Friday, 28 December 2012

Scenes we'd like to see!

The title for this post is lifted from a hilarious series of cartoons that used to be carried by (the erstwhile?) MAD magazine, which carried funny but sometimes sadistic, possibly even gross,  depictions of scenes such, for instance, as a fat lady pinching and saying kichy-koo to a baby in a pram and having the baby throw up all over her hand.

The scene I'd like to see was a result of a Christmas lunch I had gone  to, a few days ago,  with an old mathematician friend of mine (whom I first met almost 35 years ago in Santa Barbara) who was visiting Chennai from Toronto. So I had reserved a table for three in a restaurant at one of the better class of hotels. And I had told them in advance, when I reserved the table, that I would be needing a wheel-chair, which they had said they would be glad to provide. All went well till we entered the restaurant, most of which was at an elevated level which necessitated climbing a step or two; providentially, a few tables were at `ground level'. And they only had a buffet and no a la carte options, with all the food spread out on tables at the ground level. So unless we could be found a table at `ground zero', that would mean my getting in and out of the wheelchair to climb up or down a step or two some four or six times by the time I paid what promised to be an over-priced and inflated bill. The manager was obviously not too pleased with having to re-do his earlier arrangement of tables. My wife tried to avoid a scene by suggesting at least three times that `it is only one step' but I was adamant and the final rearrangement that needed to be done turned out to be quite trivially implementable. The reason for my truculence: while  I may be able to take one or two steps off the wheelchair, what about the very large number of people who simply cannot get out of the wheelchair by themselves? Should their existence not be recognisedd?

That got me thinking of this `delightfully attractive' scenario of an almost  Asimov-esque  genre of science fiction. I would love to see these managers with their `only one step' glibness to wake up one day in a world where the analogue of disability was ignorance of mathematics. Thus, when he tried to enter his house, he would be confronted, not by a few steps leading up to his door, but instead by an automated electronic screen which would say: in order to open the door, please state the area of the trapezium enclosed by the four lines described by the equations x=0,  y=0, x=1 and 2x+3y=7; and `normal' people like me would stand by the side with encouraging noises like this is a problem that school children encounter in early exposure to geometry.

And when he wanted to use the rest-room, he would be politely asked to `only' compute the derivative of cosh(2 sin(x)) and four other functions of an equally elementary nature (eg., exp(3x/tanh x) before he could get to the urgent task at hand. 

Just very occasionally, the odd thoughtful hotel would have ensured the existence of one room/toilet, in an entire hotel sprawling over several thousand square feet, which did not make such non-inclusive demands on a potential user who was a mathematical ignoramus. In all the others, you will have to define a Cauchy sequence in a metric space in order to access the wash-basin in a toilet - but, fortunately, this is something everybody picks up in the very first analysis course.

(I should thank the creative irreverence of my student Madhushree Basu for her vivid transformation of the sentiment of my article into the above cartoon in next to no time.)

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Signing Away One's Rights

For the third time during my experiences in flying on planes in India, I went through an almost identical experience. While I was waiting in my wheel-chair (provided by the airline) for the boarding call for my flight, one of the uniformed representatives of the airline in question came up and asked my wife to fill and sign some form. As my wife knew I would insist on reading anything supposedly signed by me, she handed over the form to me. When I started examining what I was being asked to sign (It is just something we ask all our wheel-chair passengers to sign, one is told), I found that by signing that document, I was indemnifying the airline of all damages or responsibility for any accident leading to injury and possibly even death resulting from my having flown with them. Nothing in that form says anything about a wheelchair. I asked how come all the other passengers were not also being asked to sign such an `indemnity' statement and I was told this was because mine was a `medical case'. I started raising my voice about this being totally unacceptable discrimination. I told them I would sign it provided they gave me a copy of this form that I was signing - only because this form would hold no legal standing in any court, and because I would like professional advice regarding the legality of requiring people with disabilities to sign such forms. I was assured I would be given such a copy, but after some ten minutes the same airline representatives came and told me they had spoken with a senior officer and he had said this was not necessary, `so I need not worry'. I said I was not worried but only wanted a copy of that form, but my request was politely turned down.

This has happened to me in Kolkata, Chennai and Goa, and with Jet Airlines and Spice Jet. Surely these airlines cannot be within their legal rights in extracting such signatures from unsuspecting persons with disabilities who are only told (if at all they ask what the forms are for) `these are not important, just something we are supposed to get because of the rules'! Their distaste for letting me have a copy of the form they wanted me to sign surely seems to indicate that! I know what I am going to talk about with my lawyer-cum-disability-activist  friend when I meet him on his return from a visit to spend Christmas with his family.

Friday, 14 December 2012

When Herbie goes flying

I like to refer to my motorised wheelchair as Herbie so as to avoid harping on the impersonal `wheelchair'. It is the fact that he has a visible battery to underline his motorised stature that has led to an innumerable number of minor hassles. It is precisely because of the wide range of the hassle-content that I am trying to see if there can't be a simple way out of these hassles. Let me illustrate with some examples of this divergence (in perception and implementation of the rules).

A recent journey of mine involved my flying from Chennai to Tuticorin and later from Thiruvananthapuram to Chennai. The onward journey started by looking problematic. When we went as usual to have our check-in baggage scanned by the x-ray machine, one person asked us to open the battery so he could see if it was a potential hazard. We had to explain that the battery was a dry cell one which couldn't be opened and that what we could do was to just lock the battery and remove the key as well as remove the joy-stick along with the wire connecting it to the battery. Then when we asked (at the time of checking in) where we would be re-united with the partially dis-membered Herbie, we were told it would have to be at the baggage claim because there would be rules about collecting it on the tarmac itself and driving it from there.

And surprise, surprise! When we landed in Tuticorin, and were able to get out of the craft after all the non-handicapped people had done so, imagine my surprise to find that the airport was a really tiny one, and better still, I found Herbie just being removed from the craft. And I had fortunately been allowed to carry the joy-stick in my back-pack after the security personnel at Chennai airport had run it through the x-ray machine a second time to convince themselves that it was not a security-hazard. So I was able to ask the airline staff if I could just drive Herbie off after having connected the joy-stick, and my request was promptly acceded to, with the result that that must have been my fastest exit from an airport after landing! Thank God for small airports, I told myself.

But when we came to Thiruvananthapurum airport, and I tried taking the joy-stick in my back-pack, the security personnel would have none of that. They insisted that it should be checked in and the poor airline staff had to keep them and me happy by doing a make-shift packing job with old newspapers so the joy-stick would not get hurt in transit!

I can go on and on about airports in Hyderabad or Delhi or Mumbai, airlines SpiceJet, Jet Airwys and Air India/Indian Airlines, and the particular twist that the personnel in the particular airport/airline gave to their perception of what is, or is not allowed, but I will spare you the gory details! I just want to know what it will take to get some piece of documentation which will ensure that I am not subject to the vagaries of the mood of the officer at the security check in airports! Can't there be a standard rule adhered to by all airports and airlines - such as the maximum weight allowed per passenger - so the entire experience of flying with Herbie does not resemble a game of Russian roulette?

Friday, 7 December 2012

Whiter than white

A friend of mine invited my wife and me to lunch at her club today, and I inwardly groaned. Do you know that all the clubs where the well-heeled in Chennai hang out of an evening carry on this cultural baggage from the erstwhile British Raj. Originally and for the longest time, our white masters would not permit a brown-skinned native to sully the character of their fair clubs. I don't know the exact facts - which are not hard to find anyway- but if I am not mistaken there were no non-white members of the Madras Club till 1960 almost a decade and a half after the British had returned to Britain! In fact, when it began, it did not even allow white women into its club! Not surprisingly, the Madras Club is considered the most prestigious of all the clubs in Chennai even today.

