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Met an unusual individual in Vienna last night. Spare 17 minutes to watch this video of his TED Talk from 2012. You won’t regret it. Of course it was more inspiring to meet him in person.
pederastrian zone -(pe.der.astri.an zone) child molesters on the internet
trumpet – (trum.pet) presidential proclamations of alternative facts
maybe – (may.be) current state of Brexit negotiations
pingterest – (ping.ter.est) Chinese views of disputed territories in South China Sea and Doklam
modify – (mod.if.y) religious fundamentalism in India
Al Jarreau – (al jar.oh) late jazz singer of Qatar?
merken – (merk.en) German (as in, remember me?)
macro – (mak.ro) big French cheese
killing fields – (kill.ing fields) Duterte’s Philippines
Gabon – (gab.on) ongoing discussion about who really won the last election
sod it – (sod.it) Saudi views on women’s rights
Zumba – (zum.ba) popular South African dance
This is a true story. Names have been suppressed in order to protect the identity of individuals involved, even though the events described here happened two decades ago.
Prologue: He had arrived with his wife in India from another country in order to adopt a child. For reasons that do not concern us here, the couple had decided to go it alone, rather than through one of the agencies that acted as intermediaries for the prospective adoptive parents in their home country. They had been through a series of interviews with psychologists, and their domestic situation had been thoroughly vetted by social workers in the home country before they were given an official seal of approval as suitable adoptive parents.
The Story: Armed with this preliminary paperwork, the prospective parents began to read up about adoption laws in India. Friends told them of informative TV documentaries that they should watch. One such documentary was particularly painful to watch, since it highlighted the worst malpractices that occurred in various parts of India. They accepted the contents as the unvarnished truth, since it was after all produced by a British documentary film maker of high repute. After the prospective parents had completed their due diligence, they decided to narrow their search to the four southern states of India. Kerala was eliminated as an option early on when they discovered that foreign adoptions were not permitted here. They travelled to cities in two of the other three states before they finally decided to further narrow their search to Madras (Chennai today) the capital of the state of Tamil Nadu, where they had contacted several organizations.
Going simply by gut feel, they eliminated the first two institutions they visited. The people in charge either seemed untrustworthy and shifty-eyed, or the institution seemed too affluent (were they selling children abroad for profit, and if so, how did the children come up for adoption?). There is no absolute certainty in life, but they wanted to be as sure as possible before they made their choice.
Their third visit was to an organization that was run by a foundation of some sort. The Director of the place was soft-spoken, was dressed elegantly but not ostentatiously, was obviously well educated, and from her name they could infer that she was a Muslim. They were given a tour of the place and met the matron in charge of the crèche, who spoke reasonable English. The matron wore a white cotton sari with a blue border, a pendant in the shape of a cross, and a name tag with a Christian name. Half a dozen women in colorful saris tended to the twenty or thirty infants in the crèche. Some of them wore bindi on their foreheads. The people working in the orphanage seemed like a friendly microcosm of India, with people of at least three faiths working together in harmony, so they decided to apply to this institution.
Back in her office, the Director was firm and clear. As foreigners, they came into the third and lowest category of adoptive parents. First preference was given to Indian nationals living in India. Second came Indian nationals living abroad. Foreign nationals came third in priority and could only adopt children who were not chosen by the first two. This usually means, she concluded, that the child you might get for adoption will be a dark-skinned female. Indian parents usually prefer to adopt boys or light skinned girls.
