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SUNDAY, APRIL 1, 2007 Uma Uma Gharri is one of my students. Intelligent, sharp as a tack--thoughtful, kind, and considerate to boot. She’s also highly articulate and skilled in computer use, among the most skilled of the 51 students in my M.Ed class. She'd be quite a snag for a would-be suitor. Well, yesterday, before class started, she handed me an invitation to her wedding. She's to be married in four days' time! Uma and I get along pretty well. I was surprised she hadn't told me before this that she was so soon to be married. I asked her when it was that she first found out. "About ten days ago," she said. "Did you know the man before the announcement of your engagement?" "Oh yes," she said. "He's my cousin. My uncle’s son." Not necessarily a first cousin, I hasten to add; maybe second or third cousin. I don’t know. As in Africa, in India the term “cousin” and “uncle” can have various interpretations. My students often call me “uncle,” for example, and my wife, Marilyn, is “Auntie.” The titles are used out of respect and are a polite term of endearment.


However, her fiancé may well be her first cousin. This is not that unusual in South India, as I am beginning to find out. In North and Central India, marriage between cousins is generally frowned upon. The bridal net is cast wide, beyond the village, even beyond the town, in order to reduce the trace of any consanguineal ties. But in Dravidian South India, marriage between cousins, especially cross-cousins, is encouraged. It’s complicated, but the Encyclopaedia Brittanica defines cross-cousins thus: “Cross-cousin, the child of one’s mother’s brother or father’s sister. Scholars of kinship distinguish the different types of first cousin as follows: the children of a father’s siblings are patrilateral cousins, and those of a mother’s siblings are matrilateral cousins; the children of a mother’s sister or of a father’s brother are parallel cousins (sometimes called ortho-cousins); and the children of a father’s sister or of a mother’s brother are crosscousins.” (emphasis added) So Uma may well be marrying her mother’s brother’s (matrilateral) son—that is to say her maternal uncle’s son. The parents of Uma and her beau put their heads together and arranged for this marriage to take place. I don’t know how much choice Uma or her husband had in the matter. I didn’t think it my place to ask. For all I know, the marriage may have been arranged by the parents a long time ago. I’m good friends with another Indian family where both the parents are college professors. They have a daughter studying at a university who is as yet unmarried. In the course of conversation one day, I asked the father if they (he and his wife) would choose the husband for their daughter. “Yes,” he said, and I left it at that. It seemed impolite to probe further. I wanted to ask if his daughter would have any say in the matter. I like to think she would. In South India, as elsewhere in the world, all kinds of considerations factor into the family selection of marriage partners for the children. Love, as in romantic love, is not usually one of them. Love is expected to come later--maybe. But Uma was bubbling with excitement when she gave me the invitation. She was obviously happy as a clam at high water. She was passing invitations around to several of her classmates, too. Uma is about to become the wife of a man who will whisk her away to Kuwait, in the Middle East, where he works as an accountant. Together they’ll make a fortune and a family and live happily ever after. More and more brides in India are procured by Indian men who are already working in other parts of the world. There are some 18 million Indians living in diaspora. Even in the short time I 155

have been in India, I have already attended the weddings of three couples where the husband came back to India for the wedding ceremony and then, a few weeks later, took his wife away with him back to America, or to England—or to Kuwait. If it’s customary in India for marriages to be arranged, what’s the harm in that? The divorce rate in India is about 1-2%. In the USA and UK it’s over 50%. They’re even beginning to wonder, in the UK, if it’s worth getting married at all. Of course, one of the reasons marriage in India is such an enduring institution is because social and religious taboos make it generally very hard to break the bond. Marriage in India still is almost always a contract between families, not between the husband and his bride. So the ties that bind the couple are much more intricate than a simple relationship of man and wife. Which system works best? You decide. Judging by appearances, I would say that marriage in India is as successful as in any other parts of the world, if success is to be measured in terms of providing a stable environment for offspring to be nurtured and supported into adulthood. I have still much to learn about India, but I do love the people. They have something very special about the way they behave towards each other and towards me. Indeed, I can say unequivocally that I have lost my heart to India and its people, I really have. My father was born in Burma in 1909, when it was still part of the British Raj, and he always loved India. If I were not already happily married in America, I might seriously consider staying in India and settling down, whether with a bride of my own choice or with one chosen for me. I have always believed that where there is good will on the part of husband and wife, any relationship can work. I was regrettably unable to attend Uma’s wedding, but I did arrange with one of my students, her classmate, to talk with her during the wedding ceremony when all the guests go up on stage to greet the bride and groom. My student called me on her mobile phone when her turn came to cast rice on the heads of the newly married couple. The connection made, she handed her phone to Uma so that I could give her my blessing and wish her every happiness in the years ahead. I’m writing now in 2017—10 years later. Uma is the mother of two children. Her husband, Venkatesh, still works in Kuwait and supports his family from there while Uma and the children live with her husband’s mother in India. We all stay in touch with frequent emails back and forth.