And here is why I groaned at the prospect of going to one of the clubs: the brown sahibs who rule the roost have their own rules, according to which neither Gandhi nor Nehru would be allowed to enter the premises of one of these clubs. You cannot enter wearing a kurta, or a Tee-shirt unless it has a collar! Now I always go to work in a kurta and always wear shorts and Tee-shirts not hindered by collars on holidays. So I had to dress up in a shirt and pant and feel like I was in a fancy dress. This is India, for crying out loud!

If we have to ape the white man, can we at least copy some of their better traits? Most of UK is very accessible to mobility impaired people, and its people are blessed with a modicum of sensitivity which would anticipate possible problems of anybody who is slightly different. I have not seen a ramp at any of these clubs of ours. It is such a trivial thing to identify places where there are steps, and manufacture some make-shift ramp that can be kept  tucked away somewhere nearby and pulled out whenever someone on a wheelchair comes by. Going by my old memories of Gymkhana Club where I had swum and played tennis as a lad in my teens, I knew that it would be necessary to walk some distance, so I had taken along my motorised wheelchair today. But when you throw in three or five or seven steps every few feet, the whole exercise begins to look like something out of the theatre of the absurd.

So, Tara, if we have to go out for lunch, let us please pick some place which is accessible, where one can go decently but comfortably clad (even if it does not sit well with the brown sahibs who are whiter than the white - and painlessly reach where we need to go)!

Saturday, 1 December 2012

My (non-mathematical) editorial debut

Not long ago, I was asked most politely by this gentleman if I would care to be Guest Editor for one issue of a monthly newsletter on Universal Design that he had been bringing out for a while now, by similarly enlisting guest editors from all over the world, who seemed to have displayed some sensitivity to the need for the principles underlying UD. He had said that all I needed to do was to collect some three or four articles (including one by me, if I so desired), and write a guest editorial.

I agreed to take on this new challenge - on the basis of an unwarranted self-confidence rather than any common sense. But I made him wait for quite a few months before I finally had the necessary inputs for doing the needful; and he was uniformly courteous and encouraging (`I'm sure you can and will do a good job of it!') Anyway, I managed eventually to talk three other people to chip in with the different ingredients that went into a mixed bag which I felt reasonably happy with, and I sent the lot in to the editor. Quite promptly, he sent me back a tentative first draft of the newsletter for which he had written an editorial as usual before putting in all the stuff I had sent.

I was initially slightly disappointed with the output for two reasons: (i)  the long opening editorial was written not by me and I had not even been consulted regarding its inclusion; (I had once before done a similar assignment for a math journal and I had decided whatever went into it;) so (ii) this was not entirely my baby!. But you could see that the writer's heart was in the right place. And when you look at the web-site of the Design for All Institute of India, you notice that he has been bringing out this newsletter for more than six years (that is 72 issues at the rate of one every month!) and has maintained a uniformly high quality all the time. I realised then that my reservations were all a result of my not doing exactly what disability activists keep telling people: `Judge people by what they bring to the table, not by your preconceived notion of what makes a good dish!'

In conclusion. as the `proof of the pudding is in the eating', let me proudly present the November 2012 issue (not the one related to Japan) of the newsletter that can be found in

Friday, 23 November 2012

A slightly melancholy parting

This is a short little piece that I feel it is only fitting that I post. Today was the first time in more than a year that my writings - which have kept appearing in this blog - have finally become entirely disconnected from the Times of India. For various reasons that this not the place to go into, a decision has been made, that seems agreeable to both parties, that ToI will no longer carry these tirades of mine against a non-inclusive society. I just wanted to register the fact that this association between ToI and me has done me a lot of good: I have met some incredible people, and have made contact with people I would never have if it had not been for this association; and for this, I am very grateful.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Another very special person

People like me, who indulge in `activism'  of some sort in support of a disadvantaged minority, are legion. And you can find a common denominator to many of them, which is that they or some near relatives or friends have belonged to this minority, and they see and empathise with this person's problems in just managing the routine of daily life.

I am embarrassed to say that the number of such activists that I know, who do not fall under this bracket, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. I have already written about a couple of these people in this column (Shiva championing the cause of Dalits, and Vaishnavi that of the mentally ill). I want to devote this article to one more such exceptional person - partly to punctuate the tedium of my predominantly complaining-mode of writing with the occasional positive piece.

Let me lead up to my heart-warming experience. The faithful reader of this column will not need to be reminded that I suffer from a neurological condition known as multiple sclerosis (MS). I have, for some time now, been receiving invitations to attend monthly meetings of the Chennai chapter of the MSSI (MS Society of Indla). Till recently, I had not taken up these invitations since I thought (how wrong I was) that it might be depressing to go to a place where several people with the same ailment gathered together to compare notes!

What changed my run of negative responses was an invitation which said the purpose of this meeting was to recognise and commend the efforts of the care-giver, the person who has devoted a large part of her life to enabling a near one afflicted with MS to live in some manner of normalcy.  Since  I cannot but agree that my life would be unimaginably difficult were it not for my wife helping me with countless acts of kindness every day, I wrote to the persistent secretary that I would be glad to come with my wife. This meeting happened to fall on a Saturday when Chennai was reeling under the onslaught of the monsoon with its attendant corollary of waterlogged roads. In spite of the daunting weather conditions, we entered a hall which was already half-full and filling up fast. It reminded me of frequent get-togethers we used to have long ago in our fairly large extended family. Each new arrival was met with many friendly greetings and queries about how or where so-and-so was.

The reason for the bonhomie and camaraderie was immediately apparent. Everybody was welcomed at the entrance like a long-lost son by the secretary Ann Gonsalvez. She simply knew the entire family of the one who had MS, and the obvious happiness with which she welcomed people was a pleasure to behold. People simply blossomed in her warmth, and a tremendous feeling of a close-knit happy family permeated through the entire gathering. At each of these monthly meetings, Ann arranges for a physiotherapist and/or doctor to also be present whom the members could consult, or who might give a short talk addressing matters of vital interest to the MS fraternity. And alternate meetings are dedicated to fun and games so it is not always a somber occasion. Naturally, the meeting is capped by a lunch organised in the same room.

To wrap it up, I should tell you the wonderfully serdendipitous story of how Ann became the honorary secretary of MSSI (Chennai chapter) - which post she has held for as long as almost (but not) all the current members can remember. Her predecessor had to relocate from Chennai to Bangalore, and wanted to find a successor. So she went to consult one of the longest standing members of this society.
Unfortunately the latter had apparently moved. At a bit of a loss on how to proceed, this ex-secretary apparently found an open door and asked the inmate if she might know where Sushma might have moved to. The inmate in question offered a glass of water to her guest, who was apparently a big made lady slightly out of breath from her exertions, and asked if she could help. When she heard the reason for her guest's visit, she promptly told her that  she knew the perfect person, also a neighbour, and recently retired from her tenure as a Bank Manager. And this neighbour was Ann, who took over `because she had always been interested in doing some social service'!

The story of how she browbeat a commercial organisation (Bosch) into letting her have a room of their office for the society as well as their conference room for the monthly meetings of the society would exceed the custromarily accepted word-length for  this for this column. So let me just conclude with a heartfelt `Thanks, Ann, for being you!'

Saturday, 27 October 2012


October 27, ToI Online

Some time ago, I had written a piece about my making a trip purportedly to help  upgrade the curriculum at a university in the north-east but in fact out of a desire to see a good friend in Kolkata who was not very well, and I had said some not very positive things then about the VC of that university. The aim then had been to speak about the highly inaccessible nature of the guest house there. This piece has similarities and differences. For the differences, this was in the south-west, and the organisers had done a splendid job looking out for me.

