Monday, 30 January 2012

A Tale of Two Centuries

It was suggested to me that now that I have `my blog' up and running, I should consider posting something fresh, which was not necessarily somber and related to the `differently abled' motif, and was a slightly easier read. It occurred to me that I should write something specially for the young people who have come forward spontaneously in support of an oldie's blog. I shall attempt to address another possible interpretation of `different strokes'.

I have been talking in this blog about how my daughter talked me into letting her create the blog for me, and of how I am technologically challenged and need the help of people typically under 25 to get technological/electronic gizmos to work their magic for me. This might give a casual reader the notion that I must be somewhat dim-witted, inept and incapable of doing things for himself. On the one hand, I see many people of my (50 +) generation demonstrating the same phobia for electronic devices. On the other hand, I know that many of these same people (including me, I would like to imagine) are not particularly very stupid people. So I decided to try and delve into possible reasons for this generational difference.

I seek your indulgence while I try to put up a semblance of a defense for our ineptness with gizmos, and discomfort with many of the electronic appliances that proliferate the market today. Consider, if you can, the following facts which must seem absurd to today's  teenager, but which were my world when I was a teenager: 
  • If I was collaborating on a research project with somebody who lived in, say California, I would have to write a letter and wait at least two weeks from the date of posting my letter, before I could hope to have the response from my collaborator.
  • If I wanted to be able to read something at my leisure out of a book shelved in a `for reference only: not for circulation' zone of the library, I had to copy it all down with pen and paper sitting in that reference section. (Reason: I did not see a xerox machine until I went to the US when I was in my early twenties; and I didn't see one in India until I returned here in the late 1970s.)
  • Making a long distance phone call usually necessitated going to a public phone booth - if you were lucky enough to find one in walking distance; and a three minute call from Chennai to Mumbai could set you back hundred rupees or more.
  • If you wanted to buy a train ticket, you had to go to the Central Station and stand in interminable queues before you could hope to get it.

But we old fogeys had our own systems in place. There is a colleague of mine who still does the following things which may seem bizarre to a youngster but he has very valid reasons for doing so
  • Every January, he would faithfully transcribe `to-do' lists and phone numbers from old diaries to current ones. (And many are the times he has quietly smiled when the more `modern' among us lost their mobile phones or electronic organisers, with all their data lost.)
  • in fact, his impeccable system of book-keeping was the only reason we could effectively solve the non-trivial - and often over-determined) problem of scheduling a 15-day International Congress of Mathematicians with some six parallel sessions of about three lectures on each day, as well as a morning session of plenary speakers, etc.
We might not have had computers, smart phones, or iPads and scanning devices, but we did develop the skill of writing, keeping in touch - in a far more meaningful way through well- crafted letters, had the ability of keeping ourselves focused on meaningful pursuits even when all alone on a desert island. Can you imagine a teenager in an area out of network coverage : just imagine no cell phone, no intrnet, no facebook, no ipod, .... (I can already see the onset of withdrawal systems!)

Friday, 27 January 2012

In a World of Their Own

Times of India, January 21, 2012

I once had a Ph.D. student, one of my very fi rst ones, and a pretty good one. I had fond hopes for her future achievements. She had a son early in her tenure of study with me. He was, in fact, about a year older than my daughter. Within a few years, it became clear that he was not quite like her. He did not respond to external stimuli in quite the same way as her or other children of his age . By now, Uma had finished her thesis, one that a reputed referee said he would be proud to have his student write. In fact, a paper that she and I had written made such a good impression on a Fields Medallist at Berkeley that he got one of his students to analyse our construction in detail for her doctoral thesis.

It was fast becoming clear, however, that Uma's life was going to be devoted not to the esoteric charms of subfactors but to coming to terms with the reality that her son was autistic, and giving him as much of her time, love and attention as was needed in order for him to live a `normal' life in a world which was not something that he seemed to comprehend and relate to in the manner that the rest of humanity did. She has moved from India to Dubai, and later, from there to UK, their lives and country of domicile dictated by which place seemed to provide the facilities and ambiance most conducive to his coming to grips with living in a society that he had problems identifying with or communicating to. Now he has completed his schooling and she is in a dilemma as to whether to opt for an `advanced', but alien society (with its facilities for his special needs, as also a sometimes simmering racial prejudice) or `back home' in India (with the support of an extended family, as also a staggering lack of sensitivity to people with special needs). Her only fear/worry every living moment is how he would manage after his parents are no longer around. Fortunately, he seems to be reasonably proficient with the computer, so it should not be too hard to get him placed in some suitable job.

But there is another couple I know (whom I taught a Master's level course in Delhi more than thirty years ago) who would give anything for their son's autism to be as `high functioning' as that of Uma's son. Pramath and Swati have also subsequently lived in Chennai, Allahabad, Canada and USA before moving back to Chennai in their perennial quest for the right milieu for their son. In fact, a couple of years ago, when they were visiting here from Canada, and debating the eternal problem of `where is best', I thought Swati appeared to be close to some kind of a breakdown, and she seemed to be at the end of her tether. As they have always treated me as a teacher and well-wisher, I presumed to suggest to them that in view of some sort of support system of friends and well-wishers that existed here, coupled with the fact that the feudal system in India would give her at least some sort of support/help in daily living, they may be better off in India. (God knows she needs to be strong at least for her son's sake!)

As I said, they are now back in Chennai, and I am glad to say she looks a lot more emotionally confident than during their last visit to India. But I have a dreadful fear that in my meddlesome manner, I might have given them wrong counsel. I say this because Indians, while they can be considerate and helpful when things are stated sufficiently clearly to them, are unfortunately not a naturally sensitive race. It is almost second nature to treat anybody who has any sort of impairment, or is simply `different' in any way, as some kind of a moron or lunatic. She was telling me about the time they were recently browsing in a book-shop and her son was making what would seem to be meaningless sounds and repetitive gestures to one who had had no prior exposure to autistic people, when a 25-year-old lad walked up to him and said that `if he behaved in that fashion, then people would call him mad and throw stones at him'! In her charitable way, she says that the lad was probably himself autistic or suffered from a similar condition. But you can see why I feel responsible and wary lest our people may make them re-think their decision to return home.

