A soundless death

A soundless death

It was just a word,

A ‘mantra’
To be uttered
when we got stuck
We hadn’t seen it
hadn’t read much about it
It was sparingly mentioned
in our textbooks.
But our seniors reiterated that
we could fit it in anywhere
If we ran out of our list of investigations
and the examiner wanted more
we could invoke it.
It was the king of all diagnostic tools.

X-rays to see bones and stones
Collapsed lungs and enlarged hearts
were routine,
Modalities we had grown up with,
But to assess the abdomen
the legendary Pandora’s box
without cutting it open
seemed magical.
To evaluate soft tissues and solid organs
to see what is happening on the inside
from the outside ,
sounded unbelievable
It made diagnostic laparotomy
sound outdated
almost barbaric.

I saw it for the first time as a Junior resident
A small TV with a grainy picture
I was surprised that the radiologist could make anything of it
To my untrained eyes it was like staring at the moon.
You could see what you wanted to see
A smiling face or an old woman at the spinning wheel.
But that was just the beginning.

IMG_3095Slowly I began to notice the different shades of grey.
The interplay of light and shadows
In cysts and tumours
An abscess ready to be drained
Or a benign lesion
requiring patient ‘wait and watch ‘
Body functions in real time
urine filling the bladder,
food propelled in the gut
and the declaration of life
a tiny heart beat.

As technology advanced
images became clearer
Making it possible to see
Blockage to blood flow
A malfunctioning heart valve
A ripped retina causing blindness
The reason of a numb limb
or a swollen joint
It was possible to ascertain the release of
an egg from the ovary
and predict whether the uterine lining
was primed to receive it.
With some expertise, it could be told
when a pregnancy
didn’t make it to the womb
and got embedded elsewhere.
Putting the mother at grave risk

In cases of trauma, in a flash
it could tell whether
there was internal bleeding necessitating surgery
A tendon rupture or a lacerated spleen
Air pressing on the lungs or blood around the heart
Used on the road side
It could save lives by saving time.

With perfect picture quality and the option of 3D images
It can show a baby yawning out of boredom
Or lustily sucking at its thumb
Getting entangled in loops of umbilical cord
Or sleeping soundly.
It is possible to check the baby’s
eye movements
And heart valves
Count fingers and toes
Look for cleft lips and open spine defects
Diagnose conditions requiring expert neonatal care
So that a team is ready when the baby emerges
With colour Doppler we can predict
if the womb is inhospitable, fetal demise is eminent
and deliver the baby before it is too late,
It can diagnose defects incompatible with life
So that pregnancies can be terminated,
Curtailing the misery, lessening the heartache.

But just as it shows everything else
It can also show the genitalia of the unborn child,
which in our society is synonymous with female feticide.
Because in a son crazy nation,
a daughter will be killed ASAP,
The fear of misuse has condemned
the modality to disuse.
Buried in tons of paperwork
and tied in miles of red tape
It will never reach its full potential
An inexpensive, easily available, fairly accurate
diagnostic tool will die prematurely,
soundlessly.

As developed nations
exploit this technology
And make it available
not only in hospitals and clinics
but in
ambulances and sports arenas
to hasten diagnosis
expedite treatment
and reduce mortality

We are curbing its reach.
The efforts to curtail its use
and limit the number of users
has had mixed results.
While the sex ratio at birth
has somewhat stabilised.
The child sex ratio continues to fall.

The fault is not in the machine
It is in the mindset
Till that changes
Nothing will change
because
A daughter can be eliminated
after she is born….
An Ultrasound is not a
prerequisite to kill a girl child!!

( published in The Hindu on 10/12/17)

The Reluctant Yogi

The Reluctant Yogi

Some consider it a passing fad, others think its a way of life. To me it was a powerful vortex that sucked everything in. It started pretty innocuously, just a sun salutation to round off our morning practice. Slowly it grew and consumed every other constituent of our daily constitutional. Now let me begin at the beginning.

Much before home gyms became a rage we had installed a treadmill, cross trainer and multi- functional weight station in a spare room to control our expanding waistlines. The idea was that we would be compelled to put our mouth where our money was. That the room was opposite the kitchen didn’t help matters and because it was located near the front door, guests would get a glimpse of our swanky gym as they passed. They would curiously look at the facility and us inhabitants, all pleasantly rotund and wonder what was amiss. Tired of the probing questions that followed I had devised the perfect rebuttal. When they asked whether we used the equipment I would reply that we had hired a person to use it for us!

Over the years, due to misuse, disuse and well, some use, the equipment had slowly disintegrated. I never replaced the broken pulley or the worn out belt for I was on to newer things. I had shunned external devices and was now using my own weight to lose weight. I had become an online exercise enthusiast and followed YouTube videos . It gave me the freedom to change exercise regimes and instructors at will.

After years of sweating out alone, at the beginning of this year I started exercising with a friend. We were doing aerobics and Zumba, the amount my aging body would allow. When my friend suggested adding IMG_4827 suryanamaskar to our workout, I readily agreed. I liked the idea of two minutes of Yoga to silence my mother who being an enthusiastic yogi herself has been after me to try it.

