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Thursday, May 25, 2017

Autism : Embrace, do not Sympathize

The summery evening in Chennai was forcing the residents to seek refuge in malls and restaurants where the centralized air-conditioners assuaged the exhausted souls entering them. My friend Mohan and I pulled ourselves into a fine but hardly populated Italian restaurant whose fine tapestry with its laid-back lighting and mild music in the artificial coolth, provided a much needed relief from the aggressive weather outside. True to our innate space-hogging instincts, we grabbed a table for 4 and occupied 2 chairs. Ridiculously failing in the attempt to catch-up all the lost years, we savored the delicious broccoli soup sporadically blowing over it to mitigate its hotness.

A family of three including a 4-year old boy entered the restaurant. While the husband and wife, catching a glimpse of us, hesitated to come further in, the boy came scurrying towards us. He had a curious gaze and just before he could say something his father embraced him and whisked him off to another table.

In no time, the boy started whimpering and growling as he was forced to sit on the chair. His mother tried a variety of things – from cellphone to candy - which seemed to calm him only temporarily as his crying would return with a greater force. The father grew increasingly uncomfortable and approached the manager next to our table and asked: "Can you please give us quickly a chocolate fudge ice-cream ?"

"Preparing hot fudge could take time since it has to boil over. Would you like just a chocolate ice-cream instead, Sir ?"

"Whatever that is quickly possible please" - the father muttered and retreated quickly to his table.

I was surprised that a parent would order an ice-cream at the start of the dinner however maudlin and stubborn the child could be. A surge of moral superiority engulfed my mind as I pondered how ineffective modern-day parenting had become. Mohan’s chatter derailed my thought-train as we geared up to order the main course only to be interrupted by the high-pitched crying of the boy which made it impossible for me to concentrate on anything but the scene at his table. Unsettled by my curious and slightly admonishing gaze, the boy's mother quickly looked away as a sense of gloom appeared to have descended on her.

"Ice-Cream, Ice-Cream" - the screams grew stronger and showed no signs of abating. The mother's lips trembled in helplessness as the boy desperately clenched his teeth in the middle of his throes and pinched himself evoking a sense of pity in me. Simultaneously but unexplainably a wave of anger came over me when I saw the mother ranting animatedly to the father. He rose and approached our table when I let rip a cheeky but sufficiently loud comment to Mohan:

"What a travesty ! Modern day parenting seems to be only creating ill-disciplined children "

The father untouched by the comment, literally snatched the ice-cream from the manager and rushed back to his table which furthered my irritation as I wondered if I should have said something stronger. But Mohan's facial contortions seemed to clearly disapprove of my comment.

The moment the ice-cream was handed to the boy he erupted into an inconsolable cry with "don't want " being parroted regularly in between. My patience was wearing thin as I contemplated approaching the boy and giving him an earful. His mother now was at her begging best to calm him down. While the conversation itself was unintelligible, the scene that unfolded clearly told me that the boy was adamant he would not eat the ice-cream that was given to him in place of the hot-fudge ice-cream. His mother's efforts to carry him outside the restaurant failed as he knocked-off the ice-cream cup, lay on the floor and threw a tantrum waving his hands and legs vigorously.

With some effort his parents got him off the floor and his mother managed to hold him tight and exited the restaurant. The father pressed a 500 rupee note in the hands of the waiter and followed suit. I remarked to the waiter:

"You must be now so familiar with many types of customers"

"Sir, yes. They are our regular customers who usually sit at your table and what happened today is unprecedented"

"Seems like a spoilt child. How else.."

Mohan interjected : "Have you heard of autism ?"

While the word sounded fleetingly familiar, I was clearly unaware of what it really portrayed and that drew me into a momentary silence as Mohan continued:

"That boy could be autistic"

"How do you say that ?"

"Only an educated guess. From what I observed. From what I gather, we occupied his regular seat and that upset him tremendously"

"Well… is that even a matter ?"

