Epilogue

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Round Pizza in a Square Box

Excerpt from the Epilogue:

As a father to two daughters, I was happy to manage a hospital that provided the core of its forty thousand free treatments to children. Without free care, I know that most would have had no choice but to suffer through their illnesses and deformities. I met many poor families in the Pediatric Ward who simply could not afford the ten dollars a month blood transfusions, or the two hundred and fifty dollar surgery for a cleft lip or palate. It would have taken them twenty years or more to raise the necessary funds, whether through backbreaking labor or the sacrifice of daily food.

Photo courtesy of Morgana Wingard

Financial need was not the only difficulty these families faced. Children born with physical deformities, especially blindness and cleft palates, faced grim and uncertain futures. Unless a deformed child was born into a rich man’s home, the mindset prevailed that he or she had been cursed. In the community’s eyes, the deformed child was nothing more than a beggar. If the parents did not cast aside the child to beg or starve, the child almost surely forwent education, marriage, and communal support for the remainder of his or her life.

I recall meeting a mother in the hospital who covered her head in shame because she had a child with both a cleft palate and a blind eye that hung loose from its socket. “Why are you covering your head,” I asked her.

“I am covering my head and also my face because I have been cursed by God,” she replied.

It was not until the hospital fixed the child’s palate and removed the eye that the mother uncovered her head. Both her and her son returned to their village with heads held high and confident smiles. Two simple surgeries not only brought self-esteem back to the child, but to the family as well.

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The Good Hand of God

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Round Pizza in a Square Box

Excerpt from Chapter 8 – The Good Hand of God:

My ten years as a hospital board member in Calcutta taught me a great deal beyond my business training. I remember clearly the day the hospital made headline news. The story revolved around an unusual incident that happened 24 hours earlier within the Casualty Ward, where one of their doctors was found with a fresh stab wound to his leg.

The next morning, the front page of the local newspaper wrote that the hospital had “denied admission to an AIDS patient.” The cover photo featured the very same doctor and his injured leg.

In the ensuing article, the doctor had told the Media that he was trying to admit an AIDS patient into the hospital when members of the hospital administration stabbed him with a knife in a violent effort to prevent the admission. 

His accusation spread like wildfire around the city. When the hospital accreditation board caught wind of it, they were furious. The public likewise was appalled. “What kind of hospital treats people according to their prejudices?”

The hospital personnel were no less baffled and confused. Never before had the staff turned away people in need of care, no matter their status or condition. This was a charitable hospital and helped the very people that could not get care elsewhere. What the doctor had told the press simply did not make sense.

Interestingly enough, just weeks before the incident, the hospital had installed security cameras in the casualty ward. Tracking down the videotape from the day of the incident, hospital administrators were shocked by what it showed. Clearly the doctor had forgotten about the newly-installed cameras. Lying there upon an emergency room bed alone in the casualty ward, we watched as he removed a knife from the folds of his clothing, ensured that no one was looking, then thrust the knife halfway into his leg. Trying not to scream from the pain, he continued to lie there for some time before a media team mysteriously arrived to interview him.

When authorities called in the hospital’s administrative team and board for inquiry, we showed them the videotape. A play button later, with a few rewinds and pauses along the way, the case came to a quick conclusion. The hospital was exonerated of all accusations.

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Walking With the Poor

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Round Pizza in a Square Box

Excerpt from Chapter 7 – Walking With the Poor:

Mother Teresa

Growing up in Calcutta, I had the rare privilege of meeting Mother Teresa. She ran a network of nineteen charitable homes that cared for orphans, the mentally ill, lepers, and the dying. Cots, clean sheets, and running water simply outfitted each facility creating an unsophisticated yet functional home environment. Never did the Sisters who helped manage the homes turn away any person in need or charge for services.

Surrounding Mother Teresa’s work was an ongoing controversy about the quality of care afforded to her patients, especially those at the Homes for the Dying. Journalists from the Western medical press time and again reported poor living conditions, which included cold baths for patients, and a level of medical care that precluded modern diagnosis and treatment. Furthermore, they complained of the homes’ shortage of doctors on one hand and too many volunteers lacking medical knowledge on the other.

I have always been intrigued by critics who sit in air-conditioned offices providing a spectator’s account of how work should be performed in third-world countries. It is easy to give expert advice on what more must be done and how someone else should do it without being there.