I asked Pramath to try and explain the precise nature of their son's cognitive problems, and if I understood him right, it has to do with an inability to put himself in `the other person's shoes'. (I am afraid that too many of our countrymen suffer from that particular malady!) When will we ever become more sensitive and caring when we perceive somebody who is even slightly different?) Before we come to pre-determined opinions, we should all (a) look at this eye-opening video and (b) read the hope-inspiring book Emergence Labeled Autistc by Temple Grandin (for both of which sources I must thank Pramath.)

A few days after the above conversation, there was a very informative piece in the Deccan Herald in Bangalore listing various `Apps' which had proved to be very good facilitators for children with autism. This same source provided various links (such as,, and which cannot but give a much-needed glimmer of hope for people suffering the burden of this cruel yoke. You can be sure the first thing I did on learning of these web-sites was to pass on the info to Uma, Pramath and Swati; and I urge other parents in the same boat to try a computer or i-Pad as a potential life-line.

The Wright's Problem

Times of India, January 7, 2012

Not long ago, the newspapers announced that the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu had introduced a  fleet of buses equipped with special lifts to aid wheel-chair users. Soon after, the papers carried another story about the ground realities faced by an enterprising wheel-chair user who took it on himself to test out how these buses really worked. Besides the various shortcomings in the design of these buses that he had pointed out, I want to concentrate on one particular facet of the problems raised/faced by him. To wit, how does one get to the stage of using the lift in the bus? How does one get down from pavements beside the road in the first place in order to reach where the lift is? I want to concentrate on the route to a serious re-think on what accessibility involves.

The entire scenario is not unlike `what to do with an airplane before you have an airport with runways'! That got me thinking about how the Wright brothers must have solved the problem of what to do with their wonderful invention. And my mind went back to old film clips of planes taking off and landing on wide open fields. They had the space but must have had rough landings. That, and the onset of the larger planes must have been the reason for the huge runways we see in today's airports.

Let me explain the analogy I am trying to elaborate thus:
airplane : airport <--> people with disabilities : access
Allow me to push this slightly contrived analogy to the hilt. Various airlines have their planes, and various people like me have wheelchairs. They have got their airports; how shall we get access? Let us examine their game plan for success. They first create a powerful Civil Aviation Authority, with inputs from various potential sources for the capital needed for the success of their venture, as well as support from representatives in our governments whose job descriptions would make them interested in the proposed venture. You need the former to fund the building of airports, and the latter to remove potential problems and clear the way for approving the proposal. 

To play devil's advocate, you might say `building airports has obvious potential economic benefits to interest a potential investor; what's in it for him to promote accessibility for people with various manners of disabilities?' To this devil's advocate, I say `you will bring a huge task force of people desperately wanting to contribute to society, who are being forced to stay within the confines of their four walls because they have no other choice'. To him, I would say `look at the proportion of humanity who have some manner of disability; look at the number of people above 60 who have some manner of impediment and who would benefit from having a barrier-free environment'. To him, I would say `The leading scientists, politicians and corporate bosses in India are all, almost perforce, more than 60 or even 70 years old' . And I would ask him : `Do your fancy economic assessments advocate that we deny ourselves the inputs of all these people?' Besides the obviously humanitarian ethical angle, does it not it make simple economic sense to make our society accessible?

Going by this premise, I am trying to initiate a proposal to raise the money needed to:
  • conduct an in-depth access audit of about 30 of the allegedly premiere public places in some of the richest cities in India (for example, some of the metro stations at vital hubs in Delhi, Doon School, Rabindra Sadan in Kolkata, IIT Kanpur, Churchgate Station, TIFR Mumbai, IISc Bengaluru, Rishi Valley School, the Music Academy in Chennai, ...)
  • implement the recommendations stemming from those audits in a chosen subcollection, of maybe 10 places
  • publicise the result of the findings from these audits
  • bring right-thinking and concerned people - disability activists, potential investors from organisations with some sense of corporate responsibility, representatives from the pertinent branches of the Indian Government - to a publicised meeting where we lay uncompromisingly bare the state of affairs in places representing our efforts to put our best foot forward, and hope the consequent embarrassment would make us draw plans on a war-footing to implement the recommendations of the audits in the remaining 20 places; and finally
  • make realistic plans for extending the pilot project, proposed above, from the privileged few to the unprivileged many, and for starting on the path to making that symbolic airport of access a reality.
As a great visionary of the last century said:
I have a dream ...

Ingenious Hurdles to Access

Times of India, December 24, 2011

Today being Christmas eve, let me take a cue from greedy little boys all over the world who prepare their `I want' lists for Santa Claus. In deference to my being a Hindu from Tamil Nadu, let me change the identity of my prospective benefactor from Father Christmas to the Amma of Tamil Nadu. This is consistent with the kindness she has been extending to people with disabilities throughout this month. She began by commissioning a fleet of buses equipped with special lifts for wheel-chair users, and followed it up with promising to reserve a quota (for people with disabilities) of 3% of all employees hired by her State Government; but the largesse I seek is of a slightly different nature from free TV sets or laptops. My need is actually quite simply stated: All I want for Christmas is a barrier-free environment!