"Not for us. But for the boy it could have been a shocking and depressing event. Autistics like repetition. That creates a sense of security to them. Any deviation from their norm can affect them heavily and they cannot reconcile as fast as others can"

"So was he trying to occupy our seat? Were his parents trying to give him ice-cream to appease him? "

"Autistics are not stubborn. They are insecure. Will you, apprehending that sitting in a new place could be dangerous, remain and act calm ?"

I blinked in silence and blurted : "How do you know all this ?"

"From my daughter's school which admits autistic children along with the general non-autistic ones"

"But admitting children with under-developed brains... "

"Autism does not necessarily mean sub-normally developed brains. Autism is a general term to indicate a differently developed mental faculty. It is a spectrum which could include people who have under-developed mental abilities. But it also includes many people who could rival Einstein in intellect"

"But I find it difficult to believe that normal kids could be in the same class as autistic kids and still learn well !"

"What is normal? You and I are considered "normal" by world standards. But are we alike? It is totally unnecessary to label and ostracize the autistics"

"So autism is not a disability ?"

"It is not necessarily a disability. Autistics are simply differently enabled. This is no euphemism but a reality. Taking this view, many countries consider autistics as differentiated and not debilitated"

My mind was filled with the thoughts of the boy and I suddenly trembled as if I had subsumed the boy's apprehensiveness.

"In my daughter's school there are a few children in every class who do show developmental delay"

"Are they not an impediment to the other kids?"

"No. It actually has made my daughter a more compassionate and empathetic individual. She has a better understanding than I had at her age about life--that life is not just a rat-race towards materialistic goals."

“While I do not advise my children to sit next to a studious child or not be friends with those who are not rank-holders, I find it difficult to believe that two students at two different levels of development can be in the same class."

" You are still trying to see this as black and white. A class of 30 students has 30 levels of development and not just 2. The problem is not with the stage of development, but the way we perceive it. Unfortunately our perceptions are marred by our pre-conceived notions about the success of a student--attending an institution of prestige, getting good grades, etc. We fail to recognize that what we learn from the books does not prepare us well socially"

I nodded, "Agree. I went to school because that was the norm. I feared the exams because others did. Before I could understand what I really liked to study, I was past 30."

"Not all children attend school with an academic intent. Some do so because they feel comfortable in the company of the known. It provides them with a sense of security and a calm atmosphere. The boy we saw could be one among those who fears new people and situations."

"But will it not be difficult for the other kids if he makes a ruckus in the school?"

"Initially yes. But to assume that he will make a scene every day is wrong. Schools which seek to integrate these children with those with special needs, perform an extensive research on their backgrounds. They talk to the other children of the same class and their parents and prepare them mentally to support this larger integration effort. A helper is assigned to each child with special needs to facilitate this effort. The class stands to benefit immensely if it were to get a teacher who doubles up as a special educator."

Mohan's words slowly constructed in me a scenario where all children were growing to become independent and—simultaneously--compassionate individuals. The acidic words I spilled thoughtlessly on the boy’s father weighed on me heavily as I my bowed involuntarily.

"I see you are thinking about the boy. But I believe his parents are used to verbal tirades like yours"

"You mean--my words would not have hurt them?"

"The words may have. But the courage of the parents to still take a chance to help their child integrate into the larger society is commendable."

"They ordered ice-cream for him. But even after getting the ice-cream he was screaming 'ice-cream'. Why was that?"

"Communication problem. What he says does not necessarily convey what he intends to. For example, you may know a few words in Hindi and may be able to say them well. That does not however mean you know and understand Hindi well. He may have associated the word ice-cream with the regular waiter serving a cold-gelato as his father and mother watched. Unfortunately, today his father moved from his usual place and a different gelato was served by him after discussion with manager. This is not what "ice-cream" means to him. That made him anxious. The only comforting factor was his mother's caress and body-language. Pardon me for saying this but spare a thought for the boy's parents. Whatever be the face they put in the wake of a scene, they are as human as we both are. They are uncomfortably aware of our prying eyes which could add to their guilt of not having handled the situation properly. "

Mohan's words were smooth but I felt them lacerating like a surgeon’s scalpel. I confessed whole-heartedly, "How pathetic of me to have judged them wrongly without a thought ! I am really ashamed of my small-mindedness."