For those who sit and critique, how about actually going to the area of need and doing something, instead of simply writing or talking about it? Serving with the poor is much more than creating a power point, designing a neat brochure, flying business class to fundraisers, or staying in five-star hotels in third world countries. There is no better way to care for people than by walking alongside them.

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Just Do It

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Round Pizza in a Square Box

Excerpt from Chapter 6 – Just Do It:

I turned to my laptop where I had open a photo of Papai. He was just one child representing millions more in need. When we trialed the online education model, Papai was one of our first students. When I first met him, he was addicted to adhesives and covered in lice. He did not have a home or family, and least of all an education. His first day in class, he sat looking straight ahead with his eyes on the teacher, fully engaged in the lesson. He did not resist the volunteers who worked closely with him, and eagerly participated in the songs and art activities.

Photo courtesy of Morgana Wingard

As the weeks passed, Papai displayed amazing resilience. The volunteers spotted less signs of substance abuse, and noticed that Papai was steadily gaining weight. His engagement with the other students increased, while he took a great interest in reading and writing. “I want to be a teacher,” he told volunteers. The last I heard, Papai has moved up another grade level, and often stays after school to help younger children with their lessons.

Yet Papai’s life is just a drop in an ocean of need. An opportunity to learn lifted him from the dregs of poverty and gave him a real chance at hope and happiness. He is doing well to this day. Papai is why thousands of people worldwide work and give on behalf of the poor. It is not about the millions, but about each one in whose life differences can be made. The same can be said of Amar in the feeding line and the fifty children in the Kadamtolla school. In their lives, every single meal and each English lesson makes a difference.

In India, we are blessed with many children. Forty percent of India’s population is below the age of fifteen. That comes to four hundred million children.

But consider the plight of India’s children:

Nearly two hundred million children suffer from malnutrition.

One child dies every second of preventable causes.

One out of eleven children do not live to see his/her first birthday.

One out of ten children is disabled.

One out of four girls is sexually abused before the age of four.

One hundred and fifty million children have no access to education.

Fifteen million children work as bonded laborers.

It does not matter where you live, whether you are young or old, single or married. These are our children. I wish you could see them as they pick through garbage heaps and plow their family’s fields in bare and bleeding feet. They should not have to live like that. Children should not have to wonder where their next meal is coming from.

I know how hard it is to make a change amid such overwhelming statistics. I too have been overwhelmed with the need. I have felt inadequate in my abilities and hurt by criticisms. A couple of years ago, I had the task of raising twenty thousand dollars for a charitable project. Twenty thousand dollars was a lot of money. What if I could not raise the support?

My wife sensed my fear, and I will never forget what she said to me, “Well Amitabh, God never told us how big we need to do a project, just what we need to do. If you raise two hundred dollars for the project, great! You can execute the project at that level. If you raise twenty thousand dollars, wonderful! You can do it at that level.”

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They Taught Us

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Round Pizza in a Square Box

Excerpt from Chapter 5 – They Taught Us:

I am a firm believer in holistic approaches to serving people in need. A holistic approach ensures that a person receives food, shelter, education, and medical care, in addition to a positive, uplifting message.

Sometimes, though, we become so good at meeting a person’s physical needs that we fall woefully short of meeting their emotional and psychological needs. In the flurry of building schools, handing out food to the hungry, and vaccinating children, we forget to motivate the student, heal the hearts of the destitute, and make glad the sick child.

I was never made more aware of this common shortfall than during a walk through Sonargachi. I entered the district alongside a North American doctor who had asked for a tour of our red light medical clinic. The doctor was quiet as we wandered up and down the garbage-strewn lanes. Deep in thought, she seemed to be searching for a hint of hope amid the ruin.

Rounding a bend onto a side street, the doctor spoke a simple, yet striking statement. “You are not simply invested in helping sickness and disease. You are about providing health and happiness,” she told me.

“What do you mean,” I asked.

“A clinic is a necessary starting point. You send one of the sex workers to the radiology department and a tumor is discovered. You have found sickness. That is very good, but any hospital can find sickness and disease. Greater still, how does one find health and happiness? How are you providing well-being to these women? And what about their children? How are you giving them hope and opportunity beyond these streets?”

I admired her discontent. She was right. A medical clinic was a good starting point, but it was not enough. How could we go beyond sickness and disease and rescue entire families from the sex trade?