As part of the year-long activities conducted by my institute as part of its its 50th anniversary celebrations, I went along with two of my former students to conduct a three-day programme aimed at college students affiliated with a university in southern Tamil Nadu. As always, for me to be able to go anywhere, many plans had to be made in advance. The head of the math department at the university in question had made absolutely impeccable arrangements - making sure that I was accommodated at a hotel without steps at the front and with an elevator to take me to my room arranged on the same floor as the restaurant we ate most of our meals in. And he had arranged the lectures in the unique buiding in the university which had a ramp, the lecture hall had no raised dais, etc. And he had arranged for a large SUV-type of vehicle into which my motorised wheel-chair could be conveniently loaded at the back, and which was large enough to take all the resource persons from hotel to university and back. The entire experience was very rewarding, what with close to 60 students, mostly girls, with some traveling almost three hours either way just to listen to such wisdom as we had to offer.

On the day before the programme started, the local HOD asked me about a possible `inaugral function'. Usually, what these `functions' entail is an hour or more of long speeches, filled with empty platitudes, by various dignitaries of the university who have nothing to do with the subject of the programme. So I was very pleased when the HOD agreed to my suggestion that we completely dispense with the inaugral function, and instead plunge into the mathematics with minimal fuss. But there was a very small function at the end of the programme, when the VC of the university came to meet the resource people and the students. After he thanked me and my institute for organising this programme at their university and expressed the hope that we would conduct more such workshops in the future, I suggested to him that I hoped to see some more ramps and elevators when I came again. Prompt came the response that I just had to inform them when I was coming and he could arrange to instal a ramp wherever needed. `It only takes a day; a ramp can be easily arranged', he said. Is it not extremely short-sighted to set something like a ramp in place only when some `big shot' says he is coming and will need it?

If it only takes a day to create a ramp, then why, one wonders, does only one department in the university have a ramp? As one of my younger colleagues said later, `this is all very well for you when you come, but what about some students who may need it?'. Are ramps and other facilities only to be provided for established senior professionals?

And on the night of the last day of this programme, I learnt that my Kolkata friend had just passed away. Although this may be immaterial to this column, I plead your indulgence while I raise my hat to Somesh, one of the gentlest and most decent of human beings I have ever known, without whom ISI, Kolkata will never be the same.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Knee-jerk Denial of Reality

October 13, ToI Online
( denial of reality)

People's defensive knee-jerk reactions to inconvenient questions is one of the biggest hurdles to progress.

`I have nothing against Muslims'. `I have had Dalit class-mates'. `We are extremely sensitive to the needs of the disabled'.

The problem arises when these white lies  are given as responses to specific questions raised
in an attempt to identify the possible existence of a problem that you wish to solve. They result in pushing the awkward truth deeper into the teetering pile of `to do' files!

All the frustration/bitterness behind these assertions is a reaction to the responses I have, or have not (as the case may be),  received to (a) emails that I have been sending to various academic institutions. Almost a year ago  (ToI, Sept. 24, 2011) I had made a specific recommendation to the Vice-Chancellors/Directors of Universities/Research Institutes regarding the need to make their campuses barrier-free and accessible, and even suggested a possible way to do so;  acting on the belief that one shouldn't leave things to chance, I sent emails - at something like 6.30 am on that 24th itself - to the Directors of various `premier' Institutions, accompanied by an attached copy of the article (just in case), with an entreaty that they have an `access audit' of their campus carried out by experts in the business; and (b) numerous attempts I have made at directly talking to bosses of such institutions.

Of the almost dozen institutions which were addressed, ONLY TWO responded. I received even those two responses probably only because of the intervention of personal friends of mine in that institution, to whom I had had the sense to also mark copies, asking them to `help push things along'. I have little doubt that if any of the directors of the other ten institutions addressed were specifically asked what accessibility-related problems their institute faced, their answer would constitute only minor variations of the examples listed in the third sentence within quotes in the first paragraph.

Recently, I had called a friend of mine from one of these institutes, along with his wife, for dinner, and a most enjoyable evening was had by all. And when they were leaving. his wife said we should come to their place one evening, forcing him to quickly point out shamefacedly that the apartment they lived in (in his institute housing) was on the second floor - which is a little beyond what I can climb. (And I know several people who can't climb even one step!)

I would like to know how many of the heads of these institutions will be able to give an answer they will be happy with, to the following questions: Given that I am constrained to a wheel-chair:

How many:

  1. of your faculty will I be able to visit in their offices? on-campus housing?
  2. of your office buildings have a toilet I can use, by myself, without the need of anybody's help?
  3. sections of your library will I be able to access?
  4. class-rooms of yours will I be able to attend or give a lecture in? (this should be possible without my having to be unceremoniously carried like a sack of potatoes!)
  5. entrances to buidings are not so clogged with vehicles (motorised or manually operated two-wheelers or four-wheelers) that I cannot get to the possibly existent ramp I would need to use in order to enter the building on my wheel-chair?

Even my institute, whose state of accessibility  I have been boasting about to my friends, can only come up with: (i) most; almost none, (ii) none, as of now, (iii) parts of one, (iv) most, and (vi) usually, all. This is in spite of my having been on the administration's case, constantly. (All answers were `none' before I started on them - about 10 years ago!)

Sunday, 30 September 2012

How I shot myself in the leg, literally

First off, I apologise for the poor pun. (I don't know what it is that draws Indian mathematicians to puns - `the poorer the pun the better' seems to sum up the attitude! Suri, Paramu and Balaji are all, for instance, masters at this game!)

Talking of math, which signifies numbers to most people, today (Sept. 29th, 2012) should have seen the 29th article being published in my fortnightly column Different Strokes for Different Folks that has been carried for more than a year now in the newspaper editions in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore of the Times of India. But this happy coincidence was not to be, because I was informed just last week that for various reasons - such as the sky-rocketing rupee-dollar exchange rate, the consequent rise in price of newsprint, possible stylistic reservations about there being too much `me' in the column - the editors had decided to move my column from the newspaper format to the online format. Sure enough, I looked in vain for my column in today's newspaper, and then by a roundabout route I discovered where the online version could be found.

Ironically, the 28th instalment in my newspaper column was devoted to technologically disabled people who, for instance, were not comfortable with computers, email, etc. I am periodically contacted by some regular readers of my column who request me to mail them a copy of an article they had managed to miss. More than one reader was not too delighted when I answered that the whole collection could be accessed online in at least two places, for both of  which I provided e-addresses. One reader specifically said she did not have access to a computer.  I feel quite terrible that I have never really had a chance to tell people like her - from among many of my reading public (who are often more than 70 years old) - that I am grateful for their support, but unfortunately they will not be able to read any more of my stuff because they do not access the internet. Since I now have no way of explaining to them the reason why my column is missing from the customary spot on the op.-ed. page which it occupied for more than a year now, I request any of their contacts or friends who is reading this to convey the news of why that is so.

In case you are wondering about the title of this piece, I am wondering if my last article might have preempted the decision of the editors to move `my strokes' to what might be an e-black hole for many! In fact, I am beginning to worry about having agreed to ToI publishing my column only online and not in newsprint. On the one hand, as was pointed out to me by the editors, my articles will reach a much larger number of people than my blog will; but on the other hand, does this arrangement not, I ask myself, go against the grain of my column's  raison d'etre of the need for an inclusive society?

I guess I am seeking some sort of reassurance that this step (of forsaking a few in the interest of gaining a lot elsewhere) does not constitute some manner of capitulation. Some of my friends have been telling me that I should not lose sight of the fact that maximising the number of people my column can  reach should be the goal. I hope they are right!

Friday, 28 September 2012

My personal Santa

September 29, ToI Online

I just got back from a two-week visit to UK, and I wish to write about the extraordinary efforts made by one individual to have made this trip a reality.