Saluting the sun was tougher than I thought. I could barely reach my ankles, the floor was much further away. I would somehow contort myself into one pose when the instructor would move on to the next. As I huffed and puffed my way through the sequence without getting a single aasan right I realised how unfit I was.

Greatly humbled , I decided to add fifteen minutes of basic yoga to increase my flexibility. The problem with Yoga is it appears sedate vis-à-vis the sweaty adrenaline rush of aerobics. It seems easy till you try it. Every time my mum had recommended it in the past, I had dismissed her saying that I didn’t have time to lie around doing nothing. Now I realised that child pose is not child play and with a stiff rod for a backbone mimicking the agile cat, dog and cobra isn’t easy. It was difficult enough to imitate these lowly creatures, emulating the mighty warriors and gracefully balancing Gods seemed impossible.

As I gradually conformed to this ancient science the benefits were almost immediately apparent. The morning stiffness and evening aches vanished. My stride improved and stairs became less of a challenge. After years, I felt loose, more pliable. I still need the support of hands to get off the floor but now they are my own, earlier someone else had to pull me up.

Yoga has slowly become the main ingredient of my exercise regimen. I am still a beginner level yogi but have realised that it is a complete workout for strength, stamina and flexibility. My mum, the advanced yogi, is now nudging me in the direction of Pranayama….but who has the time to sit around and just breathe!

( published in the Hindustan Times on 7/12/2017)

Bad Mother

Bad Mother

35D06674-0E2E-4C43-A58C-5B7A71188976I was far from an ideal mother. Never too indulgent, not too self sacrificing. I was never overly concerned about their strife and struggles. I never waited outside the gates, biting my nails or praying silently like other parents. I would rather use the free time to watch a movie or shop in the neighbourhood if I ever accompanied them for an out station exam. I never rustled up a dish because they didn’t like what was on the table. Once when my son complained how I didn’t give choices I told him he had the option to eat dinner or not.

I was not the unconditionally loving and giving parent. I ensured that they do their bit. School was compulsory and if they had to stay home on account of sickness I ensured that they didn’t have fun, insisting that they were on ‘complete’ bed rest! I have zealously guarded my personal space. Not more than two short bells on my phone if I am in my clinic, at a conference or with friends. My afternoon nap always was and still is, sacrosanct. No intrusion allowed unless it is a life or death situation.

I wasn’t surprised then, when I found out that I was listed as ‘gandi mumma’ ( bad mother) in my daughter’s contact list. The truth is I had fun bringing them up, sometimes at their expense. Parenting for me has been about practical jokes and shared laughter. Once when my daughter was watching a horror film in which snakes were jumping around I threw a toy snake at her timing it to perfectly match the antics of the onscreen serpents.

Unless it entailed bodily harm I have tried not to say ‘No’ and let them figure it out on their own. So I let my son try make honey with carefully collected pollen and his own saliva. When he excitedly declared that they were selling motorcycles at hundred rupees a piece, instead of reasoning with him I gave money to buy two! The most important thing I have tried to teach them is the ability to tide through downtrends. When my son was little he would cry and throw the game if he started to lose in Ludo. I would coolly take his turn while he sulked and deliberately make wrong moves till he was compelled to play again. I wanted him to believe that a bad spell won’t last.

It wasn’t all fun and games though. Once my twelve year old son secretly rode his scooty for ten kilometres on a deserted village road to get a notebook which he had forgotten despite repeated reminders. He took such a grave risk to avoid being reprimanded by me. That day I realised that we should not make such a big deal out of sloppiness that kids design elaborate and risky coverups. Guardians shouldn’t be such fearsome authoritarians that children make bigger mistakes trying to hide smaller ones. Offspring should be able to think of their parents as the first line of defence, no matter what. So I have learnt lessons too.

Recently, my daughter planned a surprise birthday party for me sending out beautifully crafted invitations to all my present and past friends. With my indulgent son- in -law’s support she laboured for days to make everything just perfect. My son surprised me with a new iPad with features that I need for these doodles. Ideal offspring! You will agree and so I dare say, the title of ‘ gandi mumma’ notwithstanding, I must have done something right.

( published in the HT on 23/11/2017)

Banking on Blood

Banking on Blood

A needle prick can do what a spider bite can’t…… turn you into a superhero! Sometimes, not great power, a little humanity is enough to save lives. Donate Blood regularly. We know you’ve got it in you…….

This is an example of how a blood donation drive appeals to the innate nobility in people. They rope in celebrities and literally paint the town red with advertisement blitzkrieg. These campaigns have helped and although it is far from the ideal, our country is on the right track. According to a World Bank report, “India made a million more unpaid, voluntary blood donations between 2007 -2008.