Allow me to highlight some elements of planning - seen even in the latest buildings - which are strokes of genius if their goal is to ensure that no mobility-challenged person depending on a wheelchair can ever access the buildings in question, or sections thereof: to such a person these are as moats around castles of yore were to hostile bands of marauding invaders:

1. Some number of steps (1,3,5, whatever; any number greater than 0 is as effective as any other) need to be climbed in order to get from one level to another. These hurdles manifest themselves in numerous forms:

  • They may lead from the street level to the entrance foyer of the building. At one stroke they ensure that access to the elevators is denied to anyone who has not climbed the required step(s).
  • An entire section of a room could be at a higher level than others, e.g., when there are split levels - such as in all Japanese apartments/houses where you can (should!) leave your footwear at the lower level before ascending cleaner to the higher level.
  • They would be the only means to the roof of a building; even if this building has 100 floors, and elevators will take you all the way to the top floor, you will still have to climb some (10, 15, ..?) steps to reach the roof-top with the magnificent view (a popular site for parties!).
  • Auditoria have enough steps strategically placed so that there is no way that a person can get to a place from which she can either attend or perform in a play/concert/lecture held at that auditorium without having negotiated those steps. (Prime examples are The Music Academy and The Museum Theatre in Chennai and the J.N. Tata Auditorium in Bangalore; many of them have already been at the receiving end of my loaded comments.)
  • I first saw the following stroke of genius in some apartment complexes housing the faculty in the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research in Mumbai (allegedly the premier scientific research institution in India): the idea here is that if a building has 10 floors, elevators only need to halt at 5 places (at levels 1.5, 3.5, ..., 9.5) so you `only need' to either climb up or down half a flight of stairs after getting out of the elevator in order to get to the floor of your choice.
  • One of the most spectacular walkways in TIFR is the one right next to the sea, separated from the sea by only a 50-foot-wide clump of rocks, carefully designed so the waves splash on them furiously and majestically during the monsoon, causing a tremendous spray of water on the walk-way. It has been some time since I went to TIFR. It used to be necessary to negotiate many steps before one could get there. I will be very impressed if some kind soul has arranged for strategically distributed ramps which would permit people like me to again have that uplifting multi-sense experience of the sea through sight, feel and smell.
2. Dimensions - be they width of doors, depth and width of elevators, width of toilets - are not specified with wheel-chair users in mind.

This pessimism has been fueled by a recent visit to Hiranandani's `Upscale' gated community, prompted by friends suggesting that I would surely find `a barrier-free and accessible environment where the quality of my life would be significantly enhanced'; I found steps without ramps in most places. There has been some email correspondence subsequently, but nothing concrete has transpired. I am mentioning names here in the hope that some enlightened soul at Hiranandani's might deem it fit to contact me about making this
dream of mine a reality!

Let me conclude with the concrete wish that agencies such as CMDA (the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority) are instructed, if not legally bound, to refuse to give sanctions to any future (at least public) buildings which do not satisfy minimal accessibility norms? if I can be more greedy, may I dare hope that CMDA will generously use the bulleted points above to identify some strict no-no's?

What They Say

Times of India, December 3, 2011
(World Disabled Day)

Sometimes I feel I have been using this column as an avenue for the frustrated ranting I periodically have the urge to subject society to. (If you can do that to me, I should be able to do this to you!) But the real - and stated - motive for this column, in the first place, was to periodically remind people of the special needs of the differently abled. The purpose of this piece is to show that I am indeed far from the only person in this category and that there is a silent majority of my kind out there who sympathetically vibrate to these rantings of mine. I thought I might, for today's installment, reproduce a few lines (or paragraphs as the case may be) from some email responses I have received from readers of this column.

My first response here is from one who has to use the Chennai buses, and he provides further proof of the abhorrent lack of civic sense in our countrymen(*), and he says:

On a number of occasions, it is a fact that nobody offered that seat meant for us (I am 75) - but one day a blind old man entered and the seat meant for him was not given. The worst part is when he sat on the floor of the bus it was objected to as being a hindrance!!

((*) I must especially exempt Ms. Jayalalitha from this blanket criticism, in recognition and gratitude for the fleet of buses she recently commissioned, with special lifts for the benefit of wheel-chair users. One only wishes people in the capital of her state would show similar sensitivity!)

The above reader was referring to the two seats in Chennai city buses which are purportedly reserved for elders and the differently abled, and he goes on to note that these seats are invariably occupied by ladies who are neither elderly nor differently abled, and who seldom consider it necessary to give up their seats when people of those categories come into the bus!

Here is one of my favourites, reproduced in almost its entirety:

I’ve been reading your insightful articles in the Times Of India and after reading each one I went...aaah!!!

I’m Sarah. I had polio as a kid and have used crutches and a 
brace on my right leg all my life. Over the years I have started 

experiencing symptoms of Post Polio syndrome, which has resulted 
in more weakness, fatigue etc. This has resulted in me using a wheel
chair while at work and one at home.

That being my personal background, I’m writing this to assure 
you that your articles, written in spite of your very busy academic 
life, are not just your personal story. There are many, many silent 
”Sunders” out there who are going through exactly what you’ve written and wishing that the powers that be would be sensitive enough to 
include their needs while planning infrastructure.

I too like you have had my share of being bundled up airplane 

steps, lugged down stairs in a private hospital (like a strussed up 
pig!!), facing intense dehydration due to reduced liquid intake, to 
avoid having to use public toilets...the list is endless....

Thanks for taking the cause of people like you by convincing TOI 
to let you have your say. Let’s hope that our voice is heard through 
your writing and more sensitivity is shown.

Keep up the great work.

My last quote is from Fatima: (these names - Sarah, Fatima
- remind me that we do live in a secular society and that worthy causes bring us all together in a very satisfying manner.)

One can see from Dr Sunder’s blog that the South is 100 years ahead of the North in terms of civilization. It also make us realize yet again that PR works better than prodding the beureaucratic Kumbhkarans of India!
I responded with a gloomy ‘The Kumbh-karans will never awake. Only self-help works.’ - maybe because I had had a bad day! And she came back promptly with this feisty response: 

Sir, I believe that a relentless internet campaign has got the potential to stir up revolutions, so why not the kumbh-karans?!
I have quoted all these emails, not to show how well my column is being received, but to show the natural empathetic response that it has elicited from people who are in the same boat as I, thereby seeming to justify the raison d’etre of this column - which is to make people sensitive to the needs of the multitude of silent Sarah’s in our society, for whom this special day has been dedicated.