It all started with this mathematician friend of mine insisting that I should come to a conference he was organising in Wales, with the promise that he would make absolutely sure that everything was arranged in an accessible way. (He also happens to be a ardent follower of this column and my blog!) He wanted to facilitate my attending this conference at the relatively small Aberystwyth University if at least to sensitise the University enough to create the infrastructure necessary to enable a person with disabilities to attend a conference there and be entirely independent in doing so.

What was also attractive about the invitation was the possibility of augmenting the conference with a week's holiday driving around Scotland with my family in a rented car equipped  with automatic transmission - which convenience eliminates the need for a clutch pedal and work for my left leg, which is the `game one'. And I really looked forward to this throw-back to times when I could drive my family around.

And Claus, this friend in Wales (who is in fact a lean German and,  in spite of his white hair and beard, is totally unlike the usual picture one has of Santa) was simply marvelous. He truly understands the need/desirability of a person like me being able to function in as independent a manner as is possible. He had arranged rentals of wheel-chairs, both a motorised one for use during the first week in Wales, and a manually operated one that could be conveniently taken in the car during our planned driving excursion in the second week - always after consulting with me (we probably exchanged about 125 emails in two months!). And he had organised a shuttle to take the delegates from our hotel to the conference venue, making sure to order a vehicle which had the facility of enabling me to drive my wheel-chair up a ramp and into the shuttle. On top of everything else, he drove a rented car from Aberystwyth in Wales to the wheel-chair rental place which was about 50 miles south of Birmingham, picked up the wheelchair, then picked us up at Birmingham airport, and drove us back to Aberystwyth. And what is most striking about this act of kindness was that this must have chewed up from noon to 7 pm on the Sunday immediately preceding the start of a very successful and well-attended conference that he had done most of the organising for. And for the icing on the cake, he made reservations for us at a hotel in walking distance from Birmingham airport for the night before the 0630 departure of our return flight from UK, and of course, again dropped us back at Birmingham airport - after dropping off the rented wheelchair, this time sacrificing his time from 2 pm to 12 pm on a Friday. All because he understood what I have been trying to say in this column, and wanted to rubbish my statement to him some months ago that the days of my country-hopping to attend conferences was over!

You cannot imagine how therapeutic it is to be able to: (a) travel through a town for distances close to  2 kilometres (being the distance from the University to the Hotel we were put up at) unaccompanied on a wheelchair (thanks to the Welsh infrastructure making sure that the pavements were equipped with convenient ramps to get onto the road from them; contrast this with which describes the situation in our capital!);  and (b) drive approximately 1500 miles (from Wales to Scotland and back) all on my own. I cannot think of anybody doing so much for another person with no ulterior motive, and only because he was convinced that it was important to enable me to attend the conference with a modicum of `independence'! The world would be a far more livable place for people with disabilities, if it had more people with the sensitivity of this extraordinary friend of mine.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Technologically disabled

Times of India, September 15, 2012

How often have you seen a five year-old pick up a mobile phone or a remote control, and soon start surfing the possibilities with the aplomb and dexterity of a born engineer? Likewise, you must have seen how gingerly a 60 year-old picks up the same object, almost afraid it might explode at any moment. I want to talk about the technologically disabled, typically post-middle aged person who is often treated like an imbecile for not knowing how to take to these electronic gizmos like a fish to water, and some of the ways modern society tends to alienate such people!

As I have been invited to a conference to be held in Wales in about a month's time, I would like to take this opportunity to rent a car and take my family on a driving holiday to Scotland. While this seems a great notion on paper, one needs to undergo the grim realities of the visa procedure. In the past, I have exercised a stoic patience as I filled three forms (one each for my wife, my daughter and me), each with anything up to 10 pages of questions of the most annoying kind. (For example, there is always the question which asks if you have travelled anywhere out of your country in the last 10 years, and if so, to detail when, where, and for what reason you went to each of those places - and typically leaving only enough space in the form for three such visits. So you will have to get out current and past passports to answer these questions faithfully and omitting no details, however minute, lest you be accused of falsifying data!)

This time, when I tried to locate the necessary forms with he help of Google, imagine my horror when I found that people from `some countries' have to fill their forms `online'. I wonder how much experience you have with people or organisations leaving you no way other than doing things `online', especially when the home-pages of these organisations are a maze where locating information is virtually impossible. And one is always scared lest one mistakenly presses some wrong key and the `on-line form' would have vanished before you printed out a copy! Why, one wonders, is such a treatment reserved only for people from `some countries'. Is it because Jairam Ramesh and Abdul Kalam should be expected to be more computer savvy than Mitt Romney and George W. Bush?

One of my brothers refuses to use email, but he does use a mobile phone. My wife, on the other hand, never uses email or a mobile phone, and is quite happy to never have to use the computer. But how long will our ultra-modern society permit anachronistic beings like my brother or wife to exist thus? Maybe such existence will soon be proclaimed to be an act of treason.

While explaining the concept of Universal Design to me, a friend once told me: At its core is inclusion, which demands of people to practice values that include diversity and difference as adding richness to life. The phenomena of `survival of the fittest', religiious faith and language have, in some way, contributed to alienating human beings from this value. Or putting it slightly differently, and less elegantly: Can you imagine Thoreau's plight if he were forced to make Walden pond wifi enabled?

Friday, 17 August 2012

Who is mad?

Times of India, August 18, 2012

This piece is related to two milestones. Let me quickly dispose of the first, personal and more pleasant one. It is almost exactly a year since this column came into existence. This is a happy milestone, as writing this column has brought me into contact with so many people and shown me another side of life. My first piece, published on August 20th, 2011, was a questionnaire which is at least as pertinent today as it was then.

The second `milestone', on the other hand, marks one of those countless disgraceful incidents that need the boundary conditions and abject insensitivity of `Incredible India' to happen. Almost exactly a decade ago, on 6th August, 2001, twenty-six people burned to death at Moideen Badususha Mental Home, Erwadi, Tamilnadu because they could not escape the fire, on account of having  been kept chained up when the fire broke out. (Please also see the article in ToI, August 16th by Hussain Kodinhi, and accompanying details of `manacles of mental health'.)

And just to show the world that we were still keeping our hand in, barely about a month ago, on 11th July 2012 , the body of a young woman was found buried within Dulal Smriti Samsad, a home for mentally disabled at Gurap, Hooghly, West Bengal. In fact, once investigation into this  this last manifestation of depravity started, more such bodies were also unearthed. 

Which nation can stand tall and lay claim to all the following mind-blowing characteristics:

  • Cities like Delhi and Chennai vie with one another for the maximum number of weekly casualties due to road accidents.
  • The (lack of) road etiquette of our drivers is trying to surpass itself by exterminating the elderly by simply bumping them off in road accidents; an elderly (wo)man going for a walk on a sidewalk is easy prey for the sufficiently committed. 
  • A week doesn't go by without some drunk driver running over that poor `vagrant' who had the misfortune of having chosen that spot for sleeping on the pavement!
  • Rather than taking them to school, our schoolbuses run over children on a practically daily basis.
  • Publicised statistics show that more than half our women have been subjected to physical and sexual abuse at the hands of their own relatives.
  • Young men routinely lace drinks of an unsuspecting female acquaintance with some drug, then gang-rape her, capture this bestiality on their cell-phone cameras, and later try to blackmail the poor girl with threats of publicising her indignity.
  • Gangs of hooligans  of the same ilk often turn to `moral policing' to maintain the `decency and purity of our culture' by harassing and pawing young women, be it in Guwahati or in Mangalore.
  • One dreads to imagine what a `mentally ill' woman, kept under lock and key, will be subjected to by her `attendants'. After all, doesn't one often read of policemen getting their jollies with women under `lock-up'?

