Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Beautiful, special people enrich my life

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

Most of us ‘normal’ people take our own abilities so much for granted that we keep demanding achievement from ourselves. So people with ‘special’ needs are perceived as ‘beautiful people’ because they put the few abilities they have to such fantastic use that we are astounded by how much they can do – with so little.

Though I will be talking about a sensitive and delicate topic, I reject the ‘politically correct’ (PC) usage that has been devised worldwide during the last few decades. To describe the ‘poor’ as the ‘underclass’ is as much a cover-up as it is a sham when ‘failure’ becomes ‘under-achievement’ or the ‘blind’ are glorified as ‘visually challenged’.

I shall go along with common sense: “Call a spade, a spade”, but avoid any derogatory meaning that lowers the dignity of the human being – disabled or challenged.

Enter: the first and second beautiful persons in my life

When I was doing my B.Sc. in St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, during 1967-71, I used to ‘read’ to a blind student who was doing a brilliant second M.A! Let us call him ‘Dilip’, because I have forgotten his name. We generally recognise people by their names or faces; some of us can distinguish between voices on the telephone. Dilip could identify who was coming up behind him!

Such an unusual ability, I wondered. Till I asked him how he did it. Dilip told me it was hard at first, till he began to listen intently for the small sounds that people made as they walked: from the scraping, stamping, stomping and shuffling of footwear; whether they dragged their feet, hopped lightly, or glided along on their toes.

He described to me his girl-friend who had a slight limp, so she dragged her left foot making a soft, rustling sound, like dried leaves lifted by a breeze, as she brought it up.

Dilip was the first of the beautiful people to enrich my life. The second was ‘Kate’, again a blind girl in Leeds, England, who taught me how to type, when I was 40 years old. She boosted my self-esteem by telling me simply that I could do anything I wanted – only if I desperately wanted to.

And shall I tell you how desperately I wanted to learn how to type? In July 1990, when we went abroad, I worked as a sub-editor in a Pune daily with paper and pen. The local copy was keyed in by our reporters on manual type-writers; the agency copy from UNI or PTI came on the ticker wire.

Then, we subs did the editing by hand and the type-setters re-typed the subbed copy. Even the editorials, I wrote out long-hand or dictated them at one go to our editorial secretary, Duru “ho ja shuru” Tejwani.

That was how I used to work in Maharashtra Herald, Pune, before I noticed in Leeds, England, that in all the Yorkshire newspapers, the subs used computers and knew how to type. I could see no way out but to learn – typing. The dread of what could happen to me, if I did not learn how to type was so strong that one night I had a dream.

In my nightmare, I saw myself standing outside Pune railway station with a begging bowl in hand crying out to passers-by, “De re Allah! De re Ram!” Because I had lost my job as a sub, since I did not know how to type!

That is when Kate came to my rescue. I had learnt simple keyboard skills using a Typing Tutor, due to the kindness of Peter Coltman from Leeds University. But where would I practise my novice skills? Kate used to come daily -- led by her Labrador guide dog -- to manage a Braille centre on the Red Route and she gave me the task of typing out an entire book on South Asian history for the reading pleasure of blind students. And so I learned me how to type diligently.

The art competition for Beautiful People in Dubai

Meanwhile, another ‘beautiful’ person was growing up far away from Pune in my native Mangalore: Adrian Terence D’Souza was born in 1983 to my sister Flavia and brother-in-law Michael. My sister had noticed he was unusually quiet as a baby and the shape of his forehead looked different from the two older sisters he had. Soon he was diagnosed as a child with Down’s Syndrome (DS).

Today Adrian “Manu” D’Souza is 26 years old and I had the wonderful opportunity to be with him during our stay at my sister’s home in Dubai since 17 June. (We will be here till 29 June.) My sister tells me Adrian has taken to painting during the last one year at the JamJar, Dubai, an activity organised by START, one of whose founders is the Al Madad Foundation.

