Sep 26, 2011

Stigma and Prejudice

AIDS.
One of those terms that instill intense fear, loathing and segregation.
A form of apartheid that continues to hold entire societies in a vice-like grip.
No longer a fatal disease, but a controllable chronic disease, our fears are largely unfounded.
Being HIV positive no longer means the individual will look languished or ooze blood or even die in a few months. (Courtesy: Philadelphia)

Although I consider myself very informed about the disease and had very little prejudice against individuals who were infected, my most recent project to The Freedom Foundation was a wonderful eye opener.
Having heard of the ground breaking work they have been doing for several decades, when I visited them the past week, I expected to see a facility that was well funded and adequately supported. But what I saw was depressing. I could not believe how a government that showers billions of dollars on CWG would not want to fund a Foundation that is serving the less fortunate in our society.

A facility that cannot be terming sprawling by any stretch of imagination, I met two dozen kids. Twelve boys and eleven girls.
One would imagine being infected with the most famous virus of the past decades, they would be sickly, coughing and without any will/dream of their own.
But on the contrary, they are very much like you and me. Very ambitious, playful, every bit intelligent and bursting with energy.
But our collective ignorance and the stigma associated with some of the ways that the virus can spread has resulted in millions being denied the care they deserve.

The youngest, Mahalakshmi, at only a shade over four years old, is already a survivor of two brain surgeries. A slow learner, the Foundation has been tutoring her so that she does not miss out on a regular school curriculum when she joins school next year. Spirited and vivacious, she is a bundle of joy.
Or take for instance, Saraswati. Shy and reticent, at 14; you'd think she is going to be depressed and suicidal. No. A creative person, she is training to be a fashion designer.

Having spent two consecutive weekends at The Freedom Foundation, I've seen how being HIV positive can be living a life where you are always judged and labelled.
But what also struck me was how ordinary they are. Off the 23 that stayed at the Foundation, nineteen of them ranged from four to ten years old.
Every bit as capricious and ambitious, we never imagined we could have as much fun as we did. Some of my team who took part in the project on Saturday, made it for the project on Sunday too!

During the course of the day, I began to feel guilty every time I remembered how sick they might be. As a person, you tend to treat people who are sick with kid gloves. You'd want to stop them from running too much, or exerting too much pressure on themselves.
But the truth is, they don't want to be treated any different from how you'd treat your kid brother/sister.
They don't want free handouts. They want opportunities.
They don't want a free meal. They need healthcare that matters. They deserve research that will guarantee a better future.
Take them seriously, but don't discriminate them.
Recognize their right to live as full a life as you or I have.
The Team that made it possible

After my visit to The Freedom Foundation, I've learned my most important lesson - AIDS is no different a disease as heart disease and diabetes.
But it's sufferers can certainly benefit a lot more from a society that is willing to understand them and their disease a little better.

I've always believed that only a less informed individual can be prejudiced. While India is the cradle of civilization, looking at the plight of individuals with HIV positive, I get the distinct feeling that we need to set our priorities right.

Sep 23, 2011

Able and Willing.. Part 1

Community Service to many of us is a farce. An event where we get a paid day off.
While many who volunteer their time think they are doing a favor to those who are underprivileged, I think it's the other way round. They are doing us a favor by letting us be a part of their special life.


The ThomsonReuters Foundation, tied up with 25 NGOs, each a pioneer in their field. Unprecedented in scale and involvement, we'll have 2500 employees taking part in 250 projects across 4 months.

In a series of posts, I'll attempt to pen down my experiences with the 19 projects that I will be a part of this year.

Sept 17th, 2011.
'Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day....teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime'
Unnati works on empowering those sections of the society that is underprivileged and undermined in more ways than one.
With 12 enthusiastic volunteers, we were overwhelmed at the sight of over 200 candidates at the Centre on a bright and balmy Saturday morning.
A quick briefing and a short slideshow of the program cleared any doubts that my team had.

But what really impressed many of us was how streamlined the entire process was.
Interview on such a massive scale is always a logistical nightmare. However in Unnati, fully completed applications are screened for authenticity and tagged for any one of the 12 vocations taught at the NGO.

The kind of candidates that we saw impressed us too. Guys and girls who you'd otherwise not bat an eyelid if you passed them on the street were there, wanting to learn, work and be able to stand on their own feet. Nearly all of them reached Unnati because they had friends/relatives who were taught at the NGO.
Most of them were humble and open to instruction, criticism and feedback. Some were hell bent on working in a particular vocation, even though they lacked the skills. We had to persuade them and explain to them why they would not suit a vocation.
But all of them had an amazing attitude about life, smiling even though in abject poverty.
For the 150 odd candidates that did crack the interview, Sept 19th is just the beginning.
The team at Unnati that made a difference!