B1195F61-CA8B-45FE-B6A4-10A9B47577C9

47F2F38E-4B25-47A7-81AC-12EFF62CB231Despite this, blood is in chronic short supply. The World Health organisation stipulates that every nation needs a 1% reserve. India, with its population of 1.2 billion people, needs 12 million units of blood annually but collects only nine million. This causes a 25% deficit that further rises to 50% in summers. Additionally, India faces severe shortage of blood during emergencies as many blood banks do not maintain the mandatory 25% buffer stock.

This shortage results in 1.5 million deaths per year and has spawned a breed of ‘professional’ blood donors. Although illegal, almost 40 percent of our blood requirement is met by these coerced, commercial donors who are responsible for transmitting diseases like HIV and Hepatitis. For India to join the fifty four countries who have achieved hundred percent voluntary, non-remunerative donations the government needs to establish a system where volunteers can give blood safely and feel gratified.

It is agonising that because of the paucity, family members have to run around and spend exorbitantly to get blood when needed. But more distressing is the fact that some of this invaluable, life giving fluid is wasted due to mismanagement. Hence the pertinent question is how much of the blood collected through voluntary donations courses through a patient’s veins and …..how much is chucked down the drains?

A recent RTI filed by an activist from Jammu revealed that nearly 2000 units of blood were wasted in two government hospitals between 2013 – 2015 . This, however is not the first time and not limited to Jammu. Similar petitions across the country have shown that approximately 5% of whole blood and 9 % blood components is similarly wasted.

In large blood donation camps the inability to maintain temperature of blood bags during transport and storage is the main culprit. This can be countered by maintaining blood donor registry instead of bleeding the donor so that fresh blood can be procured when needed. Also, some blood gets discarded because of sero- reactivity. Screening by rapid tests before taking blood could prevent this unnecessary act of collecting blood from infected donors and then dumping it. Lastly, many unused units languish past the 35 days expiry date and have to be destroyed. This is due to fluctuations in demand and lack of synergy between donors, blood banks, regulators, hospitals and receivers.

In our country the blood bank services sector is highly fragmented and lacks co-ordination. Few blood banks are accredited so uniform and rigorous testing facilities are absent. India has approximately 2500 blood banks, only five hundred of which are “big banks” collecting more than ten thousand units annually. The smaller blood banks lack the equipment and technicians to separate blood components – packed red blood cells, platelets and fresh frozen plasma so supply whole blood instead. As a result whole blood is used more often, while globally components are used 90% of the times. So a unit of blood which could save upto three lives is being used to save one. Compulsory accreditation and regular audits of blood banks will lead to proper inventory management, promote usage of blood components and curtail indiscriminate wastage.
All the measures described above will greatly improve the blood banking scene but the most effective step would be to make blood management ‘smarter’ through information technology . The goal is to eliminate delays by creating a ‘web of blood banks’. Blood remains in short supply during emergencies due to the lack of information and accessibility. Networking can overcome this challenge by effectively connecting the blood donors with the recipients. Once all blood banks are included a person can find blood in a nearby bank at the click of a mouse. Such networks exist in many countries and some Indian states and have reduced blood shortage by 30-50%. This needs to be extended nationwide to ensure optimum usage of blood. Also, a comprehensive online donor registry will help volunteers respond to critical blood shortages in their community

Of the many excuses people give for not donating blood from the squeamish ‘afraid of needles,’ to the paranoid ‘may contract disease’ to the uncaring ‘ never thought about it’, no one has yet refused because they feared that their blood might go waste. We need to act before that happens and the donor sees red.

( published in Vidura Oct-Dec 2017 , a journal by the Press Institute of India)

Disconnect

Disconnect

At the turn of this century, I witnessed mobile phones descend from a convenience to a nuisance. I have an interesting experience to share in this context. A conversation with my husband was being punctuated by the incessant ringing of his phone. Frustrated, I called him up. He looked at my number flashing on his screen and told me that I had mistakenly dialled his number. I asked him to pick up so that we could have an uninterrupted chat. So aided by satellites, sitting across each other, talking into our phones, we had an unhindered tête-à-tête while the rest of the world rightfully got a ‘ busy tone’ when it tried to reach us.

19BED142-B119-41C2-BE64-BDB3F2B21FEDThe situation has worsened since. In this world of decreasing attention spans and increasing connectivity technology keeps us connected with everyone except the person right in front of us. Sadly, I too, have been sucked into this vortex of ‘ multitasking’. So while I patronisingly grudge the lack of focus in youngsters, I am equally guilty. I don’t remember a single conversation in the recent past when I have not snuck a peek at my phone for that irrelevant message, mail or status update. Not that anyone notices not getting my undivided attention. They are busy fiddling with their own gadgets.

The availability of cameras in our smart phones has aggravated the situation. We take countless pictures which end up in nameless albums that are seldom viewed. As we compulsively capture every occasion, every celebration for posterity we forget to enjoy the moment itself. Somewhere between adjusting the light and the shutter speed, between that perfect smile and that flattering camera angle the moment passes. In an increasingly voyeuristic society, life is all about that cheerful profile pic. Looking happy is more important than being happy.