The gorgeous evidence of Adrian’s slow and steady learning is not only scattered around their home but his picture has also been selected as one of 38 artworks as part of a Beautiful People competition. (Hence, the words "beautiful people" in the title of this post). Ms. Wemmy de Maaker introduced Beautiful People to my sister and other parents of children with special needs and is actively involved with the project in Dubai.

But at the outset, I declare a conflict of interest. Since Adrian is my ‘special’ nephew, I cannot be impartial in judging his ability. But I say he's good. Look for yourself and please vote for Adrian.

Adrian Terence D'Souza (26), my beautiful, special, different nephew

But there are 37 other special, beautiful and different people there too -- all of them already winners. So if you like them, you may vote for them. But remember one vote only. A vote will encourage beautiful people like Adrian immensely in the long journey of a crore miles.

Fortunately, his father, Mr. Michael D'Souza, Managing Director of Humaid Al Suwaidi, and a native of Puttur near Mangalore, is one of Dubai’s esteemed businessmen in real estate. So Adrian is well cared for.

Drums and soccer with Adrian & friends

What else am I doing in Dubai with this nephew of mine, Adrian, who is swimming against the tide? On 20 June, we go to see him learning the drums and kick football.

(As I write this, he comes up and tells me that I have not finished drinking the water in my mug. I have told him I am writing about him and he reads his own name “A-D-R-I-A-N” out loud.)

He knows the drums already and has a drum set at home, but practice is constantly required as DS kids (like many of us) can forget skills that they have learned. The teacher is Atsu Dagadu from Ghana, who belongs to Dubai Drums, and the session is free, held at the home of a gracious local Emirati lady, Mrs. Hanne Al Gurg.

The 12 kids along with their parents take active part drumming. What strikes me is how attentive the children are, stopping at exactly the point where the teacher tells them to finish off – every time!!! Since Adrian already knows the drums well, he is happy to play along.

Then we go to play soccer at the Hayya Club Meadows. Again a bunch of 10-15 kids are being taught free. Like the drumming this session too is coordinated by All 4 Down’s Syndrome Dubai, a voluntary support group, and the Soccer Kids Club (James Masterman, Ben McBride and group member Ingeborg Kroese)

In soccer, Adrian does not take part as much as the other kids, since he tends to watch the other kids play with his hands on his hips. Only occasionally does he get excited, when the ball is kept in front of him and he is asked to kick – at the goal. Then he gets really charged up.

But I recall there is this little scrawny girl – all so eager and bubbly – who would shoot a goal at one end and then turn the ball around to shoot a goal at the other end, oblivious of the side she belongs to! How she plays the game and scores goals for both sides, a virtue we have abandoned as normal people.

Activities like the soccer and drumming, which I witnessed, is mainly coordinated by the devoted and ever-energetic Sally Pearson, who strives tirelessly to keep the support going in Dubai. Her son Robin too is part of the group.


Sunday in Dubai is NOT the weekly holiday it is in Pune, India. The weekend here starts on Thursday evening and people are back to work on Sunday morning. So on 21 June, I went along with Adrian and his mother (my sister) to the Oasis Court, a hotel of furnished apartments, which is managed by the D’Souza family, especially Ms. Rochelle Lobo, Adrian’s eldest sister.

Adrian has been meticulously trained by his counsellor Ms. Meenakshi Kumar to perform various functions, one of which is working at Oasis Court as a ‘trainee’ in Guest Relations from 9am to 12 noon, five days a week. In the near future, Adrian will also train at Dunes, another hotel of furnished apartments managed by Ms. Nisha D’Souza, his other sister.

Adrian greets the guests with a shy, “Welcome to Oasis Court!” then hands over the keys, TV remote, and other service cards, which familiarise the guests with the amenities available inside the furnished apartment and the facilities offered by the Oasis Court hotel. Finally, he leaves them with a cheery, “Have a good stay!”

