Bad Weather

Bad Weather

F06D16B4-30BD-4DB0-B20B-EC0EED362DC4It was to be the perfect culmination of my whirlwind tour of the west coast. The week that had followed this hectic fortnight was relatively sedate with me spending time at my son’s home in San Jose, cooking, cleaning and doing other ‘mummy things’. But I had kept the spirit of adventure alive, ventured into the unknown. Booked an Uber and after two failed attempts  managed to locate it simultaneously on the screen and the street ( it requires a certain degree of divergent squint!). Revealed my credit card details on the World Wide Web to book movie tickets. Wandered around Mountain View and found my way back using Google maps. Spent a day exploring San Francisco on my own, using public transport, mingling with the locals. Ordinary activities for others  but quite a feat for someone like me who is technically challenged and has little sense of direction.

I had planned to end my American holiday with a final act of daredevilry. A free fall from the sky, hurtling towards the earth at 200-250 kmph, feeling weightless and free. I was scared but determined. Skydiving has always been on my to do list, much before it made it to  my bucket list, things I wanted to do before I die. And now with me edging towards sixty I thought it was time. 

I woke up to a sunny, bright morning but by the time we took the hour long drive to the airport clouds had started to gather. As we went through the formalities of the jump it began to drizzle. We were instructed to wait till the weather cleared. An hour later we were the only ones on the tarmac as other skydivers gradually left. Finally the manager informed us that the activity had been canceled for the day. I was hugely disappointed, but truth be told, secretly relieved too. Seeing the grey skies and my blue mood my son took me to a movie in  ‘ one of it’s kind’ dome theatre instead. Excellence falls short to describe the surreal experience of being surrounded by the ocean and its inhabitants.

The next day was earmarked to celebrate the grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge by walking across it. A plan that was dashed by the continuous rain. As I was moping over two days of bad weather and ruined plans my son walked out of his room. On an impulse I asked him if he wanted to eat Bread Pakoras for breakfast, his favourite since childhood. He couldn’t help drooling, as he quickly called over friends. It was cute that a generation that starts its Sunday after mid day was ready for breakfast at ten. So the day started with listening to their banter amid satisfactory grunts and ended with us cozily watching an Oscar nominated movie on my son’s newly acquired television. A perfect day indeed.

In the run up to my fifty sixth round of the Sun I realised that there is nothing like bad weather or a bad day. Each day is perfect. It might not be perfect for what you planned, but  it is still apt for some thing else. A day which was to be spent looking down at the earth bolting from the sky was spent gazing up at the ocean in a superbly crafted movie. And a day I had planned to brave the cold and wind of frigid San Francisco, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge was spent gorging on pakodas and sipping hot masala tea, feeling blessed that my son had a home away from home.

( carried in my column in the Tribune on 19/1/2019)

 

In Queue

In Queue

859A0C02-A5D6-4162-AB5A-234AB1BE3AD7We were in queue, me and my daughter. It was cold and it was getting dark.  We had missed out on the express passes which would have entitled us to jump the line, so there I was, with an estimated waiting time of two hundred minutes and a daughter who said she couldn’t leave without taking the ride. She has  been a Harry Potter fan since childhood and although she is now past thirty,  she is still my child.

We were getting colder and more tired with each passing minute. My phone battery had died and the option of remaining secluded in my bubble died with it. I could no longer avail the boon of technology which would have helped me stay connected to places where I was not, so that I could escape  being ‘present’ in the place I was. With no alternatives and thinning patience I looked around to see if others felt likewise. Surprisingly, everyone else seemed quite content waiting.  There were children reined in by their parents,  people carrying small kids, shopping bags and backpacks. Some were tired enough to occasionally sit on the ground. But no one was complaining or grudging the delay. No one tried to jump the queue. People let the few who did, amicably pass, understanding that there must be a valid reason for the hurry. 

Instead of getting impatient, people accepted the situation and were making the most of the time they had. Most were busy on their phones, messaging, talking or watching videos. But a few had broken free from electronic media. There  were families playing word games, a father daughter duo practicing the salsa, a couple indulging in some very public display of affection. A child behind me complained that it was taking too long and her father explained that it seemed that everyone liked the ride as much as she did.

