there are only two payment offices in Dehradun, both at a considerable distance from my home. When I tried to pay online - after a lengthy registration process (which included a password setting with upper case, lower case, a number and a "special character" as mandatory features - which I devised and then promptly forgot) - the system would invariably freeze just at the payment gate. Go to the 24 hour kiosk and credit cards were not accepted (inconvenience caused is deeply regretted).

So finally, inevitably, I decided to go back to being a lowly, unappreciated pre-paid customer. No fancy, colorful bills delivered to my door by courier anymore, I would return to the ranks of those who buy their recharge coupons from the guy who sells cigarettes and beedis. So be it.

Again, NOT.

This evening I went to the Vodafone office to announce my decision. The same office which had welcomed me with open arms when I went from pre-paid to post now informed me that a "request" had to be entered for the switch to be made. In 24 to 48 hours, I would get a call from a service representative who would ask me why I was making this decision. After THAT process, I could return to the office with proof of residence, my old bills and a passport photo. After these documents were scrutinized, I might be allowed to return to my old status as a free bird on a prepaid plan.

Clearly, Vodafone would prefer this not happen. Although I am not valuable enough as a customer to treat well, they would still rather keep me on a little string which they can yank anytime they feel I am getting a bit beyond myself, any time they decide I am straying a tad outside of my "credit limit."

And while I am tempted to "Get Idea" or come home to Airtel, I don't think it would be any different if I did. Company policies all seem pretty much the same. No matter how much I rant and rave in the shiny Vodafone (or Airtel or Idea) office, the sweet, well-trained kids in their red uniforms (with their "Happy To Help" name tags) will answer politely and vacuously, spouting lines they have memorized but never thought about: "Company policy, Ma'am." "Sorry, Ma'am, that's the process." "I understand, ma'am, but we have to follow the procedures." "You are absolutely correct, Ma'am, but it's not in my hands."

With pre-paid, the answers all vary according to the mood of the seller and the word on the street. I may buy my first card near Bindal from a guy in a little bania shop who remembers my kids from when they were small and were always hoping for a Thums Up. If I need a calling card for the US and Israel so I can call Anand and Cathleen, there's this guy in Panditwari who keeps a good stock of the bargain rated ones. When I notice my balance dwindling, I'll take a walk to Sethi Market to my old pal the paan-walla. He'll ask me where I've been all these months and I'll tell him I've been away. Then he'll say "The 888 card?" and I'll nod. It's still Vodafone behind it all, but it feels more like home.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Crafts for Christ

Yesterday I was invited to an amazing all day workshop at a cafe in a nearby village. "Himalayan Tapestry Creative Day" was billed as a day for women to learn a wide range of crafts - quilting, card making, watercolor painting, cake decorating, embroidery and even how to make a necklace using buttons. It  sounded so interesting and so totally different from the frustrations and drama I am currently embroiled in at home, I made up my mind to attend, regardless of the difficulties.

I made arrangements for food to be delivered from a restaurant (we were expecting guests) and went about my business. Naina agreed to come in early to look after Moy Moy and I left the house at 9:15. My friend Preeti was coming with me so we met at the half-way point and drove on to the venue together.

We were a little late and we arrived to a beehive of industry and endeavor. Eight Australian women were in charge of the eight simultaneous activities and at first it was impossible to make a choice as to which group to join. Each one was gorgeous and alluring . . .

and the teachers were patient and encouraging:

I was wandering around taking photographs, and Preeti had just settled on a painting activity

when suddenly the whole day's events came to a screeching halt:

Time for a Bible reading! I am a religious person myself, but there was something so odd about this imposition of Scripture in the middle of the Himalayan Tapestry's Creative Day I just couldn't get my head around it. And not content with only a reading, the eight Australian women (who were now revealed as - perhaps - ravenous missionaries, hungry for souls) seemed to feel compelled to do even more: as the Biblical passage was being read, they acted it out, in a pantomime so simplistic it seemed more like a parody of the story than an enhancement.

What was this about? I looked more carefully at the little bag I had been given when registering. I saw now it also contained a leaflet with four Gospel readings - the first of which we had just seen enacted. Clearly, more was in store for us. Was this a tax, a hidden charge for the day's events? Being compelled to listen to and watch Biblical skits? Did the organizers feel we needed this? Was it important that we not think simply having fun and making beautiful things was enough?

It's hard to imagine Jesus being so ham-handed. It's hard to imagine the guy who healed people of dreaded diseases like leprosy or blindness and then "charged them strictly to tell no one" behaving like this. It's hard to imagine a man who attended a wedding and changed water into wine just to spare the couple the embarrassment of having run out being so "in your face" about his message. Especially when people were busy doing embroidery and making button necklaces.

