Wednesday, 28 March 2012

What Can We Do?

ToI, March 24, 2012

A few months ago, I had a novel and pleasant experience: I was requested by a representative of a corporate house to give a talk to their middle-management on corporate social responsibility. My dubious qualification for giving such a talk was what this representative had seen of my writing in this column. Having never before been asked to give a non-technical talk, I was tickled pink by this invitation and agreed to give this talk in spite of my reservations about stepping into the unchartered waters of public speaking (outside of mathematics!)

My talk was basically a re-cap of my  life in the past ten years, with an emphasis on how my life had been transformed, ever since I had been diagnosed with a neurological condition, from a happy-go, care-free and globe-trotting mathematician to one whose mobility had been reduced to whizzing around in a wheelchair - when I was fortunate enough to find myself in a barrier-free environment which permitted such `whizzing around'. I talked about some of the incidents leading up to my periodically writing pieces in this column. I also spoke about how I had been very fortunate to be working in a very supportive institution, and made some off-the-cuff remarks on how organisations  could help in attaining a more inclusive society.

My talk went off fairly well in that it seemed to have struck a responsive chord in many of the young managers I had addressed. I was asked quite a few questions  after the talk, the common denominator of many of them being: What do you think we, as an organisation, can do in helping to attain that elusive state of  `an inclusive society' which you speak longingly about? At that time, I could not come up with snappy answers to many questions; I found myself saying that I was myself new to the game, was just becoming increasingly aware of the problem, did not presume to have any answers, and was merely asking my audience to recognise the existence of the problem, be increasingly sensitive to it, and try to formulate workable answers in the context of their own organisations.

I shall now venture to suggest some answers to the italicised question above, the appropriateness of these different proposals being a function of how far down the road the concerned organisation has progressed towards the desired objective:
  • Make it a point to hire people with some manner of inability, preferably also in the human resources department; such a hire would help to: 

  1. identify the kinds of work which can be competently performed by employees with specific disabilities;
  2. design a testing procedure which could identify the better qualified/competent among the disabled applicants for jobs;
  3. put in place an efficient orientation programme to help a new employee learn the ropes quickly; it might not be a bad idea to assign a mentor to each fresh recruit with disability, The role of this mentor would be to basically `hold hands' until the difficult initial gestation period is past. She would make it her business to identify the several special difficulties encountered - physically and psychologically - in the work-place, and ensure that her ward is not unreasonably harrassed or victimised by such of her colleagues who might get their jollies by bullying defenceless people!
  • Identify a section of the organisation, which would normally attend to the periodic infrastructural needs, and be assigned the specific task of improving the state of accessibility of the work-place; here are some of the sort of things they could concern themselves with:
  1. conduct periodic `access audits' of the work-place;
  2. make sure that adequate `handicapped parking' spots are assigned and made available to people and in choice spots which would minimise the distance from their parking spot to their seat of work; and levy hefty penalties when these `plum spots' are poached by non-disabled people;
  3. install braille signs and auditory signals in elevators (for the visually impaired);
  4. have evening classes to educate your colleagues on sign-languages and braille so as to better communicate with your hearing and visually impaired colleagues; 
  5. create a barrier-free environment - meaning ramps wherever there are stairs, accessible toilets, etc. - if you have employees using wheelchairs;
  6. pro-actively think and act on how potential problems faced by people with different manners of disabilities can be minimised by thoughtful infra-structural design.
Let me conclude (as I did at the talk that led to this article) with something which cannot be repeated often enough:

What people like me need is not meaningless and cloying sympathy. What we do need, nay demand (in increasing order of greediness) are:
  • an opportunity to work and be productive members of society;
  • a work-place that is sensitive to our special needs, as against victimising us for having them; and
  • an inclusive environment that permits us to contribute our mite to society and lead fruitful lives with dignity.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

What got my goat - and made me pick up my pen

It all started with a meeting of the Indian Academy of Sciences that I attended a little more than a year ago in Bangalore. The amount of walking and climbing of stairs that was involved got my always suspect temper boiling. I cribbed about it to friends, but was convinced that this cribbing must reach a wider audience. So when I went next for a visit to Bangalore, I called up Pati, my old friend and comrade-in-arms in many a battle against oppressive conditions (such as protesting about an `institute of national importance' - where we used to work together - insisting on only serving vegetarian food in its canteen), and asked him if he he would come and count some steps for me if I promised to stand him beer and lunch. Pati gladly and sweetly agreed to come and pick me up from my mother-in-law's place and drive me to the venue of the meeting that had got my dander up. I introduced myself to the watchman as a Fellow of the Indian Academy of Sciences (which I am!) who wanted to check on the suitability of the auditorium for workshops I was planning. (Actually, `to reaffirm its unsuitability' is a more accurate description, if you want to split hairs.)