There were metal bars to demarcate the rows but at regular intervals these were replaced by chains for easy evacuation in case of emergency. These chains were attached by magnets and fell if someone leaned against them. People would hang them back without trying to crossover to the other side. There was no one to monitor our behaviour, to restrain people from pushing, jostling and jumping the queue. In fact we came across only two employees in the entire time and their purpose was to give directions to the lockers. It was intriguing, the honesty, the fair play, the patience!

I started noticing that Americans are attuned to waiting. It’s seen everywhere, even on the roads where motorists let pedestrians pass. They patiently wait for their turn to pay bills, use the toilet, board the bus. There is an unwritten understanding that no one will cut into the gap ahead of them so people keep a comfortable distance. Personal space is paramount and respected. I could not help comparing it to my own country where if, there is ever a line it disintegrates the moment the gates open, the train arrives, the buffet is laid. 

Americans seem to be in no hurry and still manage to be punctual. We Indians rush around yet are always late. Maybe the system has shaped us thus. We have learnt to get the job done hurriedly, by hook or crook.  Jumping the queue is in our blood. We can’t line up or wait. I apologise, that was an overstatement. We are capable but we reserve such decent social behaviour for our foreign jaunts. We can’t wait in line in our native land but don’t mind doing so on foreign soil. Which brings up the question, isn’t it strange that we can’t follow the rules we made for ourselves but have no problem in following someone else’s rules?

( carried in my column in the Tribune on 5/1/19)

 

Holy Cow

Holy Cow

I was visiting a friend who had suffered an accident. He had been riding his scooter on a dimly lit road when he bumped into a black bovine sitting in its middle. The impact tossed him into the air but mercifully he escaped with just a few fractured ribs. As I congratulated him for not breaking his neck, his wife interjected, “Bhagwan ka shukr hai, gaai bach gayee, varna hamara kya hota.” I would have laughed, if her statement hadn’t made me cry. With a rise in cases of cow vigilantism related violence, it was too close to reality to be dismissed as a joke.

C2608B4F-3C46-4153-9857-FEBEB6255852Before venturing further, a disclaimer. I am not a beef eater. I am not even a beefeater drinker. I value a cow’s life, just as much as I value any other ‘ jeev’s’ life. Also, like most of us I place human life above all other forms of life.  I do disagree with one popular point of view though. When people claim that by equating the cow and mother they elevate its stature I feel they extend no such favour. The status of the cow remains unaltered and sadly, it demeans the mother. For which self respecting Indian would leave his ma on the road to rummage through garbage and choke on polythene.

Once I was a part of a conducted sightseeing tour in the capital. There were some European tourists on the bus. As  we made a turn on a busy intersection they spotted some cows on the road and called each other to see the spectacle, something they had never witnessed before.  They excitedly clicked pictures and made videos, preserved the scene for posterity. I was intrigued by how something so ordinary could interest them and so I asked why. “It’s amazing how you share your roads with animals.” quipped one of them visibly impressed .

The truth is that we share because we have no choice. As I drive down the road nowadays I notice what my friend said a while ago. An owner of two dogs and an astute of animal behaviour  she commented, “Have you noticed a change in cow demeanour? They are much more self assured, more confident. Earlier if they saw a vehicle coming they would move to the side of the road. Now they just stand and stare. They are so sure that no one would dare harm them.” While the assertive bovine behaviour is a reality, the sad hungry eyes, shrunken stomach and the dwindling gait is a reality too.

I am in no way in favour of cow slaughter but I doubt if banning it is enough? The act of abandoning these animals on the streets by poor cattle rearers  is an act of desperation and prudence. It is unfair to expect them to  house and feed unproductive animals to preserve our religion. If there was a monetary incentive ( however small) to deposit them in gau-shalas probably cows would not be roaming on the streets. Whether this would be in the cow’s welfare is debatable. Cow deaths in gau shalas due to neglect are too frequent to dismiss. In the end, until the state is willing to bear the burden of keeping a non productive animal alive and healthy, nothing will improve their plight, not even the distinguished title of gau mata. 

Death with dignity versus a life of starvation and destitution. To kill them instantly versus letting them die slowly but surely.  A difficult choice. I wouldn’t want either for my mother…..would you?

