February 22, 2006

What's in a name after all?

I like Goan villages. They’re small, and everyone knows everyone else. And if you were to own a shop of any kind and were to put up a name-board displaying the name of your shop, in all likelihood no one will remember the name you’ve given your shop. Instead they’ll refer to the shop by your name until either of you survives the other. They’ll probably say in Konkani, the local language, “Anil-a-ger tuka meltele thay.” (“You will get it at Anil’s”). So why bother putting up a name-board that no one will bother remembering?

But then it is hard on visitors unless they’re from a nearby village, in which case they’ll probably know you as well, and remind you of how you got thrashed by your neighbour years ago for stealing mangoes from your’s neighbour’s tree. It’s only those who’re passing through the village who’ll find it difficult to locate your place. But then so long as they know that it is a bar what does it matter what you name it, or for that matter if you name it at all as was the case with a bar we came across past Amona on the way to Sanquelim. If not for the window displaying the word ‘BAR’ fashioned as window grills, a novelty in itself for saving on the cost of a board and achieving protection at the same time, we might’ve mistaken it for a house, for there was nothing about the place to indicate that it was a watering hole if not for those window grills. In fact they were the only alphabets visible for a fair distance around. Just made me wonder 'What’s in a name after all?'

February 16, 2006

The Light of Prosperity

Beyond Navelim, and Sanquelim there aren’t many places where you can stop by for tea. The few that exist are sleepy. I like them for their stillness. The one we walked into had wooden tables of unknown antiquity, placed in two neat rows near the front of the inn. A low wall at the back partitioned the room. Behind the low wall a gas stove hissed. There was no door to the kitchen. I stepped up to the opening and smiled at the cook. I believe he owns the place. The kitchen itself is a small one, made up of a blackened kettle, and a few utensils. The place serves pao bhaji. We opted for tea. Raju bought biscuits from the adjacent shop to go with tea. Donald and Ajay drank in silence. Outside, two elderly men sat on chairs. One was engrossed in a local newspaper. The other man sat in silence, his eyes peeled out for activity on the road outside; there was none though. Only occasionally a vehicle passed that way. Inside, a picture of goddess Lakshmi, garlanded, looks over the cash counter beneath. I walk up to the wall and look up at the deity. She is associated with prosperity, and her image is commonly found adorning shops, inns, and homes across India. There is something about the zero bulb I found riveting. I can't place my finger on it though.

The Welcome Party

When I took the stairs to the first floor where Ajay has his studio, I wasn't prepared for the welcome party. Ajay was in the backyard with Raju, working on the new Kiln at the same spot where four kilns once stood, each one making way for its successor. I believe the new kiln that he and Raju, and Donald are building will last longer than those that came before. Meanwhile I spent some time with the welcome party. I can't quite figure out why they're so surprised. Didn't they expect me?

February 15, 2006

Fast Speed!

Driving through Goa, past Banastarim, Marcela, to Khandola and beyond, we stopped for petrol at a wayside pump. The narrow, curving roads and unmarked speedbreakers meant we had to reduce our speed to avoid bumping into the roof, eventually I did bump my head into the roof after Raju missed one too many speedbreakers on our way to Chorla. Just as we pulled into the driveway, a white TATA Sumo was on its way out, at FAST SPEED!!!!!

February 12, 2006

Goddess on the wall

Passing through Bombay's old bylanes it is not uncommon to find history leaning out of walls, forcing the passer-by to pause and ponder like I did when I came across this image on the wall of a building in one such lane. I do not know what happened of this painter. The board still advertises his services, and the wall showcases his skills but he was nowhere to be seen. From the look of it I doubt if he is around anymore, at least not here where he once made a living painting sign boards, cloth banners, and name plates.

Uncertain Wickets

In the early eighties television was still some way off from becoming the staple diet in the small, sleepy town of Ponda where I went to school. It was 1983, the year India won the Prudential World Cup. Streets had emptied way before eight that big night, the time Ponda usually went dead on a normal day, and hordes of people had gathered in the few homes that had television, and huddled before grainy screens where an elephant's bottom would have been indistinguishable from a cricketer’s, they had urged Dev's devils on, going berserk when the mighty Caribbeans finally bit the dust. I was just out of primary school then.