Not surprisingly, people striving to improve the cause of mentally ill people in our country, ask how long will WE, who are not residing in asylums or such Homes, claim that we ourselves are Sane? and say that  on this 6th of August, we are joining hands with other groups to think about those human beings who are shackled and take a pledge to demand the right to positive mental health of all.

Let me conclude this sorry litany of manifestations of our national collective mental sickness on a positive note by thanking Vaishnavi Jayakumar for suggesting  that I use this column for publicising the passage of a decade after Erwadi and let me salute her for her decades of examplary service in the cause of the mentally ill in particular, and people with disabilities in general.

Friday, 3 August 2012

What is not accessibility

Times of India, Aug 04, 2012

I was witness to this classic equivalent of a `self-goal' in the cause of disability sensitisation. As part of their ongoing efforts to bring world-class neurologists to come and lecture to us right here in Chennai on various issues, our local (and quite distinguished) neurologists had organised a conclave and a lecture by an American expert , on the topic of Multiple Sclerosis. The hotel seemed to have put the odd ramp in place in what seemed an eleventh hour afterthought. The ramp at the entrance was probably of more than the maximum slope safely navigable by my motorised heel-chair. The ramp on the second floor could only be scaled because somebody manually steered the chair from the back.

By the time we entered the room where the conclave was in progress, the hall was filled as far as eye could see with chairs draped in white-cloth; the problem was how to move even five feet away from the entrance door. Somebody spotted my plight and moved some chairs so I could progress a few feet till the next bottleneck and the next good samaritan to help me get past that one, and so on, until we eventually found our way to one of the tables up front, where I saw three other wheel-chairs and felt less of a freak.

When we finally settled down, the secretary of the Multiple Sclerosis Society of India was finishing her report. The next speaker was a young man on crutches who had to painfully hobble his way up the dais - one of my more hated constructs of modern society - to the microphone, where he made many good points.

  1.  He raised the issue/slogan of  `nothing for us, without us'; i.e., if you wish to do something for the betterment of the lives of PWD (people with disabilities), do so {\em only after} ensuring that there are such PWD in the organising committee for such intended reforms. (When buildings, such as the hotel this event had been held in, attempt to render themselves accessible by putting in the odd ramp, can they please talk to some experts in the area of accessibility-related matters, and get meaningful advice on such things as acceptable norms for slopes of such ramps? - (author's remark)
  2. Before buildings, in general, (hotels, etc.) become accessible, can at least our hospitals and labs which run all manners of health-related tests, make efforts to have devices to facilitate PWD, for example, to get on to beds and high places they need to climb onto in order to have X-rays or MRI scans done?
  3. Will all hospitals have at least a few people conversant with standard sign languages to play interpreter between the doctor/technician and hearing/verbally impaired patients? 

When an event is being organised to specifically address a certain disease/disability, does common sense not suggest that many victims of the supposedly target audience will obviously have a common disability (resulting in being on a wheelchair in this case), and should care not be taken to ensure that the event is organised in a barrier-free environment? (Will we ever see one of these?); and to treat these `victims' as `chief guests' and ensure that they have a clear path to a position from which they can get the benefit of the views of the experts on their disease, brought at great cost to the exchequer, regarding their future lives, however long that may be.

And if you ask a PWD to come and speak, is it not your responsibility to ensure that (s)he is not inconvenienced in any way in the process of making that speech?

Friday, 27 July 2012

Two for the price of one

(I am sorry my usual article in the newspaper column could not appear today due to some misunderstanding about acceptable length of article, etc. But I decided, nevertheless to put up the piece in my blog.)

I want to give a different slant to the phrase in the above title, which is customarily used as a ploy by merchants wanting to induce customers to buy their ware(s). I, on the other hand, want to celebrate the fact that this column has just completed one year of existence, by making a plea for a similar discounting practice', to  appropriate quarters in our Government.

To set the ball rolling, let me recall something I learnt close to forty ago when I was very impressed by the implied sensitivity of our Government. A friend of mine in College was blind, and he told me that when he had to travel, not only was he entitled to a concession in view of his visual impairment, but even that if he wished to take another person with him, the two people could travel at the same cost that any one `normal' person could travel on. I remember thinking then that it was wonderful that our Government was so sensitive as to entitle him to an accompanying person to give him any desired help without having to pay essentially anything extra for that person's travel!

Much more recently, I was to remember this fact to good effect. It turns out that I have, of late, been receiving a named fellowship which entitles me to a contingency grant which is so generous that it can cover a lot of my travel costs (related to my academic work, naturally), even including some amount of international travel. However, due to my own mobility constraints, I found that I was turning down several invitations to conferences. Then I remembered my friend having been at the receiving end of the entitlement to take along a `carer'. So I asked the director of my institute if I could not also be the recipient of such a benevolent provision. He said I should ask the agency (DST) which funded my fellowship if that was acceptable. So I wrote to ask the big man (the then secretary of the DST) if it would indeed be acceptable for me to take my wife with me whenever I travelled on work - and charge the cost of her travel also to this fellowship - as I am constantly in need of her assistance. To my great relief and unexpected pleasure, prompt came the reply in the form of an unconditional green signal. So, I have been able to maintain a fair amount of my academic activity which involves travel, this having been unthinkable but for this far-sighted official, who behaved unlike so many of our bureaucrats who demand of disabled people that they produce a certificate at periodic intervals of time which certify (with the necessary attestation of some large number of dignitaries) that they still suffer from such-and-such handicap!

It goes without saying that I am exceptionally privileged to have such accommodating bureaucrats to deal with. This is not necessarily the case in even all reputed research institutions. It has been my endeavour, for some time now, to use whatever leverage I might be able to extract from such recognition as I have in the academic world in India, to bully people into  conducting access audits of their campuses. I use this column (quite shamelessly at times!) and whatever powers of emotional blackmail I can rustle up to achieve the desired end. Some time back I employed such `hitting-under-the-belt' tactics with a sister Math Institute in Chennai, and they have been very responsive and are in the process of having their campus audited even as I write. I tried to use this as a lever to suggest that a reputed science institute in Bangalore ask the accessibility expert (whose travel from Delhi to Chennai and back had  been funded by the institute in Chennai) to conduct a similar exercise at their institute now, as they would only need to pay her Chennai-Bangalore-Chennai airfare. I have been cribbing to the mathematicians at this institute that I cannot access a single lecture room in their department, and they have been promising me that they will fix this. I am told they recently went through a `renovation/expansion' of their department, but they still do not have an elevator to facilitate my accessing any of their lecture halls. But my hope of their getting the expert from Delhi to help them clean up their act was dashed for the simple reason that their accounts people did not see any reason to pay for two plane tickets to get somebody to come and do the desired exercise, rather than getting some expert from Bangalore - which they have not done for decades/centuries! The fact is that this expert is wheel-chair-bound and needs a `carer' to travel with her.

The purpose of this article is not to merely give bad press to  this Bangalore institute, but to ask why the Government should not have the rule in place for air travel today that they had at least 40 years ago for train travel - which is to enable a person who needs to travel with a carer/attendant to travel with that carer at the cost of one ticket!  (After all, the cost of a train ticket then, would probably buy more than a plane ticket today!)

If a relative of a President or Union Minister can make routine trips abroad at the taxpayer's cost, can't this perk be extended to a care-giver of a scientist, and in fact, of just any Indian citizen who needs such an attendant?

Friday, 13 July 2012

Time for some sensitivity

Times of India, July 14 2012

 The responses I have had for one of my recent articles in this column - on the travails of the hearing impaired - have been a real eye-opener. It is almost as if the flood-gates had been waiting to be opened. Let me reproduce some of these, to give you an idea of just how long the authors of these emails must have been bottling up various causes for frustration and anger.

