N. Krishnaswamy

Indian Police Service (Retd.)

Biography My Son Natesan My Police Work My Social Work Awards / Recognitions Extras Photo Gallery

It often surprises me that when people retire from an active service career they should find themselves at a loss as to what to do next. For some it is a daunting climbdown to adjusting to living on half the salary that one was accustomed to for 30 years or more. For others it is the problem of nothing to do for all their waking hours, beyond eating, sleeping and at best, reading every line of the day’s newspaper. For still others, especially policemen, it is a loss of face, a loss of power, where people were so deferential till yesterday, now start ignoring them in the street making for a feeling of having been psychological downsized. All
thes problems come from having lived life without any wider interests, like a frog in a well which thinks that the well is the whole world.

Luckily I had lived a larger life, taking in everything the world had to offer and so when I retired from the IPS in 1979, I knew there was so much to do,
and it was only a matter of choosing what I wanted to do or was reasonably good at doing. Way back in 1946 I had started my working life as a teacher, and through all my IPS years, the teacher remained in me and much of my professional success came from my readiness to teach those who worked under me to learn whatever I knew and they did not. And this also meant that I had to keep ahead and abreast of the latest developments to remain a good teacher. I now knew that I wanted to be a teacher once again, this time full time.

Apart from Consultancy or other assignments related to my police experience, I spent almost twenty of my first retirement years teaching computers to young people just coming out of college, some of them nephews and nieces, some of them friends, or children of friends – resulting in many many new friendships and may of the younger ones getting established in successful IT careers in the USA. Towards the end of the 1990s, however, my urge to teach got more focussed on the poor and disabled who were being largely bypassed by opportunities for literacy and education. Could these be imparted through and combined with computer skills, the field of my special interests and strengths? The more I thought of this, the more I was drawn to the idea. It was at this point that serendipity stepped in. My old friend, Dr R.Kalyanakrishnan, (RKK) Professor of Computer Science at the IIT Madras had just finished developing a software package that would enable anyone to use a PC in any Indian language, which meant the mother tongue of everyone in the country. The software was easy to learn and use, as the assignment of letters on the keyboard was on a common phonetic basis for all languages. Thus typing the letters k-m-l-A would produce the word Kamala on the screen in whatever Indian script was chosen. RKK was very particular that the software and its teaching should be offered free of cost to all schools and students or anyone asking for it. The package was a real path-breaking achievement and I have told this story in greater detail in an October 1997 article in the Frontline Magazine which I have reproduced eleswhere in this collection of writings.

Putting this new tool in the service of education meant first, training oftrainers and then making training courses available. RKK and I therefore decided to form for this purpose, a voluntary service organization to be, appropriately called Vidya Vrikshah, meaning Tree of Knowledge. I set up a battery of 6 Personal Computers in my garage and mobilized a team of housewife-volunteers to be trained as trainers. The typical housewife was young, educated, often knew many languages, and often had enough spare time that she was keen to utilize in social service. For first training them and later occupying them when they were not training others, I got the Volunteers to use the software to create an archive of our ancient scriptures. Thus it was that while they went on training school teachers and students in large numbers, I got them to make a wide range of computerized versions of our vast traditional knowledge resources: scriptures, literature, the arts, and also the contemporary resources for our imparting literacy, education and skills to our children. Soon these resources acccumulated as a huge archive, which we placed in our own website so as to be readily available to all. Indeed our resources of traditional knowledge, were seen to be of such authenticity and quality that our website became a reference point, specially for Sanskritic studies. A Google search on the word “Sanskrit”, even today brings up the name of Vidya Vrikshah in the first few search responses.