Dining out at a restaurant recently I looked up from my phone and noticed that on most tables people were busy on theirs. Waiting to be served I watched them as they distractedly ate their meal, half heartedly participating in the ongoing conversation, not caring to make eye contact.
Nostalgia gripped me as I reminisced the good old jaw wags, the carefree guffaws, the dining table banter that lacked ‘encyclopaedic’ precision. A time before readily available information took away speculation from our chats. Since relationships survive on small talk I wondered if relationships will be the next casualty.

A few days later I was relieved to read that some corporate houses are fighting gadgets’ intrusion in human conversation. On valentines a leading network provider offered to safeguard mobile devices at the front desk so that patrons could enjoy their meal undisturbed. A few restaurants across the world have gone further and banned phones in their establishments, some offer discounts to families who shun the phone during a meal.

Some introspection and I wondered if memories needed technology. I vividly remember my father’s ear to ear grin when I got into medical school and the multi-coloured flowers on my favourite frock. I remember the frayed hole in my jeans that I continued to wear long after their expiry date and the aroma of my mother’s cooking. I can still feel the wind in my hair as I rode my cycle to school, hear the hurried footsteps as we played hide and seek on hot summer afternoons. Events ably recorded by a mental camera, a little faded like my jaded memory but reasonably well preserved.

And so I did it. Relying completely on my inbuilt camera and random access memory, I enjoyed a picture perfect sunset with my bare eyes, not from behind the lens of my phone. I had fought the urge to freeze it and show the world what I had seen. It took great resolve but I had finally broken free.
Well… almost, I am, after all, sharing with you what I didn’t share with them!

( carried by the Hindustan Times on 13/11/2017)

Fairy tales

Fairy tales

I still remember every tiny detail of the day my world came crashing down. I was all of seven and the festive season was approaching. My elder sister and I were writing letters to Santa Claus stressing on the reasons why we deserved his benevolence. Mum suggested we ask for clothes instead of toys and I was appalled. For a fortnight mum had been dropping hints on how we already had enough toys.

This was not the way I saw it. How can a child ever have ‘enough’ toys? She added to my irritation by suggesting that we could request a transistor radio. Although transistor radios were coveted gadgets in the early 1970s, they could still not figure in a seven-year-old’s dreams.

I vehemently refused to add sweaters and slacks to my Christmas list. That is when she did it. My mother told me about the ‘non-existence’ of Santa Claus and how she and dad bought the sack-ful of toys that we got for every Christmas.

The explaining

As my world crumbled around me, I desperately hung on to hope and asked how a letter addressed to the North Pole could make its way to them. She patiently explained what appeared to be the biggest scam of humankind. Parents didn’t need a letter to know their kids’ wish list; they helped them draft it!

Before you form an opinion about her, I’d like to clarify that my mother is not a sadist or spoilsport. She had reasons for her actions and she tried to reason with me. We were moving back to India the next year and with the limited baggage allowance it made more sense to buy things that we could take with us instead of bulky toys we would have to leave behind. I could grasp her logic but still hated her for bursting my bubble.

While raising my own kids I have always struggled with this dilemma. Should I let my children stay in their magical world where everything is possible or should I introduce them to facts and truths which they will inevitably stumble upon at some point? More for fun than out of a sense of duty, I opted for the former and played along with my children’s beliefs, and going to great lengths to do so. Once while I was reading to my son he announced he would look for a bird nest like the explorer in the story. The next morning he picked up his tiny binoculars and searched every tree in the garden for a nest. Not finding any he returned, a dejected three-year-old. To dispel his disappointment I secretly crafted a nest with straw, took a couple of eggs from the refrigerator, blew out their gooey contents through tiny holes and placed the nest in a bush. A little later, the young explorer miraculously found a nest!

Once my five-year-old daughter had this brilliant idea of digging a hole to see the layers of the earth as taught in school. My explanation that it was like tunnelling all the way to a nearby town did not deter her. Waving a small shovel, she said she’d stop short of the mantle, once loose dirt gave way to sand, pebbles and bedrock.

It was getting dark and she had been at it for an hour when she hurt herself. It was a minuscule scratch but I told her to get it bandaged.

As soon as she left I quickly dug the hole a little deeper, put some big stones in, followed by pebbles and sand and covered it with a layer of soil. My injured but determined excavator returned to her job and squealed with joy on encountering a textbook picture of the earth’s crust!

So, did I do the right and honest thing, and did I bring them up right? My children have grown into sensitive, well-adjusted, responsible professionals, so I would probably reply in the affirmative. But all parents carve their own path, discovering joyous skills on the way. Sadly, by the time we fully understand the art of parenting the children are ready to leave.

That Christmas, among other ‘less’ desirable things I received my coveted Tippee toes doll. A life-size, battery operated baby doll that could ride a tricycle and rocking horse. I still marvel how dad could afford such an expensive toy on his meagre student stipend. It would have been so much easier if mum had let Santa Claus bring it!

