Expert Talk

Advisor on Child Development & Education, Chennai
In the last decade, the treatment of autism in children has advanced. Apart from the experts’ views on autism, which are valuable, there are parental accounts in print, which present the various aspects of the condition.
Q. Is there anything you think must be done for better health for all?
Making good health facilities available at the local level is of the highest priority. We have a tendency to have super-specialty hospitals in the metropolitan areas and not even a rudimentary clinic at the village level. Whatever it takes, our policies should start treating all our people as citizens with rights. Primary Health Centres should function effectively.

Q. What have been your recent professional milestones?
I work as an advisor for voluntary organisations in different parts of the country: SEWA Child Care in Ahmedabad and Kheda, which has a large membership of women at the grassroots, Volontariat in Pondicherry, which supports education and health, for over a thousand children from deprived families, Bala Mandir in Chennai, a pioneer institution for housing foundlings and for providing holistic education and a home for hundreds of children. I also serve as a member of the Executive Committee of the Social Work and Research Centre (Barefoot College) Tilonia. Working with voluntary organisations helps me to interact with a large section of the population of children, for whom every well-planned input seems to have a significant enriching effect. Another of my present preoccupations is the editing of the revision of a course on Early Childhood Education, offered by the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU). Every few months, we meet to take stock and share our perceptions on the revised curriculum, what added material should be included and how it is to be written. Distance education is so different from being in a classroom face-to-face with one’s students. The experts writing courses have to remind themselves constantly, to be both simple and direct in writing style and comprehensive in their coverage.

Q. What are your most satisfying patient moments/outcomes?
Getting the person who comes to consult you to handle the problem and feel well and happy. The feeling of having contributed to this outcome is, I imagine, what any healer would want.

Q. Do you think Indian health websites are useful? What are your views about our health website?
I think that the consultancy service of our health website is an excellent addition to the health information of Indian families. It addresses parents who are literate and have access to a computer, and is an invitation to them to take the first step of asking a question. My response (as an expert in Child Development) to each letter is also only a first step in what must be done to take care of the problem. I spend some time guessing at the kind of person who has written for advice and the family and social situation of the person. My mental picture may sometimes be off the mark, but the years of experience I have accumulated, should help to reduce errors, I think. The hundred letters from this site compiled and published in 2007 as “Child Development”(Byword Books), with other easy-to-use facts on children will give a flavour of our communications. I have suggested that a second set of exchanges with the same person would bring a sense of closure. I would know if my counsel were relevant and would extend the hand-holding, if it were. This suggestion has not been taken. I also feel that parents should mention the city or town where they live and give some more details of their circumstances. I need to feel assured that the advice I give is practicable and can be followed. I must pursue both these issues with more perseverance, I guess.

Q. What has been your most recent professional achievement?
I have not aimed to have ‘achievements’, as they are commonly understood, but rather tend to work whole-heartedly on whatever I take up and to enjoy doing it. My life plans are non-linear, in a manner of speaking. Total involvement in the task on hand brings joy, whether that it is cooking a favourite dish, writing an academic paper or listening to classical music. Even responding to a query on this site, is frequently, such a task. As I was coming to a close in writing up my responses on this interview last night, I took a break to read my mail and found a letter from SAGE Publishers, that a book I have co-edited with two of my former colleagues at the Lady Irwin College “Researching Families and Children” has now come out. Today, I went to get some copies for friends and myself. The feel and smell of the book and the unfailing delight of seeing one’s work in print made it a magical afternoon. Perhaps, I will admit it is a high point in recent months.

Q. Would you like to tell us about any recent development in your specialty?
In the last decade, the treatment of autism in children has advanced. Apart from the experts’ views on autism, which are valuable, there are parental accounts in print, which present the various aspects of the condition. The flip side is that every parent who goes to the Net imagines his child is “autistic”. I often spend a lot of effort to say that the label is not the most important thing, but handling it sensitively is important.

Q. What role do child psychologists play in keeping our society healthy?
I think the ‘tribe’ of Child Psychologists is a small one. I am not sure if they have an impact on the mental health problems as a whole, but it does seem to help an anxious parent to have some reassurance and some methods of working with the problem. More psychologists within the schools would be necessary, as schooling seems to be at the root of many problems.

Q. Could you give some general/universal advice on bringing up children?
Any advice one can give to parents about raising children, in a couple of sentences, is at risk of sounding trite and clichéd. Nevertheless, I will say this: I have observed that there is so much anxiety and concern about a child’s future that the present tense, the NOW is neglected. Grades and marks and ranks have become asuras in the lives of children. In the process of concentrating on academic performance, parents tend to forget that education broadens perception and prepares a young person for adult life. But factors beyond our immediate control have made education into a life-threatening disease! Children should have some autonomy in decisions and some opportunities to attain excellence. When children are happy, they have a much better chance of reaching their potential. Happiness, in the best definition of the term, rather than money and success, should be the focus of the guidance we give.

Q. Who is the person you admire the most or most influenced by?
The person I admire and revere the most is His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. I have had the good fortune to meet him at Dharamsala, on two occasions, many years ago, in the seventies. In those days, it was possible to ask for an audience, though I did get help from bureaucrat friends for both the meetings. The Dalai Lama was wise and radiant and full of laughter. What a presence! He was both Guru and friend. Recently, I read Pico Iyer’s book, “The Open Road” which has made me more aware of the fine balance he maintains between the political yearnings of the Tibetan people and the spiritual leadership that many in the world expect the Dalai Lama to provide.

Q. What would you have been if not a doctor?
Since I am not a doctor (in the strict definition of the term) I could evade the question. But better still I thought to say that I am a teacher, a social worker, a researcher, a writer and a photographer. I use a fairly ordinary camera, but tell my friends that I could possibly give them their best picture. Quite often, it does work that way! I treat my camera as an extension of myself and find that it catches some depth of that person, which makes the picture more than just a faithful visual representation. I also have plenty of good pictures from the field studies that I have done or supervised. Of the several roles, I have most enjoyed being a teacher and taking pictures.