Soon after, RKK announced another breakthrough in his software package. He introduced dramatic enhancements of the software that provided voice and braille support to computer usage in all Indian languages, which would enable even the blind to use computers with the same ease and facility as the sighted, with the added benefit of getting braille output wherever a braille embosser was available. It was an exciting day on the 9th January, 1999 when RKK and I went to the St Louis Institute for the Blind in Madras to request the Headmaster, Brother Devassy, to let us use their Braille Embosser to try out the braille enhancement of the software. RKK had brought a text passage, partly in English and partly in Tamil, recorded by this software on a floppy disk. Soon enough the school computer read this text and produced it in braille on their embosser. We then asked for someone who could read the sheet carrying the braille output. The Headmaster sent for a student from the adjacent classsroom. The student was Vikas, a handsome little blind boy of the 9th standard. Vikas passed his hand over our braille sheet, paused and said “This looks like a mix of English and Tamil braille”. We were already tingling with excitement, and RKK said,, “Yes that is so, go ahead and read it” Vikas the read out the text fluently and flawlessly. RKK and I all but hit the roof in excitement because it was the first time in India, perhaps the world, where a single software package could handle multiple languages in both their normal and braille version at the same time. A part of the braille output of that day is
reproduced with a partial normal rendering of the first two lines below:

That evening RKK and I decided to launch our training of the blind in the use of computers. And in the five years that followed we trained over 500 blind students and teachers from Blind Schools from all over the country, and we provided computers also free, to over 50 schools, including all the blind schools of Tamilnadu. A fine gift of a small personal Braille Embosser contributed in 1999 by Krish Narasimhan, enabled our Volunteers to understand and master braille and the techniques of braille printing. In 2004 we had a heavy duty Braille Embosser gifted to us by ASHA for Education of USA, which enabled our Volunteers to produce Dhrushti, a Children’s Monthly Braille Magazine in Tamil, which was sent to all Blind Schools in Tamilnadu. Later we made a start with a Telugu braille version while one of our trainees from Bangalore started a Kannada version as well.

In 2001, I teamed up with my friends Major-General (Retd) A.Balasubramanian and Air Vice-Marshal (Retd) V.Krishnaswamy to organize a National Conference on Information Technology Enablers for Persons with Disabilities (INTED—2001) under the auspices of the Institution of Electronics & Telecommunication Engineers (IETE) and with the support of the Rehabilitation Council of India. This was pperhaps the first national event of its kind that brought together all related technical disciplines to formulate a national, holistic stategy to enable the disable the disabled to be integrated as equal partners in the socio-economic mainstream of the country. I handled the drafting of the final Report of the Conference, which becama landmark reference document for peope
working in this field at that time. An image of this Report is reproduced later below. At this Conference I presented the Keynote Demonstration of
an integrated approach to provide literacy to all classes of the Disabled. (Link to Section on Presentations)

By 2004 our work for the blind had led us to the conclusion that working for them through computer based solutions was just touching the fringe of the problems of the blind, and there were harsh realities that needed to be addressed . The number of the blind ran into millions, and they lived in lakhs of villages all over the country. The number of blind schools in the country were few and far between, a few hundred in number, and their total intake, a few thousands. The larger number of nearby regular schools would also not admit blind children, as they pleaded that their teachers did not know braille or how to teach blind children. All these factors together meant that access to education was virtually closed to them and they were condemned to a life of illiteracy, and consequent unemployment and poverty.

It is a realization of this harsh reality that drove me into a relentless search for solutions of these problems. The key seemed to lie in finding an easy way of teaching braille, and indeed imparting all the basic literacy skills, which could find ready and widespread adoption. The key lay in designing easy teaching devices. This led me into a long and arduous search on the Internet and through friends, till one of them, a blind teacher in the USA mentioned to me the existence of a toy sold in US stores that was like a Rubik’s cube that could be manipulated to form braille code versions of letters of the alphabet on any of its six surfaces. This bit of information got me excited and soon with pencil and paper I sketched a thick square disk with raised dots on its sides. The design had an elegant simplicity. If the
four edges of the disk were laid out in a straight line, the layout of theraised dots it would look like this :

When three such disks were mounted on a common spindle through theircentre, their edges together would form the faces of a cube like this:

Turning the disks would then present the dots on these faces in 2 columns and 3 rows to make any of the 63 possible patterns that constitute the braille coding system. From my sketches, a friend who runs a plastic moulding industry made the cube. It turned out to be just what I was looking for and I had 5000 cubes made and sent to all Blind schools in the country for evaluation. Accompanying each cube was a ready reckoner card showing the braille code for each of letter of the alphabet from which anyone could form the codes for the letters on the cube. The enthusiastic feedback I received from the blind schools, convinced me that I had in my hands, not a toy, but a revolutionary tool that any literate person, possibly the mother or any member of the family could use it to quickly and easily
learn braille and teach a blind child at home even at the pre-school age. But far more importantly, it knocked the bottom of the resistance of the regular school system to admit blind children. I soon learnt the Cube could provide braille representations of any the alphabet of any language of India and indeed of the world. I would like to believe that the cube must have contributed a little to removing the mystique soorrounding the teaching of braille and to the movement in the country to get the school system to become more inclusive. I named the cube after my little friend Vasantha, the blind child of M.V.R.Sastry, one of of Vidya Vrikshah’s wonderful supporters in Hyderabad. We launched the Cube at a public function in Chennnai in December 2004, where the Ramamohana Rao, the Governor of
Tamilnadu, who presided, praised and described it a truly revolutionary solution. As a device it is simple enough and I imagine anyone could have made it, but it is the way I pressed it into widespread service of the blind, who were languishing in neglect, that perhaps deserved this commendation.

The Vasantha Cube became the starting point of my preoccupation since then, with design of a number of additional devices to help bring literacy to the blind. Eight of these devices, some already existing standard devices, and some that I designed, that would help a child to read and write (in braille), count and calculate and draw and measure, what would constitute the basics of functional literacy. These devices wer put together to make a Kit which I called the Universal Braille Kit, which was then mass produced and offered at a no-profit price of Rs 450 or US$10, by Worth Trust, Katpadi, a partner organization of Vidya Vrkshah. We then mobilized public donations to underwrite the entirety of the unit price so as to be able to distribute the Kit free to children. It may surprise many to know how
a small organization like ours has been able, in the last five years, to reach this Kit free to over 10000 blind children in India and over 5000 blind children in Afro-Asian countries. The following image shows all the devices of the UBK :

It was a matter of some satisfactio to me that in 2007, this work received the Nina Sibal Award carrrting a prize money of Rs One lakh. The award was instituted by Kapil Sibal, now the Education Minister of the Government of India , in memory of his late wife, Nina, who was member of the Indian Foreign Service, and died young, and who had a passion for helping the disabled. I received the prize at an impressive function at the prestigious Habiitat Centre, New Delhi, from Sheila Dixit, the Chief Minister of Delhi, in the presence dignitaries like Dr. Karan Singh, and Kapil Sibal and a large gathering as may seen in the picture below. I made a 10 minute Power Point presentation of our work, which reesulted in my being mobbed by the appreciative audience at the end of the function.

In 2005, I made a four week trip to the USA at the invitation of Viji Dilip at San Jose, to promote the UBK. I took the opportunity to make a presentation entitled “The International Initiative For the Blind” at a meeting at San Jose. (Linkk to Sectionon Presentations). I also took the opportunity to visit and spend time with some leading persons and institutions serving the blind in the USA : Lawrence Campbell, President of the International Council for Education of the Visually Impaired (ICEVI) at the Overbrook School For the Blind at Philadelphia; William Raeder, President of the National Braille Press, at Boston and David Morgan of Perkins School For the Blind at Boston; (and on my way back to India, with Philip Hoare of Sight Savers International in the UK). All of them were full of
appreciation for the UBK and promised to help in its international distribution. As it happened, in the course of this visit to the USA, I received donations totalling US$ 10,000/- for distribution of the UBK.