Goa had received its first television signal the previous year; the 1982 Delhi Asian games and the following year big time cricket had finally entered the living rooms in the nondescript colony where I lived along with a boisterous gaggle of friends, pushing nine years on an average and unscrupulous to boot in the evenings we trooped out for a bit of rough and tumble.

Sundays were exclusively for cricket matches. The teams we, the Young Stars club, usually played against were those from Chirputae, Goa Milk Dairy and Haveli. The gaggle from Haveli had named themselves: Tufaan.

I fancied myself as an opening bat, and was often sent as one; I doubted the intentions of my captain though. It could have been anything from using me to take the shine off the ball to tiring the opposition bowlers from their youthful exertions in trying to knock my teeth off the ground. Then there was this little matter of expending the overs of their 'strike' bowlers so that when they had tasted blood, usually mine, they would fall back satisfied, cooling their heels while their slow pokes came on, to take on whom would emerge the 'Tigers' from our ranks. I rarely lasted long enough to sample these blokes turning their arms over. But then that was the whole plan, all I had to show for my efforts would be a bruised something, a score more often in single digits, nearer zero that is, and a stiff behind from watching teammates put the 'enemy' to sword.

The few times that I batted lower down the order it was unsettling to watch my teammates knocking up runs where I would have invariably pushed and prodded before deliverance came knocking at my stumps. At such times, occasions were few when I did not pray asking my teammates to be sent back to the pavilion, under a mango tree beside grazing cows, so that I could get my share of the batting. HE did not disappoint me often. Nevertheless team spirit was high and the desire to win at any cost, strong. The bowlers exemplified it; they would rub the ball vigorously on their backside and in the groin for good measure, ‘to get shine' they said, but all they managed in wearing out was not the batsman they bowled to but the desi half-pant off their reddened behinds. If the batsman got going the fielders had their task cut out, often running after the ball they could only have imagined seeing, if indeed they ever did, for boundaries came by the dozen from the ball whizzing past between their legs. I 'defended' more deliveries with my bony knees and shin than with the bat I had trouble lifting.

On the cricket maidan, after our first meaningful engagement with the Milk Dairy XI, it became imperative that we change 'Everything is fair in love and war' to ‘Everything is fair in love and war, and cricket’. The Dairy cricket team had a girl member. Priya Ghate was probably tougher than some of other 'milk thumbs' making up their playing XI.

Match day would see the two teams arriving on the ground eleven each but more often than not the dairy team would have an extra 'milk tooth' tagging along, sometimes several; I presume there were not many ‘young stars’ where I lived for we rarely ever had the luxury of an extra teammate who could keep the match scores. So it was inevitable that the batting team would detail one of its team members to log in their score book runs scored and for extra measure add 'phantom' runs for us to chase. The Dairy team had managed to turn this into high art. We were aware of the 'extra' ministration the scoring book received at their hands but having none of our own to spare, to keep a check on them and maintain a separate score book, we had to make-do with the mid wicket fielder taking responsibility for recording the opposing team’s batting scores, run by run, while he fielded. He kept the score book by his side, sometimes forgetting to record the score in a moment of excitement on the field, occasionally by design. It was no surprise that the two score books rarely tallied. When it was our turn to bat we 'nursed' our score book to health. Fights would erupt and more time was spent defending our respective totals than in meaningful play but it added to the overall excitement, and passing stray dogs sensing the sharp edge to the atmosphere joined in the ‘festivities’, forcing us to argue in even louder voices, to be heard above the barking; some solution would eventually be found; a rematch. Not that things actually changed much in the rematch.

One pair of batting pads meant the wicket keeper didn't have any to wear. The two batsmen wore a batting pad each. It was the same with batting gloves; how a right handed batsman managed to bat with a right glove on his left hand, the one facing the incoming ball, is a matter of conjecture. Anyone who could knock up some decent scores, a nine was decent enough, and knock back a wicket or two, was picked up to be the captain, or he had to be the one who owned the only bat, the only ball and the only pair of pads. Leadership was about practical matters. If runs ‘had to come’ they would, a 'leader' strategising or specifying how much we needed to score wouldn't have made a difference either way, we performed as much as the other team allowed us to, nothing more, nothing less. The captain went to the toss and specified the batting order if we let him and that was it.