Today, in case you didn’t know, is ‘World Disabled day’ - which is why the editor kindly agreed to carry my column today even though this was really due only next week.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012


Times of India, November 26, 2011

I started this column with grand visions and tall claims. I advertised its raison d'etre , in my home-page as well as in the blurb at the foot of this column, as my wish `to periodically remind people of the special needs of the differently abled'. A friend of mine suggested to me last week that I might consider opening up a broader front in my articles, `and especially include the problems blind people must face here'.

I realise and admit that I have been remiss. I have been maintaining a constant crib about the problems faced by wheelchair users and mobility impaired people. In my defense, permit me to make three weak excuses:
  • My previous pieces described what I have personally experienced, which were easier to write about, with a ring of truth;
  • I have tried to get in touch with a hearing impaired person on at least two different occasions, but they did not seem eager to talk to me;
  • Probably my oldest friend, who is visually impaired, has been out of the country for the past few months, with the result that I haven't been able to pick his brains.
If you had told me forty years ago that I would be writing a column on disability-related matters, and if I had believed you, I would have hazarded a bet that one of the first pieces, if not the first, in such a column would be on Venky, the friend alluded to above. It is time now to make amends. I wrote to him asking him some of the problems he had experienced first-hand, and what sort of sensitisation in people would help in doing away with some of these problems. And he replied:

The problem is that I don't see myself as having any great inability. Having said that, I need a sighted guide when I am not able to use my white cane; I am petrified of being on my own in a railway station or an airport in any country other than India. Needing someone to read and write for me as I am too lazy to learn to use a computer with accessible software.

Here is a fiercely independent guy with an uncompromising urge to show the world that he is the equal of anybody, sighted or not. Growing up with him has been a great education for me, and I am convinced I am a better person for it. Most of his friends are seldom conscious of his impairment. (On one of the early occasions that he visited our place, my wife asked me anxiously if she was adequately dressed for the occasion!) Drivers of auto-rickshaws are convinced that he is conning them since he directs them expertly through the city to a familiar place!

He has acquired such expertise in his chosen area of work - related to empowerment of people with disabilities - that his services have been solicited in Cambodia, Africa, UK, USA, Canada, ... ; and after all these decades of such travel and work, he still says he is petrified of being on his own in a railway station or an airport.

It is only common sense for any society to make full use of its raw material, to recognise the worth of world-beaters like him and ensure that they are given environments which strive to mitigate their handicap, so their full potential can really blossom? What does it take to enforce high-faluting notions we have enacted into laws of the land such as `providing braille symbols and auditory signals in elevators or lifts' as well as in buses/ metros, etc.? People in charge of our roadways and railways should compulsorily spend a few working days completely blindfolded to understand this `being petrified'. Why can't agencies that sanction building plans, such as CMDA, make it a necessary condition for all public buildings (including stations, metros, malls, etc.) to have elevators which are equipped with such provisions?

I also know a mathematician couple, who live in housing provided by IIT(M) to the husband who is on the faculty there, while the visually impaired wife is a faculty member at the Ramanujan Institute for Advanced Study in Mathematics at Madras University, which is right across town. For a `normal person', this is not a problem since it `only entails a walk of under a kilometre from the IIT gate to a station (crossing my favourite road OMR on the way), and another walk of less than a kilometre from another station to reach RIASM' - with the walk involving highly uneven pedestrian footwalks if they indeed exist, and two-wheelers speeding by at the edge of the roads!'. Can you imagine what poor Sushma must undergo every day to merely get to work and come back?

Leaving aside the humanitarian angle, are we so rich in resources that we can afford to completely ignore the needs of highly skilled and immensely motivated people like Sushma or Venky, deny them any infrastructural assistance in their daily life, and thereby run the risk of not being able to benefit from their expertise?

Genesis of this Blog

You see, I have, for long, had a distrust and phobia for social sites, given the number of people who (a) keep offering to give me large amounts of money if I would just help them get the millions hidden by their kin who were overthrown in bloody coups, (b) want to hand over the jackpot I won at some lottery, (c) fix my webmail if I would do the little thing of sending my login, password and email details (e) invite me to join linkedin or multiply (f) send me emails from addresses of my friends, purportedly from them, asking me desperately to send them a small sum of a few hundred pounds, because they are currently in London, having lost their papers and money due to some tragic circumstances,.... So I have steadfastly refused to have anything to do with sites like facebook. Many friends tell me it is actually quite safe; but then I also hear of several people having had their accounts hacked.

As a result, standard avenues of communication with the younger generations have always eluded me. Not long ago, I started taking up cudgels on behalf of people with disabilities, in the cause for inclusiveness, barrier-free environments, etc. The methods I was using were those of my generation. I got a sympathetic editor of Times of India to give me a bi-monthly column where I could scream from the roof-tops. My solitary technological achievement has been that I have been maintaining a home-page on my institute web-site - at the url - for a while now, where I would post my various papers, talks, etc., as  a convenient source for quick access to many pies I have had a finger in. So, when I started writing articles periodically in `my column', I started to religiously give a link to each piece in my home-page. Again, because my column appeared only in the metros of Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Bengaluru, this was the only place where friends from places like Lucknow or Cambridge or Berkeley could read the pieces appearing in my column.

I also began to realise that if one did not have fairly high speed connectivity, then it could take ages to be able to get to see pdf files to which links had been provided on my home-page. One of my most recent Ph.D. students, also of the technically savvy generation, told me I should start a blog and post my stuff there. My daughter Radha had also been saying this for a while, that this was the way to ensure that more people would know of my efforts, that I did not have to be constrained to the newspaper column, that people who wished to do so, could post responses on it. (God knows I have been receiving so many heart-warming email responses from readers of my column. Many of these emails were far more illuminating that anything I had written.)

When Radha came home last month for her Christmas break and again suggested the blog idea, I was happy to cede to her reasoning. Especially when she most sweetly offered to set up the blog for me, I gleefully agreed. Of late, she has been systematically uploading my pieces from my home-page, and it has been wonderful the way she has been voluntarily entering the currently most important sphere of activity in my life.

