Monday, 20 February 2012

Attention to Detail

Times of India, February 18, 2012

Let me begin with a qualified apology. This piece can conceivably be viewed, by the antagonistic reader, as a diatribe against the sister math institute to mine in Chennai. It is not that I merely wish to complain and make a fuss; I beseech the reader to view the whole matter from my perspective. Many senior faculty of this institute are good friends of mine, and they will know that the words expressed here are but a manifestation of the campaign I have set myself upon - through my newspaper column and blog - to spread awareness of the special needs of the differently abled. The only reason I may seem to be trashing them is this: How can I hope for sensitivity in these matters from people `out there' if I can't get that from these personal friends and future Indian gurus of the queen of all sciences?

As you may know, I am mobility-challenged; and as you can imagine - if you ever cared to think about it - a lot of my time is (and has to be) spent in meticulous planning of what sort of preparations I would be required to make where and at which stages of my trajectory to accomplishing any undertaking.

In what follows, my wheel-chair will play a fairly non-trivial role (if you will pardon the math lingo), not unlike Hero in a Phantom comic. To make it less impersonal, let me stop calling it `my wheel-chair' and formally christen this vaahan of mine as Herbie (as in the friendly Volkeswagon beetle created by Walt Disney) and refer to him rather than it. My first concerns when I plan any `undertaking' always pertain to Herbie: will he be transported safely to where I will need him? Will he be able to transport me indoors to the desired places or will he run into his nemesis The Dreaded Steps? Will he have to encounter unreasonably high slopes in the occasional providentially provided ramp?

I feel particularly rotten about the timing of this piece, as I was invited to deliver an endowment lecture last week at this sister institute, let's call it CMI to give it a name, and given a wonderful reception when I got there - as well as got paid an obscenely large sum of money as an honorarium for my efforts! As a routine precaution, I needed to review my experience of the track record of CMI in this regard, which I shall try to present as accurately as I can:
  • Many months ago, I made a big fuss on discovering, when I went there to attend a lecture which they had announced by email, that it had been scheduled in a room on the first floor, which is not accessible by any elevator. Many apologies were feelingly murmured, but I have as yet seen no attempts at having elevators installed in the building. Is it so unlikely that they may have a student before long who will be dependent on a wheelchair? Would such a student be unable to attend any lectures held upstairs? 
  • In those days, my mobility was better than it is now, and I could manage to walk a bit. But recently, I have had painful falls on at least two occasions, and having more sense than to tempt fate to break my hip, I have consciously decided to totally minimise or even eliminate walking anywhere, and to always move on Herbie, making no concessions whatever. 
  • Last month, a star-studded conference was organised in CMI to felicitate its founder director on his turning 80. Eager to catch the talks by at least the first and last speakers on the first day of that conference, I set off expectantly with some four other colleagues as well as Herbie in a sufficiently large vehicle organised by my institute that Monday. 
  • When I drove into the lecture hall for the first lecture, the hall was almost full. The auditorium has every row on a diff erent step of a sort of amphitheatre, with even the first row on a level raised a few inches above the level I drove in on. I had three choices: (i) plonk myself right in the middle of the hall a conspicuous 3 ft. in front of the first row of seats; (ii) get out of Herbie and hobble over to a seat on the front row; and (iii) sit at one end of the hall, in front of the front row, and try not to be in people's way. I don't like being conspicuous; and I don't want a broken hip, so I plumped for (iii). But this meant that my line of vision to the farthest blackboard was almost parallel (non-transverse, in math lingo) to the board with the result that nothing the speaker wrote on that board was visible to me. 
  • And lunch that day (for the luminaries attending the conference) had been arranged on the first floor of the hostel building - which also has no elevator! So I had lunch with the hoi-polloi in the canteen downstairs. And it is not as if my mobility problems have not been well-known to practically everybody at CMI for quite a few years now. 
  • After that fiasco, I spent the rest of the day in the office of one of my many friends there, and amused myself with my PC which I had had the sense and forethought to take along with me.
So before I could agree to give that talk at CMI, I had to get somebody I could rely on to `see through my eye' and reassure me that the Dreaded Steps would not suddenly leap out to stymie Herbie anywhere. The Director of CMI promised to tell me if there are likely to be any hurdles for us; I decided to trust him even though he did not get back to me to allay my concerns. Rajeeva and I go back some 30 years, and if I can't trust him, who can I?

