My last piece in this column said some not very flattering things about a sister math institute of mine, also in Chennai. Let me attempt at least partial atonement this time around by singing the praises of a mathematician there, who is a truly inclusive soul, acutely aware of all the unfair inequalities that our society dumps on its less privileged, and devotes generously of his time, energy and resources (not only money) in trying to improve their lot. His intense solidarity with the Dalits (or `untouchables' as they have been constantly called as proof of the immense castism and exclusivity that forms the fabric of Indian society) may be treated lightly only at your peril. He has consciously tried to understand just what the Buddhist alternative meant to these unfortunate victims of an obscenely caste/class-conscious society
Shiva, for that is what he is called, involves himself with single-minded commitment, along with some like-minded philanthropists in raising money to help the lives of at least a minute fraction of the downtrodden. He champions the cause of people who get a raw deal from life, which dubs them low-born untouchables purely on account of the accident that their parents had the same misfortune.
- When the CMI campus started coming up in Siruseri. it was an arid dusty plot of land. Shiva has played a leading role in `greening' the place, getting almost every visitor to the institute to plant a tree there; bottom line, CMI now looks more like the Garden of Eden than a place for grooming future Ramanujans! And in this whole greening process, you can be sure he has always been aware of and trying to better the standards of the `working staff' (gardeners, drivers, cooks, security guards,...)
- To Shiva, this `working staff' is not an anonymous collection of people (as they would almost surely be, to many of the `high-brow intellectuals'). For instance, there is a gardener there who is practically a `deaf mute' as our society would bill him. Shiva overcame all sorts of bureaucratic tangles to ensure that Mohiuddin's meager income could be enhanced to the princely sum of Rs. 7000 a month, which helps him contribute to running a family of mother, sisters, their families, etc. Shiva took it on himself to learn the signing conventions followed by Mohiuddin, who indicated to me that there are now only some three or four people in all of CMI who try to communicate with him.
- Shiva was also telling me of this quite severely disabled person called Narasimhan, who has been the victim of the double whammy of polio and leprosy, who normally sits outside a certain bank. You should see the evident delight in Shiva's description of Narasimhan's apparently supremely cheerful personality in the face of all his problems. Something Shiva's wife once said about a summer being more uncomfortable than normal was the impetus needed for him to go buy a fan and gift it to this Narasimhan.
I wish you would also one day write about the great psychological disability that untouchability causes, and the many steep steps that a person deemed untouchable must negotiate lifelong in this society.Let me conclude with a knee-jerk reaction to this wish:
- I feel like a spoilt brat for making such a fuss about the problems of inaccessibility I face, privileged as I am to be chauffeured around and driving around on a motorised wheel-chair, whereas the Mohiuddins and several karmachari children continue to uncomplainingly lead their lives.
- I hope this article, while probably not quite what Shiva might have liked to see, nevertheless rings true, and at least partially addresses his italicised request above - which, incidentally, could clearly only have been made by a truly all-embracing and enlightened soul.
- I am truly fortunate to call this wonderful human being my friend.