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Giving this Diwali

The diwali diyas at Diwali Celebrations at Ban...

Admiration, respect, possibly adulation or envy are the emotions that pop to mind when people talk of Bill Gates or Warren Buffett, who are not just among the world’s richest men but among the most philanthropic.

Yet fear or trepidation seems to have been the emotion stirred, if we are to believe the media, by these two men when they took their message of giving to China and are rumored to be bringing it to India.

Even before the Joy of Giving week rolled out at the end of September, newspapers in India and elsewhere were talking about “…concern among some of China’s wealthy that they would be pressured into contributions” and of Gates and Buffett’s dinner plans in India.

Other Op-ed pieces discussed everything from the high-rise “apartment” that Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani is building to what philanthropy India’s wealthiest are doing, if at all, and how much.

It is nice that, despite the never-ending stream of scams (Mumbai high-rise, Commonwealth Games, iron-ore mining) the mainstream media is also discussing philanthropy, particularly in the private sector. However, their starry-eyed view of it as something solely the domain of uber-rich would be depressing but for the fact that a million “little men and women” are toiling away in India each day, giving well beyond their means.

As anyone who’s tried to support a charity knows, it is easy to give a little money of your own, harder to give your time and hardest to get others to give their money or time — and it is this giving that I’d like to celebrate this Diwali.

Certainly, the wealthy in India have contributed enormously to philanthropy, be it the Tatas with their charities and institution building or Azim Premji’s eponymous foundation. Their giving, even when they’ve sought to keep it quiet, has gotten the rightful recognition and coverage.

However, most Indians who are giving each day — disproportionate amounts of their time and money — rarely have their story told. Their story needs to be told, if only to inspire others to celebrate them by following in their footsteps. I share the story of two such unheralded givers, so that giving becomes as much a second nature to all of us, as taking seems to be to a large swath of our politicians and bureaucrats.

“Why me?” is a question I hear often as the father of two teens. It is hard to explain even seemingly simple life lessons to kids. So when the “Why me?” question is posed by a teen, both orphaned and HIV positive, it is particularly hard.

Krishnagiri is a town on the Tamil Nadu-Karnataka border just an hour outside Bangalore. Its location on the cross roads of four national highways and as a main trucking route connecting Chennai, Hosur and Bangalore make it a hotspot for HIV/AIDS infections.

This has led to a number of children within the Krishnagiri district being orphaned and many are HIV-infected at birth. Many children were taken in by grandparents, relatives and in some cases by neighbors. Most of these foster parents are themselves poor and face economic challenges even before having to care for these orphaned or infected children.

The Association for Rural Community Development is an NGO that has taken up the cause of these children. Founded in 1998, ARCOD is focused on the empowerment of rural poor, particularly women and children. From the initial days of helping rural poor women form self-help groups in one district, they have grown to four districts of Tamil Nadu and their initiatives span micro-finance, rural housing, and health with emphasis on sexual and reproductive health rights.

Their most recent initiative has been to ensure that these orphaned or HIV-infected children get the nutrition that can ensure them a reasonable quality of life — and so, too, the foster families.

As in any human situation, the numbers rarely paint as clear a picture as individual stories. One 13-year-old girl’s father died of AIDS and even while her mother tries to earn a living as a day laborer, the teenager has to take care of her three younger siblings. Another girl is 11 and HIV positive; she has lost both her parents and is being raised by her grandmother who works as a coolie.

A contribution of 500 rupees a month per child enables the provision of such nutrition. With their volunteer teams on the ground, their counseling and training services for families, ARCOD is directly impacting the lives of hundreds of children. All this with little or no fanfare and even lower overhead.

Pasha is a gifted painter and, like many kids his age, likes playing computer games. However, growing up with muscular dystrophy in a family that lived in the slums of South Bangalore, he’d have never been able to pursue his dreams but for the Foundation for Action, Motivation and Empowerment India.

Founded in 2001, FAME is a Bangalore-based NGO that supports rehabilitation and empowerment of children and young adults with neuro-muscular and intellectual development disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, Down’s syndrome, mental retardation and muscular dystrophy.

“Most poor parents who work had to leave their mentally or physically challenged children locked at home,” says Janaki Vishwanath, managing trustee of FAME India. “They could not put their kids in regular schools nor necessarily afford the special education or schooling.”

It is this gap that FAME India has stepped in to bridge. While admitting students of every economic group, the fees it charges for the school is based solely on parents’ ability to pay. The school bus service at FAME is as important as the special education teachers, the dedicated volunteers, the wheelchair friendly building and in-school lunches as it allows both the children and their parents to pursue an empowering course.

Now, as some of their students approach or cross into adulthood, FAME has stepped up to face the challenge of helping them seek gainful employment that offers a modicum of income and immeasurable confidence to face the world. Opportunities they have created include those in their in-house production facility for cloth and paper gift bags, paper cups, painted clay lamps or diyas for festivals or through mail room or copying and courier jobs with local companies.