I iterate my earlier comment that this CMI-bashing is not to belittle them. Rather, it is to merely underline the fact that people do not automatically think of `the special needs of the differently abled' from the point of view of such a person, and to try and bully them into getting something concrete done about improving accessibility/inclusiveness of their campus. To be fair to some of them, I sent a stinker of an e-mail (to a few select friends there) highlighting the bulleted points above and they have immediately started consulting suitable experts. But let me conclude with the following attempt at emotionally blackmailing my friends, peers and former students at CMI:

As it turns out, I will be turning 60 in a few months, at which time my institute and some colleagues are planning to make an elaborate fuss over me. My institute has been most kind to me in many ways, with one particular way being the manner in which almost the entire campus of IMSc has been made accessible to Herbie and me. There are only a couple of corners left at this time that I can't ride Herbie to. IMSc has also kindly extended the tenure of my service with them (which was to have ended when I hit 60) by an extra two years, and threaten to maybe extend that even further. I am unsure of how long my energy levels will be high enough for me to continue working. My last entreaty to my friends at IMSc and CMI is that I would consider it a great parting gift to me if they would ensure complete accessibility of their campuses by the time I finally retire, maybe in 2014, thereby enabling me to look back proudly at having helped create this legacy of two completely accessible math institutes in the city of my birth and much of my work.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Imply vs. Infer

Times of India, February 4, 2012

I had a truly inspiring English teacher in the Xth standard - only it was called Fifth Form then. This was an English gentleman called Mortimer who had come on some sort of exchange programme (possibly organised by the British Council). He really opened our eyes to so many wonderful things. For instance, I would never have known, but for him, of a wonderful English Pronouncing Dictionary by Daniel Jones. He taught us that the English language breathed and lived, and dispelled many common misconceptions in the understanding of the language. For instance, as to how many `l's there were in the word fulfil - `hear the symmetry of the spelling: f-u-l-f-i-l'; the difference between continuously and continually'; or the distinction between imply and infer - whose manifestations, in the context of the issues treated in this column, will be the subject of today's piece.

The fact that I go around in a wheel-chair implies that there is some reason why I need to use this form of motion. It does not imply that I fell down and broke a leg; if you concluded that, you would be guilty of making an incorrect and unjustified inference from the facts presented to you. This kind of making uncalled-for inferences by insensitive people is one of the leading causes of a majority of the woes of people who happen to be different in some way. Here are instances of what I mean.

Consider this scenario: Someone is quite ill. Doctors keep coming in periodically and then walk away stern-faced. The patient is lying in bed with eyes closed and maybe even a tube inserted through his nose. The overall scene is not a very happy one, and implies that the patient is not very well. However it does not imply that he is unconscious or incapable of hearing what is being said in the room. Yet how many times have you not seen people inferring such an unwarranted conclusion and talking mournfully in hearing distance of the patient as if he is already dead?

Often, when schoolteachers/governesses get annoyed with a student/child, and want to give their ward a piece of their mind, they want to make sure that each of their unpalatable words is heard and understood. And when the child does not keep making eye contact with the person giving a piece of her/his mind, that does not imply that the ward is not interested or is `disobeying' the senior person. There is a telling piece in a book written by an autistic woman as she explains that making eye contact is something autistic people have a very hard time doing, and how she feared her governess who used to demand `Look at me when I talk to you'.

Then there is the video I saw on youtube about an autistic girl, who had not spoken a word till she was in her teens, who through a fortuitous set of circumstances discovered she could communicate with people by typing things out on a computer. And she talks about how everybody inferred, wrongly, from her not speaking, that she could not understand what was being said about her in her presence, and laments her frustration at not being able to tell people to shut up and to be more sensitive.