WEDNESDAY, APRIL 4, 2007 Suma Yesterday evening, April 3rd, I was invited to the birthday party of authoress M. Suma Mandalapu. That’s Suma at left. I first heard about Suma when her mother, Dr. Rama Devi, a colleague of mine in the School of Education at SPMVV Women’s University, gave me a book Suma had written and which had just been published by the printing press of the school she attends. The book is titled “The Wings of Dreams,” and it is the story of a young girl’s Harry Potter-esque adventures in a fantastic realm of make-believe. Dr. Rama Devi asked me if I would like to read the book and comment on it. I readily agreed to do so. As of yesterday (April 3, 2007), Suma is just 15 years old, but her age belies her maturity. Over the phone, prior to my meeting her in person, she came across as very much an adult in her tone of voice and use of language. I would never have guessed that she was yet only 14. When she came to the guest house with her father to bring me to her home for the birthday party, I didn’t recognize her from her picture (which is on the cover of her book) and wondered who was visiting me unannounced. I was expecting a young girl, after all, and this lady looked like she could well have been the gentleman’s wife. When Suma introduced herself, I was mildly flabbergasted. She is a graceful, eloquent, refined young woman who, in her appearance and demeanor, would not have looked out of place amongst my Masters of Education students at the university. I enjoyed reading her book. Since I’d been invited to comment on it, I read it with a teacher’s editing pen in hand. It quickly was apparent to me that Suma’s work had not benefited from an editor’s touch before her book was published. I learned in conversation with her during the birthday party that she had hand-written the manuscript in a note book, then had the manuscript transcribed onto the computer by someone else, and the electronic file was then passed directly to the publisher for publication, without further amendment or ado.


I could have “read” her book, as others had done, and ignored all the errors. But I thought it important, for Suma’s sake, to give her a critical evaluation. So, as my wife, Marilyn, did for years with her students’ papers (and with mine, too), I identified every mistake I came across. I marked up oodles of mechanical errors, just as the editors of my own published books have marked up my work over the years. I loved the story, and the writing style was reasonably good, though I had one question when I was finished reading the book: “Where is the rest? The story sort of peters out at the end.” Well, Suma is aware of this and is already writing the continuing saga of young Felishia Adornis Yaflowne, affectionately known as Fay, and that of the cast of characters who progress through the first part of her tale. I'm looking forward to reading more of Fay’s further adventures, and blossoming relationship with Levion, her magical, winged friend. Suma has a computer at home, so I asked her why she hadn’t used it to prepare the manuscript for the publisher. It would have allowed her to edit her own work. Most important of all, the computer would have enabled her to present the publisher with an electronic version of the manuscript, thus eliminating the error-prone process of transcription by a typist who may or may not have had much familiarity with the English language. When I asked her why she hadn’t used the computer, Suma just shrugged her shoulders and told me it hadn’t really occurred to her to do so. She much prefers to do her writing pen in hand, as does my wife, rather than typing directly into a computer, as I generally do. My habit, if you can call it that, is to use pen and paper to jot down ideas when they occur to me so that I don’t lose them. But otherwise I like to compose at the computer, where my fingers fly over the keyboard, as they are doing now. I can type almost as fast as I can think. Maybe Suma will “graduate” to using the computer for composition. Right now, there is only one computer in her house and it is in her mother and father’s bedroom. So, access to it is limited, especially since her brother, Shankar, enjoys video games as much as the next teenager in town! Suma does, however, have the electronic version of the manuscript on a CD-R, so she’ll easily be able to update it based on all my edits, prior to adding the sequel to the story. Along the way, she’ll no doubt tweak things here and there as new ideas, insights, and intrigues come to mind. A work of art is never “finished,” is it? Whether it be painting, or music composition, or architecture, fiction or non-fiction, poetry or prose, it reaches a stage where the creator feels compelled to let it go, and only then does it become, so to speak, etched in stone. Some artists agonize so over their work that they fail to let it go, convinced that it’s not good enough, not worthy of bearing their signature. It is not unusual at all for writers, sometimes to their editor’s eternal frustration, to revise their books between printing runs when given the opportunity to 158