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( published in the Hindu on 8/10/17)

Creation and Dissolution

Creation and Dissolution

Traditionally, idols were sculpted from the mud of nearby water bodies, worshipped with reverence and at the culmination of the festivities returned to their source, a representation of the natural cycle of creation and dissolution. But with each passing year the idols have become grander, gaudier and less green. Customarily the idols were taken for the final immersion amid celebration and bonhomie. Invitations to return were extended with jubilant singing and dancing on the streets. Now each year the processions just get rowdier and more boisterous.

IMG_3426Once a fairly sedate and private ‘Ganesh Chaturthi’ and ‘Durga Puja’ have become a public spectacle requiring efficient crowd management during the celebration and large scale clean up afterwards. Although it is celebrated all over India Durga puja is predominantly celebrated in West Bengal and Odisha and Ganpati Visarjan is a part of Maharashtra’s tradition. Recent studies conducted across these states have demonstrated rapid deterioration of water quality in lakes, streams and rivers as a result of this practice of idol immersion. Nowadays the idols are made of non biodegradable materials such as plastic, cement and Plaster of Paris which when consigned to water decreases the penetration of light causing eutrophication. Mercury and lead containing toxic dyes, paints and varnishes are used for decoration which pollute the water and find way into our food cycle. Also the pH and Oxygen level of contaminated water decreases harming marine life

Just as our constitution guards our right to practice religious traditions we also have the right to clean water. Faith must be respected but there is a growing need to regulate this practice to save the environment. Since this involves sentiments of worshippers the government has to introduce these guidelines with great sensitivity. Some commendable idol immersion practices which have been introduced in parts of the country should be applauded and followed.

The Central Pollution Control Board directed local bodies to provide dedicated immersion points with synthetic liners at the bottom of artificial bodies. Idols are immersed under supervision and removed from the water bodies within 48 hours. Pune Municipal Corporation installed large kalash shaped bins to collect accessories like flowers, clothes etc used in worship. In Goa the sale of plaster-of Paris Ganesha idols has been banned and devotees are encouraged to buy traditional, artisan-made clay ones.

Some steps have been more radical like the Allahabad high court banned immersion of idols in Ganga & Yamuna rivers in Uttar Pradesh even dismissing the plea of state government that idols should be dipped and then taken out immediately. The order was given in response to a Public Interest Litigation filed by an environmentalist. Before the state is forced to take such strict action elsewhere, we as responsible citizens should do our bit. Temples and spiritual gurus should lead the drive of creating awareness among people so that the state’s burden can be reduced and religious feelings are not hurt.

Our traditions dictate that the idol should be made of shadu mati, a kind of clay found on the river banks. Papier-mâché can also be used. The idol should be small and unbaked so that it dissolves in water easily. Only natural colours and dyes should be used to decorate it. Stone-and-brass idols can be symbolically immersed and reused. Idols should be immersed in artificial bodies and not in lakes, rivers or the sea.

The believers should understand that idol immersion in its present form is not only harmful for the environment but also an insult to Lord Ganesh and Goddess Durga. The remains of non- biodegradable idols, robbed of their splendour, wash up on our shores and lie helplessly till they are removed by local government bodies. Not a pretty sight for the devout and non believer alike. As we fervently chant Ganapati Bappa Moraya Agale Baras Tu Juldi Aa lets be responsible and invite Him in an environment friendly, traditional ‘shadu mati’ avatar next year.

 ( carried in The Hindustan Times on 1/9/2017) 

Beta padhao, beti bachao

Beta padhao, beti bachao

Every third Saturday for the past few months, I visit some village school and interact with adolescent girls. It is a state initiative to inspire the girl child. Apart from the usual ‘doctor talk’ about puberty and menstrual hygiene I have been instructed to inspire the girls. So I ask them to break barriers, to dream and persevere to realise those dreams. I tell them about the importance of economic independence and personal space. I urge them to shun the patriarchal ideology that home is a woman’s only domain, that marriage and child bearing is her ultimate destiny. I return with a spring in my step, feeling that in a small way, I have empowered women kind.

The recent ‘stalking’ case in Chandigarh, a city that symbolises liberal India has forced me to think otherwise. Sexual abuse is almost a national trait and is rampant in different forms. Incidents of molestation are by themselves sordid but it’s aftermath is more revolting. The media adds insult to injury by reporting these cases in a thoughtless and melodramatic way. It isn’t concern for women and their safety which bothers us as a society, but the belief that we have been shamed and humiliated. That is why the typical response of the people in power is to blame the victim. It is their horrendous analogies and statements condoning these misdeeds which hurts the most.

And here in lies my dilemma. It is hard to believe that we will save a girl child, educate her, instil confidence in her, make her believe in gender equality, coax her to become self reliant, widen her horizons and yet expect her to conduct herself according to the distorted picture of a ‘ Bhartiya Naari’. I might be doing a great disservice by telling the girls to be ambitious and assert their place in society. They might be better off as the meek women they are destined to become, who don’t make eye contact while conversing, that is, if they speak at all. Perhaps it would do them more good if they were advised to change their life style to accommodate wayward men. If they were told to be cautious because even in a crowd, they are fundamentally alone.