The couple returned to their home country and three months later, had a phone call. As always happens, the long-awaited news came out of the blue. There was a child available for adoption. A female child, with a very dark complexion that was a year old and had not been adopted by Indian parents. Come to India, and be prepared to stay for 2 or 3 months till the paperwork gets done. They arrived in Chennai, were fortunate to stay in a private home instead of a hotel, so were allowed to bring their new daughter home from the orphanage with them till the adoption formalities were completed. They had six weeks to complete all the legal paperwork before the High Court closed for its 2-month summer recess. To paraphrase Longfellow, the mills of the legal system in India grind exceedingly small and they grind exceedingly slowly. With the result that, three days before the High Court closed for summer recess, they still had 28 stamps, seals and signatures to gather from various offices before the adoption was complete and legal. This number of attestations, they were told, normally takes about a month to procure. A huge setback! They had to get back to their jobs in ten days. They could not take the child with them, which meant she would have to go back to the orphanage for three months, an emotional catastrophe, considering how quickly she had bonded with the adoptive parents. To the child, going back to the orphanage would be like a second abandonment, a betrayal of trust that would undoubtedly deepen whatever emotional scars she already carried. In desperation the father cast about for someone, anyone, who could help speed up the process. An acquaintance told him of a Mr. Fixit, someone who might manage the impossible.
Mr. Fixit was slim, mustachioed, dressed in khaki trousers, white bush shirt and black leather shoes; the kind of non-uniform worn by off-duty policemen and government clerks. He heard the whole story from the distressed adoptive father.
“I’ll do it. Give me five thousand rupees, half in advance. And one thousand for expenses.” he said. There was no time for character evaluations or trustworthiness assessments. There seemed to be no choice. The father handed over 3500 rupees. “Wait in the court, in front of the judges’ chambers, for the next three days.” And with that, Mr. Fixit disappeared.
The father did as he was told. It was the end of April, approaching the hottest season of the year, the “Agni Natshatram – fire star” days of May, so he waited in the shade of a banyan tree that grew in the high court grounds. Merely breathing in the heat was exhausting, so he sat on a nearby bench whenever he could, rising hopefully whenever he saw a file carrying clerk emerge from the judges’ chambers. Courts closed at 5 pm, as the blazing heat of the day began to wane. Mr. Fixit appeared an hour after the court closed on the first evening, triumphantly waving a sheaf of papers. “I got the first six today!” Six down, twenty-two to go. In two days. It seemed impossible at this rate.
“Don’t worry. It’s difficult, but not impossible,” Mr. Fixit reassured.
Day two. Another long day’s fretful waiting, hopping impatiently from sun to shade to bench. Too anxious to eat lunch, impatiently gulping water at noon to quench a raging thirst, too nervous to move away even to a toilet. What if there were last minute questions and he was not there to answer them? At the end of day two, Mr. Fixit emerged again from the labyrinth. “I got the next seven today.” Was there a trace of despondent weariness in his face? Hard to tell. “Tell me you can do it,” the father rasped anxiously. “Yes, yes. Leave it to me.” Thirteen down, fifteen to go.
Would it help to offer more money? Mr. Fixit hesitated, thought for a minute. No, he said. This is more than enough.
Day three. The tension was unbearable. Fatigue settled in waves, batted away by bouts of anxiety. Another eight-hour day, mostly on his feet, moving from sun to shade to bench, with an occasional walk around the courtyard. He saw Mr. Fixit move between offices, sometimes empty handed, at others clutching an ever growing sheaf of papers. Finally, a few minutes past 5 pm. Closing time, and the beginning of the two month summer break. It would break his heart to have to drop the little girl back to the orphanage, unclasp those trusting fingers that twined around his thumb every time he entered the room. But there was no chance that the man could have done it. Not here; not with this kind of bureaucracy. Mr. Fixit approached him at ten minutes past five. He held the sheaf of papers, and there was exhaustion and a touch of despondency in his step.
“Sir, I tried. I’m still trying.”
“What is there to try? I’ll give you the rest of the money I owe.”
“No, sir. You do not pay till I finish the job.” Then he explained. “I got up to stamp number 22 by 3 pm today. And then, the clerk who has to sign number 23 was not at his desk. He retires today, his last day of work after 30 years of service in the High Court and he’s been out at farewell parties all afternoon. No one could find him. So I contacted all the others, number 24 to 28 and told them about your case. They all said they will wait in their offices till I find the missing clerk to put his seal. So now you come with me sir. We’ll go and wait for him.”