do so. I’m looking forward to reading the next edition of Suma’s book. “Every character in ‘The Wings of Dreams’ reflects a part of her personality, as she told me in our conversation during the rooftop gathering of family and friends to celebrate her 15th birthday. So it will be fun to find out more. Meanwhile, you’ll no doubt be alarmed to know that I was invited to sing at the party! “No way!” I said. “Even if I could sing, I don’t know the words to any songs.” But then I thought: “Wait a minute. I do know the words to one song.” And I stood up and got everyone to join me in singing “Happy birthday to you!”


THURSDAY, APRIL 5, 2007 The Don Benny School: An amazing place Yesterday afternoon, at around 3:30 pm, I was met at the university guest house by Mrs. Ivy Katherine. Ivy Katherine, who is the principal of the Don Benny Public School, had heard that I was in town and invited me to pay them a visit. We climbed into a taxi and the driver whisked us off to the school compound a couple of miles outside of Tirupati, in what is still a relatively rural area. The school—actually a private school—is the dream-child of Ivy Katherine and her husband, Ramesh, who bought the land on which it stands 12 years ago. Over the ensuing time, they have developed it into the awesome, ashram-like place it is today. At least a couple of the buildings have been donated by American friends who, like me, had visited the school in the past. No doubt Ivy Katherine had hopes that I would make a contribution, too, which I was very happy to do, though the amount I gave was nowhere near enough to endow a building! The Don Benny Public School is a school for children from kindergarten through the age of 14-15. Students who graduate at that age go on to college (a prep school) for two years, prior to going up to university. All classes are taught in English. Class sizes are small (max 25 students) compared to most other schools in India, where class size is normally anywhere from 160

40 to 50 students. But the best thing about this school is its location, in the middle of nowhere, yet close enough to the town of Tirupati to have a steady catchment of students. From the moment I arrived I was captivated by the serenity of the place. The 200 or so students, along with the faculty, were all assembled and seated in an open area under the trees, where they waited quietly while Ivy Katherine and Ramesh took me on a tour of the establishment. Fortunately, there was a cameraman on hand to take pictures, so I gave him my camera and told him to shoot away whenever he pleased. The photos serve to remind me of the impressive ambiance of the school, situated as it is amongst the surrounding hills of the Eastern Ghats. Mrs. Ivy Katherine, soon to be Dr. Ivy Katherine after she has defended her dissertation, is Christian. Her husband, Ramesh, is Muslim. He is a Phys Ed teacher at a college about 50 miles away, but the Don Benny School is as much a realization of his dream as it is of Ivy Katherine’s. He manages the physical plant and supervises all the construction, which has been ongoing over the past 12 years. He also coaches the sports teams and I watched him later in the evening playing soccer with some of the boys. For a 49 year old, he’s remarkably fit, agile, and full of energy in a very quiet, unassuming, really beautiful sort of a way. Together, Ivy Katherine and Ramesh have created what I consider to be a model school where the children are able to grow up as part of a close-knit family in an environment where homespun, simple, unalloyed values can be nurtured and acquired. To see all the children sitting around me, I couldn’t help but think that I was in a kind of time warp, as though I were stepping back 50 years or more to a time and place where innocence had not yet been shattered by modern mass communications. 161

My visit begged all those questions I’ve raised earlier about the problems with Indian Primary education. The Don Benny School is clearly an exception to the rule. But it is private, and that’s what makes all the difference. I was introduced to the students by Ivy Katherine and one after another they came up and presented me with garlands and bouquets to welcome me to the school. Then I gave a little speech. I had a lot of fun, and the children seemed to enjoy it, too. Afterwards we had a photo shoot including pictures taken with the teachers and with the different age groups of students. The students were then dismissed for the day. Later I sat down with Ivy Katherine and her daughter, Goldie, and we chatted for about an hour while watching Ramesh and some of the students playing soccer. After that we went indoors (Ivy Katherine and the family live in a house on the school grounds), and I watched a movie with Goldie while Ivy prepared dinner. Dinner was delicious, as usual. As per Indian custom (Ramesh was still outdoors playing soccer), I ate alone, served by my hostess, Ivy Katherine. I love South Indian cuisine and Ivy Katherine seemed to know all of my favorite dishes. Around 9:00 pm, I said my farewells and, with a sense of sincere admiration for the work that Ivy and Ramesh were doing, and with a wistful sigh of inner contentment and peace, I settled 162

onto the back of Ramesh’s motorbike for the bumpy, backstreet, pothole-ridden ride home. What an amazing country this India is.