Jesus was respectful of people's intelligence and of their dignity. He never saw the need to insult anyone with false advertising or to pretend to be anything other than what he was.His story was far too compelling to need theatrics to get it across.

But I think he might have enjoyed a few patchwork quilts and the odd handmade card.  And I kind of hope he'd like the one I made:

A little bird on a wide green meadow. A pretty bird with a sparkly eye and a sweet branch to perch upon. A bird whose only reason for being is the song she was sent here to sing. No other agenda. No shopping list, no ulterior motive, no Scripture lesson sugar-coated with an art and craft class.

Jesus was about hard truths. But he didn't frown upon unmixed delights. Water into wine. Bread upon the waters. Lose your life to save it.

I'm going to use my new-found card-making skills this weekend - I've got a sick friend who would be thrilled to receive one and another who just lost his wife and could use a little love. Because that's what Jesus came to teach us. It's about love. Only love.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What Corruption Means

So many of us are simply breathless with the amazement of the last few days. The clarion call against corruption sounded by Anna Hazare followed by the stirring and full-hearted response from one end of the country to the other . . . it's been inspiring and uplifting. It feels like a New Age, a turning point, a glimpse of what a life of integrity and honor could be like.

But is it really all so black and white? I've made a little list of the ways in which my own life has been enhanced by corruption, and I invite you to try the same exercise:

  1. I have never taken a driver's test. In 1998, I gave a "guy" 800 rupees and a few days later he gave me my license. It expired in 2008, but hey! What the heck! Who is ever going to question ME? And if someone does, I know someone else who will sort things out.
  2. I am wait-listed on the Shatabdi to Delhi and I really need to get there (like, because I have to attend a meeting I forgot about until the day before and the train was all booked). I have this friend whose husband works in the Railways Ministry and she will get the ticket confirmed for me. Who am I? Who is she? WHO CARES?
  3. My family has three gas connections: one in my name, one in my husband's and one in someone else's (I can't even remember whose)  - all gotten kissi ke through se. Not allowed, but, again, WHO CARES?
This is the stuff of our lives. This is how we work. School admissions, medical care, land transfers: "I'll talk to someone," we say.

Who that someone is, who we are - it all gets lost in the urgency of getting the thing done. Some of us take pride in obliging other important people because we know that what goes around comes around. Others of us make a name for ourselves thorough helping the little guy, the one no one else will go to bat for. 

When we rail against corruption we conveniently forget how enmeshed in it we are ourselves, to the point where following the rules simply does not occur to us because there have, for so long, been no rules to follow. From traffic laws (Wearing a seatbelt? A helmet? Signaling for a turn? Waiting patiently at a level crossing? Ha. Don't make me laugh.) to building codes (Why is the water pressure so low in every colony in the country? Because people have built illegal underground tanks which must be filled - the law of gravity WILL be obeyed -  before the taps above ground will flow) we are all trained to think first of our own interest and then of the law.

Corrupt officials in the government (our neighbors, our relatives, our friends, ourselves) get that way because we encourage them to do so. Every interaction has two players. No one is corrupt alone.

This is our life. This is who we are. We are like this only.

Anna Hazare, bless him, has made a start. But we have a long, long way to go.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Catch Them Early!

Most people are fascinated by multiple births. Twins, triplets, quads - so exciting! But to obstetricians, pediatricians and other child development specialists, multiple births spell trouble. A woman expecting twins is by definition a high-risk mom; the more babies, the higher the risk - both for the mother and for the babies.

So when Shefali arrived at our Early Intervention Centre in Dehradun, India, with her four babies, we were amazed that only one of them had difficulties. Lakshi was the smallest of the four and the last one born. The ultrasound had detected three children, so her arrival was a surprise no one was prepared for. A month premature, she weighed well under a kilo at birth and she didn’t cry immediately.

Any one of those facts - multiple birth, premature, low birth weight, delayed birth cry - should have prompted the obstetrician or the pediatrician to advise the mom to visit an Early Intervention Centre, but in India, such advice is rare. Lakshi was over seven months old before her mother started worrying about her development and nearly a year before she learned of our existence.

Our pediatrician diagnosed Cerebral Palsy with associated developmental delay and Lakshi was enrolled in our intensive mother-and-child program whose goal is each child’s  holistic development. An inter-disciplinary approach ensures that children learn social skills while doing physiotherapy and language development while working on fine-motor skills. Every activity we do with the children has a purpose, though all the children know is that they are having fun.