Meanwhile, I had, some time ago, also got Madhushree, a current Ph.D. student (tantamount to another daughter) 
and Vasan, (a cheerful young systems administrator in our institute who runs to help me when I hassle him, at least three times a week, with pathetic pleas like `my printer doesn't like me') to help modify an existing emblem/logo to something I could possibly use. Finally, things were converging to the inevitable  conclusion. I have asked Radha to put up the logo created by Madhushree and Vasan and my blog - no prize for guessing the name - has come into existence, at

Thank you Radha, Madhushree, Ved, Fatima, Jojo, everybody who has been part of this entire experience.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Places I Love to Hate

Times of India, November 19, 2011

My teenage daughter and her almost hexagenarian parent are diametrically opposite in at least two ways: she loves to spend time in malls and to go to plays, while I am filled with a nameless dread at the thought of either. While a teenager picked at random would think I must be particularly weird to feel this way, let me elaborate the reasons for my `weirdness'.

I am mobility-challenged - meaning that I either move around on my motorised wheelchair (when I am fortunate enough to be in a place where I can use `my wheels') or hobble around slowly and painfully on my crutch (if I am not so fortunate, which is very often the case).

Here are my problems with malls: how many chairs or benches have you seen in these multi-storey malls which are mushrooming all over urban India? And what is the average distance between any two such seats? The answers are: close to zero, and close to in finity. In fact there is a quite non-trivial distance between almost any two places in the mall. And you can be sure that the toilets are at one end of some long corridor and in a corner of the mall. Unless you are young, agile and full of beans, you are completely exhausted by the time you manage to accomplish whatever you came to do. It is not just handicapped people like me who feel this way; talk to almost anybody over 60 to see what I mean.
Express Avenue Mall, Chennai, TN

Now for plays. I live in Chennai, and maybe my blind spot in this matter is city-specific, although I seriously doubt it. Among the more favoured locales for plays in Chennai are The Museum Theatre and the auditorium in the Alliance Francaise.

The former is set in a magnificent complex which evokes memories of the British Raj. My problems start right at the entrance. There is an impressive - depending on your viewpoint - set of some twenty curved steps, about twenty feet wide without a single railing which can be held on to for support by those unsure of their balance. And when you enter the `theatre', there is a further sequence of steps heading down towards the stage. All very grand if you are `normal', but terrifying if you are mobility-challenged like me - to the extent that I had to deny myself the pleasure of seeing the daughter of a close friend do the star turn last week in a play about mathematicians (in spite of my almost avuncular pride in her thespian

As for the second of the auditoria referred to above, I was invited some time back to attend some films that were going to be screened there. I wrote back to the organiser of this event saying the venue precluded my participation. I explained to her that some five years ago, (and again a couple of years later) it had been only a fierce parental loyalty which had taken me up the three flights of stairs to watch my own little girl perform in a play. It wasn't just me; only a grandmother's love could have helped my then octagenerian mother overcome her groaning knees and the three flights of stairs. Is there any need for such cruelty (albeit unintended)? In fact several readers of this column, who are on the `wrong' side of fi fty, have expressed their solidarity for my tirades along these lines.
Alliance Francaise, Chennai, TN

I explained to the organiser referred to above that I had decided not long ago that I would not attend events at venues which were totally wheelchair-hostile. I got a response to the effect that AF, Chennai had now entered the 21st century as evidenced by the existence of a new elevator. I persisted and asked: `will I be able to come to these films on my wheelchair and never need to negotiate steps?' and received the one word answer `No'. That response was effectively equivalent to saying: `people who can't navigate stairs need not attend these events'. I am sure it was not meant that way, but for all practical purposes, it might as well have been! How much does it take to incorporate a ramp here or there and complete the transition from the middle ages? As added incentive, maybe I should mention that the Goethe Institut which showcases the culture of France's neighbour does have such a ramp which I myself have used to go all the way in from the street level on my wheelchair for one of their events!

Is it unreasonable to expect/hope that groups promoting socially relevant issues make it a point to hold their events in accessible venues? and better still, that they actively boycott events held at such venues? Maybe that would coerce those venues to remove some steps and take those vital inital steps towards rendering themselves barrier-free and universally accessible!

A Second Career

 I gave my first ever invited non-mathematical talk!

Being something of a novice in such public speaking, and not having my familiar prop of a blackboard or pdf file flashed on a screen from a computer, I beg your leave to ‘read out my talk’ (since I am more confident of my writing skills than my speaking skills). Let me ease into this talk by telling you of its genesis, as well as why me?

A couple of weeks ago, I received an email which began with the writer of the email introducing herself as representing a $12 billion firm whose Global Outsourcing (BPO) business based in Chennai addressed a variety of needs for vertical segments that include financial services, publishing, transportation, telecommunications, healthcare, advertising, and investment banking. The writer of the email went on to invite me to give a lecture as part of a ‘Leadership Series’, and said some of her people would like to come and talk to me about it some time.

Curiouser and curiouser, as Lewis Carroll would put it! I was sure that her organisation did not really want a lecture on abstruse points regarding the interconnections between von Neumann algebras and free probability. So I sent back a puzzled response asking the writer (who was your colleague Jaya, by the way) if she was aware of who I was and just what I did, gave her the link to my home-page, asked her to take a look at it and decide if she still wanted her people to talk to me. Prompt came the response: not only was she familiar with my home-page, but she had also read some pieces of mine carried in recent weeks by ToI, and it was the subject matter of those that she wanted me to talk about. She said she would like me to talk about how organizations and leaders should look beyond the narrow interests of profits and how they should look at creating broader societal impact which will benefit businesses in the longer run...

By the way, Lewis Carroll (referred to above) was actually the pen name used by a mathematician called Charles Dodgson who wrote such masterpieces as Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as an alternative pastime; but almost nobody remembers his mathematical legacy! I, too, am a mathematician, and while I must have given more than 500 lectures, this is the first time I have been asked to give a non-mathematical talk. All my life, I have been a research mathematician, writing papers and books, lecturing to students, guiding research work leading to Ph.D. theses, participating in conferences on such exciting themes as Operator Algebras and Ergodic Theory, etc.. So why am I committing this rash act of stepping out of my comfort zone, venturing into unchartered waters, and attempting to talk on something other than mathematics which is what I have been trained in for just about forty years now?

