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Bridging the Divide

posted Feb 25, 2012, 9:13 PM by Suresh V


There’s a party inside the walls of Life Together with lots of kisses and hugs, much food and drink and a constant queue of people from north Moravia who know Kumar Vishwanathan. He toasts and greets the steady progression of Czech and Roma people in celebration of his 45th birthday.
But his story doesn’t start at this party in Ostrava. It started thousands of miles away from the offices of that little nonprofit in the southeastern region of India, in Kerala. It started in the tropical climate of an Indian state that adjoins the Arabian Sea. It started in a place that was then and remains a welcome home to cultural and religious diversity that breeds conflict in so many other countries in that part of the world.
Vishwanathan grew up around Hindus, Christians, Muslims and Jews, and this shaped the man he is today, he said.
He is the eldest of four — twin sisters and a brother — born to an electrical engineer and a homemaker. For Vishwanathan, the way of life in Kerala had its limitations. He found that Indian women felt safer sticking to the traditions of their parents, a boundary he wanted to push past.
After studying at the Indian Institute of Technology and Science in northern India, he decided he wanted to study abroad. In those days, he was a fan of Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, so it wasn’t a big surprise when he set out to attend the Peoples’ Friendship University in Moscow.
There he continued his studies finishing up with a master’s in physics and math. When he arrived in the Soviet Union he didn’t stop trying to push the boundaries set for him, this time not by his parents or the Indian caste system but by the communist government.
Although his visa was good only within Moscow’s city limits, Vishwanathan was caught several times attempting to explore the country on unsanctioned trips. After being searched and detained, he was always released with orders to return to the city.
Breaking out
It was in Moscow that Vishwanathan went from being a quiet, introvert to breaking out of his cocoon and becoming a social butterfly. He went from having few friends to having many from Latin America, Africa and Eastern Europe. One friend, in particular, became quite special. While in Moscow, he met Ladislava, or Laďka, as he calls her, who briefly studied there.
“They opened up the world to me in a very different kind of way. They opened me to their interests. Laďka cultivated my interest in art from world masters. We felt many things in common. She was also bold. I liked that,” he said.
They kept in touch, and he helped her organize student protests from time to time. Once the wall fell, they married, and he settled in the Czech Republic.
“I feel that I understand the people of Central and Eastern Europe. I feel at long last at home somewhere,” he said.
Like many other émigrés, his curriculum vitae consists of jobs not linked to his area of expertise. He raked leaves and cleared snow at a spa until he landed a position as a teacher at a bilingual British-Czech grammar school in Olomouc.
While there, he was in charge of creating a post-communist curriculum to bring the eager students up to speed with the rest of Europe.
“I am most happy that I managed to help break down stereotypes, like that physics is not for girls,” he said. “I developed a whole astronomy module based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It inspired one of my girl students. Today, she is an astronomer.”
He taught for seven years, eventually integrating science with drama. He wrote a play, which was performed at the British Council in Olomouc and the Theater Comedy in Prague.
Then the floods came
Even with the new additions to his lesson plans, Vishwanathan was looking for a completely new challenge. The war in Sarajevo had just ended and he considered going there to teach. But, just as his routine became too mundane, fate struck and so did Mother Nature: The worst flood in 1,000 years hit Moravia.
“We had flood waters on our doorstep. But, in Ostrava, I learned that the water was 7 meters high and had destroyed a locality — Hrušov.”
Vishwanathan kept his eyes and ears on the situation. Some 400 families, both Roma and Czech, had been evacuated to a nearby school. The situation deteriorated after the authorities accused the Roma families of stealing school toys to give to their children to play with during the evacuation.
“I wanted to intervene, help,” Vishwanathan said.
With his wife’s blessing, he headed for Ostrava to volunteer. It was an emergency response to a temporary problem, or so he thought.
He started living with the Roma in the cabins made from asbestos — a cancer-causing insulation material — to help. The white community rejected the idea of Roma living among them and threatened to arm themselves against their fellow flood victims.
“I would have moved in to help anybody in such circumstances. It happened to be the Roma who needed it then,” Vishwanathan said.
While living among them, the man with the “big heart” learned a lot about issues facing Roma families. He became close to almost 30 different families. Then other volunteers joined.
“We became one big family,” he said. “Together, we overcame a lot of problems.”
After a few months volunteering, he began to earn a living by teaching English to Roma children. Laďka was very supportive, as well as the Olomouc community that raised money to help with the effort. Finally, a Prague nongovernmental organization, Nadace rozvoje občanské společnosti (NROS), teamed up with the Brno-based group, Loving Alternative to Punishment for Delinquent Youth, to provide Vishwanathan’s work in Ostrava with more fiscal support.
Since then, he’s been working with Life Together to fight for Roma equality. He has established a reputation for being a calming negotiator between the Roma and Czech communities. Not only does he work with different representatives from government and nongovernment organizations to further the cause, he brings the empathy of a teacher to an issue that’s steeped in prejudice and neglect.
“Kumar showed me a future,” said Miroslav Horvát, 27. Horvat is a Roma who grew up in institutionalized care before he met Vishwanathan. “I didn’t see any way of life. I started to work for him, and he showed me a way of life I hadn’t known.”
Vishwanathan said he can’t foretell the future, so he doesn’t yet know what the next act in his play will be. In the short term, he will continue with his passions: cycling, walking through the mountains and reading, provided he can find the time.
Since the days of his youth, he doesn’t read much Tolstoy but has grown to admire the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Boris Pasternak and Mikhail Bulgakov, who he says best describe the communist Russia experience. Beyond them, he likes writers on cultural fault lines such as Hermann Hesse and Günter Grass.
As he lifted his glass in yet another toast to the packed room of colleagues, who after several years have become close friends, it’s obvious he makes time for what’s most important: family and friends. By now, the party has been going on since early afternoon and several women are topping off the food.
“More people are coming,” one of them said.
The party wouldn’t end before the wee hours.
When asked what he would like his own legacy to be, his reply could easily be found in the dialogue on the pages of a Hesse book: “I don’t chase any legacy.”
Although that may be true, the self-described “lone walker” has helped build a bridge between two cultures and bring many people from both sides to break bread. From the smiles of admiration and respect of those gathered, it looks like a legacy might be chasing him.