(a) A mother of a hearing impaired son writes:

It is so true that  ‘hearing impairment is not overtly visible to people’ and because of this it  is not even considered an impairment vis-a-vis physical impairment/ mental impairment  or visual impairment.  Actually it is a double impairment – not being able to hear clearly and not being able to speak clearly. There are many hearing impaired who have overcome their disability with the help of technology, support of care-givers and enough financial resources to use the first two. Some tips that might help a normal person communicate with a hearing handicapped person effectively are:

  • Get the person's attention before attempting to talk or communicate.
  • Stay in their field of vision. Make eye contact.
  • Establish the gist of what you are going to talk about.
  • Your speech will be more easily understood when you are not eating, chewing, smoking, etc.
  • Keep your hands away from your face while talking.
  • Don't talk too fast.  Pronounce words clearly.
  • Have them repeat the specifics back to you. Many numbers and words sound alike.
  • In case of failure in communication,  try to find a different way of saying the same thing, rather than repeating the original words over and over.
  • Keep a note pad handy, and write your words out and show them to the person if you have to.
  • Use gestures and visual cues.

And she also adds:

A program ‘Sathymev Jayathe’ highlighting the problems faced by People with Disabilities, would have been truly more touching if it had had sub-titles for the hundreds of hearing impaired who were watching the show. This show which is creating awareness about so many issues would have been interesting for these people also.

In fact, more of our TV shows (News, Sports channels covering topical events like IPL, Wimbledon Championships, UEFA Euro Cup, etc.) should seriously consider close captioning their telecasts!

(b) A teacher, with a hearing impediment, says:

I am a deaf person since childhood. In my early childhood I was left to my grandmother. My most beautiful memories are associated with her. That illetrate lady with her unconditional love has given me so much strength that I am capable of handling any adverse or favourable condition with appropiate attitude. I am a faculty in my organization.Though as a matter of its policy, deaf people are not assigned to be a faculty, I was adamant to be one. Now for me every new batch for training is a new challenge to handle. When I enter a classroom with hearing-aid chord dangling on my chest and masking units  inserted in both my ears, I find it a thrill to observe the body language and facial expressions of all participants. How different we human beings are in our reactions to physiological inadequacy of a fellow human!

It is apparent, from such an outpouring of sentiment, that there is a whole section of people whose problems have been ignored/overlooked for (too) long, only because their disability is not overtly recognisable as one, and that it is high time that `normal people' started being more sensitive to their problems!

Friday, 29 June 2012

Whither universal design ?

Times of India, June 30 2012

Two  words  I have been hearing a lot of late have been  `universal design', which encompasses other phrases such as `accessibility' and `barrier-free environments', which I have been concerned with especially after I started having to use a wheelchair for most activities needing my moving around a bit. The fact that my extended family includes a large number of architects had ensured that I had heard of the `National Institute of Design' at Ahmedabad as being the Mecca for design of various sorts. Also contributing to this knowledge was the fact that a close family friend for several decades had been the late Dashrath Patel, the first director of design education at NID.

A few weeks ago, I  heard about a fellow wheelchair-user who had applied for and been selected for the Graphic Design course `under PH category'. Although the institute recognised the existence of such a `PH category', its designers do not seem to have done so. Going by the description one finds in the blog maintained by Vishal, our would-be designer on a wheel-chair, most of the classrooms as well as the rooms in the boys' hostel are on the 1st, 2nd or 3rd floors; and the main buildings  have no elevators. To be fair to our designers, they apparently do have some ramps  on the ground floor, but they seem to have decided that nobody in a wheel-chair would need to go any higher!

Before dashing off a `fire-and-brimstone' article to ToI, I thought I should discreetly check with Vishal about his subsequent experiences with NID, and learnt of the refreshingly encouraging reception Vishal seems to have been receiving from the administration; they have already built some ramps in the hostel and campus areas; they have commenced building a room in the hostel for people like Vishal; they have identified a place where a new elevator will be built. It is only fitting that NID should lead by example  for others to follow.

Not everybody is as lucky as Vishal. In fact, not long before  I  first heard about Vishal and NID, I had also heard about a visually impaired person studying Computer Science in an Engineering College affiliated to Anna University, Chennai, being told by the University officials that technical professional courses like engineering are not for visually challenged people and asked to go out of the college without spoiling the results of the college. I would be very surprised if his college in Erode was anywhere near as sympathetic as NID.

Let me conclude with this amusing tidbit, that people like Vishal need to pull their weight to make a reality before long: (I hear he has already started in the right direction and is preparing to start an NGO called `Give some space'! You can find more about it at

The `Guidelines and Space Standards for Barrier Free Built Environment for Disabled and Elderly People' prepared by the Central Public Works Department, Ministry of Urban Affairs and Employ- ment, India, 1998, says, among other things, that:

The scope and responsibilities which have been identified in various organisations will include the following:


 There should be a conscious attempt of all educationists to develop young architects/planners with an awareness of creating barrier free environment for physically handicapped.

A detail design exercise should be carried out in all schools of Architecture in their curricula as an essential subject of architecture education.

(Note: I have taken the liberty to edit the italicised lines above, merely to conform to the King's English.)

Friday, 15 June 2012

Let us learn to hear you

Times of India, June 16 2012

There has been one noteworthy omission from among the list of issues faced by the differently abled that I have been addressing in this blog. I have been dearly wanting to be able to say something halfway meaningful about the travails of the hearing impaired. To date, I had made fairly serious attempts on at least four occasions, in vain, to get such a person to try and formulate some specific observances by `normal people' which would mitigate some common difficulties they face. Maybe because hearing impairment is not overtly visible to people (like a person in a wheel-chair, or a visibility impaired person walking with the white cane), many people including me have very little real conception of the world of one who cannot hear. 

But a few weeks ago, I received a wonderful email where the writer identified herself as a middle-aged woman from Mumbai, who had been faithfully reading my column for quite some time, and explained that she had a hearing impairment. I immediately sat up, thinking `could this be my lead?' So I wrote back to her narrating the failed attempts discussed above, and asked if she would help me get a glimpse of the world from the perspective of one with her constraints. The very next day, I got this remarkably revealing email from her, which I simply reproduce below, verbatim and in toto, if only because it rings so true, and gives the reader a ring-side seat to the problems that people like her face every day:

Thank you so much for your prompt and encouraging mail. I am so happy to know that you would like to touch upon the trials of  hearing impaired folks . It is not at all  insensitive on your part to do so, on the contrary it would be a good platform for sharing.

I do not mind sharing some of the problems I face which a hearing person takes for granted. Starting with my alarm clock in the morning, I do not hear the beep. It is my husband who hears it and wakes me up. However when I travel out of town my wake up call is the vibrator modeof the mobile phone. Simple rituals like the whistle of the pressure cooker and kettle requires my physical presence. For the door bell, additional ringers have been placed and a louder bell has been fixed. The biggest problem that one faces is communicating in a big group, when there is a lot of background noise, and following conversation is very difficult. Social exclusion does take place and one does not feel a sense of belonging; during the course of a conversation very often one misses out on vital information or a joke. When everybody laughs it becomes embarrassing and one is misunderstood to be stupid. Hearing impaired folks communicate visually and they get conversation clues through body language, facial expressions and lip movement. It is therefore important to face a hearing impaired person and communicate slowly rather than raise one's voice. Since one has to concentrate hard all the time  to understand conversation, it leaves one very fatigued and tired.