FRIDAY, APRIL 6, 2007 Sigh... My butterflies are gone. Do you remember them? They used to greet me every morning when I took a shortcut through the bush on campus on my way to the Humanities building at SPMVV. My butterflies are gone, their habitat scorched to nothing by fire set to clear the undergrowth. I understand the need to clear the thick, scraggly bush; it stimulates and provides nutrients to fresh growth, including, most importantly, amongst the trees that occupy the space. But it’s a shame my butterflies have had to flutter off to find another place to enjoy their short span of life. When I saw what had happened this morning, I couldn’t help but muse on what we humans do to the planet in our pursuit of often-misguided pleasure and profit. Each one of us looks for space to plant our feet, space to live, space to grow, space to support our families and friends. But how much space do we need? Well, I guess that depends on how much we can afford. Rich people like to have lots of it; poor people are lucky to have any space at all, other than that in which they find themselves at any point in time. Rich people surround themselves with luxurious spaces that poor people can only dream about. What are we members of the genus Homo sapiens going to do when everyone is “rich?” What do we do when everyone has the wealth to buy themselves a more-or-less sizeable piece of the planet’s pie? What do we do when billions of Chinese and Indians and South Americans and South East Asians and Africans are all able to afford houses and cars and shopping malls and six lane highways, just like the Americans and the Europeans and other “rich” folks around the world? What do we do when everyone wants the same space as little old me? How many people can 164

the planet sustain when each person has the kind of impact (“carbon footprint”) on the planet that I do? In Pennsylvania, USA, my wife and I have a house on two thirds of an acre of land. We could afford to have a lot more, but we don’t think we need it. We have all modern conveniences in the house. We have five—count them—FIVE TVs, for heaven’s sake! We have five mobile phones. We only use two of them in America, but I bought two others when I was in India, and another we keep for when we visit England. Computers? We’ve owned ten to-date at one time or another, six of which are now obsolete and we’ve either given them away to someone who couldn’t afford a new one, or they’re taking up space in a landfill somewhere or other. Along with our son, we have three cars which consume between them about 2,000 gallons of gas (petrol) a year. Local, State and Federal governments have very kindly carved huge swaths of tarmac through what was once virgin countryside, cutting down trees, destroying habitat, and in the process driving no doubt terrified wild life into smaller and smaller corners of what’s left of these United States of America. Many species have been driven into extinction. Many more become extinct every day—just for us. David Quammen, a sociobiologist graduate of Yale and Oxford universities, explained the impact of this in his beautiful book “The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions.” "Let's start indoors,” Quammen writes. “Let's start by imagining a fine Persian carpet and a hunting knife. The carpet is twelve feet by eighteen, say. That gives us 216 square feet of continuous woven material. Is the knife razor sharp? If not, we hone it. We set about cutting the carpet into thirty-six equal pieces, total them up--and find that, lo, there's still nearly 216 square feet of recognizably carpet-like stuff. But what does it amount to? Have we got thirty-six nice Persian throw rugs? No. All we're left with is three dozen ragged fragments, each one worthless and commencing to come apart." What a frightening analogy for what we humans are doing to Planet Earth! We're inexorably dividing it up into smaller and smaller pieces, smaller and smaller habitats, squeezing out the larger species—not including ourselves, of course. All large wild animal species have dwindled to the point now where they are endangered, close to extinction in many cases. They can only survive in places that have been set aside for them, where they are protected from human predators and where they can still find enough food to survive on their own. Even there, in national parks and other nature preserves around the world, they are threatened by poachers. Naturally enough, large animal species need a larger space to survive than smaller species, and we're taking it away from them. We're getting to the point where the larger species can survive only in zoos. 165

There seems to be no way of stopping it, no end to the steady depletion and destruction of this our earthly domain. I sometimes think that we humans are a kind of cancer. We invade our own place, our own space, our own beautiful earth, slowly and inexorably overwhelming it, till it’s incapable of supporting any more than a relatively tiny slice of surviving, non-human life. Can human existence itself survive such a catastrophe? Am I the only one who feels this way? Maybe the best thing that could happen to the planet is that we just go ahead and render it uninhabitable even for us, like a bush fire that destroys most everything in its path--except for the life that survives to live another day. Maybe that’s the best thing that could happen, like the massive asteroid that is supposed to have finished off the dinosaurs. I hope my butterflies are still there after we're all dead and gone.