I walked into the rooms with Mr. Fixit, unbelieving. The High Court clerical offices were like government offices all over India, relics of the British raj, corridors lined with steel almirahs bulging with case notes, dockets, files tied with string, pages of brown and yellowing papers held together with office clips or rusting staples. From one empty desk to the next. A few clerks were packing up their desks, carting away most of their personal possessions before the long summer recess. One desk was still piled with papers, on top of which lay several gift-wrapped presents, a paper plate with a half-eaten bonda and chutney, a glass of cold tea.
“This man,” Mr. Fixit indicated the desk, “is still out celebrating. He should be back soon.” They pulled up chairs and waited for ten minutes in the now deserted hall. Finally a short smiling man appeared, with crumbs of cake or pakora on his three day growth of beard and looked inquiringly at the two men. “Yes?” Mr. Fixit rose to his feet and began to explain.
“Yes, yes, yes. I know about the case. Five people told me at the farewell party. This is the gentleman?” He looked long and hard at the stranger. The father leapt nervously to his feet, and instinctively reached for his wallet. The clerk looked at Mr. Fixit and beckoned with imperious crooked fingers.
“The papers.” He grabbed the papers, signed on the last page, took two separate seals from his draw, inked both on a worn pad and stamped the paper with loud bangs. “There!” After the days of waiting, the father was beside himself with gratitude, even though the man was merely doing his job. He took out his wallet. The clerk stopped him with a quick gesture.
“Sir. I want no money from you. After thirty years of service in this court, on my last working day, what a retirement present you have given me! It is a privilege to see what my stamp on a paper means to someone. Keep your money sir, and thank you for giving me the chance to do one good deed before retirement. I wish for your daughter a life full of God’s blessings.” The clerk was beaming now, a dark cherub with a three-day growth of beard and crumbs on his face. But there was only time for hurried thank you, thank you’s before Mr. Fixit dragged the father to other offices where clerks number twenty-four to twenty-eight impatiently waited, almost an hour after closing time, seals and signatures at the ready. At all of these desks, the by-now delirious father offered money but met with the same response. “No sir. You are doing a good deed. We wish for your daughter to have a good life.” The last four stamps, seals and signatures were obtained in ten minutes, probably an all-time record for any High Court in India. At precisely one minute to six, Mr. Fixit handed the papers to the father with a flourish.
Epilogue: A few days later the parents visited the orphanage with their newly adopted daughter to wish the staff good-bye. The child was kissed and hugged and caressed by all the staff and finally they sat down for a chat with the Director, the child seated in her lap playing with a pendant. The parents expressed their gratitude to the Director and to the foundation that ran the orphanage, remarking on how well it was run, contrary to their expectations, especially after having seen the TV documentary a few months ago.
“Wait a minute. A documentary? Was it by so-and-so?”
“Yes it was.”
“Interesting! He came here, you know, two years ago, while he was filming. He looked around the place. I told him, why don’t you show something of this place? Why not show a good institution? Not just the bad ones. But he wasn’t interested. They left without taking a single photo of this place.
Corruption: How corrupt is India? I honestly don’t know, having spent twenty-seven years in this country without paying a single bribe. I know someone, a fairly successful businessman, who claims never to have paid a bribe during his entire working career. I know many more, equally successful, who say it’s impossible to do business here without greasing palms all along the way.
Which is true? Both narratives are equally true. Transparency International ranks India 79th on its 2016 index of the most (or least) corrupt countries in the world. India’s close neighbors in this index are Brazil, China, and Albania. I have no idea how corrupt China is, but I do know that China’s infrastructure is far superior to India’s and things seem to work far better there than they do in India. However, in the worldwide rush to industrial prosperity, chasing the American dream (with, perhaps, the exception of Bhutan), I fear the world is losing its soul.