( published in my column in the Tribune on 22/12/18)

 

Big Fat Wedding

Big Fat Wedding

I gawked at the invitation. A box full of goodies. Besides its primary purpose of divulging the itinerary, it had four treasure chests with jewelled necklaces. The Gayatri mantra played in the background as I examined them. Sadly, I will have to miss Isha’s wedding because although  I got the card I am not  invited. Like most of us, I received  the Ambani invitation as a forward from a friend on social media. Various estimates claimed that a single invite was priced at three lakhs. So Indians the bar has been raised. I envision scores of look alike cards and poorly crafted boxes as less endowed countrymen try to emulate their role models.

242A5A86-291F-4F44-B6EE-9AD3A237CC12I wasn’t invited to  Deepika’s or Priyanka’s wedding bash either. Still  I have attended a fair share of  big fat Indian weddings.  I admit that I enjoyed some of them. The (North)  Indian marriage is quite a spectacle as people try to out do each other.  I have attended theme weddings, designer and destination weddings ( albeit, not offshore!). I have attended classy affairs and ostentatious ones. Some of them were like giant fairs, with elephants and snake charmers, camel rides and folk dancers. Two decades ago human statues were the rage. Guests would crowd around these humans frozen in various poses and try to catch them move. “ Hila, abhi hila “ they would chant happily, when they saw it exhale. Mercifully the trend didn’t last long. I always found the situation hilariously sad. Only in a country as poor and populous as India can you  pay someone to stay still. 

I have seen it all. International cuisine and ‘branded’ food courts, flower girls in traditional attire and skimpily dressed bar girls, gloved waiters and turbaned darbans, shehnai players and Russian dancers,  fountains and fake trees, tents designed to look like the Egyptian pyramids and the White House . The groom arriving in a helicopter, the bride rising above the stage on a crane.  As I left a wedding  venue I noticed there were dancing girls precariously balanced on a high platform above the gate. There is nothing too loud, nothing too absurd. The sky is the limit.

Once on a BBC programme on Indian marriages the host said that sometimes the guests leave without meeting the bride and groom. That is when the oddity of it first sunk in.  Most of us go to a wedding to eat, drink and be merry, not bothering to meet those about to  marry. So in this extravagant Tamasha the most important people are neglected. 

 But that is not all. It is also about needless expenditure, colossal wastage and some more far reaching implications. Apart from the frivolousness it affects society in a negative way. A father displays the car he has gifted his daughter. This inspires others to aspire for it, demand it or even mistreat the bride for non compliance. If a gift is intended for the child’s comfort it can be given discretely. Why this public display of affection? We need to stop using this event as a time to establish our credentials and show some social responsibility.

I would like to believe that it is out of this feeling of social responsibility that my son claims that he will not spend more than a lakh on his wedding. “What about my long awaited destination wedding?” asks his sister.“ We will all go to any destination of your choice but not for the wedding,” he replies.“ What about friends and relatives?” I ask doubtfully. “I can’t be bothered to waste money thus. And don’t worry about expensive clothes and jewellery. They will look out of place because mine will be a simple court marriage” declares sonnie boy. “ So what do you need the one lakh for.” asks the sister rather acidly. “ For a family meal at some fancy restaurant after the registration,” pat comes the reply. So it seems that he has it all figured out. The only hitch is that by the time he reaches‘marriageable age’ he might change his mind, give into social pressure.  His fiancée might have grown up dreaming of a dream wedding and want to turn it into reality. But it is still heartening that he and  his peers think this way. Change begins with a thought and it helps if the thinker of those thoughts is young…..

( carried in my column in the Tribune on 8/12/18)

 

Down with Dengue

Down with Dengue

As doctors, more for our own sanity,  than anything else, we learn to ignore laments and wails. Every patient feels that he will die of his disease but that is seldom the case. All doctors develop mechanisms to deal with these situations of “Mar gaya re”. Some use humour, some use sympathy, most of us reason it out and, as happened recently, sometimes personal experience guides us.

76C7C277-63B3-4805-99A5-041342F13C62A few years ago, at the end of one particularly busy day, I lost my cool with a patient of Dengue who was groaning loudly as I did her ultrasound scan to rule out Polyserositis ( fluid in body cavities). I asked her a little sarcastically if the groaning helped. She said although it didn’t help, she couldn’t help it, it was involuntary. Last week,  surprised by the sounds emanating from my being,  I finally understood what she meant.