Towards the end of the day, we all had a wonderful time. Many of us saw ourselves in the candidates we interviewed.
And on our way back, we promised ourselves that we would want to be there when the 70 day course at Unnati finishes on the 3rd of December.

Karunashraya - Hospice
Sept 18th, 2011.
'All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.'
The hospice for patients with cancer in it's advanced stages struck a very personal chord with me.
Having seen what cancer can do with a person and his/her family, the work that Karunashraya made me pause and ponder. Pain is an incredible thing. Something that you need to experience to know how much it pains, cancer is a painful death sentence.
Having seen my dad and his sisters loose their battles of cancer was painful. Scary even.
At Karunashreya, I saw death. Apparently the mortality rate at the hospice is as high as two deaths a day.

The history of the NGO is inspiring. Having gone through a corrupt bureaucracy, the NGO does manage to strike a delicate balance between altruism and sound policies.
We got to learn how the hospice functioned. What I noticed was how almost everything in the hospice was designed and done in such a way that death looses it's sting. 
Each of the 'guest' is allowed to wear their own clothes provided it is comfortable and easy to wear/remove, every guest is allowed to walk freely around the facility, every guest is given their choice of meal three times a day. And when the time comes that the guest has to 'depart', he/she is given a dignified way through doors that open directly into the veranda and wheeled to the 'Prayer room' where the relatives can accept the mortal remains.
All this is done so to make sure that none of the inmates see the bodies going out, even though all of them are quite sure that their turn to leave is not too far away.

Our project was to provide succor to the staff and nurses and relief even if it was just a day, from the gory reality of death around them.
Ranging from ages 18 to 25, you'd hardly notice anything different about the staff here and any other hospital. Dig deeper and you'll find that they all have a passion for selflessness. Polite yet steely resolved, working with terminally ill people require nerves of steel.
Would I want to work with Karunashraya again? Definitely Yes.

Sept 21st, 2011.
"For me, inclusion is about a community where everyone is recognized for their differences and everyone is recognized as belonging – not only in our schools, but in our communities."
As part of my third project, we had to plan and execute a gathering of 25 different NGOs that work for differently abled individuals. 
The first picture that comes to our minds when we talk about social service are images of individuals who are anemic, unintelligible and unscrupulous.
Having met 25 different NGOs involved in healthcare, employment and among specially abled individuals, my perception has improved. 
With over 2000 registered NGOs in the city of Bangalore alone, it is anybody's guess on why we need to pool in our collective resources. The need is certainly there. Being 'challenged' (or the more politically incorrect term 'disabled') does no longer mean that you should be begging for your living. With the wealth of resources that many of these NGOs have, getting a good job/living a respectable life is only a matter of connecting to the right organization.


With the NGOs promising to network and connect in a better way in the future, I believe we were able to hit all the right notes with our project.

Next Stop:
The Freedom Foundation

Sep 21, 2011

Changing Lives.. Making a Difference

As a leader of yet another community service project, I visited an NGO that does some amazing service among the less privileged among us.

The Freedom Foundation, founded in the early '90s was born out of a need that two philanthropists, a Doctor and a De-addiction Therapist, knew existed.
Starting in a location that was way out of town at that time, the center initially treated (alcohol/drug) addicts who needed help. However, Dr Ashok Rau and Late Karl Sequeira soon realized the need for a center that would care for children who are HIV -infected.
Thus began, the current facility at Geddalahalli, roughly four kilometers from the Hennur main road.

What started with three students have now grown to over 25 children who live full-time at nine of its nicely furnished rooms.
Of course there are a lot of NGOs that do outstanding work in the field of HIV research and care, but what struck me about The Freedom Foundation was how bureaucracy and civic apathy can stunt even the most altruistic NGO.
Meeting with the director at the NGO, I could understand the pain - of not having donors, of not having sufficient funding, at fighting a loosing battle - and the determination. Take for instance, the case of two orphaned siblings. The three year old girl was HIV positive was forcefully separated from her seven year old brother, who was HIV negative. The government naturally believed the boy stood a better chance of a good life, gave him up for adoption. The Freedom Foundation, on the other hand believed that the siblings must not be separated, being as it is that the girl didn't have her parents and her brother was her only family remaining. After months of legal wrangling and much debate, the honorable courts did find sense in letting the brother be with his younger sister.