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No Politics, Please

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Round Pizza in a Square Box

Excerpt from Chapter 4 – No Politics, Please:

Despite being only one-mile radius in size, Sonargachi is home to ten thousand sex workers. Poverty drives many women to the area while others are trafficked in from neighboring countries, such as Bangladesh and Nepal. The “Sonargachi Lane” main street begins a few hundred paces from Liberty Cinema Hall on Chittaranja Avenue. Every evening, rickshaws vie with one another to enter the illicit roadway, weaving their passengers past mounds of rubble and sewage streams to begin a night of sordid entertainment.

I caught my first glimpse inside Sonargachi when as a hospital Board Member I agreed to assess its medical needs. I was appalled by what I saw.

The district’s main street gave way to a clumsy patchwork of dark alleyways on which hundreds of dilapidated, multi-story brothels caressed each other in close proximity. The brothels’ ancient walls crumbled and split like broken seams, exposing supporting iron rods. The buildings’ highest floors creaked and leaned precariously into alleyways, ensnaring in their crooked grasp a thick aroma of dirt, sweat, and hot garbage.

Brightly-adorned women in tightly wrapped saris leaned seductively against the decaying outer walls, making obvious the offered services. Men, young and old, circled the women, following them unashamedly into the open doors of the brothels. Fifteen minutes later, the pairs emerged again, the men disappearing around the nearest corners and the women resuming their places alongside the street.

There was nothing nice about the area. It brought to life all the deplorable stories I had heard about it.

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My Dad’s Three Managers

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Round Pizza in a Square Box

Excerpt from Chapter 3 – My Dad’s Three Managers

One morning, my father asked me to accompany our Munim ji (a term for a confidential accountant) to the Sales Tax office. The government required every business owner to pay a percentage of his earnings to the all-powerful Sales Tax Officer. I say all-powerful because the Sales Tax Officer knew full well the influence he had over another man’s profits. A person could claim all day long that “this is what I sold” and “here is the sales tax I owe,” but if the Sales Tax Officer was unhappy with the claim, he could scrutinize it and cause the business a lot of trouble. This is why many business owners hired a Munim ji to act as their mediators. The Munim ji ensured that both parties walked away happy.

The day of our appointment, my dad told me to dress in simple clothes. When we arrived at the Sales Tax building, the Munim ji bought two cases of the most expensive cigarettes from a small stall to the left of the entrance. I felt perplexed. “The Munim ji does not smoke. Why does he need two packs of cigarettes?” I wondered.

We continued through the building’s entrance, up a few flights of stairs, and into a corridor where we waited to see the “Bada Sahab” (the name we called the Sales Tax Officer, meaning “big officer”). In the silence of the waiting room, my curiosity got the best of me. “What is this all about,” I asked the Munim ji. “Why do we need these cigarettes?”

“Wait and learn,” he whispered.

Ten minutes passed before an office peon called our name. The Munim ji walked up to the peon and handed him the cigarettes, before proceeding coolly into Bada Sahab’s office for our official meeting. I watched speechless, trying to find the meaning behind the transaction. I hurried after the Munim ji and into the office, all the while looking over my shoulder at the office peon who quickly disappeared down the corridor with his newfound prize.

The meeting did not last long. We presented our financials and the Bada Sahab signed them without question. Returning to the corridor, I noticed the peon sitting on his stool, but the cigarette cases were gone.

“What is this all about?” I asked the Munim ji a second time, as we made our way out of the building.

“Let me explain something to you,” he answered casually. “It is irrelevant that the Sales Tax Officer does not smoke. We bought the cigarettes at their full price, and gave them to the peon. The peon took the cases back down to the cigarette seller so that the cases could be recycled and resold. The next guy who comes in to see the Sales Tax Officer will also buy some cigarettes, and give them to the peon, only to repeat the same transaction.”

He shrugged a little. “I don’t know. I wager that this happens fifteen or more times before the office closes. At the end of the day, the seller calculates the cost of each cigarette case sold, recycled ‘x’ number of times, and he sends a percentage to the Sales Tax Officer or his peon. Not a bad day’s earnings for three people who invested precious nothing. All it cost the peon was the energy it took to run up and down those flights of stairs.”

I listened to the admission, unable to hide my surprise. I could hardly believe how complex yet smooth this system of corruption operated.