Years after every positive report meant a scramble to get admitted in a public hospital with a bottle of fresh blood on standby. Much after it became the dreaded disease and people avoided taking its name. And after all my patients or at least those with some semblance of education knew someone with dangerously ‘ low plates’ (sic), it hit me. Sad indeed, made sadder by the fact that being stricken was no longer enough to generate sympathetic sighs.

It started insidiously, just a chill, leading to a fever and body aches. As my temperature hovered around 103-104 I decided to stay in bed. Two days later,  tired of the tiredness, I got a blood test that confirmed my fears, I had Dengue.  Another two days of feeling utterly useless, with my fever controlled by medication, I tried to get hold of my life. So I went to my clinic. It was okay to begin with but the last few patients were a nightmare.  I groaned  more than them while conducting scans. I concluded that I would have to take some more time off. 

So I lay whining  in bed, every part of my body hurting, with a clearer understanding of why it is called bone breaking fever. Then suddenly on the sixth day with my fever gone, I fell silent. I had become so used to my own rhythmic noises that my soundlessness  surprised me. I tried to recreate the groans but couldn’t. They had vanished with the fever. 

Still convalescing I  attended  the marriage of my friend’s daughter. Expecting some well deserved sympathy I told my friends, about my brush with Dengue. Their response was merely, “Hmm, you too?” I nodded gravely,  ”Yes, me too”. I was to realise that concern for the “Dengue stricken” is no longer unconditional, it has to pass a battery of tests to qualify. Did my platelet count drop? Did my haematocrit rise? Did I require hospitalisation or platelet transfusion? Since my answers to all these questions was in the negative, the pity I generated was pitiable .

As I nursed my way to health a recurring question bothered me, does a changing attitude towards  a disease show that we have developed better ways to deal with it or does it reflect our lackadaisical attitude and willingness to accept what should not be acceptable? Despite a week of lost productivity, weakness which lasts a fortnight and the very real risk of dying from its complications, we have learnt to live with Dengue. We may boast about our rising GDP and smart cities but it takes a single mosquito to poke holes in our claims of socio- economic growth and highlight the absence of basic civic amenities. 

For those who are wondering,  I have made a full recovery. The limp and the listlessness is gone. Well meaning friends have told me that Dengue isn’t deadly enough.  Chikengunya and Zika are the fearsome new kids on the block, guaranteed to garner sympathy !

(carried in my column in the Tribune on 24/11/2018)

 

Sidewalk Saga

Sidewalk Saga

I heard the first rumblings a decade ago. My siesta was rudely disturbed by a loud crash and screech. When I stepped into the balcony to find the source of the commotion I came face to face with the gigantic paws of what is called khooni panja in local parlance. The machine was tearing down the ramp of my neighbour and mine was next inline. Let me elaborate for those who are not familiar with the ways of this part of the world. It is common in this region to build one’s house above road level to prevent rainwater ingress during a heavy downpour. That necessitates a small inclined platform leading from the gate to the roadside. This ramp also bridges the open drains which are still a feature of small town India.

0B39BE72-B5D2-4B92-A7ED-9642F2F60FA7We had been hearing about the proposed widening and double laning of the Railway Road for sometime. Seemed it was finally happening. Excitedly we watched as the giant machine tore our concrete ramp in one powerful swoop. Destruction is the first step to renewal and the resulting dust tasted bittersweet. In the calm after the storm we realised that our gate was a foot above the roadside. Concern replaced the enthusiasm because ours is a nursing home where sometimes patients have to be driven right upto the indoor wards. Thinking of the inconvenience and delay in medical treatment this will cause we got our staff to put together a makeshift platform from the rubble. It was bumpy but it worked.

The widening of the road was minuscule in comparison to the destruction it had entailed. I had thought that since they had removed the ramps the side of the road would reach our gates. Months went by and there was no further construction. Tired of the bumpy ride and the frantic spinning of the wheels on the makeshift ramp we got a mason to lay bricks without mortar. Easy to dismantle in case the authorities decided to go ahead with some more ‘widening’.

Nothing happened for the next few years. The bricks sunk deeper with each monsoon and we could hear a distinct thud when vehicles negotiated the vertical gap. It could just be our imagination but sometimes the whole building trembled with the impact. Our mason suggested a ramp made of concrete slabs which could be easily removed and stowed if needed. He ably fashioned a metallic grill for the drain which fitted into concrete slabs. Most of it could be dismantled within minutes and worked perfectly till the next round of road construction.