Though this outreach program involving local women professionals as role models is a great idea I don’t think it will have the desired results. It won’t work till someone teaches adolescent boys to respect independent women. Boys have to be told that they have no special privileges due to an accident of birth. They have no right over women’s bodies. Manhood is not only about brute force and bravado. It is also about sensitivity and empathy. They have to be taught to accept ‘ No’ for an answer. It has to be reiterated that no matter what she is wearing or doing, till a woman asks for it, she is not asking for it !

But perhaps, even before that we need to educate our leaders. They have to be taught that ill thought misogynistic remarks have no place in modern society. The insinuation that women wearing western clothes, partying late at night invite sexual harassment encourages misguided youth to ‘teach them a lesson.’ Propagating this mindset that the burden of social order lies with women allows men to abuse women in full public view, without fear of repercussion.

Apart from this we need to throw out our ill conceived notions of righteousness. As a society we shy away from acknowledging sexuality, from sex education in homes and schools. We discourage healthy social interaction between adolescent boys and girls. This repression results in bluster and desperation to seek female attention. Ogling, cat calls, eve- teasing, groping, molestation, and rape are manifestations of this deprivation. If boys were allowed to grow up with girls, they would know them better. They would empathise with their struggles with social prejudices, their constant effort to stay safe. Instead of predators they would become their natural allies. Till that happens fear has to be created in the perpetrators of this crime, they have to be scared of the consequences. It would serve the country better if leaders focus their energy on this rather than giving sexist sound bytes to the media.

Although the Indian Constitution has granted women equal rights, they remain, at best, second class citizens. Girl education will bring awareness and the courage to question patriarchal mores. They will aspire for a risk free participation in the discourse of life. Till we have an administrative ethos that asserts a woman’s right to bodily integrity no matter where she is and what she is doing, legislation cannot provide her that safe haven.

The path of female empowerment is full of potholes. We have come a long way but have to go much further. It is not enough to save a girl at birth and educate her. To be able to make use of her education and reach her full potential she will have to leave home. It should be safe for her to do so. This is not possible without teaching boys decent social behaviour. Till we have gender sensitised men the girl child will remain an endangered species and the practice to eliminate her before birth or soon after will continue. ‘Beta padhao ‘ is a pre-requisite for ‘beti bachao, beti padhao’.

( carried in the Tribune on 21/8/17 on the OPED)IMG_3414

The Homecoming

The Homecoming

IMG_3357The dream, in itself wasn’t bothersome. It was the analysis, looking for a hidden message which was tiring. Her mind was working overtime again, trying to find meaning where, probably, there was none. Just like the old hibiscus tree in the garden that she thought, talked to her. She had planted it soon after her marriage and had watched it grow and bloom. Initially disappointed by the commonness of its plain red flowers instead of the fancy double blossom orange and salmon, she had learnt to be grateful for its year round flowering and very little need for care. After three decades it was getting old, the trunk was knobbly, the leaves had lost lustre and the flowers were scarce. Still not willing to cut it down, she pondered whether it had outlived its usefulness, just like her.

The dream got more vivid each time she was in it. She was dropping off her son for his first day in nursery school. He had seemed ready, almost enthusiastic about this milestone. For the past month he had been trying to get on the school bus after his sister. He had packed some books in a miniature backpack and had been carrying them around. So the distressed, sobbing boy who clung to her with all his might came as a surprise. She peeled away his fingers from her arm and wondered if she was doing the right thing. Should she give it another six months, let the boy grow up some more. While she deliberated, the class teacher walked up to them and led him away with little ado. As her weeping son tried to wriggle out of her firm grip, the teacher looked back, “Don’t worry he will stop crying once you leave ” she said in a kind voice.

She walked out of the school and to her car and then turned back. She decided to hang around just a little longer. To make sure that her son was okay and, also, to ease the lump in her throat. So she went to the rear of the building and peeked through the window. Sure enough, he had stopped crying. He was carefully stacking building blocks on to a lopsided tower. He wasn’t his usual cheerful self, nevertheless he looked engrossed in the task at hand. And as she watched she detected a hint of his shy smile return. He will be fine, she surmised and turned away.

Man in a hurry

He had always been in a hurry to grow up. Wanting to wear shoes a size too big, insisting on full pants instead of shorts. He was unwilling to write the alphabets because he couldn’t identify those letters in her scrawl. He wanted to write like her, imitate her ‘doctor scribble’ ! He filled his textbooks with this illegible doodle, calling it grownup handwriting. He constantly scanned his upper lip for signs of sprouting. Once as a joke she had stuck a poorly crafted moustache on him while he was sleeping. He proudly strutted it around and refused to take it off for days. Unlike others of his age, he had a deep sense of loyalty and could keep a secret forever. He was an old soul in a child’s body.There was an undercurrent theme of seriousness, gravitas and maturity well beyond his years.