"Did not intend to hurt you. Just presume that the child was not 4 but 2 years old. None of those tantrums would have been unacceptable. I sometimes feel that my daughter is growing too fast for me to savor her childhood. Consider the boy's parents to be blessed since they are seeing their child grow slowly allowing them this luxury."

"That is just a mollification of the actuality."

"No. What I am trying to say is that your sympathy is useless and must be duly dismissed from your mind. What they need is your whole-hearted acceptance."

That induced a pregnant pause as Mohan's words echoed in my mind with the intensity of a fog-horn only to be interrupted by the sight of the family reappearing at the restaurant's entrance. The boy came running towards us and Mohan promptly got up and asked him : "Would you like to sit here ?". The boy silently sat on the chair and started rolling the pepper-mill in his hand.

Mohan transferred our plates to the next table as I got up and said to the father : "Please feel free to sit here". A smile fleeted through his face as I struggled to work up mine to reciprocate.

(Based on a short story written by @Lalitharam Ramachandran in Tamil : )

Wednesday, May 03, 2017

A review on Vishni and Harish Ravindran's arangetram

I wrote a review on Vishni and Harish Ravindran's arangetram in Indian Link:

Simply outstanding

Indian Link

Linking India with Australia since 1994: newspaper | radio | digital

April 06, 2017 / by  / 0 Comment

Brother-sister duo Harish and Vishni Ravindran present a captivating arrangetram, writes MURALI SANKAR VENKATRAMAN

When I first heard Vishni Ravindran play in 2012, she was a soft-spoken Year 9 student whose calm and sincere countenance belied the curiosity to experiment and expand the musical idioms through the veena. That concert then, while predominantly melodic, had its share of outliers; and whenever they appeared, they were accompanied immediately by a subtle, almost imperceptible, frown on her ever-polite face.
It gave away that she was self and music-aware. The occasional disconnect between thought and execution was no doubt attributed to the enormity of the task – wielding the oldest string instrument of India with the finesse that it demanded – which she was just beginning to unravel.  Harish, her (then) kid-brother, hung around, probably coaxed by the promise of an extra dose of candy by their ever-inspiring mother Shanthinie.
Fast forward to 2017, I was flabbergasted by a confident young woman, a student of medicine, playing the very same veena, this time with admirable deftness. Harish, now a Year 11 student and built like a sportsman, accompanied his sister on the mridangam majestically and meticulously. 
Harish and Vishni Ravindran.Indian Link
This time round, some 600 people had gathered to hear the siblings on the occasion of their arrangetram, held last month.  When the curtains went up, the stunning decorations, done with the eye of an aesthete, provided a beautiful but laconically contrasting backdrop to the artistes on stage.
The concert started with a varnam in raga Kaanada – not usually a “starter raga” – composed by Srinivasa Iyengar. Vishni did well to showcase the muktayi and chitta swarams, instilling an eagerness for the numbers to follow.
A languid aalap in Shanmukhapriya followed where her now warmed-up fingers extolled the raga’s gamakams in an assured and elaborate manner. “Siddhi Vinayakam Anisham”, a Dikshitar kriti was well rolled out and the kalpana swarams that followed later established her pristine understanding of the raga and its swara constructs.
