Friday, 22 February 2013

A Missed Opportunity

This post has nothing to do with disability. The reason for the diversion is that I am just coming out of a really horrific phase of my life and my mind cannot grapple with anything too disconnected from my trauma. Although I hinted about his ill-health, the day after I wrote my arguably - and understandably - most read post, viz. my tribute to Rahul, was also the day I lost my brother. (And this double loss, of first Rahul, and then Mahi, after a week of regular and gloomy visits to the hospital when he was in the ICU and one never got to see and talk to him, and waiting for the bad news at any moment,  is this trauma I am talking about.) Here was a guy barely 5 years older than me (although he was more than 25 years older than Rahul!), in the pink of his health in November, and suddenly things started going wrong and the way the state of his health nose-dived after that was almost like a free fall and equally frightening to see.

His was a most unconventional professional trajectory. After having joined the IIT (just because he wrote the entrance exam and did well enough to be offered a seat the possibility of refusal of which was decried by various uncles and elders in the family). After barely a year of the kind of boot camp that a first year student of the IITs faces, he had the guts to say `enough is enough' and to join a B.Sc. programme in physics, after having been seduced to the subject by the three volumes of Feynman's lectures (which I still possess as a prized bequest from him). He completed a bachelors and masters in physics, and found his soul-mate during his masters' programme and soon thereafter maded two life-changing decidions: (a) he got married because her family was moving to the US en masse, and (b) he gave up physics to get a job as a lowly sub-editor in a newspaper. Before long, at somebody's suggestion, he applied for, and was selected by the Tata Administrative Services. He worked with Telco in Pune for some years, and became something of an expert in Human Relations, following which he moved on to the Taj group of hotels. After a few years, he moved to Wipro for a brief spell before he made an inspired switch from a business-driven world to the peaceful environs of academia in a private University in a small town in England, where he built a credible school for service management.

I still remember the first time I saw him after he had had a whiff of the romance and lure of the academic world, whose praises he was singing with the fervour of a recent convert, forgetting that I had been in academia for close to twenty years by then! But from everything I have been hearing and reading about him since his cruelly early demise, this numerical senioriy I had was rapidly overcome to the stage where he enjoys almost a guru status in his line of work.

Not just academic proficiency, he seems to have touched so many people's lives in such meaningful and deep ways that I feel like kicking myself for having wasted 60 years of my life arguing with him with the contempt and brashness of the younger towards anything older. I, who have been teaching people for most of my life, and have been generally considered one of the better math teachers, will feel infinitely content if I can receive a tithe of the encomiums heaped on him, when my time comes to cross the great divide.

Reading some of these messages from the heart of the many people whose lives Mahi touched, I look back at all the silly arguments we had and can't but think of such phrases as familiarity breeds contempt and casting pearls before swine. Even if it is a mite late,  let me salute you, Mahi, for an exemplary life which I was too brash and cocky to suficiently learn from!

Friday, 15 February 2013

Heaven help us all!

I had, in an earlier post, mentioned that my brother was in poor health. As we went along an oft-used road to the hospital, I was preoccupied with the domestic medical crisis. To cheer me up, my wife mentioned that the pavement on the road we were going on - one of the main thoroughfares in Channai - had an impressively wide pavement, which is not the case only too often in our cities, so I looked out the window for at least some cheerful input. Although she was right about the size of the pavements, I could not help but noitce some obstacles  for a potential wheel-chair user, and which I paused to click with my phone camera the next day when I went the same route:

Hawkers hogging the pavement with their wares

A bumpy ride for a wheel-chair, and a definite hazard for the visibility impaired

Stone seat in middle of pavement

Sand and bricks dumped to occupy entire pavement;, thereby forcing a wheelchair  to climb down and up a 1.5 foot pavement

Our well-intentioned legislations will serve no purpose until and unless there is seriously strict enforcement: for instance, somebody who (a) dumps stuff in the middle of a road or (b) parks any vehicle in front of a ramp or ( c) drives through a red light or (d) drives drunk- must have the book thrown at him : stiff fine at first violation, stiffer one such as revoking of driving license at the second, and a really stiff, eg. imprisonment, at the third.

Coming back to the hospital visit, some four or five of us huddled in the unhappy atmosphere next to an ICU for a while and then some one suggested that we might move to the canteen to drink a cup that cheers. This is where I got my next batch of ammunition for this blog. In order to go from the ICU to the canteen, you have to come down the ramp, and walk along the building a bit. Now there were cars parked everywhere in such a way that the only way my wheelchair could go there was to go back onto the main road (with cars typically zipping along at 80 kmph) and come back around the parked cars on the side road braving such transport as may choose to fly by, typically honking away at the `obstruction my wheel-chair created'. There was a sort of a ramp leading up to the canteen; and this is what the bottom and top of the ramp looked like:

Notice abrupt end to ramp at the bottom (if you can, in spite of the poor quality of the photograph)

One more step after a sharp right turn, if you managed to navigate past the milk containers in the way.

Surely people building a hospital should exhibit more common sense and consideration! Might an out-patient not need a restorative after having finished undergoing whatever she came to have fixed? It will take only a miniscule amount of cement, or a make-shift wooden ramp that any carpenter can whip up in no time, to solve these last two problems!