Learning of languages is  very difficult as one cannot hear the words and pronunciation clearly, I faced this problem whilst learning Hindi in school. However now, exemptions from languages are possible for hearing impaired students. While walking on the road one cannot hear the traffic from behind and this can prove to be fatal to one's life. One can get knocked down by a vehicle. While driving very often one cannot hear the traffic and overtaking of cars, visual driving and constant concentration are the ways of manouvering oneself through the traffic. At the airport the announcements are not clear therefore one is constantly vigilant and watching the monitors for flight updates. Entertainment - while watching  television and movies all is not deciphered. However sometimes subtitles are used and these are a boon for the hearing impaired. Communicating through mobile phones, where in text messaging and the option of the vibrator mode is convenient, emails and the use of skype and video phones are also very convenient for hearing impaired folks.

Parents may sometimes miss detecting hearing impairment in their child and may attribute low grades in school to laziness or inattentiveness. A young deaf and dumb lady was trained to work as a beautician. One of her seniors passed on some instructions which she could not hear and therefore she did not respond. The senior was furious and slapped her hard. The senior  was not aware of her problem, and apologised to her later. This is one of many incidents faced by the hearing impaired folks. 

Thank you Rekha!

Saturday, 2 June 2012

Do ATMs have to have steps?

Times of India, June 02, 2012

How is this for a classic Catch-22 situation? My unfortunate friend who was at the receiving end of it obviously cannot see much humour in it! She had had the misfortune of having been affected by Polio as a kid, and has been using such assistive devices as crutches and braces on her legs for most of her life. She continues to gamely try and lead a normal life - having had the fortune of getting married to a good and caring man, and of having found a job in the face of numerous forms of resistance. She goes to work on a three-wheeled scooter - after having mastered the non-trivial mechanics of hobbling on her crutch to her scooter in the parking lot, and getting the scooter moving after having stowed the crutch away, taking care not to fall at any step of the process.

Having to negotiate steps (going down or up) is akin to torture for such people, and steps without any supporting rails on the sides are tanatamount to a blueprint for disaster. To her unalloyed happiness, she discovered that the branch of her bank (Indian Bank) which was near her home had a `drive-in ATM'. She lived happily for a while with this lifeline which elevated at least one necessary periodic chore from yet another painful exercise to a pleasant diversion. Then, `progress and modernisation' struck: her ATM was torn down, and she was told that the Headquarters Office was moving to her branch, which was being accordingly refurbished. She dashed off a distress mail to the HQO asking them what was to become of her freiendly drive-in ATM. To her surprised satisfaction she received a politely worded and prompt response from their IT division head assuring her that the Drive In ATM facility would be restored the minute the new building was ready. Her faith in IT - as well as the human face of commerce - received a nasty blow when the construction was complete, and the old drive-in ATM had been replaced by the unfriendly older model, replete with steps, and the attendant glass swing door was the hair on the camel's back!

Unfortunately, this kind of thoughtless idiocy continues to torment the lives of a large number of people, on a daily - and painful - basis. If you want  a good laugh, you should peruse the trite solecisms mouthed in the `National Policy for Persons with Disabilities' drafted by the
Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment of the Government of India
(see For
instance, the first paragraph announces that:

The Constitution of India ensures equality, freedom, justice and dignity of all individuals and implicitly mandates an inclusive society for all including persons with disabilities. In the recent years, there have been vast and positive changes in the perception of the society towards persons with disabilities. It has been realized that a majority of persons with disabilities can lead a better quality of life if they have equal opportunities and effective access to rehabilitation measures.

`Vast and positive changes in the perception of the society towards persons with disabilities'! Hah! I  would like to see some of these avowed perceptions and realisations (that a majority of persons with disabilities can lead a better quality of life if they have equal opportunities)  manifested, for instance, in an enforced requirement  that at least every fifth branch of each nationalised bank should  host an ATM with a drive-in facility, and a ramp of acceptable slope in all their ATMs!

Wednesday, 23 May 2012

My Great Grand-Aunt

Times of India, May 19, 2012

The Oxford dictionary, or so my computer tells me, recognises words like great-grandfather (which means the father of a grandparent) and grand-uncle or great-uncle (meaning uncle of a parent). I crave your indulgence while I boast a little about my lineage, but with a good reason. The point is that I come from quite an illustrious family of achievers, even if I say so myself. My (maternal) uncle and (also maternal) grand-uncle both won Nobel Prizes for their work in Physics. But this article is about my paternal grand-aunt who, in my book, is the greatest achiever among all my relatives. I want to talk about this great grand-aunt (not to be confused with great-grandaunt!) who led a simply astounding life.

She was known simply as Sister - conjecturally owing to a cute remark made long ago by her kid sister, my grandmother - to multitudes of women who had had unbelievably unfortunate lives until they had the good fortune of coming across her.

She lived in a house right opposite the house where we lived when I was a little boy. I only remember her as a petite sweet old lady with a head of silvery hair, always dressed in impeccable white saris and forever fussing with a hearing aid which would periodically make cooing noises, much to her annoyance. I was 17 when she died. Her body had been laid out in the front sit-out of her house. And from the wee hours of the morning, there was a seemingly unending stream of women who kept coming, with tears streaming down their cheeks as they walked around the body of this silvery woman and paid their last respects to this great lady. It was a revelation to me, who had had no clue till then of what a fantastic life she had led. The haunting memory of that day is of the woman who came running to the old style cremation ground  just as many of us were returning after having completed the last rites and consigned the great lady's  mortal remains to the flames. This woman just kept sobbing inconsolably. As soon as she had heard (somewhere in Andhra where she was living then) of Sister's passing away, she had taken whatever buses and trains she had had to take in order to try, in vain as it eventually turned out, to pay her final respects to the physical frame that had once housed the person who had given her  a new life when any hope of a normal one had appeared to have ended.

Now let me divulge the secret of her greatness. She had been `married', when she herself was just eleven years old,  to a boy just a few years older, and who died not much later. This was around 1900, and what the Brahmin community did in those days to a child widow belonged to a master-class in sadism. The little girl would be dressed up in all her bridal finery, jewelry (and the more the better), silk sari, etc., etc. And some duly authorised dignitary would proceed to successively remove all this finery from the poor child, and the piece de resistance was when she was tonsured, and the bald girl was made to change from her silk sari to a `sari' of coarse white cotton, without even the customary blouse to cover the upper body. At the end of all this, the girl was banished to some unseen inner corner of the house, to lead the rest of her life in this attire and form, essentially as a servant/cook/odd-job-person, one never to be seen by outsiders or to participate in any `auspicious' event!

Fortunately, Sister's parents (and a widowed aunt, who also lived with them) showed themselves to be remarkably courageous and enlightened people who simply refused to permit a brutal society to steal the life of their remarkable daughter. Much to the derision and criticism of the `neighbours and relatives', not only did they spare Sister the customary barbarism doled out to child widows, they even went out of the way to enable Sister to have a complete education. She stood first in the entire Madras Presidency in her school exams. In the face of people telling him `ok you have made your point, now this is more than enough', Sister's father got her into the Presidency College for her undergraduate studies.When she passed her B.A. in Botany with honours in 1911, she was the first Hindu woman, let alone a child widow, to have ever graduated from the entire Madras Presidency!

Now she began repaying the faith and commitment of her father by leading an exemplary life as social reformer and educationist. The educational institutions she had a non-trivial role in starting are legion: Sarada Ladies Home, Queen Mary's College(*), Lady Willingdon Training School, Kuppam School (near the erstwhile Ice House), Sarada Cheri school in Cuddalore, Sarada Vidyalaya School, Srividya Kalanilayam, Mylapore Ladies Club which subsequently became Vidya Mandir, Mylapore (incidentally alma mater  to me as well as to my daughter); and many times, Sister just handed over the running of institutions she had got up and running, without once attaching her name to the venture in any way.  All along, she also kept working at creating institutions such as `widow's homes' (Sarada Illam, for instance) where she led by example in creating an environment for women to live and contribute meaningfully to society.