Although in a relatively nascent stage from a job creation standpoint and constantly challenged by the financial needs of a growing student body, FAME India is yet another instance of unsung heroes who are changing lives each day one child at a time.

There are yet more organizations such as Gift-a-Future, who are attempting to remove economic impediments that come in the way of education, particularly for high school students. Even if we featured one a week, or better yet one a day, our lives would be that much the richer. Join me in getting their stories told.

This story first appeared online at the Wall Street Journal’s India Journal.

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Are you a pushy Asian parent?

“How can I help you?”

The principal was polite, but somewhat reserved. This was our first meeting with her. Contrary to what my wife and I had heard from other parents, she was neither fire-breathing nor scary. Sure, with her hair in a tight bun, a somewhat conservative raised-collar white shirt and severely cut skirt, she looked more like an up-and-coming corporate marketing executive than the principal of an elementary school. Her reputation was as a no-nonsense disciplinarian.

Report Card

Photo Credit: pjern via Compfight cc

Sometime early in our meeting, the atmosphere turned from the formal and somewhat frigid start to a whole lot warmer and practically collegial. We realized this had happened once the principal knew we were not there to discuss our older daughter who was already in the school but that we’d had asked for the meeting as a prelude to admitting our younger one. In fact things got comfortable enough that somewhere in there she alluded to the fact that she always gets tremendous pressure from “Asian” parents.

Of course, in California and much of the U.S., the word Asian, particularly in an educational context, is used to refer to the arc of peoples from Japan through Indo-China to China itself. Rarely are South Asians, including Indians or West Asians, referred to as Asians.

In this instance, the principal referred to the preponderance of Indian and Chinese parents who wanted their kids to start earlier at school, get more homework, have even more activities for their kids — in other words these parents were COMPETITIVE. Her relief was palpable that we’d merely come to discuss our child’s admission.

I could certainly empathize with her and did not want to be in her shoes at a parent teacher meeting. Hah, but little did I know that I’d soon be stepping into the proverbial fire from the frying pan when my family and I relocated to Bangalore.

“Excuse me, excuse me!” the lady was persistent. About 40 of us, all parents of tenth-graders were in a meeting with the principal, this time at a school in Bangalore. The family and I have been back in India for nearly five years and our older child is in the 10th grade. The principal, this time in a starched saree but just as businesslike and no-nonsense as her Californian counterpart, was trying to address all the questions the parents had — and they had a few!

The Central Board of Secondary Education earlier this year announced its most significant reforms since the current “10 plus 2″ system of secondary education was rolled out in 1977. They were doing away with the “Board Exams.”

Across 11,500-plus schools in India each year, nearly 1.5 millions students appear for these examinations. For three decades, this single exam, taken at the end of the 10th grade, has determined what educational streams Indian kids can pursue in grades 10 and 11. Science, Commerce or the Arts are the most common choices. This choice, in turn, determines what college majors they can apply for.

No prizes for guessing the two popular choices — medicine or engineering, both of which require science and math in 10th and 11th grades.

Our children’s school was one of the few CBSE “senior secondary” schools in our city, meaning they offered 11th and 12th grades while most others only went to tenth. So if you wanted your kid to stay in high school for 11th and 12th grades, they had to compete with not just their classmates, but kids graduating from tenth grade in other schools.

“What if my child does not get admission in the science stream in 11th class at your school?” said the persistent parent. I could feel the collective nods of nearly every other parent in the room as they strained to hear the principal’s answer.

“Shouldn’t you give preference for your own students first?” pressed another parent before the principal could respond.

Like an angry town hall or shareholder meeting, the mood in the room was tense as parents tried to determine if their kid would get into the Science section.

“As long as your kids score A grade or better (80% or more) in science and math, they will be given admission in our own school,” the principal tried to assure the gathering.

“And if we are transferred or have to move, would other schools accept the grades the school gives out?” a couple from the front row asked in tandem.

“Let me speak plainly,” piped in a dad. “Your school exams have been a lot tougher than the Board exams in the past. Wouldn’t it be better if our children took the Boards? Wouldn’t that allow them to compete on a level playing field with kids from other schools?”

To her credit, the principal kept her cool as the parents continued to pepper her with questions.

While my wife, and at times one of my children, had regaled me with tales of moms who showed up at school wanting to know why a teacher had knocked off a mark or two from their child’s class test, I had not encountered this face of the anxious — at times angry — Indian school parent.

Even as the buzz of parents talking to one another grew, I put my hand up. Once I caught the principal’s eye, I asked: “Is the discussion so far pertaining only to admission for Science majors? What about Arts major?”

You could have cut the shocked silence with a knife.

“If 25 parents are prepared to commit in writing that they will send their child to an Arts major, I am prepared to offer one,” the principal said. “Otherwise anything other than Science doesn’t have enough takers.”

That evening, I took a poll of about 20 people — colleagues at work, neighbors and college mates — nearly all of whom had trained formally as engineers. Most hadn’t practiced engineering in two decades. One had become a restaurateur, several were real estate developers, others run businesses ranging from an adventure outfit to advertising agencies. Several were in teaching, general management and consulting. Many were still considering career changes. And these were the successful ones.