Only the will to be rendered accessible is needed.

Friday, 8 February 2013

A giant among men

The last few days have been about the lowest point I have encountered in my life. First, I had to come to terms with the fact that the health of my brother, who has always been considered the strong person in the family, had been going steadily downhill for a month and, has spent the last week in the ICU of a hospital, and learning every day that there was a new complication. To the extent that I told my daughter who works in Mumbai that she should probably take some time off and come down to Chennai.

And to make sure that life wasn't treating me too softly, I was dealt the `unkindest cut of them all' a couple of days ago when somebody I have come to love like a brother even though he entered my life only about eight months ago was snatched away from our midst at the young age of just 39. This post is dedicated to him.

People reading this blog would be aware that `disability activism' is what I have been trying to get into for a little more than a year. Some time back, I wrote a piece wondering aloud if `going legal' was the only way. A cousin of mine from Bangalore suggested that I get in touch with the Alternative Law Forum. The upshot of it all was that I came up with one name of a lawyer practising in Chennai and interested and actively involved in disability matters.

Meanwhile, and by an odd coincidence I had also got in touch with Vaishnavi Jayakumar. So I fixed up a meeting with this young lawyer, and requested Vaishnavi to join me (as I was a `babe in the woods' in these matters) when I went to talk to a lawyer about possible help in enforcing existing laws concerning accessibility. And so it transpired that the three of us met one Saturday morning in a coffee shop. That was the first time I met either Vaishnavi or Rahul, and I realised that they were far from being strangers to one other. That morning was an eye-opener and life-changer for me. Vaishnavi's dynamism and Rahul's critical and practically sound approach, in conjunction with their shared passion and zeal for bettering the lot of people with disabilities and striving for an inclusive planetcould not but convey optimism that with such people working towards a joint goal, no obstacle would be insurmountable.

Since that meeting, my life has been enriched in untold ways. I slowly started being included in the activities of various organisations. I started becoming aware of the myriad activities at national and international levels that Rahul was involved in. I was more than considerably impressed with his mails concerning his visits to and work in Geneva on making the pages of printed information in books get out of the clutches of the copyrights guarded fiercely by the publishing industry (primarily in USA and Europe) and made available to the visibility impaired people of the world. There is a must-see  clip of vintage Rahul  (at In this video, Maryanne Diamond, the President of the World Blind Union is being interviewed (by an interviewer with what sounds like a clearly American accent) where she says in polite terms that while there was great enthusiasm at the beginning of the meeting (to arrive at an acceptable draft of a treaty concerning the involved issues at the WIPO SCCR 24, after 10 days) there seems to have `not been as much progress as had been hoped for and that there was a certain amount of disappointment among the members'. At about this point, Rahul who has been sitting by her side, leans sideways to affectionately rest his head on her shoulder with a `Sorry, I couldn't resist' with his characteristically engaging smile.
Then the interviewer asks him for his opinion, and while concurring 100% with the views stated by Maryanne, clarifies that there is a clear division into two camps - those for and those against the treaty - and that `it is clear who we have to fight against'. Upon which the interviewer asks him just who he feels is against the treaty. And with his million dollar smile and characteristic `no nonsense' candour, he crisply answers  `the European Union and USA'.

His periodical bulletins from Geneva with the occasional video were informative and revealed the extent of his involvement in this work as also his almost childish pleasure in things like the little scooter he was using there which allowed him to travel all over Geneva, rather than just travel from his hotel to WIPO and back because he had had to travel by taxi, which was all he had been doing in his six prior visits to WIPO meetings (see\&

I had the pleasure of seeing him with this `toy' when he came to a little meeting I had organised at my institute to discuss one of the million projects Rahul involves diverse disability rights groups in. As the only really `accessible' place I know for PWD is my institute, I tried to suggest that we meet here, and most others kept suggesting alternative places like public parks and other equally unattractive sites. I wrote a slightly dejected email to Rahul and Vaishnavi saying I sensed an unwillingness to agree to a site proposed by a maverick mathematician who was an outsider not belonging to any organisation in `the movement', and asking if they could use their clout in this community to try and convince people of the advantages of holding the meeting in my place. (On an earlier occasion, the three of us had arranged to meet with an IAS officer in my institute for the same reason; so Rahul knew the wisdom in my suggestion.)

Not only did Rahul overcome the seeming resistance, but also promptly responded by saying that it took him almost three years to be accepted by the community. To get an idea of how `this community' has gathered him to its bosom, please take a look at the beautiful tributes to Rahul at and at I wish to add this tribute to a truly remarkable soul who was taken away from us too soon by cruel Fate.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Sorry for this non-post

I am afraid this is going to be a `non-post'. When I first started writing a column in ToI, I told the editor that I wasn't sure if I could write something every week and hence suggested that I should probably not commit to writing more often than once in two weeks. And of late, when I started writing only in my blog rather in the newspaper, and because it was so flattering to see so many people looking at my blog on saturdays, I started writing a post every week, and now, I find I am writing something because I have to, and the results are not all that pleasing.

To compound matters, I have, of late, been bothered by a domestic crisis that does not allow me the frame of mind needed to write something meaningful. Let us hope things improve on the home front and I will be able to put up a meaningful post next week.