Is this single-minded rush to wealth (and exploitation of the earth) the reason why so many amoral leaders seem to come to power in America and other countries around the world? If so, I begin to think that this country (India) has something unique to offer the world. I think back to the incident at the High Court and dozens of other random acts of kindness and grace that I experienced and accepted unthinkingly, as a matter of course. Today I feel that there is some deep spring of spirituality among its people that has nothing to do with religion, but is a product of time and space, centuries of invasion, centuries of adaptation and forgiving. So perhaps, despite its low ranking on the Transparency International index, the soul of India can show the world the way ahead in the turbulent and troubling years to come.
All watercolors pictured above by Chennai-based artist Vikram Varghese.
Where to begin? Needless to describe the sense of loss and dismay as a gracious, thoughtful, highly intelligent family man is replaced by a blustering, orange-hued womanizer who seems to have no respect for anything other than power, wealth and glitter. For better or for worse, the US has been regarded as the leader of the democratic world for much of the last century. In this role, it attracted some of the best and brightest of the world’s young to its universities. They stayed on after graduation, started businesses that thrived and helped make the US the global business and financial powerhouse that it is today. Much of that lustre, also called soft power, has been lost in the past decade, ever since the US began its war on terror and the futile armed incursions in the Middle East.
I saw a Hindi movie called Daangal a few days ago. A true story of amateur wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat in Haryana who raised six girls (four daughters and two nieces whom he adopted on the death of his brother) to be world-class wrestlers who have won many international championships. From a social standpoint, the most remarkable thing is that Haryana is the state with among the worst male/female sex ratios in the country (in 2011, 877 females for every 1000 males). This negative sex ratio is a reliable indicator of low status of women in a society. One can only imagine the real-life battles the Phogat girls faced, in overcoming traditional rural prejudices, cutting their hair, uncovering their faces, competing in early tournaments with boys, finally winning respect by beating many of their male peers and winning championships.
Even though some of the details in the film are untrue, or exaggerated for dramatic effect, there is no disputing that the greatest victory of these young women may not be counted in medals won in the wrestling arena, but in society as a whole. Changes in a society happen in a thousand unexpected ways. Their victories on the floor of the wrestling arena may be reflected in unrelated events in a community. One such example appeared as a feature recently in a Sunday newspaper. In this story, Mahima Jain tells of three women fighting the ghunghat (face veil) in Haryana’s patriarchal stronghold of Faridabad. They wish to show no disrespect to their elders, but also wish to be free of the restriction imposed by the veil. One of them is an educated woman who works in the city with head uncovered all day and sees no reason to cover her face as soon as she returns to her village home.
This news story shows that gender discrimination does not stop with rural, uneducated women, but also affects intelligent, articulate women with advanced educational degrees. As Hans Rosling powerfully shows through statistics in the video posted on this blog earlier in January (Reading the Tea Leaves: a primer for 2017), true development happens in a nation when gender discrimination has been largely overcome. By this definition, there are very few truly developed nations in the world; merely rich ones, poor ones and increasingly, widening gaps within societies between rich and poor.
One amusing and unexpected similarity between the real-life female wrestlers and their film counterparts: the professional wrestlers look just as elegant and sophisticated as the actors who play them in the movie. Check out the photos below without reading the captions first and see if you can tell who’s who.
Oswald Spengler published the first volume of his two-volume life’s work, The Decline of the West, in 1918. Seventy-four years later, speaking at the Earth Summit, Rio de Janeiro in 1992, 41st US President George HW Bush, a decent man, declared, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation. Period.” This pre-emptive declaration by the leader of the world’s most powerful nation essentially castrated the noble intentions of the summit, to limit humankind’s exploitation of the earth’s resources to sustainable levels. The result of the Rio summit was Agenda 21, a non-binding, voluntarily implemented action plan for the 21st century. This was the paltry outcome of a nine-day meeting representing 172 countries attended by 116 heads of state, 2400 NGOs and 17,000 other representatives of indigenous peoples and ordinary ‘you and me’ types.