While panchamam occupies a central position as it would in any melakarta raga, Vishni also flashed panchamam-free passages involving just madhyamam and dhaivatham which evoked a sense of restless eagerness in the listeners’ minds that unconsciously yearned for the embrace of panchamam to relax.
Harish accompanied brilliantly, adapting his play to sound as close to the meter of the complicated swara passages thrown at him.  All in all, Shanmukhapriya, which lasted close to 20 minutes, erased any doubts and set the bar high for the rest of the evening.
Harish and Vishni Ravindran.Indian Link
Guru Thanjavur Murugaboopathi acted as the rhythm-keeper; the young performers occasionally threw him a look during the difficult rhythmic passages.
While Thyagaraja’s Shree ragam composition “Endaro Mahanubhavulu” was presented “as is” without any extra ornamentations and was fairly satisfying, I felt the gamakas in the passage “chanduru varnuni anda chandamunu” could have been a tad better.
But for that, this song by the virtue of its chittai swaras provided the first opportunity in the concert to hear violin (Shri Mullaivasal Chandramouli) and veena in total unison – it defined bliss.
“Janani Ninuvina” in rejuvenating Reetigowlai ragam and misra-chapu taaLam paved way for the ever-enticing, vibrant “Raghuvamsa Sudha” in Kadhanakuthoohalam – a modern metric for assessing a vainika in delivering rapid chittaiswara passages.  Vishni’s occasional excursion into “two note” chords, borrowed from western music idiom and popularized by Vaidya, was a treat to hear.
Harish and Vishni Ravindran.Indian Link
While Kadhanakuthoohalam has been allowed in the modern times to “harmonise”, Bhairavi and Todi – the two veritable benchmarks to assess the erudition of a Carnatic artiste – are handled by almost every artist in the traditional monophonous manner.
Vishni’s aalaapanai, taanam, neraval and the dialogue of kalpanaswarams with the violinist for the kriti “Balagopala Palayasumam”, definitively declared her rightful belonging among the promising best in the genre.
Harish’s thani avarthanam in adi thalam (2 kalai) that followed was a beautiful display of how it can be split into an admixture of thisram, misram, and khandam sub-parts and merged back tallying the correct rhythmic count. The question-answer session between the mridangam and ghatam (Shri. Chandrasekara Sharma) drew huge applause from the crowd.
Harish and Vishni Ravindran.Indian Link
Vishni carefully explained the taalam of a tough ragam-taanam-pallavi in Karaharapriya composed by her guru Prof. Pudukkottai Krishnamurthy and went on to give a stellar rendition ably accompanied by Harish. The ragamalika taanam, neraval, sanchaaram, ragamalika kalpanaswarams and kaalapramaanam reinforced our belief in their musical acumen.
Brindavani thillana of Dr. Balamurali Krishna was clearly a dancer’s interpretation on veena and a testament to Vishni’s rigorous training in Bharatanatyam. The energy and vivaciousness was unmistakable and when it ended, it brought a smile on everybody’s lips.
Shri. Murugaboopathi and Dr. Ramachandra heaped deserving praises on the duo and attributed their stupendous performance to “never missing homework”.
In a nutshell, simply outstanding: the Ravindrans are bound to make a huge ripple in the field of Carnatic music.