To cast your vote for Adrian, please click here.


Dilip in Mumbai, Kate in Leeds, my nephew Adrian in Dubai – three beautiful, special and different people who have enriched and are enriching my life. What can you do to enrich your lives?

Search out with all the compassion in your heart for the support groups in your local area for any beautiful and different people with special needs. Volunteer your knowledge, skills, time and energy to make things happen for them. "We give but little when we give of our possessions. It is when we give of ourselves that we truly give," said the mystical poet Kahlil Gibran of Lebanon.

And then surprise yourself; discover the secret well-springs that you never imagined could be hidden deep inside you.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, India, Monday, 22 June 2009, Summer Solstice.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

True friend of people, labourer for liberty

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

Friend! So warm, so close. Yet, so taken for granted, so misused. More so, when we speak of "friend of the people". Today, we shall discuss the life and work of one such dear and old friend of ours, of all the peoples of our world, so old that he died on 8 June 1809, two centuries ago.

Yet he lives today – fresh and free. You will not find him in the pages of newspapers or flashed on TV screens. For, he is not a celebrity. His simple words slip off the tongues of the rabble-rousers and the mob, they throb in the hearts and agitate the minds of all common people, the ordinary folk who hold "freedom" dear. Even a hypocrite like Bush could not but invoke the magic word “freedom” to justify the US invasions of Iraq or Afghanistan.

Who was this dear and old friend, who first coined the words, "The United States of America"? Who was this selfless labourer for liberty? Who was this man, that his book, Rights of Man (1792), was read by Mahatma Jyotiba Phule in Pune in 1847 and deeply influenced this champion of the dalits in India?

"The world is my country, to do good my religion"

In 1892, the centenary year of the publication of The Rights of Man, Robert Ingersoll wrote:

"If the people of the great Republic (USA) knew the life of this generous man, the real story of his services, his sufferings and his triumphs of what he did to compel the robed and crowned, the priests and kings, to give back to the people liberty, the jewel of the soul;

"If they knew that he was the first to write, “The Religion of Humanity”;

"If they knew that he, above all others, planted and watered the seeds of independence, of union, of nationality, in the hearts of our forefathers -- that his words were gladly repeated by the best and bravest in many lands;

"If they knew that he attempted, by the purest means, to attain the noblest and loftiest ends -- that he was original, sincere, intrepid, and that he could truthfully say: 'The world is my country, to do good my religion';

"If the people only knew all this -- the truth -- they would repeat the words of Andrew Jackson: 'Thomas Paine needs no monument made with hands; he has erected a monument in the hearts of all lovers of liberty."

I first read about Paine, while studying the history of the independence of the United States of America from colonial British rule. Here he wrote his classic Common Sense (1776). How come Tom Paine, an Englishman, had so much to do with the drafting of the American Declaration of Independence, I wondered?

With independence gained for American states, Paine went back to England, where his experience led him to write the Rights of Man (1791-92), in response to Edmund Burke’s fierce attack on the French Revolution. Paine was branded an outlaw in England for his anti-monarchist views. He would have been arrested but warned by the poet William Blake, he fled for France.

Soon this champion of liberty appeared in Paris pleading for mercy: that the life of the French King Louis XVI be spared: "I am not the personal enemy of kings. Quite the contrary. No man wishes more heartily than myself to see them all in the happy and honorable state of private individuals; but I am the avowed, open and intrepid enemy of what is called monarchy." This plea for mercy sent Paine to jail.

In this post, I have taken copious extracts and paraphrased from a brilliant piece by the American free-thinker Robert G. Ingersoll, published in 1892. (The Works of Ingersoll, New Dresden Edition). The Thomas Paine National Historical Association has an excellent website, with original writings by Thomas Paine.

