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Sunday, September 30, 2012

The unexpected kindness and incredible rudeness of strangers

We've all experienced the feeling. You're at a point when you think there is just no hope for us Indians; there is just too much poverty, too big a social and economic gap between sections of society, and just too little political commitment to set things right. There are too many cars on the road, too little public transport, too many potholes on the roads and too few spaces that allow safe transit for pedestrians. The lines are too long, people push too hard. Competition everywhere, from the classroom to the ticket counter at the railway station. The big picture is just too hard to take. And so we retreat to our little islands, in front of our television screens and computer monitors, into the even tinier interfaces of our mobile devices, playing games and being social in new and different ways.

Pull back, long shot, no getting away from it, we still need to negotiate the big bad world and all the people in it. So we set out each morning convinced that we're going to encounter pushiness, corruption, unpleasantness at every juncture.

To a large extent, we're proved right time and again. The honking on the streets has decreased but hasn't gone away. There are still an astonishing number of people who seem to want to get somewhere right now, and believe that the car in front of them is akin to a road block on their life path. The bus driver casually scrapes your left rear view mirror and goes on without a pause, believing he has the absolute right to use the road as he pleases. The driver of the swanky SUV behind you, who looks decidedly underage, honks non-stop at the red light, as you stay calm, telling yourself, "I will not budge until the signal turns green." And once it does, he swerves past you like a maniac.

At Secunderabad Railway Station, there are no lines to speak of at the single counter where they sell platform tickets. I have never been one to ask for separate queues for women but i must confess that when standing in a single line means having to put up with men jostling you from all sides, a certain fondness for that idea has been felt. So I reach the counter, somehow, and hand over the three rupees for a single platform ticket--"It is five rupees madam," the harrassed counter clerk says, "tender exact change please". I don't have the additional two rupees in change, and while I fish in my bag looking for the possibility of a wayward coin, someone else pushes his hand toward. There's a slight young man next to me who had moved to a side, having been told off by the counter clerk for not having five rupees in change. He quickly puts his hand across the counter and asks for two tickets as he hands the clerk his tenner. He gives me a ticket and smiles as he walks away. I'm stunned.

Of course, this is not the first time I've been the recipient of unexpected kindness from strangers. A complete unknown handed me five thousand rupees once when I was in the middle of a mob that gathered after my car hit a seven-seater auto rickshaw. Then there was the cheerful policeman who gave me a quarter to make a collect call at La Guardia Airport in New York--I was twenty one, had just landed from India, straight into a freeing new year's eve, no change in American money and as nervous as hell because I'd missed my connecting flight. When I tried to thank him, he said, "Hey, smile, it's new year's eve!"

Inside the railway compartment where I am dropping off my aunt, is more kindness. Co-travellers who share their dinner, or move aside to make room for that extra child or to hold the baby while the harried mother goes to wash up.

And ultimately, that's what gives you hope. Despite the filth on the streets and the bad behaviour of drivers, the corruption in politics and the mismanagement of public money, there is still kindness enough to go around.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Remembering Ja

Ja (right) with Maxine, at the Alternative Network meeting, 2004
I opened the newspaper this morning and way down at the bottom of page five was a small insert in remembrance of an old friend and sometime mentor, Janaki Iyer, known simply as "Ja" to many of us.  I myself took a decade or more to make the transition from "Mrs Iyer" to "Janaki" to a very hesitant "Ja"--the diminutive seemed not to do justice to a woman who in a very gentle and quiet way had touched so many people, young, old, and like myself, somewhere in between.

First, the specifics. Janaki was a teacher from start to finish. After many years of teaching in an upscale Bombay school, she moved to Hyderabad and, with an enthusiastic friend, started Ananda Bharati, a learning space for children of migrant labourers, in a small room in the YMCA, Tarnaka. Many of those children went on to join the mainstream school system and complete their secondary education; a few even obtained degrees. One of the first girls to be plucked off a sandpile by Ja and brought into Ananda Bharati now works with a handloom advocacy organization. Ja drew many other young people to her; software engineers with dreams beyond programming, University teachers in search of meaning outside theoretical lectures, homemakers who had kindness and talent to share (and spare). People were welcomed into the home she made with her husband, "Steve" or "Mr Iyer". The low green building named "Needa" (shade, in Telugu) saw many visitors and itinerant drop-ins for dosai and coffee. Steve's passion for music drew in others as well, those who wished to commune over a veena recital or discuss the intricacies of raaga and taala in Carnatic music.

I'm not quite sure when I met Ja, but it was most likely when I started working for Teacher Plus, in early 1989. My earliest memory of a one-on-one interaction was after my daughter Achala was born, later that year, when she dropped in to see us while Steve attended his veena lesson at Professor Vijayakrishnan's house on the CIEFL Campus. She was already grey-haired and a little bit arthritic, but in her attitude and mental energy, younger than most of my contemporaries. I became a regular at Needa and Ananda Bharati after that, attending most of the special days at the school and often stopping by for long conversations about just about anything. When I left for the US to do my PhD a couple of years later, she was one of a handful who insisted on inviting me for a going-away meal.

We kept in regular contact, a correspondence by snail mail, where I stayed abreast of developments at the school and kept her in step with my life. When I returned, I found that the Ananda Bharati community had grown and like Ja herself, welcomed all of us who felt similarly about education and social change and saw value in building and sustaining dialogue about related issues.

Conversations with Ja were always engaging; sometimes we were on the phone for close to an hour, talking about a variety of issues from what had happened in school with my daughters to a book I had read to ideas about politics and history.

But I suppose when the going is good, it never seems like enough. Not enough conversations, not enough meetings.

So when Ja passed away on September 16, 2006, although she had been released from protracted period of pain and indifferent health, it seemed like she had just not been around long enough. That we all still needed more of her.

Ananda Bharati, that remarkable little institution that Ja built, continues to foster the spirit of learning among children who might otherwise not find a space for themselves in school. The teachers there work and laugh with the young girls who work in the day time and rediscover their childhood in the afternoons. They learn to read and write, and, more importantly, fashion themselves into citizens of a complex and often unwelcoming polity.