Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Ram Hari

This evening, I got to join one of Sathya’s “fast-walks” around the neighborhood. She arrived home late from a long day’s meeting with the Ministry of Health, and then back to her neonatology ward.

Sathya is an extraordinary woman. She is one of the state’s leading neonatologists, working for the princely salary of roughly $440 a month (plus funds for a driver), less than a newly appointed high school teacher. This requires some explanation. Most doctors of her stature in India are extraordinarily rich, millionaires or soon on their way to be. The way that happens is it is common practice to go the public hospital at 8 in the morning, leave by 11 (the three hours will be considered a full day’s work), and then practice at one’s own private clinic or hospital, where one will rake in the big bucks. Not Sathya. Ten- or twelve-hour days are the norm, and she is often called into her ward by her nurses in the middle of the night. She has also invented an inexpensive, locally produced incubator which, though much celebrated, she refuses to patent. She refuses to set up a private practice. She believes her work is her way of worshipping God, and has no interest in even asking for a raise. And lest it be thought that her pay should be considererd as recompense for three hours work compared with the teacher’s full commitments, there are more than a few teachers in various districts who never show up for work at all, but operate a business (often expensive tutoring, but it can be a shop of some kind) during normal teaching hours.

“Fast-walk” seems to indicate that no one else can keep up with Sathya, and so they’ve given up trying. To be frank, it is about my normal pace (my wife sometimes complains I walk too fast, but she has two very challenging knees.)

“It is a walking meditation,” she tells me. “My father taught it to me, and he learned it from Vinoba Bhave.” (Vinoba – the “Walking Saint” walked across the length and breadth of India soliciting gifts of land for the poor, and both Jagannathan and Krishnammal had joined in for long stretches. I had been on a padayatra – a consciousness-raising walk - with Jagannathan back in 1981, and he was indeed a fast walker. I remind Krishnammal as I write this, that Vinoba her mentor was the Walking Saint but she is the Running Saint, which is greeted with a laugh.)

“When I put my right foot down,” says Sathya, “I think “Ram”. Left foot is “Hari”. “Ram Hari, Ram Hari, Ram Hari.”

It must have been good for the sleepwalkers who got up at 3:30 A.M. every morning to join Vinoba. I try it for awhile. No matter how hard I try, it comes out “Hari Ram, Hari Ram, Hari Ram” rather than “Ram Hari, Ram Hari, Ram Hari.” Backwards. Krishnammal asked me this morning whether I do yoga. “Oh, yes,” I reply, tucking my legs up under me, “Swami David does computer yoga every morning,” as I type away.

Sathya says she actually came across Nagaraj for the first time, while on one of her walks. There was the group of slum children of Ollalur, Nagaraj with them, though he hung back a little from the rest. Eventually, his story came out.

It turns out that he was probably thought slow by the child psychiatrist, not only because he was withdrawn and depressed, but because his native language was not Tamil at all, but Telegu, the language of Andhra Pradesh, the state to the north. It seems likely that this slum colony is made up of adivasis – forest tribal people – who, as “civilization” (and, likely, chemical factories) encroached on their traditional lands, they became permanent migrants. Among them, both the men and women drink, and it is thought that Nagaraj’s mother committed suicide.

So now these Telegu-speaking children ages (perhaps) 5 to 9, are enrolled in for the first time in a Tamil medium school, where they also have compulsory classes in English. Every day, after school, they gather on Sathya’s porch to drill each other on their lessons, in Tamil and English. Their thirst for knowledge is extraordinary. I have seen this again and again among people attending school for the first time. I can only attribute this to the fact that they haven’t yet had senselessness beaten into them by generations of schooling. It will come, I’m afraid, it will come.

I saw Nagaraj playing doctor with one of his friends yesterday. I ask Sathya whether he has any interest in the medical profession. “No,” she replies, “He always says he wants to be a policeman, so he lock up all the people who drink alcohol.” It makes perfect sense, of course, for it was alcohol that destroyed his former life, on the precipice as it already was.

* * * * *

An observation appropo of my interest in public health: I have been here for ten days, among the rich and the poor, and I have not seen a single person smoking. Not one. I can remember 20-30 years ago when Indians were regular chimneys.

“They were told it was bad for health, and so they stopped,” said Krishnammal. I shake my head uncomprehendingly. No tobacco addiction, no classes on the evils of nicotine in school, no…. I don’t even see a single tobacco ad in the popular magazines, of which we have quite a collection, as Krishnammal seems to be featured in half of them.

Sathya tells me that one particularly effective method of getting people to quit (besides bans on smoking virtually everywhere) is that state law that requires that, when a cinema star – always the villain – is seen smoking a cigarette, the bottom of the screen must have a superimposed message that smoking is hazardous to your health. Similarly, when a character is seen drinking alcohol, there must be a similar warning against alcohol displayed on the bottom of the screen.


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