There was never a time when our club did not need finances to keep things afloat, and cricket was the last thing our parents thought fit to spend money on, not after the losing struggle they fought each day to get us to exchange the cricket bat for textbooks. Pocket money was an unheard of concept then but not cashew nuts. Hills that rose protectively over the ground were home to cashew nut plantations. A kilo of raw cashew nuts fetched ten rupees. A second-hand bat from a comparatively richer club cost about thirty rupees, it was another matter that the bat the Tufaan club sold us for twenty seven rupees after hard bargaining was cleverly taped up to hold the splintered bottom together, coming apart after the first crisp drive that was hit off it. The Tufaan club swore by god that they had sold us a ‘superb’ bat. The gods we subscribed to were all benign creatures; they did not meddle in matters concerning 27 rupees budgets.

It had taken us three kilos of raw cashew nuts to raise the finance for the bat; then there was the small matter of buying a new leather ball for each weekend match. We chanced upon a simple solution. We raided the cashew nut plantations in groups; three on trees doing the plucking, three below to collect the cashew nuts and two to keep watch for the owner and his dog, the only dog I ever managed to outrun in my life. The cashew nuts were sold at a local shop. With money thus ‘earned’ we bought an entire cricket kit part by part, none of our parents got to know of our enterprise; it spared us spankings and worse, the lectures. Back then immediate necessity governed our actions.
And so the days flew by. I made many friends. Cricket kept us healthy, out of trouble and competitive. Victories were savoured and defeats forgotten. Team spirit was learnt on the maidans and so was the ability to relate and sustain relationships with one another. Not giving up until the last ball was bowled set the course for the approach some of us adopted, subconsciously, or at least tried to. Cricket was more than a just a game; a part of growing up that few text books or television could ever teach us.

February 06, 2006

Sightless in Bombay

It took me some time before I could locate S Cinema in Andheri East, along the A-K road. I was told that the cinema no longer exists and that I was not supposed to look for a building bearing 'S'. "Ask any rickshawwallah for directions. If he is an old hand around this part of town he'll take you to where S cinema once stood," a colleague told me. I looked at my watch. I was on time. Something told me that V R and F B were the kind who kept time and expected others to do the same.
They are visually impaired. V has no eye sight whereas F has some though it is of little use in carrying out his work. I met them at an IT company where they’ve been employed with over the last two and half years. They work on project assignments together, split responsibilities, and assist each other in completing their tasks. Each day at 1 pm, F leads the way to the office canteen, and V follows, holding F’s hand at the elbow. They lunch together and draw strength and companionship in the shared problems that are unique to their condition.

V lives alone in Mumbai. His father passed away last year (2005). His mother and brothers are based in Aurangabad. “It’s been a long time away from my family,” he told me. “Ulhasnagar had no facilities for the blind so V M School for the Blind at T became my home eventually. My interaction with my family reduced as a result though I would visit them sometimes, and they me, particularly my elder brother would come all the way to T to see me. Then they left for Aurangabad where I believe my father had some ancestral property. Gradually the distance grew. But I do visit Aurangabad every four months.”

V is a Sindhi. His family fled the carnage of non-muslims in Pakistan in the aftermath of partition, settling in Ulhasnagar, the ‘refugee city’. His father was a teenager at the time. To a question about what his mother feels on his securing employment with an IT company, the very kind of question nobody would bother asking people with normal eyesight, in turn highlighting the state of employment opportunities for blind people and the general perception toward them, he said, “She is not educated, but knows that I do something in computers, and that I earn and can take care of myself even when living alone. That itself is enough to make her very happy. I visit them every 3-4 months.”

V lives in Jogeshwari at the M.N.B home for the blind. “They give me food. I share a room with four others,” he said. “Except for the days on which my computer programming classes are scheduled at GTL in Wadala, I take the bus to my hostel in Jogeshwari, else I travel to Wadala after office hours, and attend the classes before making my way home to Jogeshwari.” When I ask him how he manages the traveling alone, not without its own uncertainties, he smiles before replying, “I’ve my white stick.”

“I’ve been directed onto the wrong bus on more than one occasion,” he said. “Sometimes the person at the bus stop whom I’ve requested to alert me when my bus arrives, forgets to tell me that he is leaving after his bus arrives, and I don’t come to know of it, and wait there thinking he is still around and will alert me when my bus arrives. But somehow I reach home. I do.”