This time they were shifting structures from the side of the road to the middle. Electricity and telephone poles, street lights all were systematically uprooted and replanted. Some full grown trees were sacrificed, as were all structures built by us ‘Mango’ people. We removed our removable ramp and tried to re- install it after the government workers left. It didn’t fit very well. By now we had heard about the proposed pavement which was to come right upto our doorstep. We decided that the ill fitting ramp would have to serve till then.

A couple of years passed, the slim road divider replete with green plants gave the town an urbane feel. But there was no news of the pavement. And then a year ago work started in earnest. Once again our ramp was sacrificed and this time a large chunk of earth went with it. Our building was now two feet above road level but we had become professionals at this. Within minutes the makeshift ramp was put in place. Mercifully it didn’t have to function long because the bright red and yellow pavement was installed within a fortnight.

Lesson learnt, it may take a while and entail inconvenience but things do get done in this large democracy called India!

( published in the Hindu on 28/10/2018)

Smoke Season

Smoke Season

Maybe I over reacted, I do have a tendency to hit the panic button sooner than later. But there is no denying that the sight made my eyes sting and throat tighten. I have vivid memories of the sickening post Diwali gloom that engulfed us last year. Hence my ‘over’ reaction when I stepped out on the terrace for my ‘morning brew with a view’ and found it strewn with black burnt straw. It was a tell tale sign that stubble had been burnt in the neighbourhood, a foretelling of the apocalyptic horizon of grey that awaits us this winter.

C95CF96D-1E8F-4B1F-AC2D-380B01BC378BEvery year around this time, farmers from Punjab and Haryana burn crop waste as a low cost straw disposal practice. The pollution hence caused is further aggravated by a drop in wind velocity. The dust from construction sites, vehicle emissions and the fireworks of the festive season further push up levels of the tiny suspended particulate matter PM 2.5 and PM 10 above safe limits. We North Indians are thus condemned to breathe unbreathable air.

The downside of stubble burning is obvious, the smoke produces a cloud of particulates that is visible from space. Apart from the pollution and loss of nutrients which could otherwise enrich the soil, there is a risk of the fire getting out of hand and spreading further than intended. The government has made great efforts to create awareness regarding this. Laws against stubble burning are being implemented more strictly. Using both carrot and stick options, the government is offering subsidies on farm equipment and imposing fines on defaulters. Yet grassroots workers proclaim that neither the fear of penalties nor the lure of subsidies will curb this problem.

While it is easy to dismiss the farmers as uncaring and irresponsible, if we delve deeper we will see the obvious. It is not possible that the polluting smoke which bothers us doesn’t bother them when they set their fields ablaze. Despite this and the risk of social ostracisation and penalties farmers are resisting the ban.

My patients enlightened me on the reasons behind this. Apart from small benefits like killing herbicide resistant weeds and pests, the main advantage of this practice is that it reduces the turnaround time between harvesting paddy and sowing wheat. Vis-à-vis mechanical tilling it is a quick and cheap method to clear the fields and get them ready in the fortnight available to do this. Any delay entails losses. Despite the subsidy, the cost of machines needed to shred and spread the stubble is still prohibitive. Renting the equipment is not a viable option as there are very few available per village. Another problem is while wheat stubble is gainfully used as cattle fodder, paddy crop residue has limited use. In such a scenario paying the fine of 2500/- imposed by the Haryana government seems to be the best option.

Nothing much will happen till farmers are adequately compensated and better alternatives like using stubble as biomass are offered. No politician will take on the powerful farmer lobby, much less a beat constable. The result is that stubble burns unabated. Data from remote sensing centres shows a 72% decrease in incidence of stubble burning in Punjab and 40% decrease in Haryana. While this is very encouraging, the celebration maybe premature as paddy harvesting was delayed due to incessant rains.

There is a long way to go before stubble burning is completely eliminated, but with some care we could breathe easy this winter. Let’s stop cribbing and complaining and do our bit by saying an emphatic and resounding no to crackers. It may not be enough, but is a good place to start!

( published in the Tribune on 27/10/2018 in my column ) 

Making of a Wordsmith

Making of a Wordsmith

It irked me no end and yet he stood his ground. Cribbing or cajoling didn’t help nor did temper tantrums. I just had to do as told and how I hated it. But now almost half a century later I am grateful for my dad’s persistence which bordered on obstinacy.