Misunderstood and jailed by his French revolutionary friends, Paine wrote The Age of Reason (1794, 1796) in jail. "Paine clearly saw," according to Ingersoll, "that men could not be really free, or defend the freedom they had, unless they were free to think and speak. He felt that, being a man, he had the right to examine the creeds and the Scriptures for himself, and that, being an honest man, it was his duty and his privilege to tell his fellow-men the conclusions at which he arrived.

"Paine found that the creeds of all orthodox churches were absurd and cruel, and that the Bible was no better. Of course, he found that there were some good things in the creeds and in the Bible. These he defended, but the infamous, the inhuman, he attacked.

"In matters of religion he pursued the same course that he had in things political. He depended upon experience, and above all on reason. He refused to extinguish the light in his own soul. He was true to himself, and gave to others his honest thoughts. He did not seek wealth, or place, or fame. He sought the truth.

"Kings asserted that they derived their power, their right to govern, from God. To this assertion Paine replied with the Rights of Man. Priests pretended that they were the authorized agents of God. Paine replied with the Age of Reason.

"The Age of Reason affected the priests just as the Rights of Man affected nobles and kings. The kings answered the arguments of Paine with laws, the priests with lies. Kings appealed to force, priests to fraud. Paine contended for the rights of the individual, for the jurisdiction of the soul. Above all religions, Paine placed Reason; above all kings, Men; and above all men, Law."

For this frankness, he was reviled by the Christian churches and slandered in the USA, so much that when he returned, his reputation had been literally effaced. Across three nations, USA, England, France, Tom Paine fought for liberty. He took part in the writing of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of Rights.

‘The pen of Paine; the sword of Washington’

"In all he wrote, Paine was direct and natural," says Ingersoll. "He touched the very heart of the subject. He was not awed by names or titles, by place or power. He never lost his regard for truth, for principle -- never wavered in his allegiance to reason, to what he believed to be right. His arguments were so lucid, so unanswerable, his comparisons and analogies so apt, so unexpected, that they excited the passionate admiration of friends and the unquenchable hatred of enemies.

"So great were these appeals to patriotism, to the love of liberty, the pride of independence, the glory of success, that it was said by some of the best and greatest of that time that the American cause owed as much to the pen of Paine as to the sword of Washington."

The Thomas Paine Society organised Paine 200, where Greg Cleays and John Keane, two major historians and biographers of Thomas Paine, assessed his legacy on the 200th anniversary of his death. For a recording of the two speakers, click here. John Keane has also written a superb biography of Tom Paine, which is available online. Click here.


Alongside, my dear students, please have a look at the NYT links sent by my school-mate Vivek Pinto from Tokyo; in keeping with the tone of my blog. If you too wish to draw the attention of my readers to a particular story or article, please mail me the link and I shall upload it alongside my post.

I have taken Tom Paine this time, because the bi-centenary of his death provides us a useful peg to revive the work of a selfless human being, who laboured for liberty. But there is another more important reason. If you track the media carefully, you will find hardly any mention of this great man, even in the USA, for whose birth he was one of the great pioneers responsible.

My blog, Against the Tide, will highlight the lives and work of persons like Tom Paine; some living, others long gone. In future posts, at convenient times, I will take up:
- poets like Shelley, Byron, Pablo Neruda;
- essayists like William Hazlitt;
- scholars like Noam Chomsky;
- revolutionaries like Shahid Bhagat Singh, Che Guevara;
- historians like D.D. Kosambi, Howard Zinn;
- teachers like Paolo Friere, John Holt, Neill;
- people's scientists like J.B.S. Haldane, Meghnad Saha, J.D. Bernal;
- doctors like Patch Adams;
- journalists like John Pilger, Studs Terkel, Wilfred Burchett;
- musicians like Pete Seeger, Lennon and Dylan.
If you have any suggestions to add on this list, please let me know.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, India, Sunday, 14th June 2009.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Ways of seeing ... with compassion

My dear students, friends and colleagues,

When the news first broke in India about racism in Australia, frankly I thought it was a recent phenomenon. So in response, I wrote a mild piece about how I had suffered at the hands of the racists when I was in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England, during 1990-93. And how I could stand up, resist and ... survive, with a little help from my friends.

