Saturday, July 16, 2011

The joys of working for no salary

by  Raamesh Gowri Raghavan

The list of joys gained when working at a job with a salary can be detailed as follows:

1.Receipt of salary in bank account

2.Payment of dues, bills etc without late charges

3.Relied at timely payment

These are all I could envision. I have a distinct feeling that nagging bosses, unreal deadlines, conflicting ethics, family pressures, unfulfilled aspirations and suffocating compromises have a tendency to more than cancelling out these joys. Yet, the bills get paid, and that is {insert swear-word here} important.

Then comes the list of joys gained for working without a salary. It could be a bold step into entrepreneurship, or volunteering for charity. I have neither the money, nor the boldness to throw away my job (however I may itch to fling my resignation at my bosses’ faces) and start a business venture of my own. Nor do I have a great idea yet that a venture capitalist will throw money at, though I can dream of unsecured loans by a deluded investor into some grand chicken-egg-chicken-egg-chicken scheme I will think of. So all I can do is select a charity and volunteer for it.

And that, trust me, has been one of the best decisions I ever made in life. (In fact, I think it ranks second only in my decision not to marry or have kids). Five days a week I slog for an ungrateful, underpaying company (as every hard-working employee thinks s/he does), keeping the rational and calculating part of my brain active, while placing the emotional and aesthetic parts of it in a coma. On Saturdays, I switch the rational calculator off, and the emotional aesthete comes alive. I pack my bag in the morning, to catch a local train to Belapur.

For the last couple of years, I have been volunteering every Saturday at Swami Brahmanand Pratishthan, a school for the mentally retarded. Despite its religious-sounding name, it is not affiliated to any math or peetham or trust. It was founded by a gutsy special education teacher, Shirish Poojary, on 7th July 1990 (Guru Poornima that year), and named after her mentor, Swami Brahmanand*. I like this particular Swami for he made no effort to set up a multi-crore religious trust operating several lucrative colleges, lived in modest circumstances in Ratnagiri district, and died as unknown as he lived. His only legacy to the world is this school set up in his memory.

[A note on the phrase ‘mentally retarded’. Some of us try to be politically corrected and say ‘mentally challenged’ or ‘special children’ or ‘differentially abled’ instead. It makes no difference to the children themselves; they will never understand. Besides, it is misleading. Many have suffered, because of genetic defects or because their mother contracted some unfortunate disease while pregnant, or because there was an accident during delivery. It leaves their mental development retarded; often they remain stuck at the mental age of seven or eight for the rest of their lives. They cannot do anything special, or different, nor can they rise to the ‘challenge’. ‘Mentally retarded’ is to me the right phrase, for it immediately alerts the ‘normal’ people around them that there is a problem, and that it needs sensitivity and empathy, not political correctness.]

So what do I do in this school? I’m not qualified to teach the students anything (since I have nothing I can teach them, nor anyone else), so I do whatever is assigned to me. Some bit of blogging the school’s activities (, acting as photographer during school activities, and generally doing paperwork. This includes writing letters to sponsors, updating records of sponsorships, drafting other letters, and a whole lot of similar things. Which I would have considered immensely infuriating had it come with a salary attached. But since it doesn’t, it is very interesting, and gives me a great deal of happiness.

The minus side is that it is a drain on my finances. I have to spend money travelling to and fro every Saturday (and because this is me, snacking on the way). And I have taken up sponsoring half the expenses for one child’s education, which comes to Rs. 12,000 a year. But if I grudge even this, then deep inside, something within me is not human at all. And since I have no wife to be nagged by or no children whose complaints irate neighbours bring home everyday, what am I to do with my salary? After all my insurance premia and home loan EMIs, helping a child along seems like a good idea for the money. My only wish is that I could do more. Which would mean finding a job with a nastier boss, outrageous clients, meaner deadlines and tearfully boring work, because that seems to bring in higher salaries.

The plus side is that I get invited to all school dos, the teachers treat me as a friend, and the founder (Mrs. Poojary, still going strong these 21 years) is quite fond of me. That means I can get free chai and snacks at school (which over-compensates the overall effort I put in). The school dos are a real treat, for while these children cannot cheat, trick, get angry, run for election, lie, plot, complain, deceive, crib, steal or willfully inflict violence (like normal, intelligent people do all the time), they can really sing, dance and remain cheerful through thick and thin. Most Saturdays I don’t get to meet them, because they get that day off, while teachers are doing up reports, holding parent-teacher meetings etc. But the days I do get to meet them, I manage to win a smile from one or a few. That can keep my spirits going for days on end.

And then I can talk to the parents. Dealt a cruel black swan by life, knowing their child will remain a child for the rest of its life. They manage, they cope, they even redesign their lives around their child. While their normal children grow old, find jobs and get married, there is one that retains its innocence forever. One that laughs at the littlest thing, complains about nothing, and accepts its lot with the stoicism that the greatest philosophers cannot achieve. Who will live and die without knowing the evil in the world. After that, who am I to complain about a cribbaceous boss, or cryaceous juniors?

I’ve managed to recruit my parents to the cause. Which means that they do not crib when I’m off on Saturdays, do not crib about how the money could be better used (which means it be spent mostly on them, or saved up for spending on my future children), and gladly agree to do my share of the housework. Not that Saturdays are an excuse to escape the housework (since their agreeing to do housework does not mean they actually do it; it jumps on me the moment I enter the house). Lately they’ve even been willing to buy some of the things the children make.

My sister is still a great critic. That’s because she is in the line of dealing with mentally retarded children herself, and she disagrees with the vocational approach taken by the school. Though I am sure she will come around, as she knows the school better. For who will take care of a child who is abjectly poor, is too mentally retarded to do even simple things like eat its food or go to the bathroom, and to make it weven worse, is a Dalit from a roadless hamlet? It takes a great amount of effort to get them to learn even a simple skill like stringing beads.

But they have an incredible sense of beauty. I’ve seen them struggle to paste bits of paper and thread while making rakhees (which are on sale now). But the choice of colours, the patterns they make, their sense of combination and contrast is unbelievable. They seem to me the very paradigm of the ‘idiot savant’. Incredibly stupid, and yet incredibly aesthetic. A genius buried irretrievably deep by an accident of birth.

I used to think I was sensitive and could understand people. Till I started volunteering at my school. Now I know there is a lot, a great lot I have to learn. To learn to be happy knowing full well I have nothing that is truly mine. To be truly sensitive to the needs and requirements of people who are vastly different from me. To understand that there is nothing superior about me, to not patronize, to not do anything I would hate done to me.

One day I will in fact fling my resignation on my bosses’ faces and work at my school full time. But there is such a thing as a grumbling stomach. Till then, joy is confined to Saturdays. The joy of enriching work at no salary.

cross-posted at Raamesh's FB notes

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