Twenty-one years after the US President’s declaration in Rio, the WWF designated the 20th of August 2013 as “Earth Overshoot Day;” the day that humanity has used as much renewable natural resources as the planet can regenerate in one year. In 2016, Earth Overshoot Day is estimated to have fallen on August 8th, after which date we’re drawing down the planet’s renewable resources for the rest of the year. Pity the poor planet! The American way of life is still not up for negotiation, and the rest of the world is rushing to catch up. If ever populous countries like China and India get there, the planet will be sucked dry and we’ll all have to follow Elon Musk to Mars! So are we condemned to a two-track planet where some countries (or some sections of society within countries) corner material resources and the rest go a-begging? This is the scenario being projected by right wing demagogues worldwide and this is the reason for their recent successes at the ballot box.
Economists and philosophers have tried to redefine human well-being to reflect planetary limits, most notably in recent years by Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity without Growth, which acknowledges that the current definition of economic success is fundamentally flawed. Prosperous societies today increasingly recognize that increased material wealth does not increase well-being. However, most people the world over, regardless of their economic condition, still aspire to some version of the American way of life. This aspiration is reflected in the respect automatically accorded to wealthy people in the world today. A look at the Who’s Who of practically any country includes the names of its wealthiest citizens, together with lists of eminent physicians, lawyers, sportspeople and so on.
Gandhi pithily articulated this state of affairs decades ago when he said: The world has enough for every man’s need but not for every man’s greed. For each according to her needs would be the ideal but, as always, messy reality intervenes. One man’s need is another man’s greed. So it is that millions of well-meaning, virtuous, affluent people the world over would never dream of giving up hard-won creature comforts for the sake of other planetary denizens who are less well off. The spiral of technology has historically been to continuously improve human life, and to continuously create problems at the same time. These problems in turn needed infusions of new technology to solve its problems. So right now, the choices seem to be to outer-planetary colonization, or to invest in defences (gated communities, wealthy enclaves, security guards, border walls) to hold on to material gains. Technology offers a third alternative. The idea of a sharing economy has recently gained a lot of traction. Who needs ownership when mobility and services are seamlessly available? Indeed, ownership becomes a bit of a burden in comparison to the convenience of superb services available on demand with little or no delay.
Even if all this is achieved, humankind’s basic inner restlessness will ensure that we keep wanting more and better, with one eye on the people next door. Global contentment is a moving target. Enter mystic and philosopher Sadhguru and his lectures on inner engineering. His most memorable anecdote in the video (begins at minute 16) is a reminder that all is not lost in the midst of this doom and gloom if we can take the time to laugh at ourselves and the posturings that have brought us to this point.
If we look at development work as the business of changing attitudes, then attitudes to learning must change a great deal in almost every continent in the world today (with the possible exception of Antarctica). One has only to read the newspapers of any country in the world to hear of growing xenophobia, widespread fearmongering, environmental destruction and climate catastrophes. The American psychiatrist Karl Menninger often said: Attitudes are more important than facts. Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung said the same thing in different words. It depends on how we look at things and not how they are in themselves. The Indian philosopher and mystic, Sri Aurobindo said: What is of first importance is not the religious or non-religious character of the work done, but the inner attitude in which it is done.