My intention was to encourage the sharing of experiences -- ugly or bad or good -- from other parts of India and the world, since we have our own perceptions; ways of viewing the world and responding to the behaviour of other peoples.

Deliberately, I did NOT describe the attacks I had heard of or read about in England, merely hinting that I had carefully collected clippings and documents about racist attacks. But when hundreds of students turned up for the protest march in Melbourne and in Sydney, and as I watched the Australian police beating up -- six-cops-to-a-protestor -- nay, curry bashing our fellow Indians, the blood of Shahid Bhagat Singh boiled in my body.

Ninety years ago, a white man "in Defence of the Realm" and the British Monarchy (and aided by our brown sipahis), had massacred hundreds of un-armed innocent peaceful protestors at Jallianwala Bagh. Despite that genocide, across the 20th century in India and into the 21st century in Australia, a former British colony, the so-called "civilised" White Man had not changed his racist colours.

I tried getting in touch with the few I knew in Australia, who could be counted upon to provide authentic information. Also scrounging the world wide web -- like the rag-picker Maharashtra Herald, Pune, had trained me to be -- I discovered the website of the Federation of Indian Students of Australia (FISA).

The FISA website is plain and unadorned like the hundreds of simple Indians you see all over the world: my own saviours, the Ekbote and Banhatti families in England; my indomitable mass comm students from Pune, I salute you; the Indian diaspora; like the memorable R.K. Narayan characters roaming the Malgudi landscape and Jhumpa Lahiri's Namesake.

So I plunged deep into the FISA website. And what did I find? I will cite only one gem by Ms. Alice Pung. Sad to say, it seems few of our journalists in India have bothered to mine the FISA website.

"Shunned in a strange land ..."

Ms. Alice Pung, a Melbourne-based writer and teacher, "worked for half a decade as a pastoral care adviser and residential tutor at the residential colleges of Melbourne University, in some of the most privileged academic environments". She has written a deeply compassionate piece entitled, "Shunned in a strange land, we should offer them more" on 17 August 2008. The piece has been taken courtesy The Age and the FISA website.

Ms. Pung wrote ten months ago, "I have seen my students through the beginning of their degrees when they are finding their feet in a foreign country, to their graduations and the quest for permanent residency. During this time, I have come to respect and admire their stoicism. They do not live in their own little worlds: they have opened up my world."

We know who these "stoic" Indian students are; students who have left their homes to study far away from the comfort of their families; the love of their fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. I too know who these students are. I see them every semester when I start my classes in editing. Their homesick faces yearn for love and compassion; a kind word, a warm smile, a pat on the back. Across the years and my tears, I see some of you: on the front benches; at the back, asking questions, wanting to learn, to get it right.

As a teacher and visiting faculty of print journalism in Pune since 1987, I am known for the fierce discipline, forgive me, I maintain and shall expect in my classes. That is because, I think, the world outside is collapsing into chaos and anarchy. But once the ground rules have been understood and followed; the dialogue of our hearts and minds begins; soon my students and I find ourselves in our place where we can learn safely, make mistakes fearlessly.

Who are these "stoic" students from overseas?

Ms. Pung also knows who the overseas students are. She tells her Australian readers in Melbourne, "They are the students who serve our meals in Chinatown, the people who drive our taxis. They are the lowest-paid and often most-exploited workers, un-protected by Australian work-place relations legislation. We refuse to see their toils because it does not accord with our image of how our overseas cash-calves should be."

You can see how compassionate Ms. Pung is, how she is able to put herself into the chappals of the Indian student. "Eventually, most find company and comfort in the presence of each other," Ms. Pung concedes.