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Book Review by Ken Horn: Round Pizza in a Square Box

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The below book review of Round Pizza In A Square Box, reviewed by Ken Horn, appeared this week in Pentecostal Review:

The Myth of a Flat World

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Round Pizza in a Square Box

Excerpt from Chapter 2 – The Myth of a Flat World:

I will not soon forget the deadly Indian Ocean tsunami that caught the world off guard a day after Christmas in 2004. A violent 9.0 earthquake in the depths of the sea quickly gave rise to fifty-foot waves that thrust their way onto the shores of eleven unsuspecting countries. In a single day, over one hundred and fifty thousand people died, and millions more lost their homes and families. The tsunami was arguably the most disastrous in recorded history.

Girl crying.

In those days, I was working as the Director of Financial Services for a U.S. based non-profit called Mission of Mercy. The organization supported two hundred and fifty projects in nineteen countries, providing holistic support to disadvantaged children. On December 26th, the moment that news of the tsunami hit American shores, my colleagues and I rushed to the office for an emergency meeting. We sat together for hours, stunned and heartbroken as we discovered the extent of the tragedy in the Southeast. In Sri Lanka, we operated thirty-seven projects, sponsoring over two thousand children. Many of these children were now dead:

In Lunugamwehera, twenty of our children had died.

In Galle, thirteen had died.

In Kalawnchikudy, fourteen had died.

In Chenkalady, thirteen had died. 

In Manawa and Tissamaharam, we could not determine our losses because our projects were uncommunicative due to the destruction.

In Valachenai, fifteen had died.

In Batticaloa, nine had died.

In Hambantota, twenty-two had died.

In a single day, over one hundred children enrolled in our projects had died.

For us, it was not about numbers. We knew the names and faces of each child. It was hard to believe I would never see little Kumar again. Shanti, the girl with the two short pigtails, would never again come running to meet me.

And what of the children who had survived without their parents? They had nowhere to live and no one to whom they could turn.

Clearly, our team had a large task ahead of us. The tsunami had not undermined our resolve to continue the work. On the contrary, it awakened our  desire to do even more.

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Still a Student

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Round Pizza in a Square Box

Excerpt from Chapter 1 – Still a Student

1991 was for many Indians the date of India’s true emancipation. On the verge of bankruptcy, India’s then Prime Minister and Finance Minister called for an emergency meeting. Neither man slept until they had systematically identified and reversed the country’s failing policies, which included boldly opening India’s borders to international markets. Overnight, the ailing land took its first gasp of fresh air as an unrestrained nation, making a dramatic turnaround towards a bright and healthy future.

India’s upward progress in the 90’s nourished the economy’s sunken belly as businesses grew, cities flourished, and India once again earned a competitive foothold in the global economy. It was in this decade that I finished my MBA and began a career as a business consultant.

It has been a pleasure these last twenty years watching India continue its ascent into the twenty-first century, but I also find the country to be at a critical crossroads. With all of its recent advancements, there now exist two India’s – a rich India and a poor India. While India’s affluent cities are home to many residents who speak English, hold college degrees, and earn good jobs overseas, seventy percent of India’s population of over seven hundred million people, live in substandard conditions in India’s smaller cities and villages. Almost half lack adequate travel routes, medical centers, and accessible education.

Photo credit: The Women's International Perspective

While India boasts magnificent universities and technical schools, producing one million engineering graduates each year, an estimated thirty-five percent of children and forty percent of women, are still unable to read or write because the government-run primary schools are failing. This problem is compounded in villages where poverty is often so extreme that children have to forego school altogether to work alongside their parents.

While India is home to some of the wealthiest businessmen and women in the world, hundreds of fathers with swollen feet pull rickshaws for miles, working harder than their lives give license yet earning barely enough income to feed one meal a day to their starving families. The United Nations writes that India is today home to more than a third of the world’s chronically malnourished children.

And while a number of India’s wealthy corporations prosper through municipal bribes and illegal favors, local entrepreneurs continue to struggle through a maze of bureaucratic offices and old, restrictive policies, in their efforts to earn honest incomes.

When I read books and newspaper headlines that talk about the rising India, I cannot help but ask, “Rising for whom? The fifteen to twenty-five percent who speak English and live in the cities?” For the rest, there is nothing rising about it.

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