I think I can fairly safely describe myself as a moderately accomplished mathematician, having been elected Fellow of all three science academies in India, awarded the Bhatnagar Prize (considered the highest honour that our Government confers on one of its scientists), being invited to conferences all over the world, etc., etc; in short, I was one cocky guy with everything going for him. The story this talk is about started about 10 years ago - when I was visiting the beautiful Math Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, located on top of a hill with a breathtaking view of the bay below - and I noticed a little difficulty in all the necessary climbing and walking. Shortly after I returned to India, I gave a lecture at ISI, Kolkata, which was attended by a former colleague of mine, who had not heard me speak in some years. He had noticed some slurring in my speech, and diffidently suggested that I might want to seek the opinion of a neurologist. The reason I mentioned awards, globe-trotting, etc., is to drive home the point that things can change overnight.

I had one of of those ‘life-changing moments’ when I made an appointment to see Dr. Krishnamoorthy Srinivas, whom I had happened to hear giving a popular talk in my institute. I walked into his office, and I could tell that I was in the presence of someone special. Over time, I learnt how right that was. Just imagine, if you can:

  1. He does not charge you anything, and when you insist on paying something, he tells you the name of a charitable organisation to which a donation can be made, if you so wished;
  2. He spends most of his time attending to patients from the most rich and powerful to the most poor and underprivileged, at such places as the Voluntary Health Services in Taramani.
  3. He insists on your fixing up your appointments beforehand with him on the phone, and his punctuality ensures that if your appointment with him is for 11 am, you can safely arrange to make a subsequent appointment to meet somebody else at 12 even after allowing for 15 minutes’ travel time.
  4. He is one of only three Indians to have been offered an honorary membership by the American Neurological Association. As can be imagined, his list of honours will take a full hour to list. If interested, you can always ask Google!

You may well wonder if such a doctor indeed exists in today’s world!

After two years of various tests and MRI scans to eliminate other possibilities, he zeroed in on the diagnosis - multiple sclerosis. Google will tell you that this condition manifests itself in various forms, with the worst case scenario involving a steady deterioration of motor functions at the very least. Since then, I must have had at least ten MRI scans, and made periodic visits to the doctor, where I was always reassured by his calming assurances that among his patients, my condition was among the best.

Thus mine did not seem to be of the very virulent variety, but over the years, my ability to walk any non-trivial distance became increasingly suspect. I hobbled around with a stick for some years and even that was proving more and more taxing. Last year, the International Congress of Mathematicians (held once every four years, in different countries) came to India (to Hyderabad) for the first time ever. Having attended ICMs in Berkeley, Kyoto, Berlin and Beijing, I was not going to miss the chance of playing host on my home turf to many friends from outside India.

That was when I decided - my next life-altering decision - to go to Callidai Motor Works and get a motorised wheel-chair. I had met Bhargav Sundaram, the owner of this company on an earlier social occasion, and it was difficult to not come under the spell of his electric optimism that with such supporting devices, one could resume a perfectly normal life. And his workshop was a revelation - being manned only by people with some manner of disability, moving around on an assortment of wheels, all working in great camaraderie and with brisk efficiency.

I did take the wheel-chair to the ICM in Hyderabad, and had an absolute ball, whizzing around on it. Back in Chennai, I find it most convenient to leave it at my institute most of the time, as it is not so convenient to use it in my apartment house or even in my own apartment. That is when I started bullying the Director of my institute - a very supportive, sympathetic, and immensely accomplished number theorist - into doing something about making as much as possible of the institute accessible to my wheel-chair. (The drive-ways into the porches of two buildings were re-fashioned, with the steps at the entrances to the buildings removed, and the drive sloping up gracefully from the road to the level of the floor of the ground floor, so the wheel-chair could just drive in and out of the buildings!) The administrators of my institute had the intelligence to realise that by providing a congenial atmosphere for people like me, they were making a hugely worthwhile investment for the future, and not merely ‘taking pity on me’ or being socially responsible.

That was also when I realised that I had been inordinately fortunate, in so many ways: for one, I had such a supportive administration, which facilitated my continuing to be a productive and useful member of the institute. (I now play the role of an unofficial ‘head of the math group there.) On the other hand, just about any building outside my institute is, more often than not, very inaccessible to the disabled. I wanted to do something about this sorry state of inaccessibility that we were surrounded by. So I fixed up to meet and talk to an old friend of mine called Hema who had been affected by polio even as a little girl, and has, over the past sixty-odd-years, built a fantastic organisation called the Association for People with Disabilities. (You should ask Google to educate you about APD if you are not familiar with the organisation or how it was started.) Hema certainly did something about problems faced by the disabled, and I went to her like a student seeking a guru’s guidance. After we had spoken for a while, she asked me to try and write so people became aware of the problems faced by people like us. (By the way, Google can never provide what her wisdom can! It can only drown you in a flood of information, not distinguishing the garbage from the pearls.)

Some time before that, I had been to a meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, which had been organised at what must surely rank as the most disabled-unfriendly building I have ever seen. So I wrote a short piece called Stairway to Heaven or ..., referring to the number of steps you had to navigate to go anywhere in that masterpiece of sadism; that piece subsequently appeared in Current Science, published ironically by the same Indian Academy of Sciences! - but only after some of my more vitriolic phrases (such as ‘masterpiece in sadism’) had been edited out. I used that piece and some other samples of what I had in mind to convince a sympathetic editor of the Times of India to give me a column, which I called Different Strokes for Different Folks, where I could air my views to periodically remind people of the special needs of the differently abled. This editor, Jaideep Bose, has been so supportive as to give my column a prominent spot on the top right corner of the Op-Ed page opposite the Editorials page, marked by a striking banner in red, and appearing every other Saturday. In fact, there was some mix-up in communication, resulting in my second piece appearing only three Saturdays after the first one. When I wrote to Jaideep demanding an explanation, he shouldered the blame for not having reminded somebody that it needed to be done. Although this was almost definitely that junior editor’s mistake, Jaideep came through a winner in my eyes: a good leader does not blame his underlings for minor goofs!