And then, from Ms. Pung, come the lines that should be engraved with golden letters in every classic of anthropology or sociology: "No one seems to begrudge Western students latching on to other Westerners when studying in Asia and forming insular little expatriate communities, to observe the locals as if they were sociological studies instead of people who are only separated by a different culture."

I have personally known and seen students and working people from Europe and USA behave in the most insular and insolent fashion, during their stays in our metro cities. So what of it? No! We Indians, who belong to an ancient civilisation that has assimilated invaders of all colours, we do not "begrudge" Westerners huddling around tables, downing their beers and chatting away. Indians try to tolerate others.

But Ms. Pung goes on, "But somehow, we in Australia seem to demand assimilation from our temporary visitors, instead of offering acceptance and understanding. Many international students are acutely aware that their parents back home are breaking their backs and bank accounts to send them here."

Then comes the punch; Ms. Pung is nearing the end of her piece, "It is not their duty to assimilate: many of them come here, under no uncertain terms, for an education. It is our duty to deliver that education. But perhaps it is also our obligation to show to our young overseas visitors that we are also a tolerant society —- and that we see them."

Thank you, Ms. Pung, for "seeing" our Indian and other overseas students. I hope to meet you in person some day, and thank you for your kindness to the young peoples of the world studying in a foreign place, no matter where.

"Never under-estimate the power of perception"

Besides the links, which I have mentioned in my post last Sunday, 31 May 2009, here is another perceptive analysis by Sarina Singh, senior author of the best-selling Lonely Planet guides to India and Pakistan: "Fear of Indian success led to curry bashing" (Times of India, Sunday, 7 June 2009).

Ms. Sarina Singh says her father, "Dr Bhagat Singh - whose father had migrated to Fiji after World War I - came to Australia in 1955 to study medicine at the University of Melbourne. He entered a country ruled by White Australia Policy, a racist legislation limiting non-white immigration from 1901 to 1973, which was spawned by fear that the non-white work ethic - as demonstrated by the industrious Chinese, who came in large numbers during Australia's mid-1800s Gold Rush - could subvert white interests.

Ms. Singh quotes one of the principal architects of the White Australia Policy: "It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors".

She continues, "Under the White Australia Policy, non-white students could enter Australia on temporary visas. My father had some financial support from his family but had to work during the holidays to make ends meet. He took on odd jobs that included manual labour in a tin factory and bar-tender at a working-class pub. He remembers that Indians were "few-and-far-between back then" and were often viewed as a "curious novelty" by white Australians.

"When asked why he thought Indian students in 21st century Australia were at the centre of what has been dubbed 'curry-bashing', he says it could be because of the relatively sudden influx and the perceived potential threat of an increasingly prosperous Indian community. "Never underestimate the power of perception," he says.

On 3 July, I came across this piece, "Lifting the veil on our ingrained racism", by Sandy Gifford, Professor in the School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University, and director of the La Trobe Refugee Research Centre in Australia.

Writing in The Age on 13 June 2009, Sandy Gifford says, "Australia is a racist society. There, I've said it. I've wanted to say this for the past 24 years — from the time I arrived here... Racism in Australia is pervasive, part of the fabric of everyday life and normalised in ways that render it invisible and make it one of the strongest forms of structural violence. Confronting our racism is painful, but denying it is wrong and making up excuses for specific acts of violence makes us complicit. It also makes us racist...

"It is shameful that we are pussyfooting around the current violence with responses directed at the victims — Indian students are soft targets, and that the damage is the potential loss of millions of dollars of overseas student income.

The real damage is about the loss of the kind of society we could be now and in the future. Yes, racism runs deep in my country — Australia. This is what I feel, what I believe and I, for one, have been silent far too long.

Thank you, Sandy Gifford, for your honesty - free, frank, fearless and fair.


Resist the racists ... of all colours. Please, resist racism ... of any kind, anywhere, by anyone, to anyone.

Your support is my strength,
- Joe.

Pune, India, Sunday, 7th June 2009.