In contrast to his constant endeavour to rush things, she willed time to slow down. She often wondered about this paradox in their approach to life. He couldn’t wait for the future to unfold and she wanted to hang on to the present, stop it from whizzing past too soon. He had his whole life ahead of him. She felt that most of hers was over. They agreed on one thing though, that life was a one way street and they could only move ahead. They still disagreed on the speed. He wanted to hurtle through life at breakneck speed and she wandered through it at a more leisurely pace.

Irrespective of their feelings, time took its own time and now it was time. To her it seemed just yesterday when her son had entered ‘the system’ and now he was educated and done. He had learnt whatever a curriculum could teach him and would learn the rest from life. After graduating he had landed a plum job in a tech hub down south and was gearing to leave. Till now he had been a short drive away, making it easy to stay in touch. It often surprised her that he chose weekly visits to their home in the suburbs over chilling out in the metropolis where he studied. She felt fortunate that he opted for the dull languor of home over the exciting possibilities the city offered. But now things were about to change. He would no longer be within, what he liked to call, shouting distance. He would be gone and with the pressure of work and the effort to live life, his visits were bound to become brief and infrequent

Mothers and Daughters

With a daughter who had a nest of her own and a son ready to take wing she had prepared well for the inevitability of an empty nest. She had watched her mum’s world crumble when she and her siblings left home. Stripped of the role of ‘doting mother’ there had been nothing left for her mum to do, no one to be and nowhere to go. She was troubled by these memories and had pledged to not let it happen to herself. She had strived to build a life for herself, a parallel universe, in which her happiness and self worth didn’t depend on her children. Her mother had been caught off guard, she inferred, that is why she had suffered. She, on the other hand, had prepared for this moment with diligence. She was ready or so she thought. She had reasoned that time and space is a state of mind and need not stretch infinitely before her. That space could be filled with projects and patients and time could be broken down with deadlines. She had built up her medical practice just enough to keep herself busy, still leaving time to read and reflect. She intended to involve herself in free service, to give back some of what she had received. She had also joined some ‘society women’ groups, something which she wouldn’t have imagined doing a decade ago. She hoped the theme parties and chitchat would keep her busy. She had discovered a nascent passion for writing. She planned to keep her mind engaged constructively, anything to keep self pity and desolation at bay.

She believed that she could live multiple lives in a lifetime by reliving the good times. So she dwelled in the past, reminiscing happy experiences. Aided by old memorabilia which her daughter aptly called her ‘emotional baggage’ she spent hours looking at his first booties, his favourite toys and his handiwork. She poured over his drawings of the family, stick figures with perfectly round bellies. She loved to look at his old photographs for indications of the person he would become. She looked for telltale signs of the future in the past, a frown, a disinterested look, a secret grin, a sideways glance, an unsure smile. an uneasy hug. She professed that these small gestures, immortalised on film could forecast the future of a relationship. Unlike predictions, it was an easy fun exercise because she already knew the future. It was the present.

She fought the melancholy with a mix of mounting panic and dwindling valour. It was going to be okay she had promised herself. A few years ago she had survived the ‘vidaai’ of her daughter who had got married and moved away. She had thought that her daughter would leave a vacuum, a gaping hole which would be hard to fill. But that is not what happened. The pain had slowly eased. She had found ways to occupy herself, learnt to make use of the extra time on her hands. They had been able to sustain a long distance relationship and she was still her confidante and counsellor. It had worked well and though she missed the physical closeness of her daughter, the addition of a loving and affectionate son-in-law to the family was compensation enough. But now that her son was getting ready to leave too, she felt that her whole world would go with him. She realised that there were unresolved feelings of loneliness and abandonment which kept surfacing at the most unexpected times. They would tip toe into her seemingly serene world and overwhelm it. They would knock out the air from her lungs, make her heart race and turn her knees to jelly.

A Dream

She dreamt of him again. His eyes downcast, his head bent over, weeping quietly, his shoulders heaving imperceptibly. She tried to comfort him, tell him why this separation was necessary. She told him that she would be just a phone call away, that the time spent apart would pass in a flash. That no matter where he went, his home would be where he left it, waiting for his return. She continued to talk to him in a soothing tone and stooped to wipe his tears. That is when she noticed, as she peered closely at the upturned face she was dumbstruck. She was looking at her own tear stained face. She seemed so small, so helpless, so distraught, so heart broken. And when she looked up she realised that her son, towering over her, had been trying to console her, She was confused. When did this happen? When did he become the responsible adult in the relationship allowing her to regress to a child? When did he take over the role of the sensible guardian, the parent ? When was she reduced to a clingy, sobbing child who could not see the bigger picture, the greater good? Suddenly she was shaken out of her reverie and knew what had to be done. Amends had to be made. She had to reclaim her position as the parent, the nurturer, the primary caregiver. She was ashamed for having been so self centred, for being unfair, for seeing herself as the victim, for not looking beyond her own despondency. She was making it more difficult for him to leave. She had to be strong, to be the wind under his sails. She had to give him wings to fly away and return when he pleased. As a final act of this labour of love called motherhood she had to cut the umbilical cord and set her son free.