If being HIV positive was not a death sentence in itself, red tapism makes it even more exasperating.
Barred from receiving any foreign aid by archaic rules, I could feel the plight of survival.
To a government that believes being HIV positive is a punishment for your lifestyle choices, every victim is just another statistic.

I went around the in-patient facility, surveying and understanding the needs of the Foundation. Partly because I would be leading a team of 14 from my Company who will help 'Beautify the Centre' and make the day a little more joyful for the children and partly because I was moved by the plight of the Foundation that is visibly struggling.

As kids, they didn't choose to be branded, but as adults we can make sure they have a fair shot at education, a promising career and a family of their own. 
While many talk about equal opportunities, our schools, colleges and workplaces are not willing to walk the talk.
I was told how the warden and the Director had to pull strings to convince the institutions to admit the HIV -infected and -affected children to schools and colleges.
Isn't this another face of that prejudiced monster we call - Corruption?

While we are eager to spend thousands on wasteful birthday bashes, anniversary gifts and exotic vacations, what we forget to remember is how just $75 would take care of the costs of the ART for one child in a month. And it costs just $150 for an entire year's education for that child. Surely, we can afford this. Can't we?

If seeing is believing, the Freedom Foundation is indeed an eye-opener. I'd recommend you to visit them, even if you don't have any intention of serving their cause. I came away thinking of the many ways that we take our charmed lives for granted.

If you think you would like to contribute to a noble cause, please visit them here where you can contribute just about anything. 
Your change could make the difference we need.

Sep 10, 2011

Learn, Earn, Stand tall


As part of the ThomsonReuters Community Service team, I have been fortunate to be a part of several projects.


The first project for this year that I'll be a part of is organized by an well-networked NGO called Unnati (An SGBS trust initiative).
First of it's kind that I'm being a part of, Unnati enables and empowers underprivileged students in a competitive world.


Meeting the director of the NGO was a wonderful experience. Unnati identifies between 100 and 200 students who are socially and economically underprivileged. Nearly all of the students that are selected to study here are from family below the poverty level. Apart from having no knowledge of English and very limited chances of a gainful employment in a fast paced job market, these students aren't much different from you and me. 
They are ambitious (one student graduating out of the seventy day course aspired to be a Managing Director of a Hotel one day), they have the same fear of the stage, and will face the same challenges that you and I will face. But just because they live in a shanty house or in a village or slum, we are biased against them. 


The eight year old not for profit NGO, depends on 90 other NGOs and many of it's alumni for its students - from 18 to 40 year olds. Costs are met by generous donors like Google et al.


Once at the Centre, they go through a thorough screening process that separates the truly deserving from the 'just lazy'. 
There after they go through a seventy day vocational training and personality development course that is structured and tutored by professionals who volunteer their time and effort. Students are taught vocational training (like guest care, tailoring, industrial painting, security, paramedics, and retail sales and marketing) in state of the art class rooms that are donated by companies like Philips, and the Infosys Foundation..
Of course like any other organisation, Unnati goes through the pangs of attrition too.
But what surprised me is how attrition tapered off after just 10 days of class. The students apparently are convinced about the effect that Unnati has on them in a week! 
At the seventieth day we see how such a structured environment, that places emphasis on underprivileged individuals getting the right kind of vocational training that  equips them for the modern workforce, achieves when nearly all the students graduate, with a job. Many of the students earn between Rs 3000 to Rs 9000 as their first salaries!


Today, sitting among the students at their valediction ceremony, I could feel the excitement, the enthusiasm and the confidence that all of these students possess. The students performed skits on money management, etiquette and life skills. 


It's hard to imagine how any organization can transform a person from being underprivileged to being part of a highly trained modern workforce. But watching the students graduate with pride and honor, I know Unnati has done the impossible. 
From a lump of clay to a beautiful piece of art.


Amidst all the anarchy and chaos in our society, Unnati comes out as a beacon of hope. The hope that not all is wrong in the world today.


Their motto: Learn, Earn and Stand tall, rings through all their students. 
Unnati: A wonderful example to emulate

Never Give Up!

One of my favorite quotes about never giving up is by Michael Jordan.
'I've failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.'
What happens when you fail after you've given your best?
How do you prepare yourself when you don't get what you've been waiting for a very long time?
Do you regret wasting your time preparing for something when you've failed?
Do you crumble? Do you beat yourself up? Do you feel like God has just left you behind?