SATURDAY, APRIL 7, 2007 Rubbish! Based on my albeit limited experience, the cleanest places in India appear, in general, to be the interiors of private homes, the campuses of corporations, colleges and universities, and transportation hubs such as railway stations and airports. Public places in between—sidewalks and the periphery of streets with or without sidewalks, waterways, beaches, railroad tracks, and so forth—are polluted with non-biodegradable detritus of all kinds. This is not to say that India is exceptional in this regard. Poverty, inequality and government failure are endemic in many countries around the world. Exceptional countries—those where a culture of civic cleanliness has been imposed upon, and inculcated in, the citizenry—are in the minority. A culture of civic cleanliness is not innate, after all. It must, in effect, be imposed by litter laws that have teeth, combined with ubiquitous (and expensive) garbage collection and disposal systems that are paid for by taxation and that actually work. Of course, the larger (more populous) a town or city, the more of a challenge it is to maintain a culture of civic cleanliness. Size = Complexity—a large population, like a large class at school, is obviously going to be more difficult to manage than a smaller one.

As population in general explodes worldwide, we can thus expect the problems posed by pollution—air pollution, water pollution, land pollution—to proliferate. The picture above shows how the world's oceans, for example, are loaded with plastic trash in particular, which degrades and sinks, or floats and gets caught up in any one of several whirlpool gyres that are 167

created by worldwide ocean currents. If the trash escapes the gyres, it drifts onto the beaches at places like Turneffe Atoll in Belize. The trash washes into the oceans from the lakes, rivers and streams along which the vast majority of the world’s people live. 90% of world population lives within 10 kilometers of surface freshwater, including a growing population living close to freshwater outlets, such as estuaries and so forth, on the coast. 1 Turneffe Atoll, Belize, looks beautiful (at left) as seen from a distance. Close up (at right) it’s a garbage heap. Everyone seems to assume that someone else will clean up the filth they leave behind. Either that, or people have just given up hope that the area outside dwellings is capable of being cleared at all. The roads themselves, as you might expect, are swept clean by the stream of passing traffic. In the course of conversation with a couple of Indian friends, when I wondered about this ubiquitous mess of human pullution, they said that some cities had contracted with companies to clean up the mess, but the companies (local Indian companies) were fired when they failed to make a dent in the problem. The “real problem,” no doubt, is corruption. The contracted companies bribe the municipal authorities to look the other way. This litter is typical, and nothing compared to what you’ll see in the inner cities.

When I lived in Saudi Arabia, the contracted companies were always foreign cleaning contractors, from countries such as the Phillippines or Yemen. The contractors didn’t get paid unless they got the job done. Bribes still would change hands, but not as payment for failure to fulfill a contract. The bribe would be to get the contract in the first place. The job got done, or else, and it made all the difference. Saudi streets were clean. 1

How Close Do We Live to Water? A Global Analysis of Population Distance to Freshwater Bodies. Matti Kummu, Hans de Moel, Philip J. Ward, and Olli Varis. Online at