So why do we as parents expect our children to make up their minds at 15 or 16 and, worse yet, determine that they should all be mindlessly studying for professional courses? At the end of the eighth grade, many kids take a test to be admitted to a coaching class for taking engineering or medical entrance exams four years later!

From the ninth through 12th grades, their evenings and Saturdays are spent boning up for entrance exams. Each year, we read of ever more kids killing themselves after their 10th or 12th grade exams unable to take the pressure.

Only when we win an elusive gold at the Olympics (can we name two Indians in the last four years) or an even rarer Nobel Prize, as happened with Venkatraman Ramakrishnan in 2009, do we as Indians seem to think that there are worthwhile pursuits outside of being a doctor or an engineer.

But I am rambling. I had better stop here and rush to get into the queue for admitting my child in the special prep class for her tenth grade exam!

This article first appeared online in the Wall Street Journal in October 2010.

Getting rid of our Sir-ji culture

Kids salutin

Photo Credit: Alex E. Proimos via cc

“Saif sir and Shah Rukh sir, I appreciate your question…”

I had turned on the television soon after getting home from work in the hope of wiping out a rough day. The FilmFare awards — Bollywood’s tribute to its own – were on. The speaker was Neil Nitin Mukesh, an up and coming heartthrob in Tinseltown. He was addressing superstars Shah Rukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan, the comperes for the awards ceremony.

The two Khans, in an attempt to inject humor into the proceedings, were posing questions to other actors in the audience. Those questioned, in turn, were expected to respond with creative insults, tongue-in-cheek, to the two Khans — all in good humor.

Shah Rukh is in his mid-forties and Saif, I suspect, just turned 40. Wikipedia tells me Neil Nitin Mukesh is 28. When I heard Neil speak, it made me stop and wonder why a grown man was addressing the two Khans as “Sir.”

My first thought was that it was the sheer inadequacy of the English language. In Spanish there is usted — a respectful form of you. And of course nearly every Indian language has the Hindi equivalent of aap — a pronoun reserved to demonstrate respect to someone senior, elderly or even, at times, a respected colleague. The use of these forms, from Bhojpur to Chettinad, is rarely about status or inequality but largely about courtesy and culture.

But there remained a niggling feeling: What if this is not a linguistic shortcoming but something deeper?

I shared my theory the next morning with my two business partners, who were actually working instead of wondering about Bollywood’s sociological makeup. I felt that the movie industry was far too hierarchical. Even Shah Rukh, at the same event, referred to Mani-sir (Mani Ratnam, the award-winning director). And, I asserted, this was emblematic of Indian society at large: far too much groveling and far too little respect.

To their credit, my partners argued in reasoned tones that it was language rather than any feudal attitudes or the need for social debasement that lead to the use of the word “Sir” when addressing an industry peer. They went on to propound their own theory — by which time you can be sure all pretense of work was done away with — that this is likely an urban phenomenon.

Did not most Tamil folks in Chennai use “Sir,” abandoning the more archaic (and potentially feudal) “ayya,” they argued. The Tamil movie industry, too, is rife with Rajni-sir and Kamal-sir, though I wasn’t sure if that bolstered their case or not. By that point anyway they had returned to doing real work.

What is my gripe with “Sir,” you ask? Yes, it is perfectly serviceable for class 8 students to use it when addressing their English or even their Hindi teacher. Possibly it works for the maitre d’ at a fancy Euro restaurant since his snooty attitude does away with any illusion of who’s the master.

Any other time, there’s far too much of the servile tone of a colonial job applicant imbued into “Sir,” which 60-odd years of Babudom have only cemented further.

Spend an afternoon sitting in a bank manager’s office, on a manufacturing shop floor or in a police or income tax commissioner’s office and you are likely to encounter “Sir” enunciated in every imaginable accent. If you have been in a hospital, you can’t but help see the doctors get their share of “Sir,” many a times as “Dr.-Sir.” Even within the information technology industry — despite its global exposure and purported performance-based culture -– deference, at times even subservience, follows the “Sir.”

I am by no means advocating the use of first names alone. When my good friend, college buddy and now nearly-50 year old university professor tells my 12-year-old to call him by his first name, I will be the first one to admit that I am not at all comfortable. I’d rather my daughter call him Uncle Jaap. Yet when 25-year-old engineers address me as “Sir,” I squirm. While I choose to think that half the mails I get addressing me as “Sir” have merely misspelled my first name, I know I am fighting a losing battle.

I’d like to imagine that borrowing the good old Hindi suffix “ji” — or for those of you opposed to Hindi dominance, the Japanese suffix “san” — would do away with “Sir.” And create a work culture that’s respectful without having to be deferential or, worse yet, servile. If the central government ran a contest for a Hinglish term to replace “Sir,” I suspect it would find more support and takers than trying to come up with an international symbol for the rupee. And, for sure, it’s likely to do far greater good – for a whole lot more people – than a rupee symbol will.

This article first appeared in the Wall Street Journal online as To Sir Without Love.

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