So now I have a ‘second career’ and I find myself reinvigorated, with a new purpose in life. It was almost as if this second career was fated. My closest friend, whom I first befriended more than 40 years ago, in my first year of college, was blind. Venky was sighted until about the age of 11, when something to do with how his retina was growing ‘turned off the lights on him’. I have seen his fierce independence and aversion to ‘sympathy and commiseration’, and have become a more sensitive and better human being for it. He has devoted his entire life to empowering the disabled all over India and the world by helping them identify their problems as well as working out possible solutions, which he would try to facilitate by using the contacts he had built over a life of working in this area. I still remember my first meeting with him : we were talking after 8.15 pm in his room in the hostel (Room No. 42, Bishop Heber Hall, MCC, Tambaram). Now 8.15 was the time of the ‘roll-call’, after which you were supposed to be in your room studying. We thought the ‘roll call’ was over, when the warden of the hostel walked in and wanted to know what we thought we were doing. Quick as a flash, Venky tells him that he was informing the new secretary of the college’s ‘Students Service for the Blind’ of things needing to be done. I did not have a choice of refusing even if I had wanted to! My job turned out to be organising enough readers for the six blind students we had in our college then, as well as working out a schedule so that each blind student had readers for at least two hours a day at times mutually acceptable to reader and read. I myself read quite a few hours; and Venky was smart enough to directly talk to and get the most attractive girls in college to read to him!

Back to my column: in addition to trying to write something relevant every two weeks, I have been trying to also apply pressure on my academic contacts to force their institutes to build the odd ramp that could make all the difference. (I had written an impassioned plea (in my column) to the heads of our centres of higher learning to make their campuses models of road culture and accessibility, thereby creating models for the rest of India to follow.) It is funny how many of the better funded and supposedly top-drawer research institutes exhibit a surprising amount of inertia. If at all their administrative bosses (Directors) responded, they were quick to say that their institution is extremely sensitive and sympathetic (again that word!) and is taking all possible steps to improve the situation; while the slightest bit of probing shows that there are no elevators to access the higher floors! Very often, I find that I have better results when I write a personal mail to a friend whose general sense of values I have regard for. The Vice Chancellor of the University of Hyderabad was one such friend, Ram Ramaswamy, whose response to my entreaties have far exceeded my best hopes. A visit to the entry titled ‘Different Inabilities’ in his blog will tell you what I mean - as well as give a peep into the accessible functioning style of an effective leader. Bottom line: a lot needs to be done, and there are good people if only one looks for them.

It’s funny how I remind myself of my father, who had lived the first sixty years of his life worrying about what were then called ‘personnel matters’ and now fall under the umbrella of ‘manpower planning’. When he retired from that, he started a completely new second life, as a highly respected correspondent of the school Vidya Mandir in Mylapore, Chennai, where he had a long innings of almost 20 years. I still find acquaintances of mine who are alumni of that school look at me with heightened respect when they discover my father was the V.S. Shankar - and this included the owner of the wheel-chair company Callidai that I mentioned earlier. I will be 60 in April, and am just getting started on my second career; but am already gratified to receive periodic emails thanking me for embarking on my self-appointed crusade. My favourite one starts with:

I’ve been reading your insightful articles in the Times Of India and after reading each one I went...aaah!!!

This was from one who described herself as having had polio as a kid and had used crutches and a brace on her right leg all her life; and she ends her mail with

Thanks for taking the cause of people like you by convincing TOI to let you have your say. Let’s hope that our voice is heard through your writing and more sensitivity is shown.

In response to the mandate given to me by Jaya, let me just point to the illuminating examples of Lewis Carroll, Dr. Srinivas, my father, Venky, Hema, Bhargav Sundaram, ... and deduce that investing in people will always earn the richest dividends. As a friend of mine said, employing disabled people is a win-win situation: you invariably get people with a very good work ethic, whose loyalty to your organisation would be far greater than that of one for whom employability is not a big problem; and as a bonus, you do your bit for a socially important cause.

Let me conclude by saying:

At the end of the day, when your life is evaluated - by reasonable people here as well as by the almost surely more critical judges at the Pearly Gates - touching even one life as suggested by the email quoted above - or more lives, if you are lucky - should far outweigh
most things you do. Surely a marketing director at my age would have wasted her life if she had nothing to to show for her life other than having convinced a large number of people to eat one brand of breakfast cereal rather than another. I do not have to preach such self-evident truths to you who are fortunate to work in the enlightened environment of an organisation which appreciates the need for fostering socially relevant programmes or considers it worthwhile to make you sit and listen to sermons by people like me. I would like to leave you with two thoughts: people like me do not need sympathy; we need future leaders like you to create an inclusive environment that is conducive to our leading independent and productive lives with dignity.

Thank you!

Monday, 23 January 2012

We Talk a Good Game!

Times of India, October 29, 2011

Can you think of one common answer for the following three questions? 

(a) do you want the closest thing to Ripley's Believe It or Not? 
(b) do you want to counter any negative remarks about the wisdom of our lawmakers? 
(c) do you want to have a good cry?

Answer: Take a look at The Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995. Here is an assorted bag of of statements from this document, each of which can simultaneously (a) make you wonder what country is being spoken about, (b) want to shake the hand of the person who had the foresight to formulate the Act, and (c) want to bawl your guts out in despair.

In this document, referred to as the PWD Act, there is a section called `Non-Discrimination' where you will find the following classic statements:
Establishments in the transport sector shall, within the limits of their economic capacity and development for the benefit of persons with disabilities, take special measures to:

  1. adapt rail compartments, buses, vessels and aircrafts in such a way as to permit easy access to such persons;
  2. adapt toilets in rail compartments, vessels, aircrafts and waiting rooms in such a way as to permit the wheel chair users to use them conveniently.