I’ve watched highly-educated and perfectly delightful friends drop litter where they stand. I’ve seen them, without a care in the world, toss non-degradable odds and ends out of the windows of trains. When I asked one of my university colleagues what I should do with the remains of a coconut and the plastic straw I’d used to suck the juice out of it, she told me: “Throw it in the bush. There are no rules in India.” I’m ashamed to say I did as I was told. On a train journey, I also did as I was told when I wondered what to do with my empty plastic tea cup and the plastic wrapper that came with the food I’d eaten. Out the window it went. Perhaps, given time, I would become as environmentally insensitive and as ecologically careless as the next man. To be fair, I do know at least one colleague and friend, Dr. D. Jamuna who, like the Mahatma Ghandi, carries on a one-person crusade against the heedless tossing of trash. Interestingly enough, Ghandi, too, was appalled at the amount of municipal mess that Indians appeared to tolerate. In his ashrams he exercised an unquestioned authority over his followers, laying down strict rules that ensured meticulous attention to cleanliness. But Ghandi could only control his immediate circle of devotees. Throughout his life he was appalled at the general public’s high threshold of tolerance for filth. Countries such as India and China, the most populous nations in the world, are perhaps the most challenged by the problem of pollution. But most nations are experiencing population growth, which is per se likely to give rise to increasing human-caused pollution. The population of India at the time of Independence in 1947 was generally considered to be large at around 350 million. Today India’s population, at over 1.3 billion, is close to quadruple that of 1947. Interestingly enough, the growth rate of the population of India almost parallels that of the world as a whole. In 1943, world population stood at 2.3 billion; world population today (2017) is 7.6 billion, well more than triple that of 1943. China’s population in 1947 was 550 million; today it’s 1.4 billion. India’s population, however, is projected to exceed China’s by 2030. India will soon be the most populous nation on earth. While India is on a rising tide of economic expansion, this success has yet to percolate down to the masses of the poor, who are everywhere. The rural population—relatively poor and for the most part living off the land—is estimated at roughly one third the population of the country as a whole. That’s close to 400 million people, most of whom are lucky if they and their families get by on the equivalent of a US dollar a day. 169

Meanwhile, the towns and cities are crowded with poor people who have come in from the rural areas to find gainful employment in an ongoing process of urbanization based on the hope of sharing in the economic expansion. Construction and other Development Corporations lure the poor as labourers with the promise of paid work and a better life. They give the workers tarpaulins so they can construct makeshift shelters, such as those illustrated in the picture above. Whole families live in these shelters, and they are everywhere. I rode past these dwellings on the back of my friend, John’s, scooter when he was taking me to church. Whether living in rural or urban areas, families living on less than $2 a day might nonetheless have some kind of roof over their heads and are able to put food on the table. However, they almost certainly have no access to electricity, municipal sanitation, healthcare, or any other basic services and amenities. Access to digital communications technologies must be beyond their wildest dreams. But things are getting better. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (UN FAO): “There has been a slight fall in total numbers of hungry people in the world, down to 925 million in 2010 from over a billion in 2009. The percentage has dropped 170

from 18 percent to 16 percent and while this drop is welcome, the overall picture remains grim and the total numbers are unacceptably high.” Don’t get me wrong; the poor do not create the mess. Aside from anything else, the poor can’t afford the stuff that comes wrapped in plastic. The mess in India is mostly created by the growing masses of people in a burgeoning consumer society of about 300 million Indians who have yet to figure out what to do with all their non-biodegradable garbage. By contrast, and as already mentioned, in the so-called developed or wealthy countries of the world, municipal authorities pass laws with teeth in them, which result in nasty fines for littering. Municipal authorities in these countries also accept the responsibility of keeping the towns and cities clean. With monies generated by taxes (in places like Europe or the United States) or by oil revenue (in places like Dubai or Saudi Arabia), armies of workers are paid to swarm like ants over the highways and byways, cleaning up as they go along. The general citizenry, for the most part, aren’t aware this is going on except, on occasion, when the work force goes on strike. India still has to solve this problem. Somehow, and soon, the Indian government has to get the message across loud and clear: “We’re leading a better life now, folks, and that means more garbage! Yes, we have to think globally for the sake of the economy and wealth generation, but we must think locally when it comes to taking care of the mess in our own back yard.” In so many ways, India is one of the most democratic and caring nations I know. Government at all levels is very much aware of the problems the nation faces—it recognizes them, acknowledges them, and openly admits to them. Thanks to role models such as Mohandas Ghandi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Bhimrao Ambedkar, government is very close to the people and genuinely concerned that everything be done to work towards an equitable and just society. Cleaning up the streets should be one step on the road to success.


SUNDAY, APRIL 8, 2007 “Let me live…. Or let me die” Those are the words of Rama Chandra, seated in the wheelchair next to me at left. Rama Chandra is a teacher at Abhaya Kshethram, a school in Renigunta, Andhra Pradesh, about 20 miles from Tirupati. The school cares for elderly men and women who have been abandoned, as well as orphaned and abandoned children, many with severe disabilities. Rama Chandra, at the age of two, contracted polio and has been unable to use his legs ever since. He is a beautiful person. I’ve known him for only a few hours, long enough to see the goodness and strength of character in the man. Life is constantly thrusting opportunities our way that we can choose either to accept or ignore. One day, about two months ago, there was a knock at my university guest house door. In walked a lady named Thasleem Sultana, with her friend Madhu. I’d never met Thasleem before. She’s the lady on the right. Madhu is the gentleman on the left. Madhu and I had bumped into each other by chance at a home for the elderly and for younger folks with severe disabilities. The home is run by Mother Teresa nuns, and is located next to the Catholic church where I go every now and then for Sunday mass. On one side of the convent compound, the sisters and their aides take care of the elderly; on the other side, they take care of the disabled children. I wrote about them in my blog posted on January 1, 2007, New Year’s Day. 172