2C4D70B4-C171-4A55-BD82-6FD29B3A5EEBThe written word has always fascinated me. As kids, all of us siblings were voracious readers. We would read anything we could lay our hands on; books, magazines, novels. We would even finish each others course books before the term started. And although we didn’t read anything profound we just loved immersing ourselves in the literary world. The problem arose when we came across some indecipherable word. We would ask dad its meaning and his reply was always the same,
“Use the dictionary.” His logic was twofold, that we would learn the exact meaning and while looking it up we might take in an extra word or two.

Theoretically it sounds very reasonable but practically it was frustrating. Imagine being in the midst of some very interesting narrative and having to take a break to check the dictionary. The task was made more tedious because this was before the advent of it’s online avatar. Nowadays the meaning of a word is instantly available at the tap of a button. Back then it entailed getting off the bed which was my preferred perch and walking to the book shelf to retrieve the thick Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Then I would have to rummage through scores of pages and hundreds of alphabetically listed words till I zeroed in on the exact word I needed the meaning of. The continuity of the reading experience was thus lost, irreparably. I would constantly complain but was compelled to do it nonetheless. He was relentless and there seemed no way around it.

As I grew older, I devised the method of ‘ploughing through’. I would read on, and deduce the word’s meaning by its context. So as an adult if not the exact, I generally knew the approximate meaning of a lot of words. This was possible because there was never a dearth of reading material in the house. This was quite a feat for someone trying to raise four kids on an ‘honest’ government officer’s salary. Another of Dad’s principles, that books are above sanction, worked here. Once when I was debating whether to buy one because of its exorbitant price, he said that a book, in itself, is priceless. It is not expensive if you read it and learn something and its not cheap if you don’t. Somehow his philosophy has stuck and I have read some pretty insipid books just because I had bought them. Its not that I didn’t learn from them. If nothing else, I learnt what I don’t like.

Recently when an editor commented that I had an exceptional vocabulary for a ‘doctor’ ( I am still not sure if it was a compliment!), I silently saluted dad’s doggedness for forcing me to discover a word’s meaning on my own. He turned eighty three recently. Thanks dad and Happy Birthday. Keep teaching and keep learning.

( published as a ‘spice of life ‘ in the Hindustan Times on 25/10/2018)

Maasik Adharm

Maasik Adharm

4A154D3F-A05F-4C5E-B53C-D45E0416E6E6It’s that time of the year again and we are discussing that time of the month again. The Navratris are here and as the nation gears up to worship the female form, her right to worship because of her femininity is being debated.

These ten days ( and nine nights !) are a celebration of womanhood, the sacred time when even the most chauvinistic misogynists will bow their heads to the divine feminine. Perhaps it’s easy to revere a woman when she is up there on a pedestal, stoic and powerful, yet smiling benevolently, multitude of hands frozen in the act of blessing, giving and forgiving. It’s the real women seeking equal opportunity that are harder to handle. But my thoughts are not about the hypocrisy behind this practice and the mistaken belief that Devi Pooja is a proof that women are cherished in our society.

Going off tangentially I want to draw the readers attention to another contradiction. For a society that worships goddesses in the form of the divine mother, Devi Ma, our attitude towards menstruation, an essential part of reproductive physiology is appalling. For a country which feels that a woman is incomplete without motherhood we look down upon this bodily function that makes child bearing possible. We don’t want to talk about it, we don’t accept is as normal and worst of all we consider it as unholy and impure.

Any deviation from this ancient belief is met with resistance. The recent Supreme Court judgement to allow women of reproductive age enter the Sabarimala temple has generated mixed reviews. While many hailed it as a much needed move towards women empowerment and equality others have labelled it as an unnecessary intrusion into personal law. I disagree with both. Does lifting the ban improve women’s stature? Will the ruling bring hordes of menstruating women to the Temple’s compound? I doubt it. Because beliefs and rituals need social sanction more than legal right. Till society accepts certain practices laws can’t achieve much.

But the judgement is significant because it shuns the medieval belief that menstruating women are unclean and need to be segregated. It breaks the taboo of considering menses a recurring monthly cooties, a domestic quarantine wherein women are excluded from social and cultural engagements.