After a very busy (yet enjoyable) week spent preparing for a position that I've been vying for a long time, I was told that I didn't make the cut.
Ordinarily, I should have been distraught. Loosing out on an interview is not a pleasant feeling.
I am not the kind of person who has cried over a rejection at a job interview either.
But this time, it was different. I knew I was prepared for this job. Having trained and performed exceptionally well, this test should have been a cakewalk.
Of course, if I could turn back time, there are a few things I would have done differently. But hindsight is always 20-20.

I was a nervous wreck after completing the test. But if there is one thing I've learned (the hard way), it is that God always makes sure we get the best.
Even when it takes time.
It might not happen today. Heck, it may not even happen in this year. But it will happen.
It's only a matter of being obedient to His will and patient to His purpose in our lives that matters.
We cannot rush Him. We must not curse Him.

When I was asked if I really did well at the test, all I said was 'If God wills, I will get it'. Just uttering it gave me peace. Believing in it gave me the reassurance that I am in His safe hands.
I was as calm as a tranquilized squirrel when I was finally told that I didn't make it.

Failure in life is something that we all need to learn to live with.
But something that most people don't have the patience to learn.

After all, we all work to live and not the other way round.

Sep 8, 2011

And finally she did!

While proving that India didn't lack men who were hungering for her skin, she has also retained the title of 'The most downloaded model on the internet' (sic) by dangling this picture.

Atlast, now those Venezuelan and Brazilian babes can go back home now.


Okay, here's a thought, Ms Pandey. How about promising to strip if terrorists stop bombing?
Finally, we'll have peace and you can go absconding again.

What surprises me is how human beings will stoop to conquer eye balls.
While most sane people would never want to hear disgraceful things said about themselves and their upbringing or parents, there are some like our dear Ms Poonam 'I'll-strip-for-nuts' Pandey who wouldn't mind even if the entire nation had labeled her a 'publicity stunt' and a wannabe.

Why? But I guess this will always remain as those things we do but won't like to admit we are doing with an sinister motive in mind.

So now, how do you suggest we punish people like Ms strip?
Make her read all of Ms Arundhati Roy writing. That should sufficiently traumatize instill discipline in errant people like her.


Poonam, please learn a lesson or two from Larissa Riquelme

Sep 7, 2011

Get Grammar'd

The finest language is mostly made up of simple unimposing words.

—George Eliot, British poet (1819–1880)
Talk about examples that make sense!

Preparing for an professional English test recently, I had to refresh myself on English Grammar.
And I must admit I did enjoy the 'experience'!

I've been fortunate to have had an English language teacher who challenged and encouraged me to better my best, but having met and interacted with scores of graduates since, I believe the general standard of English has taken a bitter plunge. Mediocre books only make it worse

Grammar is interesting.
But like all sciences, you'd appreciate how it functions only if you'd practice it.
Having been a professional writer for well over 3 years now, learning the deeper rules of the language made me sit up and take notes.

We need better examples and a higher quality of instruction. Many of our tutors do not bother to research and are never encouraged to learn.
In a bizzare way, they believe in confusing you, if they can't convince you.

I've seen insanely thick books of grammar that accomplish half of what a concise book on the language would.
Grammar is after all not rocket science. Its just a set of rules that helps you make sense of your writing.
Learn it. Besides the wonderful and wacky examples that it gives you, you'd also learn to appreciate the language better.

Finally. something worth embedding!

Sep 1, 2011

You've been served.

I love fables and analogies.

And I especially love the way our society has this love hate relationship with its politicians.
First we vote these scum into office with such zest and zeal.
Then we fight against them if they don't listen to us. We hurl abuses, slogans and flags at them.
And then the 'poly-ticks' will fight us because we hurled abuses against them. Why, you ask? Well, we have insulted them. Their moral compass has been outraged.

Naturally during months and more importantly weeks of intense civil arousal, millions of Indians have called our politicians many choice titles.
We (including Moi) have called them many juicy terms and rightfully so. They deserved every bit of them. And maybe more.
But ofcourse like when you are fishing, you can't catch all the fish in the pond. You only catch the biggest one (or the unluckiest)

The very dignified poly-ticks in our government after having been verbally molested, are now indignant. They want action against Om Puri and Kiran Bedi.
While Om Puri has rendered a shameless apology, Kiran Bedi has stood her ground.

Having served the two 'priviledge notice' which accuses them of having insulted the government,
So what do we serve them for the way they have sullied our name? For having stolen our wealth? For behaving like rats and common mice in parliament?
Is not the law that they apply on us also applicable to them?
Which brings me to why we should not be able to recall the same people we vote for? 
Maybe we need to emulate the Nepali Parliament!
Bring 'em on.
Serve me too! I dare you, Mr Poly-tick-sion.
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