Sarada Illam at Ice House

I can go on about how she was part of the first All India Women's Conference on Educational Reform (along with Rukmini Arundale, Rukmini Lakshmipathy, etc.), one of only six women to have represented the entire Presidency, a nominated member of the Madras Legislative Council, ... Moving and illuminating accounts of her life may be found in Monica Felton's  A child widow's story and in Malathi Ramanathan's  Sister R.S. Subbalakshmi - Social reformer and Educationist (Ph.D. thesis from Bombay University), which are both revealing records of the black ages from which she strove to liberate our women.

Ever since I started writing this column, I have been periodically receiving mails requesting advice or assistance on a variety of issues. I have even gone so far as to say, during a public talk I gave, that if you have been so fortunate as to touch one or two lives, yours would have been a life well-lived. This kind of complacent observation, when viewed against a life such as Sister's, reminds me of Newton's oft-quoted saying: If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

I got to thinking recently of Sister, as a result of an initiative begun by a cousin of mine, herself an alumnus of Queen Mary's College, as are many many Madrasi women (including my own mother). She was startled to find that even a former Principal of this College was unaware of who Sister Subbalakshmi was! This convinced my cousin of the need to create a web-site or a biopic on Sister's life and achievements. It got me thinking that I might help things moving by writing about her in this column. This column is supposed to address the special needs of people with disabilities. If losing a husband (rather than a limb) and being forced therefore (!?) to live an eternity  of indignities is not a disability, I must be missing something. That is why you see me  writing about this most Noble of my relatives, whom I was one of a handful of relatives who were privileged to have known as, and called Ponnakka (loosely translated as `jewel among (elder) sisters')! As this cousin said when I asked her to look over this article for factual accuracy, and I couldn't summarise this article better than she did: Ponakka drew many disabled small girls to her, and transformed them into a "differently abled" set of young women, in the literal sense of the phrase!

(*) My reference to QMC in this context is based on the following anecdote in Monica Felton's book (on p. 137), apparently narrated to her by Nallamuthu Ramamurthi (the sister of Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, another visionary woman from Sister's era): 

While she was still a student at PT School  (Presidency and Training School in Triplicane) run by Sister, a member of the  Governor's Executive Council had visited the school, and she  had read out her prize winning essay on how she wished to have a women's  college in Madras. The visitor pooh-poohed the very suggestion that it might be possible to fill a college with women. To illustrate his point, he asked the class full of girls just how many of them would really want to spend the next 3 or 4 years studying for an undergraduate degree. Every girl in the class put up her hand!

 And Queen Mary's College was started the following year, 1914, by the 
Government. Not only did Ms. Nallamuthu join the college, she even went on to become its first Indian Principal.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Is Going Legal the Only Way?

Times of India, May 5, 2012

Let me ease my way into the more serious stuff  with a multilingual joke in questionable taste which I heard as a young post-doc. at TIFR, Mumbai more than 30 years ago. Apparently,  a former resident of Mumbai and obviously non-resident Indian was annoyed with the behaviour of a BEST bus conductor and kept threatening to sue BEST; finally, in exasperation, the typical no-nonsense Mumbaikar bus conductor tells the angry woman Arre memsahib, ithar susu nahin karna! (The reader ignorant of Hindi will forgive me for not including a translation, as the little humour here will only sound crude, and suffer in translation.)

The reason I say all this is a recent conversation I had with a cousin who has returned to India after more than a decade of living in the US and been working in Kozhikode for more than a year and loving it. I had been telling him of my crusade and dreams of a better tomorrow for people with disabilities in India. He was quite supportive, but did underline the opinion that probably the only way forward is to use our judiciary, which is the most powerful in the world in his eyes. So this cousin says: `use RTI or whatever you want, try to set in place a mechanism whereby lawyers with their hearts in the right places would offer their services on behalf of this cause which can make a great impact, as well as make a great future career for a bright young lawyer who knows how to play his cards right. Basically, he was saying sue-sue is the only winning policy!

Let us consider the alternatives and examine the rights of people with disabilities (PWD) in this land of ours which has been ambiguously termed `the greatest democracy in the world'. I  shall present my arguments in the form of an imaginary baseball match, with the Govt. of India batting, and me as both pitcher and umpire. (You know who will win this mock game!)
  • Education:  The Right to Education Act (RTE), 2009 declares, among other things: Any cost that prevents a child from accessing school will be borne by the State which shall have the responsibility of enrolling the child as well as ensuring attendance and completion of 8 years of schooling. No child shall be denied admission for want of documents; no child shall be turned away if the admission cycle in the school is over and no child shall be asked to take an admission test. Children with disabilities will also be educated in the mainstream schools. The Prime Minister Shri Manmohan Singh has emphasized that it is important for the country that if we nurture our children and young people with the right education, India's future as a strong and prosperous country is secure.
 Try telling that to the mother of a paraplegic child, who lives in a modest dwelling in Mylapore. Can you cross your heart and tell her that arrangements will be made for her child to get across major throughfares like R.K. Salai and Royapettah High Road and get educated in the mainstream schools like Vidya Mandir or P.S. High School?
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Strike 1

  • Information: The Right to Information Act (RTI), 2005. mandates: timely response to citizen requests for government information. It is an initiative taken by Department of Personnel and Training, Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions to provide an RTI  Portal Gateway to the citizens for quick search of information on the details of first Appellate Authorities, PIO's,   etc. amongst others, besides access to RTI related information / disclosures published on the web by various Public Authorities under the government of India as well as the State Governments.

In order to access the disability social pension or unemployment allowance, it is necessary to first have a disability card. A recent survey revealed that only 15% of people with moderate disabilities and 21% of people with severe disabilities had such a card. (The survey did not reveal how many of these PWD were even aware of these requirements and allowances.)

As an experiment, I sent an email last Sunday to the (TN) state commissioner for disability} (to that I was  handicapped person confined to a wheel-chair, living in Thirunanmiyur, and asked: (a) if I would be able to come with my wheelchair to his office which is apparently on the first floor; and (b) how I might come to his office from Thiruvanmiyur using public transport?

And I had still not received a response as of this Thursday evening. So much for my right to information in the era of information technology if an email from across town cannot be responded to in four days!
                                                                                                                                                                                   Strike 2

  • Life: According to the Wikipedia, `Right to life' is a phrase that describes the belief that a human being has an essential right to live, particularly that a human being has the right not to be killed by another human being. We have the mind-boggling practice of having human beings immerse themselves in the sewage ducts to clear clogs or whatever. Not a week goes by without the newspapers carrying a story of a couple of people suffocating to death from the `lethal fumes and gases' they inhaled when they went down the sewer. And each of those newspaper stories does not forget to remind us that the Government has made it illegal to ask people to go down the sewers to do their dirty work.

Strike 3; and you're out of here

 What I am trying to say is that so many people have been clamouring for the need for implementing certain changes which the law of the land would have us believe is our basic right. Clearly, wimpy mathematicians writing clever newspaper articles is not the way to effect change. I am beginning to think that maybe what we need is the strong arm of the judiciary to fortify `our case'. 

People like me do not have the money (or the time or the mobility!) to take on costly and time-consuming legal (as well as my own not very strong) muscle. Maybe what I need is for some young lawyers with the power of righteous anger to offer to give freely of their time and lend my impotent  sense of outrage some legal standing on one or more of the above issues. If a group of right thinking people offer to come together for this crying need,  maybe only the power of such people can set these anomalies right. Let me conclude with an inspiring quotation that a good friend of mine (thanks Venky, for the perfect punchline), who has devoted his life to enabling the disabled, ends all his emails with:

Never doubt that a small group of people can change the world; indeed it is the only thing which ever has !-  Margaret Mead.