In the time I spent with them at the company where they work, there were never once any hint of despondency. If anything, they were eager to be given tasks, and at one point even letting on, albeit very politely, that it would help if Project Managers were to explore their capabilities further, setting them challenges that conventional wisdom would hesitate at first thought. Preeti, a Senior Manager with the company, believes this to be a problem and would like to see project allocations account for possibilities beyond the conventional ones assigned to them. Parag, Program Manager, is open to the idea. The work V and F carried out on one of the projects he handled has changed his perception.

Parag made a telling comment when discussing their abilities and skills in the testing domain. He said, “I find them way ahead of testers with normal eyesight. V and F are much better than the others when it comes to certain aspects in functional testing. I can tell you this 100%.” He describes them as very focused. “This helps in delivering good results. As it is Web Interfaces are de rigueur in projects across domains, so why not employ them extensively on such projects because there are considerable testing requirements and much of it involves functionality testing.” The broad scope of any Functional Testing involves testing the system from a logical aspect, covering all the business flows as the business users would see it. Checking for the inter-dependencies and inter-linkages of one scenario with the other is another important event that we test for here. Also, checking for the validity and the sanctity of data and their relationships is confirmed during this process.

Web Accessibility issues are in the forefront today. Designers believe that in confirming to Accessibility guidelines, it’s not just simply accessibility to disabled people but would also benefit everyone. Accessibility issues typically affect those with disabilities that prevent them from seeing, hearing, and moving, or using tools that interface with information. Disabled readers have access to devices and assistive technologies such as screen magnifiers, screen readers (JAWS) among others. The extent to which these technologies offered independence to the visually impaired can be gauged by how they view them. T Balsara, without eye sight herself, referred to JAWS during a conversation as “we use the computer because of great friend JAWS.” The technologies are no longer merely technologies. They have helped extend employment possibilities for the visually impaired.

An e-learning company contacted V for help with functional testing of their e-learning courses developed in line with web accessibility requirements. V got 6-7 visually impaired people he knew from his days with Victoria Memorial School for the Blind and those he met up with on Access India (a yahoo mailing list set up to provide an opportunity for the visually impaired persons in India to share experiences, questions, and suggestions related to the use of computer technology) to test these courses. Barun Y, from the Senior Specialist Group with the e-learning company, is working to develop these courses, vouched for their effectiveness. “We asked them to go through 3 different courses without any help. These courses were either in Html or Flash. Our aim was to test the templates we created and whether those can be understood by them and our conveying what we intend to. These templates also included interactivities. They did well,” he said.

Barun believes that “We (normal eyesight) can see the screen and they (the visually impaired) have to visualize the screen with whatever they hear. As a sighted user we assume a few things because we can see. They don’t.” Parag shares the same opinion as does Preeti. She says, “I find their ability to focus without distractions amazing.”

Lack of distractions is one thing, but to be equipped with a certain minimum training in computers to improve their employability in IT companies is quite another thing. I ask Parag what he would look for in employing a visually impaired person. He said, “I expect them to have a basic training in computers before I can consider taking them onboard. They are not expected to know advanced programming. Profiles involving graphic design and related skills are out of bounds. Basic computer training is essential before they can be considered for a job in the IT industry, and aptitude, and attitude.”

He lists ‘proactive’ among the qualities that are mandatory, and believes that a proactive employee will take initiative in trying to sort out problems they encounter in the course of their work. “Other skills expected of them are: Basic computer awareness, proficiency in JAWS or any other similar screen reading software, knowledge of applications like MS Word and MS Excel, and certain tools. Training in tools (e.g. Code Review) such as those used in logging in defects uncovered during testing and passing them on to development teams is mandatory. Together, this constitutes adequate proficiency in computers to help them carry out the following tasks after providing them with supportive training specific to particular tool usage.”

V and F completed their graduation (BA) before enrolling for Basic Computer courses. V went one step ahead, enrolling for an advanced course teaching programming. When he took me to his desk to show me how JAWS works the first time I met him, I looked at the black screen while his fingers raced on the keyboard. I’m accustomed to monitors taking their own sweet time to power up, so I waited. It was only when V began explaining what he was doing and I could see nothing on the screen did I wake up to the fact that he does not need the screen to do his work. I asked him to power up the monitor so I could see the screen. He did. And I sat on for the JAWS lesson.