One other contact in the USA opened up for me a new area of activity for the blind. Viji Dilip took me to meet Jim Fruchterman, the head of Bookshare, a non-profit organization in San jose, running one of the largest digital libraries of the world, serving the blind across several countries. I suggested to Jim that he should extend the reach of Bookshare services beyond the English speaking world to the Non-English speaking world and he could consider making a beginning with a Bookshare India operation. He responded that this was very much in his thoughts, but there were constraints in respect of funding the operation and also of computer support for Indian and other local languages, not to speak of the constraints of copyright and related legal issues. I told them that in anticipation of these difficulties getting resolved in due course, I would get some activity started even now with creating e-versions of English language books, by employing a workforce of disabled persons. I also added that I would also create a platform to address and evolve quick solutions on the copyright, language software and other related issues.

On my return home I talked to our partners in Worth Trust and got this activity started. On behalf of Katha, the reputed publisher of New Delhi, Geetha Dharmarajan contributed a hundred of their books with an exemption from their copyright restrictions, to enable to get started on ebook production. Soon enough Bookshare saw Bookshare – India as being a viable operation and stepped in to support a full-fledged e-book production centre under Worth Trust at Chennai with books also being outsourced by them from their US resources. I also fulfilled my other promise to Jim Fruchterman and on the 19th April, 2008, organized the National Seminar at Chennai under the title “Print Access For All” where I brought together every significant and relevant interest group to participate, viz.
Publishing, Information Technology, and Governmental and Non-Governmental Support Services. It was nice to have Jim to come and participate and see for himself, not only Bookshare – India taking shape but also the spread of the Bookshare philosophy itself. It would be of interest to note that as today (October 2009) the Bookshare-India operation run by Worth Trust, employs 25 disabled persons who have so far handled the basic operations of production of over 2000 E-books. I formulated the Final Report of the Seminar presenting a comprehensive national strategy to make Print Access For All a reality in India in the foreseeable future. An image of this Report is reproduced below :

The development of more and better teaching devices is now (as of October 2009) occupying much of my time. Here is an example of one of my current projects, taking off from the design foundations of the Natesan Block, presented in a picture earlier but reproduced again below for explaining the new development. The Natesan Block is built of five pairs of Octogonal Disks monted on a central spindle. Each pair carries braille dots on its edges in such a way that when the individual disks in the pair are rotated by hand, one can form the braille code for any letter of any language on two adjacent edges. Thereby one can form any word with up to 5 letters on a line of their adjacent edges. This was a progression over the Vasantha Cube where one could form only single letters.

Now suppose one had a bank of disks, not just five pairs, but twenty pairs in what I call the Natesan Display, as in the picture below :

Here then you have a device where you can form a line of braille text by manually rotating the individual disks to form the component letters. What I am now working on is a motorized version where the rotation of individual disks can be effected under computer control to form the line of braille text to correspond to regular text coming line by line from the computer. In other words this will become the Natesan Refreshable Braille Unit. I am hoping that it can be be made avaailable for around US$ 200 as our response to the standard Refreshable Braille Units offered in the advanced countries for upwards of US$ 2000.

Looking back in retrospect over the last 30 years in social service, after my first 30 years in the police sevice, I have found an interesting sense of continuity in the two forms of service that the two periods entailed. I found it to be therefore most interesting to be invited a few years ago to be invited to the National Police Academy at Hyderabad, to give a talk on Police Service and Social Service to a batch of senior police officers in an advanced refresher course being conducted for them. I pointed out that it was unfortunate that many officers not only found thought that Police Service had nothing in common with Social Service. This often meant that they failed to develop the interests and the skills of creative participation in society that could have brought them enormous public acceptance while in
service, which would have inevitably continued in their retirement years and given their lives a sense of fulfillment. On a lighter note I quoted to them the verse from the Gita that says that he who lives, always receiving but never giving anything in return was no more than a thief. I reminded them that on the final Judgement Day in the Highest Court, they may indeed themselves face a charge of theft and receive a sentence from which there is no appeal !!, I called on them to engage in social service even while in service, which they could then continue easily and happily into their days of retirement. They should indeed regard their pension as really a salary for performing social service.

Articles I have written on this and related topics:

Teaching the Blind Child  
Computers In School Education - I  
Computers in School Education - II