Theater: Laughter at the Expense of Those With Disabilities

We attended a drama, Anubhav, by Ramaprasad Banik, being put on by the Theater Group of Nehru Children’s Museum at the Academy of Fine Arts.  It was presented as a play about the emotional sensitivity of children, and it took place in a school for boys.    I took the five big girls, Kalpana,and Ganga (in her chair).  Seema Gupta, on our Board met us there.  She had friends whose children were in the play, an she had gotten the tickets for us.  She had also clarified in advance that we had one child in a wheelchair, and it was agreed the chair would be next to us in the aisle.

We were on the early side and went right in.  We found our seats in the second row, up to the aisle, but the aisle was so narrow, the chair totally blocked the aisle.  So I moved forward temporarily to the front row and put the chair in front of me, leaving a very wide area for people to pass.

“Madam, you must move.  This (the child in the chair) is blocking the way.”

Me: “Well there is still a lot of room for people to pass, but there is no room in the aisle for anyone to get past.  I have a seat just behind me, with the others.”  He looked back and figured out  we were a group.  I added, ‘We arranged all this in advance.”

“Madam, you can move her to the back of the auditorium so she does not block the aisle.”

“You mean where she can’t see as much?  That wouldn’t be nice to treat her that way just because she is in a wheelchair!”    Iwas being as sweet, dumb sounding, and immovable as I could.

“Oh yes, well then move her over to the end of the row, by the exit.”

“Oh my, but then she can’t see the full stage.”

All this happened over about ten minutes, with different men coming to replace the ones who had been unsuccessful in moving us.  Seema Gupta was wonderful in trying to help negotiate, knowing I wasn’t moving, and as upset as I was. I talked to Ganga as this was going on.  I asked if she was OK, and I said we were doing this so people would have better places for people who needed wheelchairs.  She smiled, grinned, and seemed to get it.  I asked again if she was OK, and she grinned.

A compromise was reached, wherein Ganga would be in the front with me before the play and when it started I would move back into the second row seat on the aisle and she would be in the aisle next to me.  All I could think of was the fire hazard of this arrangement now that we WERE blocking the aisle.

The play was in Bengali but I’d heard that it was about emotional sensitivity, and there was an orphan in it… and I could follow some of what was going on.  There was slapstick… I kept noticing that.  Early there was slapstick about a boy who couldn’t speak.  He would open his mouth and words wouldn’t come out.  The others would yell at him to talk.  His mother hit him over the head.  The whole place burst into laughter, including Ganga.  But then Ganga couldn’t stop laughing, couldn’t get herself under control.  Because it was fastest way, I picked her up out of the chair and left through the exit.  I sat with her in the lobby, just soothing her.  She calmed down.  She was upset.  We just sat, her head against my chest.

The theater group director happened to come by and said hello.  He had no idea what had gone on.  He was proud of the production, and said it was good our children were here “because it’s about these things.”  He talked with pride about his school, and the boys… (he then quickly added girls) who were in it.  But the play was a boy’s play.  There were NO good parts for girls.  They either were girls who giggled, or mothers of the boys.

I tried once to carry her back in but she started uncontrolled spasms of laughter as I opened the door.  But during intermission we did go back in.  I carried her in and sat with her on my lap, which is where she wanted to be.  Usually she would rather be with the big girls.  She didn’t laugh.  She was somber.   In the final scene the boy who can’t talk was being goaded by another boy.  Just another happy ending.

I just kept thinking how glad I was that Sudip wasn’t there, my Secretary with CP, who lives it all.

A few days ago we visited an NGO, which is part of an international group that serves the poor and those with disabilities.  Sudip had visited them seven years before as part of his activism with Ankur in Disability Awareness and they remembered him fondly.  We visited all their buildings and grounds and then they took us to the meditation room, a beautiful architecturally designed brick structure, but inaccessible to those with disabilities.  This had not changed in the seven years since Sudip had been there before.  I asked what they did with people in wheelchairs, whether they just carried them in.  “No, they sit outside the building.”

From inside this beautiful meditation room, I took a picture of Sudipendu Dutta standing outside.

Sudipendu Dutta on crutches standing outside inaccessible meditation building

Sudipendu Dutta Outside the Ashram’s Inaccessible Meditation Room

I Did Laundry and Cleaned the Kitchen While MaaDurga Slay the Demons

We are in the midst of the Pooja Festivals.  Today is Maha Navami, the ninth lunar day of the holiday.   As per Hindu mythology, Goddess Durga killed Chando and Mundo, two asuras (demons) at the confluence (Sandhi) of Maha Ashtami and Mahanavami.  In Kolkata the holiday is both religious and secular.

