Is there any religion in the world that can provide an explanation for suffering? No, finds writer, former editor and minister Arun Shourie, cutting through religious scriptures like a sword in his latest book, Does He Know a Mother’s Heart? How Suffering Refutes Religions. Shourie, who begins the book with a chapter about his son Aditya, who has cerebral palsy, talks to Lounge about issues of access for the differently abled, infrastructure and how small things can change the life of a differently abled person. Edited excerpts:
What is particularly difficult to write in such a personal book?
The personal parts weren’t difficult at all, I’ve written about our son earlier as well, and we’re open about it. What was difficult to write was some of the other chapters, one on Mahatma Gandhi, which includes his explanation for the Bihar earthquake and the persecution of Jews by Hitler; one on Ramakrishna Paramhansa and one on Ramana Maharshi. These are three persons I venerate and for me to write critically about them was difficult.
An issue of priorities: Arun Shourie says the greatest skills are devoted to high-income individuals. Priyanka Parashar/Mint
What are your comments on the state of infrastructure available in the country and the lack of access for the differently abled?
Certainly, a lot more should be available. There are simple things that can be done. American and British book stores, for example, have audio books for adults with visual disabilities. The best actors devote time and their skills in reading such books, thereby enabling a blind person to enjoy a book. But in India, go to an institution for the blind and it’s so depressing. Every one of us can help; not just the government.
Would you say we’re culturally more insensitive when it comes to addressing the needs of the handicapped?
I don’t think it’s fair to make generalizations about culture. If you look at mythology, persons with handicaps are venerated—like the saint who wrote Ashtavakra Gitahad eight deformities, and there are also cases of villains being portrayed as someone with handicaps. But yes, we can do more. We are a major force in information technology in the world, we can have better Braille typewriters. We can devote R&D (research and development) facilities to text-to-voice, voice-to-text technology. Visually impaired persons can go to the Internet and the computer and read out the content of the page. When I was looking after the (telecom and disinvestment) ministry, a company in West Bengal was developing a Braille reader which was tiny, the size of a pen.
The smallest difference in design can make the hugest difference. A student from NID (National Institute of Design) came to work at The Spastics Society of Northern India here in Delhi and he effected great changes. My child cannot hold a pen, but he can hold material. That material becomes semi-solid, a pencil is inserted into it and he can use it and draw. Such a simple idea but it changed the working life of a little boy. The problem is that the greatest skills are devoted to high-income individuals. Few will design a better low-cost house like Laurie Baker would. There will be many skilled people for designing an even fancier car, but not a wheelchair.
What kind of constraints does the government face when it comes to providing better facilities for the differently abled?
The constraints are the quality of persons in public life. What are the government’s constraints for a dismal public distribution system? Or a dismal public health system? Why do railway accidents keep happening? It is the same problem, the persons in public life. Our electoral system is not a good way to select rulers of a billion people, handicap or non-handicap. Secondly, the poor and handicapped are not a vote bank, they are not a caste, or a linguistic group. They can’t further their advancement or give them money.
You’ve been drawn to Buddhism. How did Buddha’s doctrines help? The Buddha says I’m only providing you a map which I’ve drawn because I traversed this path. Do not mistake this map for the path itself, and do not accept what I’ve said because I’ve said it. Put it to test by your own experience and your own effort, believe only that which you can verify by your own experience. The Buddha also says “don’t look for explanations. I can’t do anything about your primary cause of suffering. Your child has brain injury, I can’t do anything about it, for that there are doctors. But you have built a seven-storeyed structure around that issue—why did it have to be my child? Why does it happen to children? What will happen when my wife and I are not around, who will look after him? He says, I will help dismantle your structure, I will help you control your mind.” Focus on the present.