Photos: SJ Images (

Thursday, April 20, 2017

கடலூர் சீனுவும் மொக்கை இலக்கியமும்

நான் பெரிதும் மதிக்கும் இன்றைய எழுத்தாளர்களில் முதன்மையானவர் திரு. ஜெயமோஹன். நேர்மையையும், கற்பனை வளத்தையும் இலக்கியத் தமிழில் அழகாய்த் தருபவர். சில சமயம் அவரைப் போல் எழுத வேண்டும் அல்லது அவருடைய கவனத்தைக் கவர வேண்டும் என்று நினத்து சிலர் எழுதும் கடிதங்களில் மொக்கைத் தன்மையே முதலாவதாய் இருக்கிறது. திரு ஜெயமோஹன் அவர்களும் சில சமயம் அவற்றைப் பிரசுரித்து விடுகிறார். காலையில் எழுந்து காய்கறி வாங்கப் போவதையே இலக்கியமாக்கி விட வேண்டும் என்று வெறியுடன் எழுதும் சில பேரின் தமிழார்வத்தை என்னால் தாங்கிக் கொள்ள முடியவில்லை. அப்படிப்பட்ட ஒரு மொக்கைமிகு முனைவரின் புனைவை கிரஹித்து இங்கே சற்றே திரித்து எழுதி உள்ளேன். சுட்டியில் உள்ள மூலக் கட்டுரையைப் படித்தாலேயன்றி இது எதற்காக எழுதப் பட்டுள்ளது என்று புரியாது :)
மூலம் :
(புறக்கடைக்குக்) கிளம்புதலும் திரும்புதலும்
இனியென்ன பயம்,
இன்றும் வழமை போல நான் அரைடிராயரைக் கழட்டிக் கைலி மாட்டுகையில் என் அம்மா மின்விசிறியை அணைத்தார்கள். பல வருட பழக்கம் அது அவர்களுக்கு. அவர்கள் என் பக்கம் நின்றால் இதை செய்யாமல் இருக்க மாட்டார்கள். முன்பு ஒரு சமயம் நான் கைலி மாட்டக் காலை உயர்த்தி சமநிலை தவறி சறுக்கி விழுந்தேன். அப்போது சற்றே விலகிய கைலியை மின்விசிறி மேலும் நன்றாய் உயர்த்திக் காட்டி உள்ளிருப்பை எல்லாம் உலக தரிசனம் செய்ய வைத்து மானத்தைக் கப்பலேற்றியதால் வந்த மனச்சோர்வுடன் ஒரு ஐந்து நாள் இடது கையால் எதையும் துடைக்க முடியாமல் இருந்தேன். இன்று இக்கோடையில் சில நிமிட விசிறியின் ஓய்வு, கட்டியிருந்த கைலியின் உள்ளே கசிகின்ற வியர்வை வெள்ளத்தை ”முன்னுக்கு வந்த வெள்ளம்” எனத் தவறாக எடை போடும் அளவுக்கு மோசமாக ஆக்கிவிடும்.
அம்மாவைப் பார்த்தேன். நான் கைலிக்கு மாறியதும் விசிறி சுவிட்சைப் போட அதன் அருகிலேயே நின்றிருந்தார்கள். உள்ளே ஏதோ பொங்க, சட்டென கிளம்பி வெளியேறி ஓடினேன் - புறக்கடைக்கு. ஒவ்வொருமுறையும் வெளியே தான் செல்கிறேன் -”வெளிக்கிப் போக” என்று சொல்லி வீட்டை விட்டு. முந்தாநாள் என் தங்கை மகனை ”உக்காந்து செய்டா” என்றேன். அம்மா குறுக்கிட்டு ”அம்மா உன்னைய என்னைக்காவது உட்கார்ந்து செய் என்று சொல்லாமல் இருந்திருக்கேனா ? ஆனா பாரு இப்போ நீ எப்படி கம்பங்கொல்லைக்குள்ளே புகுந்து கமுக்கமாய் கால்களை மடக்கி உட்கார்ந்து கக்கூஸ் போறே ? போகும்போது எத்தனை தடி தடிப் பயலுங்க எல்லாம் பக்கத்துலே வந்தும் காரியமே கண்ணா இருக்கே. அவனும் ஒரு நாள் அப்படிச் செய்வான் விடு ” என்றார்கள்.
ஆம் ஒவ்வொரு சமயமும் நான் கொல்லைப் பக்கம் ஒதுங்கும்போதும் உபதேசம் செய்த அம்மா. கவுண்டமணியாரின் ”ஆஹா இந்த outside போற சுகமே தனி” என்ற வேத வாக்கை வாழ்க்கை நெறியாக்கி இப்போது நான் விடிக்கும் முறையை சரியாகப் பின்பற்றும் போது “இப்போவாவது இந்த மக்கிப் போன மரமண்டையிலே உட்காரவேண்டும் என்று உறைச்சுதே” என்று ஆசுவாசப் படுத்திக்கொள்ளும் அம்மா.