Shefali was a poster-mother. Her energy and commitment to Lakshi’s growth was an example and an inspiration to both the other parents and to the staff. Nobody in the EIC had anything like the demands on their time that four babies of the same age presented, yet Shefali never seemed tired or cross or impatient. Other mothers sought her out for advice and direction - another carefully nurtured feature of the EIC’s approach. Mothers Support Groups are an invaluable resource, especially for new moms just setting out on the adventure of raising a child with special needs.

And Lakshi’s improvement - slow, but steady - was also inspiring. Other mothers looked at her and found hope for their own children. By the time she graduated from the EIC at age 6, Lakshi was walking with the help of a rollator, speaking in short sentences and more than eager to join a mainstream school like her brother and two sisters.

Finding that mainstream school has been the challenge. The one her siblings attend pleaded an inaccessible environment for a child with physical difficulties. The one she finally enrolled in refused to allow her to participate in any activities outside of her classroom because that would involve someone helping her to move. When her parents learned that she was being left alone in the class, with no light and no fan, they withdrew her.

Attending Latika Vihar - our inclusive neighborhood children’s centre - gives Lakshi the chance to be with other children who accept her for who she is. The fun of being with other kids, enjoying normal activities like art and craft, music, pottery and games has bolstered her self-confidence and restored her self-esteem. That’s important, because her mainstream education experience is still an uphill struggle.

Now she’s has joined a high-end government school meant for children of government officers (her father is one). Legally, the school cannot refuse her admission, a fact which the headmistress refers to over and over, making it clear that if she had her way, they would never have taken her.

Early Intervention is only the beginning of a long, exciting journey to change a society which is afraid of differences. We are hard at work trying to win over the teachers and the management of that government school, trying to create a place for Lakshi which is hers by right, trying to build an inclusive world, step by step, by little and by little.

Photo Credit: Muir Adams

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tis The Season . . .

School admission time rolls around faster every year. For some reason, I am besieged each March/April with requests for help from parents desperate to get their children into School X, Y or Z. I am not influential and nobody owes me any favors, so I'm not sure why people keep coming to me. The word, I guess, is desperate. But I put my heart into it because the people who come to me are, typically, poor and even less influential than I am. I write a good letter and sometimes my appeals actually work - I suppose because they are different from the ordinary ones:

"Sachin's parents are not rich or important and it's unlikely that they will ever be able to make a big donation to your school. But they are good people with fine values. They will insist that Sachin play by the rules and they will do all they possibly can to reinforce what you teach him everyday in the classroom. He will grow up to be a model citizen who will work hard and pay his taxes. He deserves the best education he can get because he's going to support his parents and make this country a better place to live in for all of us."

Sachin got in. The principal at the school his parents had set their hearts on had a vulnerable moment and my letter touched him. He gave Sachin a chance and Sachin hasn't let him down. He really is a model citizen in the making, a boy his school will be proud of one day.

But there are so many other children I have written letters for who haven't been admitted, children who are no less worthy, no less precious. What about them?

I'm feeling it particularly this year because several of the kids I've been asked to champion are kids with special needs, kids for whom the decks are already stacked against them and who need a break more urgently than most.

Kirti, for example.

Kirti is one of our EIC stars. She is one of quadruplets and her parents are marvels of the universe. We are all simply in awe of them. Three of their four quads were born normal. They beat the odds. Kirti didn't. She was born with Cerebral Palsy and a host of difficulties.

But Early Intervention helped her through the toddler years and slowly but surely she advanced to the point where her parents believed she was ready to go into a mainstream school. The Kendriya Vidyalaya they selected had to accept her because of the Right to Education Act, but that didn't mean they would welcome her. In fact, the Headmistress at the school told them clearly that they were making a mistake, that she didn't belong with "normal" children and that it wasn't going to work at all.

Kirti is only one child. One of many. There is Siddharth in Bangalore, a child with low vision and high intelligence whose parents are beginning to despair because they can't find a school willing to celebrate the special boy he is. There is Amrit here in Dehradun whose only problem is that he needs a little help to get around. So many children - brave, valiant, eager children who want to learn and are willing to work hard and put their hearts into their studies - are still being rejected because of who they are, because of how they learn, and I, for one, am tired of it.

I am tired of a system that recognizes only one kind of student, of teachers who are prepared for only one kind of child, and of tests that cater to only one kind of knowledge. The world is VAST. The ways we learn are INFINITE. Why do we want to limit ourselves? Why do we even think of rejecting the Kirtis, the Siddharths and the Amrits?