This social ostracisation has practical, physical and mental consequences. Girls grow up ashamed of a physiological function and consider it a curse. Due to the perceived stigma and inadequate sanitation facilities one fourth girls drop out of school after attaining menarche, thus reducing their potential. The physical repercussions are even more alarming. A recent study indicated that a majority of Indian women don’t have access to hygienic menstrual care products. They use old rags, sand, sawdust, leaves, ash and even newspapers to absorb the flow. The practice of using cloth which is otherwise acceptable becomes a health hazard due to the need to hide it. Sun drying that is an effective disinfectant is not an option because of the associated stigma. From these unhealthy practices stem a majority of gynaecological infections and diseases. To improve this situation women need to be educated about menstrual hygiene. It goes without saying that unless the state subsidises sanitary products teaching the poor about their necessity will achieve little.

Lastly, men need to be sensitised to the issue so that they can become a support system. I thought this was impossible till recently a male colleague recounted his adolescent son’s reaction when he was teaching him reproductive biology. The young boy said that he already knew that females had a difficult time due to social norms but was unaware that biologically too their life was tough. A sentiment which he will hopefully carry into adulthood. So men may be men but we can at least teach our boys!

In the end only a proactive multi prong strategy will help. The saga of menstrual blood is not as trivial as it sounds, because it is deeply embedded in religious and cultural practices and thus has far reaching effects on our nation’s well being.

( published in my column in The Tribune on 13/10/2018)

The Backpack that came back

The Backpack that came back

When it was first suggested, I dismissed it with an impatient wave of the hand. It was impossible. How could I do it without my trusted backpack? It had all the things that I needed for my little adventure. I had meticulously packed it over a fortnight, putting items in various pockets after much deliberation.

C3A23468-01D0-4B2F-A421-26599931DAAEWe ( a group of seven women and two wise men) were embarking on a trek to the valley of flowers and Hemkund Sahib. I had realised a little too late that my small backpack had not reached my room in the resort at Rishikesh, our first night halt before we continued to Govindghat for our climb. The hotel staff frantically searched for it but in vain. Not understanding my predicament they helpfully offered to send the missing bag home if they found it after their ‘IT guy’ examined the CCTV footage.

Before I go on with my rants, a little background. For us less than fit, over the hill, adrenaline starved, young at heart ‘ hikers’ there is an option of offloading backpacks which are then sent ahead on mules. This enables us to continue on the trail with a small 10-20 litre daypack, which has our absolute essentials, the must haves, the things without which one will not survive in the wilderness! Mine had my cute mac in a pack, a borrowed down jacket, a double walled mug with lid, my head lamp, a bandana, a pill box, my energy boosting trail mix, a sipper and a pouch with miniature size hand sanitiser, lip balm, sun block etc. Above all it had my prized possession, a collapsible lunch box. I was told that this last item was the cause of my misery. Our trek organisers had insisted that we bring our own tiffin for meals and I had found the perfect one. It was as high tech as a lunch box can be. Made of easy to clean silicon it folded into a smaller size when not in use. I had shamelessly boasted about it and showed it around. My friend told me it was a clear case of ‘nazar’, someone’s evil eye had ensured that I stayed bereft of its services.

When the hotel staff called to say that the bag had not been found and the finality of my situation sunk in, I conceded to itemise the things I needed to buy. It turned out that the list wasn’t too long. A friend said that she could spare her backpack, another offered her water bottle, one friend said that it was fortunate that she had mistakenly ordered an extra raincoat and brought it along. I stuffed in my synthetic fibre jacket to replace the ultralight down one, and decided to hold a torch if I needed light. At our base camp, a friend spotted a tiffin in the items that people leave behind for fellow trekkers and I found an abandoned plastic mug in my room. So in the end, I just had to buy my prescription medicines and was good to go.

As my borrowed bag slowly filled up, I felt blessed as ‘my cup runneth over’ . What first appeared as an impossible situation taught me that if you have the right company, you don’t need much else. A friend even lent me her vibrant new bandana while she used her old one. With friends who care enough to share, life is a breeze and so was my trek. I did miss showing off my collapsible tiffin at mealtimes though and might have to undertake another arduous trek just to do that.

In case you are wondering about it’s fate, my bag reached home much before I did. Remember the two wise men I had mentioned in the beginning of the story. Well, one of them, who had volunteered to unload our luggage while we quickly checked into the hotel had left it in the taxi!

( carried by the Hindustan Times on 3/10/2018)