Today we were very short on help.  The big girls were invited out.  So we made do. I did laundry.  Many times in my life when stress was high, so much on my mind, doing laundry grounded me.  There is something about the simple work of cleaning, the repetitive necessity of life, attending to the basics.  Wash the clothes, spin dry, hang to dry, and fold….. appreciate that we have water, electricity, a washing machine, and sun in the garden…

I cleaned under the refrigerator.  I don’t think this had been done for months even though we have a schedule.  I just had a feeling it would be bad under there.  I bought a refrigerator with wheels so I could move it easily.  I vacuumed with my little hand held that I use mostly for around computer wires.  I poured detergent and scrubbed with a green ScotchBrite pad.  Then I cleaned the freezer, and then the refrigerator doors.  Feeling really inspired I cleaned the doors of the steel pantry, and then went after the shelves where water bottles and pitchers are kept.  I filled a garbage can with stuff to go out.

Pearl, our house supervisor was here and pitched in.  I called Gibi and told her we were without help and she came.  Between us, we really did fine.  I bathed the little ones.  I think for Bono, this was the highlight of her festival, that Mummy gave her a bath.  She did not stop squealing with joy.   I’m “special” to all of them so having me taking care of them really made their day.

I downloaded another iPad program to try with Rani, Bono, and Sonali.  You had to get little circles together so the fish would eat them.  It’s a math game but they loved following the action, and their touching the screen didn’t shut down the program.  The iPads are a wonderful addition, partly because the programs are also fun for the teachers.  I had fun, so the kids had fun with me.  I did have to remind myself once to keep them in the game as I suddenly got too focused on winning.

Laundry, kitchen cleaning, and slaying dragons.  All are necessary for our existence, and at different times we play different roles.  For me as a woman, especially one who faces demons, the daily activity of taking care of children anchors me and gives me strength.

Tomorrow, on Dashami, we are all invited to a community lunch put on by a local club that has been very supportive.  The girls will all pitch in, and we will all go, walking,  in wheelchairs… our little family procession…

The lives of our girls are not simple, nor are  they without scars, and wounds that are not yet healed.  We try to live three steps ahead of  demons within, looking for hope and light and promises we can believe.

Maa Durga has come to Earth with her four children, Ganesh, Kartik, Lakshmi, and Saraswati to visit her parents. She stays for four days to eradicate all evil from the earth before returning to her husband Lord Shiva at Kailash on Dashami. 

As every woman knows, you must first do the laundry and clean the kitchen if good is to overcome evil in your home.

At School: Deer Caught in the Headlights*

“Deer in the Headlights.”  That’s how I think of the girls in school.  They are having a very hard time, in academics, and socially.  Academically they have switched to English, so it will take them time to catch up.  But I think even more, they are just terrified.  No one has misbehaved, even in the face of insults from teachers.  We have had tears, appropriate to the situations.

The educational world here is a cruel one, where too often teachers take out their anger, hate, frustrations, on the children.  In spite of national laws, hitting by teachers continues.  So does making them stand in positions of humiliation.  Our girls have not been beaten or made to hold their ears while squatting 50 times.  But they have been asked if they eat grass from the field, and they have been asked if our Shishur Sevay teachers were found on the road.  This was asked of them by a teacher we had already nicknamed “Donkey-Sir” as he calls all the kids Donkeys. Back at home we all had a good laugh because everyone comes from the road, no helicopters here, no flying elephants… just broken bumpy roads.

This is a private school, founded on high principles, but it all comes down to the teachers, like childcare comes down to who is actually taking care of the children.  “The devil is in the details.”  I’m writing because I’m at a crossroads again about their education.  I’m continually evaluating what is working, what isn’t, what needs to change, including in my own perspective.  The cultural differences and behaviors in education are far more alien to me than any other aspects of life here.  I just figured out that I have been a school parent for some 40 years now!  Over those years, I don’t think I ever felt demeaned by teachers or school officials.  I had disagreements along the way, many, but it always felt like we were on the same level, even when I was told that the school knew better than I did what my daughters needed.   I’m struggling as I write this because there have been exceptions, but that’s what they have been.  And there have been some good teachers along the way.  There have also been some “nice” teachers who unfortunately held the girls to such low standards, they are still behind.   But now that I’ve made my DISCLAIMER, that I’m not talking about ALL schools, let me tell you what it’s been like.  I need to.  Warning: this may be long. I’ve not done well with schools.