The watchman saw me hobbling out of Pati's car on my crutch, and solicitously asked me to mind the wet floors, and I answered truthfully that with the number of steps to be negotiated, he could be sure I would really be minding my step. As we went in, Pati, who had been primed to the real purpose of the visit, took off up and down innumerable steps, counting them all, and noting them all in his little note-book like a surveyor.

The upshot of all this sleuthing was an article I wrote called Stairway to Heaven or ... which I sent to many places including the Hindu and the Times of India, with none of them deigning to acknowledge my having written to them.

After a long time, I heard through the journalist friend of mine who had been playing middleman in my negotiations, that ToI `had evinced interest'. There was a further flurry of emails, all in one direction. After a few weeks of this, I sent a strongly worded email to the editor with whom I had been corresponding (almost unilaterally) saying I was not interested in having them publish my article, and that I would send it to the popular Science Journal Current Science - which was published, ironically, by the same Indian Academy of Sciences. The ToI editor sent back contrite emails but I was firm and the article did eventually appear in `Current Science' (see

Then things started looking up. Two days later, my letter was covered as a news item in the Bangalore edition of the Hindu (Sept. 12th) (see

On the other hand, the ToI editor had come across as a decent sort on those rare occasions when he found the time and inclination to write. I wrote to him that I had been hoping to use my `Stairway ...' article to convince some sympathetic editor to give me a venue to air my attempts at increasing public sensitivity to the special needs of the differently abled.

He asked me to send some samples of the sort of things I wanted to write. I sent him my first two pieces (`Questionnaire' and `Wheels within wheels') to be eventually carried by ToI, and he promptly wrote back leaving me the choice of name and periodicity of my column, and how many words my average piece would contain! I liked the title Different Strokes for Different Folks, I was unsure of being able to churn out something readable more than twice a month; and I was off and running.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

All-Encompassing Inclusion is possible: an example

Times of India, March 3, 2012

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.

Let me give an instance of the sort of cause he tries to raise public awareness in. This concerns the unholy practice in India of having an abundance of `dry latrines' in public spaces, typically like train stations. While in the west, a person is liable to be penalised  for not removing the poop deposited in public places by his pet dog, the idea behind our system of dry latrines is that people come and deposit their own poop at strategic intervals in a big bare room, to be scraped away and the floor cleaned before future use by subsequent poopers. And no prizes for guessing who has to shovel the s... : your local untouchable! To be sure, a law has been passed that this practice of `dry latrines' is illegal, but really, who gives a s...? The fact remains that many a little Indian girl, not yet ten years old, has to spend many hours a day cleaning the disgusting mess from dry latrines, only to be recompensed the royal equivalent of a few pennies for having surrendered what should have been a care-free and happy day, playing with friends, in the life of an innocent young lass in school, if only she had been fortunate enough to be born in a civiised society. Why her? Because of her crime of having been born into a family who will only be permitted to perform this task by our society - in this 21st century of i-pads, i-pods and mobile (not necessarily i-) phones!

He and his comrade Benjamin have been on this self-appointed crusade for years now. They periodically circulate emails to friends and acquaintances asking for further contributions for one thing or another: it may be for housing and educating some karmacharis (as the people doomed to shovel s... because of the origin of their birth are euphemistically called by our shamelessly hypocritical  society); or it may be for the upkeep of a hostel in Chennai or somewhere in Andhra. While Ben lives in the US, he and Shiva in India (and possibly others whom I am unaware of) have managed to raise donations from and social awareness in hordes of people. The list of of their regular donors reads almost like a roll-call of accomplished mathematicians from all over the world: you will find the Americans Mumford and Arveson, the non-resident Indians Raghavan Narasimhan and Gadde Anand Swarup, and many resident Indians like Alladi Sitaram, Gadadhar Misra and yours truly - and of course (Benjamin and) Shiva himself!

The man's social conscience is a revelation. Let me give just three instances:
  • 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 have known Shiva professionally for decades, but it is only in the past decade or so - after I moved to Chennai from Bangalore - that I have had occasion to witness his all-encompassing compassion. Ever since I have been writing my column, he has been a great motivator. It was he who asked me to write something about the visibility impaired, he who tried to help me get to meet Mohiuddin in my attempts to be able to write something on the travails of hearing impaired people. His latest email to me had this inspiring exhortation:

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.