Madhu was at the convent with some of his Hindu friends, distributing food to the old folks. Ours was a chance acquaintance, like ships that pass in the night. I never expected to meet him again. But we’d had our photograph taken together and exchanged business cards, so anything was possible. A few days later, Madhu brought Thasleem to visit with me. She was about to defend her dissertation. Any day now she’d be Dr. Thasleem Sultana. Her area of expertise is Special Education; it’s been her passion all the way through her undergraduate and graduate studies. She’s driven to help people less fortunate than herself. “What do you recommend I do, now that I am about to complete my doctorate in Special Education?” she asked. “Why don’t you start a school for children with disabilities?” I replied. I expect she’d already had this option in mind, but maybe she needed to hear someone else say it to give her the courage to go ahead. Who knows? The fact is that the Abhaya Kshethram, Thasleem's school for the elderly and for children with disabilities, where I spent several hours this afternoon and evening, has now been open for about two months. Like the Don Benny Public School that I visited a few days ago, the Abhaya Kshethram is set in a beautiful, quietly peaceful place, out in the countryside, surrounded in the distance by the sunburned, fractured, gnarly hills of the Eastern Ghats, with lush green rice paddies nearby. The land on which the school stands is kissed, especially at dusk, by a steady, cooling breeze that softens the air as it sighs across the wide open plain. Paradise. But paradise with a purpose. These children need help. The challenge is well-nigh overwhelming if one dwells for too long on the huge scale of human suffering, of human disability. We all suffer, of course. Indeed, we all have disabilities of one kind or another. But there are so many for whom the suffering is extreme, whose disability is severe. I’ve already told you about my friend Yvonne, who was born with severe cerebral palsy. Rama Chandra has been without the use of his legs since the age of two. Even in the United States, with all our magnificent medical care and an endless supply of cash, there are 54 million people who are registered with a disability. That’s one person out of every five or six of the population. If your family doesn’t have someone in it with a disability, count yourself lucky. In India, the ratio must be at least equal to that of the United States. So I estimate there must be around 180 million people in India with a disability. But people like Rama Chandra don’t want our sympathy. They want our empathy; they want us to understand their plight. They don’t want us to feel for them; they want us to feel with them. Above all, they need our help. 173

Thasleem’s husband, Latif (on my left in the picture at left), who has supported her through school and who provided the seed funding for this venture of hers, was on hand for my visit. Latif and Thasleem are Muslim. Madhu (on my right) is Hindu. I am Christian. I invited Latif and Madhu to join me for a photograph. We held hands while we had our picture taken to capture the simple symbolism of our common brotherhood which reaches beyond the divisiveness of country and creed. It’s not about religion. It’s about human compassion and human love. Those are the eternal values that make a difference in this world of ours. People with a disability anywhere in the world, regardless of qualifications, have a terribly hard time finding meaningful, gainful employment. Before he got involved with Thasleem and Abhaya Kshethram, Rama Chandra wrote a story about his life that was published in a local newspaper. He gave it the title: “Let me live… Or let me die.” “Help me,” he pleaded. “I’m trying all I can to overcome my disability. I’ve put myself through school and qualified as a teacher. Someone, please give me a job. Let me use my skills. Let me do something useful, too—-or let me off this hellish merry-go-round we call life.” Rama Chandra's article caught Thasleem’s eye when she read it in the newspaper. She still remembered him when she came to start her school. She needed a teacher for her children with disabilities; Rama Chandra needed a teaching job. Perfect fit. 174

Thanks to Thasleem and Latif and the community they’ve gathered around them, Rama Chandra and his wife, who also works at the Abhaya Kshethram, now have a son and a lot to look forward to, as the beautiful smiles on their beautiful faces attest.


A waking dream part 9  
A waking dream part 9  

This is Part Nine of my memoir about my Fulbright Scholarship experience in India, 2006-2007