Or take the case of Christy Brown who had cerebral palsy and was considered mentally disabled. In his autobiography My Left Foot (also a film), he relates in detail that profound moment when, at age five, he inexplicably grabbed a piece of chalk from his sister's hand with his left foot and, with great difficulty, traced the letter A on a piece of slate. For the first time, his family knew for sure that his intellect was intact. For the first time, he could start to communicate with them. His mother taught him to write using a typewriter with his toes. He went on to write a number of books and poetry, winning many prizes. (Incidentally, the entire previous paragraph is reproduced almost verbatim from a heartwarming collection of short blurbs on 45 Disabled People who Made a Difference which, along with many equally inspirational pieces can be found in the wonderful website maintained by a Dr.Satendra Singh)

Finally, just to show that we Indians do not have the copyright on insensitivity, let me conclude with a classic instance when I was the victim of wrong inferences being drawn. I have a condition known as multiple sclerosis. Two of the ways this manifests itself are a noticeable instability and an occasional slurring of speech, both of which tend to get exaggerated when I am tired. This incident occurred many years ago when my condition had not yet affected my mobility to the extent of using a wheel-chair or even a cane. I was going to take an international flight leaving Chennai around 2 or 3 am - which meant I had had a full day in the office before coming to the airport, and had then had to go through long lines during immigration. So much so, that by the time Lufthansa Airlines announced the boarding call for its flight to Frankfurt, I was exhausted. I may be wrong about the destination. Only the fact that it was a Lufthansa flight is indelibly etched in my memory. This is because by the time I got to the point of entering the craft, my weary limbs caused me to stumble into the plane. When the German stewardess asked me for my seat number, the combination of my instability, my bloodshot eyes and my slurred response of 34 E was sufficient for the fraulein to add 1 and 1 and come up with 3 and infer that I was drunk. She went on to inform me that although she would be well within her rights to not allow me to enter the plane, it was only on account of her kindness that she did not; and of course she would certainly not allow me to be served any alcoholic beverage on board! It is an indication of my level of exhaustion at the time that I quietly went to my seat without caring to pick up the thrown gauntlet - as I would have 9 times out of 10!

My Affair with Rosie

This post is also a deviation from the main theme of this blog, and is more personal in nature.  Lest you think I am going to subject you to prurient rubbish, let me hasten to add that this is really in the nature of explaining the reason for bringing in Rosinante in the title of this post. The fact is that the personality of Don Quixote has always held a fascination for me. I was always convinced that perceiving my trajectory in life as a series of quixotic experiences had the multiple advantages of wishing to be guided by romantically noble aims on the one hand and seeing my efforts as being semi-comical and to not take myself too seriously.

This `affair' started when I was a 21 year-old graduate student in the US. My first serious acquisition - and the first (and sentimentally favourite) car I ever owned - was a beat up (already 15 year-old) General Motors' `Rambler' - which I promptly named Rosie, after the trusted steed of my hero. She (as I liked to think of Rosie as female) was old and cranky. We have driven together, all the way from Boston in the north-east to Los Angeles in the south-west, and down to Charlotte (North Carolina) and Atlanta. Many is the time when she would give out an ominous gurgle, and stop; and I would sit and let the engine cool down, periodically mumbling sweet nothings. Believe it or not, she would eventually crank up again and move on.

When I lived with a bunch of fun, but poor, undergrads in Santa Barbara for a couple of years, many of them have on occasion requested the loan of my car for some reason or the  other. More often that not, they'd come back, grumbling about the car conking out on them halfway. And I'd say it was probably because they did not treat her right!

You may think I am nuts, but it is so heartening to endow a personality to an oft-used car or wheel-chair (which I've christened 'Herbie') that one has shared many a memory with, happy and fun or aggravating and not so much fun. Rosie's character seemed to so nicely match with that of my Rambler, which I have driven with an Indiana license plate for two years in California, although one is supposed to re-apply for a local license plate fairly soon after moving from state to state. Many is the time that the combination of this aged car with Indiana plates, and its brown-skinned driver with long hair, has attracted some police car to see if we were the undesirable, drug peddling sort. Thank you Rosie, for a fund of wonderful memories of such escapades that have embellished my life.