My wife and I chose to begin our (self) development work in a tiny village near Chennai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu. We were there to learn and not to teach. My wife, who has worked as a teacher in international schools around the world all her professional life, began her interaction by learning a few Tamil words and phrases from village children who had expected her to spout knowledge and teach them English or mathematics. To their delight, they became teachers themselves from the very first day. They planted saplings, choosing the trees they wanted to have growing in the compound. They planted the ubiquitous banyan tree, in whose shade a few decades hence, generations of school children might seek shelter. They planted the arasu maram, the tree of kings it’s called in Tamil, under whose pointed leaves a latter-day Gautama Buddha might find enlightenment. At the end of the day’s lessons, instead of guiding us to the bus-stop, they showed us around their village and introduced us to their parents. We learned a lot throughout our five-week involvement here, and came to know a number of interesting local people. A politician, who I might have once dismissed as a party hack; this one might be key to helping the seven thousand people who live in his rural community preserve the intact ecosystem that exists in the area. A real estate developer, a truly modest man, who is interested in promoting rural youth education. He puts his money where his mouth is, by sharing a couple of acres of land to the project and getting sponsors for some of the forthcoming school building constructions. The entire venture is the brainchild of a retired college professor, an eminent Tamil scholar, who has already helped hundreds of, and several generations of, disadvantaged urban school kids in Chennai (Madras) by setting up five after-school learning centers at various points in the city. This venture with four acres of land around a container, is his first rural learning center. We are honored to be a part of this enterprise and look forward to spending several months a year here. On this initial visit, we commute every day from the city to the village by motor-bike. On our next visit, we hope to stay in a small thatch-roofed hut right next to the school.
On day one of the school, activities were inaugurated by planting trees. We learned so much from the villagers. We started by weeding the grounds. A creeper growing wild at the foot of the palmyra tree (Borassus flabellifer: more on that in a subsequent post) is about to be ripped out of the earth as a weed. Renuka stops me. This is a medicinal plant, she says, and tells me the name in Tamil. It’s leaves can be ground into a paste and used for arthritis or bodily aches and pains.
A number of saplings were taken to the empty site that had been marked out with a wire fence and stone posts. A container stood there, the first class-room. Fees should be modest and affordable, but the school should not be free. The people in the village tend to be cynical, and rightly so, about free gifts. They’ve been receiving freebies from politicians for a couple of generations; politicians who tend to look at them as vote banks. So it was decided to charge the students a fee of 50 rupees per month for the privilege of attending (around 75 Eurocents, yes cents, per month at today’s exchange rates). That’s all it costs to educate a child. That, and an enormous amount of goodwill. And goodwill there is aplenty. We have more than a dozen willing volunteer helpers. There’s Chakkaravarthy, who’s given up his job as an engineer at a multinational to become a technical help to the school and several other ventures started by his uncle. There’s Sukumar, who has been working with disadvantaged children for over a decade. He comes alive when he is with the kids, and never gets tired of interacting with them. Looking at him, one sees a picture of the right man in the right place doing what he loves. And what of us? We are on a steep learning curve, and the children have much to teach us. And the more they teach, the more they will learn.
The school is just a container, but learning is happening all the same. The Global Partnership for Education estimates that it costs on average US$ 1.18 per day to educate a child in low and middle income developing countries. This is a small sum, but multiplied by millions of children, several billions are needed annually. Unfortunately, influential people lobby their governments for fighter planes so they can bomb the hell out of their enemies from a safe altitude. Each of these warplanes costs more than the entire school education of several million children. Fortunately now, this village model shows that learning can take place even without a schoolroom and with far less than surmised by the Global Partnership for Education.
If a modern urbanite, Indian or foreign, were to visit the village today, they might see an ‘underdeveloped’ community. Access roads are poor, electricity is intermittent, and the children learn by rote in public schools staffed by teachers who insist on mindless discipline to the detriment of knowledge acquisition. What we see here is something quite different. We see children hungry to learn, living in a vibrant ecosystem that is intact and flourishing. This is rich farmland. Judging by the abundant birdlife (black drongos, Alexandrine parakeets, green parrots, greater coucal, hoopoes, bulbuls, swifts, spoonbills, several varieties of water birds, mynahs, weaver birds, francolin and several others), nature and man coexist comfortably here. Presumably there are poisonous snakes, scorpions, centipedes and rats in this paradise although we did not see any on our visit. We look forward to spending a lot more time in this village ‘undeveloping ourselves’ before we begin to teach. Or perhaps we have nothing to teach and everything to learn; about how not to confuse development with economic advancement. I fear the world has suffered enough from the latter.