Like many mornings before this it was the first thought that came to her as she stirred awake . He was gone. And, soon, all those things which connected them would be gone too. But strangely, now, it seemed as a fog had lifted. Her heart knew that wherever he went a part of him would yearn for home. He would occasionally crave for the food she hurriedly cooked, skipping steps and substituting ingredients. In the fast pace of life, between board meetings and gala events he would miss the evenings spent doing nothing. As long as he had that desire to return home nothing could keep them apart. Nothing needed to change. Things could stay as they were. His room would wait for him and so will the ageing hibiscus, and some day, in the not so distant future, they would enjoy the fruit of the mango tree they had planted together.

With this new found faith, after months of sleeplessness, her lips curled into a faint smile as she drifted back into a sound slumber.

( carried in the Open Page of The Hindu as ‘ Beyond the empty nest’ on 9/7/2017. The subtitles were added by the editor)

House of Dreams

House of Dreams

On a recent visit to the heartland of India, I went back to the house of dreams. The landlord was no more and his descendants occupy it. The house is in good condition: the wooden beam ceiling, the rough stone floor and the thick brick walls were as they were. The only sign of modernity inside was a large LCD television in the bedroom. As I walked through the freshly white-washed premises I tried to pick up the vibe, the energy that had fuelled the passion of its residents half a century ago, making them aspire and persevere.

In the summer of 1950, a tonga stopped at this house, newly built in what was then a nondescript neighbourhood. It was a hot and humid night, a tiny detail which the travellers still remember because their luggage got drenched in the rain. Four young boys and their mother had moved there from a village in pursuit of education and a better life. They had rented the premises for fifteen rupees a month, a princely sum, considering that milk was fifty paisa a litre and their father’s salary as a headmaster in the village school was just eighty rupees. A monthly contribution by the boys’ elder brother had made this move possible.

As they brought their wet belongings into the house they noticed that the landlord had still not hung the doors. They were further alarmed to find someone sleeping in the backroom. They nudged him awake and he left quickly saying that he was merely looking after an empty house.

The house was chosen for its location. The government high school was a short distance away. The water source, a well, was at the end of the street. A lake further away was used for major water-consuming activities such as washing linen. A street lantern just across the road that was filled with enough oil to last the night served as an additional light source. The house was built like a train, one room leading into another, at the end of which was a kitchen that opened into a small courtyard. The well-ventilated front room was the study. The rest of the house filled with smoke when food was cooked but this wasn’t a matter of concern. A bed sheet hung on the doorway sufficed till the doors were finally installed. The house remained their humble abode until the boys moved away for higher education. The youngest stayed the longest, for two decades, till he completed his doctorate and started teaching in the university. By then running water and electricity had arrived, making the well and the lamp post redundant.

But this story is not about the four brothers who went on to become, respectively,a district collector, a veterinarian, a paediatrician and a professor. It is about the five sisters who lived with their grandmother on the floor above them. Incidentally, the veterinarian fathered me and I grew up listening to the inspiring tale of the gritty girls in free India.

Their father, a landlord, lived in a nearby village and looked after the farmland. He had no formal education but had the wisdom to educate his daughters and the resolve to face the inconvenience it entailed. This, at a time when less than 5 per cent of all girls attended high school. Hardworking and intelligent, the girls grew up to become well-placed professionals.

The elder three chose what were then unconventional fields such as mechanical and electrical engineering, took their doctorates from Indian Institutes of Technology and retired as professors and deans. They achieved this feat despite many social and cultural barriers, often being the only girl in the class. They continued to use their maiden names and collectively brought more honour to the family then their two, less illustrious brothers. Students where the three sisters taught often joked that the name of the institute stood for Madame Agnihotri, not Maulana Azad! (The sisters retired as professors from the Maulana Azad National Institute of Technology, Bhopal, where they used their maiden name, Agnihotri.)

These two seemingly similar tales of urban migration have vast differences. He having been a headmaster himself, it is easy to understand my grandfather’s predilection for education, but what drove the father of the girls remains a mystery. Never having attended school, perhaps, he felt its necessity more acutely. In any case it is commendable that unlike the average son-crazy Indian he saw potential in his daughters. This story comes as an inspiration at a time when the sex ratio and female literacy rate refuses to show significant improvement in many parts of the country despite the chants of Beti bachao, beti padhao. The perception that educating girls is a waste of resources as they would leave for their marital homes is the main reason for this disparity.

We need to change this mindset of the people. For this we have to move beyond the handful of Laxmi Bais, Indira Gandhis and Kalpana Chawlas and honour the lesser-known women achievers amongst us. There are millions of role models and the common person will easily connect with them.

While leaving the home where I took my first footsteps, I wondered whether it was as inanimate as it seemed. Nine professionals strived for excellence living here, sheltered from the elements, drinking from the well. It is hard to dismiss its role in the scheme of things, for it may have been very basic but it ably housed dreams.

(published in The Hindu on 14/5/2017 with the addition in parenthesis IMG_3152