முன்பு ஒரு சமயம் அடுத்த வீட்டு பாத்ரூமிற்குப் போய் கடனைக் கழித்துத்திரும்பி வந்தபோது கேட்டார்கள். ”கம்பங்காட்டை விட்டு எங்கடா போன?” ஆம் கம்பங்கொல்லையில் இல்லாத இடம் என்று ”வெளிக்கி போவதற்கு” மகன் தேடிப் போவான் என்பது அவர்களால் நம்ப இயலா ஒன்று.
வேறொருநாள் இரவு. நல்ல பேதி. என் தலையைக் குட்டியபடியே கேட்டார்கள். ”தம்பி அன்னைக்கு எங்கடா போன? அங்கேயே போய் ராவிடிய உக்கந்துக்க வேண்டியது தானே ?” இதோ இன்று குதத்தின் வழி நீர்சொரியும் கும்பியிடம் சொல்லிக்கொண்டேன். ஏன் போகிறாய்? உடலை விட்டு வெளியேற… எங்கே போகிறாய்? குதத்தின் கீழ் கூம்பாரமாய்க் கூட்ட நினத்தாலும் கூழாகக் கசிந்து ஆறாக ஓடும் மஞ்சள் நதியே ? புவுயீர்ப்பு விசை எனை எங்கு அழைத்துச் செல்கிறதோ அங்கே !!
ஒவ்வொரு வெளியேற்றமும் உடல்சக்தியின் நீங்கலே. கம்பங்கொல்லைக்கு ஒவ்வொரு பயணமும் என் ஆவியைக் கரைத்தே. ஊமை வலி (வயிற்றில்), அரிக்கும் தேகம், போர்த்தி இருக்காவிடில் போய்விடும் மானம். கால்களின் நடுவே முன்னும் பின்னும் இரு வேறான மஞ்சள் கடல்கள் சங்கமம்.
பக்கத்துக் குளத்திலிருந்து எடுத்து வந்த ஆயிரத்து எட்டு குடம் நீர், பெருகி வந்த மஞ்சள் கடல்களின் மூலாதாரத்தில் அபிஷேகம் ஆகிக் கொண்டு இருந்தது. என் கைகள் அந்தக் கைங்கர்யத்தில் கருத்தாய் இருப்பினும் கேள்வி ஒன்று என் உள்ளுருவை உதைத்தது.
மலம் நின்று சுகிப்பேனா (இந்தப்) பஜாரி ? மலம் மிக மிகப் பீய்ச்சியது. பேதிதான் வியாதி. உடலின் மையத்திலும், எஞ்சியிருக்கும் ஆற்றலிலும் பேதிதான் மானுடத்தின் முதல் வன்மம். மலம் பீ. எல்லாப் பேதியரும் தனியர். பிறிதொருவர் அவர் பக்கம் வந்தால் அவர்மேல் தெறித்து அவர் சருமத்தில் ஒட்டிக் காய்ந்து மாசாய் மாற வாய்ப்பு உள்ளதால் தனிமையே வழமை.
வழியில் கண்டேன் ஒரு நாய் காலை உயர்த்தி மரத்தின் வேரைக் குறி பார்த்துக் கொண்டிருந்தது. கால பைரவரோ ? தன் காலை அகட்டித் தன் அந்தரங்கக் கூடாரங்களை மரமலவறைக்குக் காட்டியதில் அதற்கு ஒரு ஆனந்தம் போலும் - அதன் வாயில் வடியும் எச்சிலினூடே அந்த மரத்தின் பிம்பம் தெரிந்தது. மரத்திற்கு அந்த பைரவரின் சிந்தனை ஏற்புடையது இல்லை என்று தோன்றி இருக்க வேண்டும். காற்றின் துணை கொண்டு தன் வளைந்த கிளை மூலம் அண்டிய நாயை சண்டியனாய்ப் பாவித்து ஆங்காரமாய் அடித்தது. ஆனால் அந்த நாயோ எடுத்த காரியம் முடிக்காமல் போகக் கூடிய வர்க்கத்தில் இல்லை.
அடிபட்ட அதிர்ச்சியில் முன்பொழிவை முதலில் ஆரம்பித்தது. பின்பொழிவு தன்னியல்பாய் அரங்கேறியது. மரத்திற்கு வெறுத்து இருக்க வேண்டும். தன் ஆகப் பரந்து விரிந்த கிளைகளை சாமியாடிக் காட்டி நாயிடம் தன் கோபத்தைத் தெரியப் படுத்தியது. ஆனால் நாயோ அதீத அமைதி முகத்தில் தவழ அந்த மரத்தடியில் கழித்த இடத்திலேயே தன் காயத்தை விரித்துப் படுத்தது. பின்னர் தன் அந்தரங்க இடங்களை சிறிதே நக்கிக் கொண்டது.
இன்னொரு முறையும் திரும்பிச் செல்வேன் - நிற்காவிடில்.
உடல்-ஊர் பேனு