Special Education:  The first school where I sent our kids was one I had funded several years before in a program to help the orphans with disability who were “left over” when IMH closed.  Feeling some sense of responsibility for these children none of us took, I paid for their evaluations and the building of appropriate chairs and other furniture for them, and for training of staff as to how better to care for them.  So, when I came back a few years later, having founded Shishur Sevay, I expected to be treated as another professional, not “just a parent.”  We were off to a bad start when I sang, ‘If you’re happy and you know it, clap you hands…” to another crying child in the room.

I tried another school for kids with disabilities.    They wanted a special letter from the Director of Social Welfare giving them permission to take the four little ones.   We did last three weeks.  At that school the children were not given water for the four hours they were there.  We would pick them up and they would, all four, be thrusting out their tongues for water.  The bottle we sent with them was not used.  The Principal said, “we will look into it,” but nothing changed.  On the first day we had gone to pick them up and they were stuck to the chairs, which had been painted but not dried.  We had to peel them off the chairs, which meant they had not been moved in four hours.  (The school offered to pay for new uniforms for them.) But it was really the water that was the clincher, and my wondering, “What kind of people deny water to children who can’t speak or walk?”  I just didn’t want the kids with people like that.

Well, back to my older girls, the ones with the headlights in their eyes, I need to shift my assessment from, they WON’T study to they CAN’T study.  I’ve had some outside teachers, friends recently who have really helped me figuring this out.   The girls are smart, but what they know is not making it to the tests.  Some of it is just learning English, some is a wall of protection that keeps them from trying.   If I imagine a headlight in my eyes, then parts of speech or lowest common denominator are pretty irrelevant.  Yesterday I was looking at a test on of the girls took.  It was about a story her class had read in school.  The test was a series of questions and answers.  The questions were from the back of the chapter and the answers had been dictated by the teacher.  For the test she had to be able to write the answers word for word.  Her spelling was not good.  She didn’t do them all.  But even if she had, the question remained in my mind, “So what?”   Was she learning comprehension?  She didn’t even have to find the answers to the questions herself.  Back in their first school, the government school, teachers read out answers to the standardized tests.  We used to call that teacher “Answer-Aunty.”  In the next school we had “Caste-Aunty” the one who asked them their religion and Caste in order to place them in the Houses.  Last, I can’t resist adding “Gold-Aunty” who this year complained that I had not sent enough costume jewelry for the dance.  I had however sent enough saris for all the girls in the dance, as we had extras.  It wears me down.  I’m sure it wears the girls down.

I want them to be educated, to be able to think and write and express themselves.  But I also want them to have the necessary certificates to go on into academic or vocational fields.  The workload makes that near impossible.  I’m looking now at the National Institute for Open Schools, a government initiative for older students, with a board exam at Classes X and XII similar to other State and National Boards.  I had tried to do that earlier for one of the girls, but the lower grade program was run out of the same school where I’d withdrawn the children with disabilities, and they turned us away.  That’s what I mean, the vengeance… I don’t get it.

Why re-thinking now?  There is always a reason. For one of the girls we have been able to make contact with her relatives and we will be going to see them.  For privacy I’ll leave it at that.  You see, if she imagines she might be able to go back to her village, then when she is insulted at school she thinks, “I don’t have to take this.  I’d rather live in my village.”  When she told me this, I immediately thought of the others, and whether they take the abuse out of a sense of no choice.  That’s not OK either, not for any of them.  These discussions have brought us all closer.

I’ve looked at the times I’ve been grumpy with the girls and decided to cease and desist, immediately, and I did.  Last weekend we had a really relaxed time with some TV, some cooking, some hanging out, some studying.  I think after Rosalind Forber-Pratt’s visit and her work with the girls, I’m not so worried about them.  I have a better understanding of what keeps them from using their thinking abilities.  Also now that it’s all in English, I have an idea about what is going on, and no one is able to shut me out of their studies.

Well, I just stopped writing to check on how they were doing.  They all seemed really happy doing their work, talking with each other….  It’s REALLY hard being a mother.  You know, here in West Bengal, at exam time the mothers all go to the temple to pray for their children.  The children are happy to have their parents out of the house so they can watch some TV.  I know all about keeping one’s distance, equilibrium, all the theory.  But mothering is being in it with them, and at the same time trying to keep your periscope up so you can see the bigger picture and change course when necessary.