The appropriate Governments and the local authorities shall, within the limits of their economic capacity and development, provide for:

  1. installation of auditory signals at red lights in the public roads for the benefit of persons with visual handicap;
  2. causing curb cuts and slopes to be made in pavements for the easy access of wheel chair users;
  3. engraving on the surface of the zebra crossing for the blind or for persons with low vision;
  4. engraving on the edges of railway platforms for the blind or for persons with low vision;
  5. devising appropriate symbols of disability;
  6. warning signals at appropriate places.

The appropriate Governments and the local authorities shall, within the limits of their economic capacity and development, provide for:

  1. ramps in public building;
  2. adaptation of toilets for wheel chair users;
  3. braille symbols and auditory signals in elevators or lifts;
  4. ramps in hospitals, primary health centres and other medical care and rehabilitation institutions.'

Maybe the wisdom of the lawmaker is in the judicious insertion of the catch-all phrase within the limits of their economic capacity and development in each of the above paragraphs thereby leaving a loophole for the non-enforcers of this 16 year-old legal document.

If you want more instances, you may also care to look at the so-called National Policy for Persons with Disabilities, where it is further stated (under the title `Responsibility for Implementation') that:

The Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment will be the nodal Ministry to coordinate all matters relating to the implementation of the Policy.

Is there any accountability for non-implementation by the body that has clearly been identified as being responsible for that implementation which did not take place? In this same document, you will also see the following bold (rash?) assertion:

It will be ensured that every child with disability has access to appropriate pre-school, primary and secondary level education by 2020.

It says further down that document that The Ministry of Human Resource Development will be the nodal Ministry to coordinate all matters relating to the education of persons with disabilities.

As the title of Richard Feynman's non-technical book says:
Surely you're joking Mr. ...

A Breath of Fresh Air

Times of India, October 24, 2011

This column has periodically been putting out a series of complaints on various issues. I thought it was about time I provided relief from a chain of negative articles. I want to talk about some thing refreshing and ironically located within 100 metres of OMR in Chennai which was the butt of my critical piece in this column some time ago. Let me lead up to the happy ending... 

A few years ago, I had been invited to tea by a lady who had been Principal of the primary school where I had studied more than half a century ago. She is still as inspiring and delightful a conversationalist as ever. She happens to be married to a mathematician who once headed the Ramanujan Institute of Mathematics at Madras University. He has been confined to a wheelchair for probably decades now. 

Also at tea that day were a charming couple who, besides being alumni of the same school, as I learnt during the course of the evening, ran an outfit called Callidai Motor Works, whose website describes their work so accurately as `having embraced what is now popularly called Social Entrepreneurship, with the motto "Make Physically Challenged Persons more mobile inside and outside the house"!' I was to see their website and understand these words quite a bit later. What did linger in my mind from that evening was Professor Bhanumurthy's happily jocular remark that it was they who had given him his BMW (Bhanu Murthy's Wheels) - which had been fitted with assorted little gadgets meeting personalised needs and making a qualitative difference to the quality of his daily life.

At that time, my neurological problem was still at a somewhat preliminary stage and I could hobble around with my stick. Later, when things got a little more difficult, I remembered the visiting card which I had judiciously saved from that evening. I went to the web-site of Callidai, and that was probably the most intelligent and heart-warming action I was to take in quite a while. I called up Mr. Bhargav Sundaram (the male in the charming couple alluded
to above) and made a date to see him with a view to finding out about his wheelchairs. (I had been wistfully dreaming, for a while, about owning a motorised wheelchair. The one I had seen had been purchased by its user somewhere in America at corresponding dollar prices which had seemed astronomical when converted to rupees.) 

Little did I know what awaited me at Callidai. To start with, almost like a good omen - I learnt that their workshop was located just a couple of kilometres from my place of work. When I went to this workshop, they did have a sample available for me to try out. I sat in it, turned on the joy stick and I knew I was hooked. It was miraculously simple in design and easy to operate. I was told that they would build one to my specifications - the version with a lithium dry battery that one was supposed to be allowed to transport in airplanes, which was lighter, and which I could have for the very reasonable Rs. 85,000 - and let me have it in a couple of weeks.

The point of this story is not my love a air with my wheel-chair, but the absolutely amazing feeling of happiness one had when coming out of that factory/workshop. The work-force is almost completely restricted to people who are challenged in some way, but mostly mobility challenged. I have had to take my chair in there a few times to try and have some minor amendments made and had the pleasure of sitting there for a few hours while my job got done. It was utterly heart-warming to see a bunch of people go around (in spite of their various physical problems, on various forms of mobile equipment) efficiently working, almost always to the background of friendly camaraderie of jocular teasing. Never once did one sense a feeling of self-pity that disability is attended by only too often.

There have been two occasions when my wheelchair `did not travel too well'. The first time, the wheels had got banged up and bent in transit in the hold of the plane. Another time, although I explained numerous times to the man at the Indian Airlines check-in counter that the lithium battery was not a safety hazard and was permitted by some private airlines I had 
flown in before, the IA security people had done such a hatchet job on the wheelchair that by the time I saw the chair again in Chennai airport, all the electrical connections to the battery had been manhandled so badly that there was no way the wheel chair could move on its own steam. On both occasions, I took the chair to Callidai where they worked on it cheerfully and returned something which was at least as good as new. (On the second occasion I found that the wires had been diligently yanked out of the battery!) I thanked my lucky stars that this
fiasco had occurred in Chennai at the end of my travel, unlike the nightmarish experience of poor ex-army-pilot (constrained for some years now to use a wheelchair because of an accident he had been involved in) who discovered on arrival in Singapore that Air India
could not locate the wheelchair he had checked in and had a horrific subsequent stay in a foreign land without his means of locomotion!

For the umpteenth time, I thanked the good Lord for giving us Bhargav Sundaram, his wife Priya and their Callidai!