Mother with periscope.

p.s.  Ganga can dance now in a harness made for her.  Here is a video of her first try.    I sent a picture to the school and asked if she could dance with the others in the Independence Day Ceremonies, but they said no.  They said she could sing with the group, but she hates that because she just sits there in her wheelchair unable to make sounds come out of her mouth.  I’m upset.  Down periscope and I tell her the world is a tough place.  Up periscope and the seas look rough, the sun hiding behind gray clouds.  Down periscope and the kids are happy and the house is bright and pretty and full of good sounds.

*The term “Deer caught in the headlights” refers to the situation when a deer is crossing a road and a car is coming, and the sudden headlights cause the deer to freeze, unable to run.  It’s also been used as a method of hunting animals, shining a light in their eyes and when they freeze, to shoot them.

What is G.K. ? (a.k.a. General Knowledge)

GK is a school course in Indian schools.  I first was introduced to it when I was staying with Gibi’s family and helping Jugal with homework.  I’d been puzzled by the questions he seemed to be studying, one day movie stars, and the next day flags of different countries… seemingly random questions and subject matter.  Well, that’s what it is, random, and what you would study if you were preparing for a general quiz.  Quizzes are very popular here.   This year is the first year the girls are studying in English, so I am more able to see what they have to learn.  I’m working with all their subjects to help them find ways to learn, remember more, get higher grades (that’s being blunt).  They are capable of doing better than they are, at least the ones we have in an outside school.

Thursday is a GK test, so I suggested we begin a few days early preparing.  They showed me three pages in their GK book.  One is about animals, facts about several different animals and where they live.  This included polar bear, jackal, pangolin, hyena, armadillo, gibbon, bactrian camel, and opossum.  This evening we went online to look at images and a few videos of them.  Then there is a page of water animals and fish, and last is the page I’ve copied below.  Well, part of the page is here.  There was even more.  The task: to learn what these abbreviations mean.  They don’t have to know anything about the subjects or the organizations, just the names and abbreviations.

I asked, “How will we find the answers?”  I was concerned about how they would find all these names, how I would help them, but there was no reason to worry.  They opened the book to the last pages and showed me all the answers to page 33.  It’s how they had found all the names of the animals, from the back of the book.  “Aha!” I said, and then asked them to leave a copy of the book with me so I could scan it.

To be learned for a test this week.

Next, the answers from the back of the book.  They are random.  I also had to explain the differences (?) between organizations, corporations, associations, companies,  bureaus….  So these are the answers below and they have to make lists of the abbreviations and the names.

It’s now the 4th of July, night time, and today there was a crisis at the school.  A teacher said to our girls, “You eat grass from a field?”  Then, “Where do you find your teachers, on the road?”  The girls have been demeaned a lot, and picked out as a special group for demeaning.  Actually there is a lot of demeaning going on in the school.  It seems to be the default attitude among some teachers.  So I went to meet with the admin, and took Gibi along.  I decided we would approach the school as “sad” and that was fairly effective.  We got apologies, as the school admin does not want this kind of behavior.  But it’s the culture of schools.  This school has taken it seriously.  They asked why I didn’t come earlier and I said simply I was afraid, and the girls were afraid that there would be retaliation.  But today the girls broke down in class crying, and Ganga’s teacher saw them and called me.

Well, now at 11 pm they are still studying the abbreviations.  I decided to help by organizing them by function… sports, tv/radio, science & education, etc.  So this is my contribution.

The abbreviations organized in groups

I seem to have gotten a few wrong, but the girls corrected me.  The girls had about three hours of Bangali and math homework before they could get to this.

It just hurts.  One teacher refused to call them by name, referring to each one as Shishur Sevay.  I tried to explain to the school that these attitudes are not conducive to studying or self confidence.  I’m not sure it registered.  I do believe though that the Founder, Principal, and Vice Principal with whom we met have taken us seriously and will try.

A few weeks ago we were working on a grant application and they asked us for what we thought were our three biggest accomplishments.  Well, our biggest and best is that WE ARE HERE!  We have survived five years.  We continue to thrive and we keep taking one obstacle at a time, one day at a time, one test at a time… I know I keep repeating myself but I can’t stop thinking, “You eat grass?”  This is about animals, cows, horses, sheep, goats, not children who have been abandoned and abused…. The words stay with me as I know they will stay with the girls, stacked on top of all the other demeaning and humiliating remarks that have been made to and about them.  And tomorrow when they take this GK test, they will have to push all this from their minds and try to remember that RBI stands for Reserve Bank of India, and not Runs Batted In, which is what Maggie and I thought at first.

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May 2021
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