Fair Play

Fair Play

It was not what she said but the way she said it that surprised me. There was pride in her voice, none of the usual disappointed resignation that accompanies such information. Before the cropped hair young girl could answer, her grandmother had volunteered, “Circus karra kare .” Intrigued, I looked questioningly at the girl, again the dadi spoke first, “Yoga nahin hua karein, angrezon wala, woh kare hai.” Finally, the girl got in a word edgeways,“Gymnastics ki training le rahin hoon ji.”
1E0539C2-D83B-4E5A-89CB-3F9E4BD9914FRiding high on the medal tally in the Commonwealth games earlier this year which was duplicated in the recently concluded Asian games, clearly the young Haryanvi lass was following a trend. What was unusual was that she seemed from an impoverished background and gymnastics is not the usual contact sport Haryanvis are known for. I wondered how she stumbled into it and she divulged that her father had motivated her after watching Dipa Karmakar performance at Rio,” Is mein bheedh kam sai. Ye seekh legi to zindagi sambhal jayegi.” In a state where slogans like “Padak lao, pad pao “ ( bring a medal, get a job) reverberate in the villages her father was not off mark.

There is no doubt that Haryana has emerged as the medal winning sports capital of India. With only 2% of the nation’s population it accounted for one third of the medals in the Commonwealth games and one fourth of the total haul in the Asian games. Many theories are cited for this exceptional ability. Haryana is an agrarian state in the midst of the green revolution. Most land holdings are uneconomical hence depend on family labour. In the absence of hired help, back breaking labour in extreme climatic conditions is a way of life. This, and what is locally described as ‘ doodh dahi ka khana’ is the reason for the robust physique of the average Haryanvi. Traditionally the rough and tough Haryanvis (rough language, tough physique!) have served in the army, the shift to sports came easily.

Also, due to its location on the frontier, Haryana was exposed to loot and plunder as invaders made their way to Delhi from the North. Anthropologists blame this historical fact for their inherent aggression and their predilection for combative sports which depend more on strength than strategy. Akharas, with grappling loin clad men is a common village sight.

But apart from the geographical and historical ones there is a practical reason for this rising interest. For more than a decade now the state government has encouraged sports, more by rewarding winners than by improving the infrastructure. With job promises and cash incentives that are highest in the country, there is little reason why the average enterprising youth will not grab this opportunity to cash in on extra-scholastic skills. The awards often spill over to benefit the entire village through development hence become folklore. Growing up with such role models makes children believe that a decent career is just a win away.

The big question is does this state policy that celebrates success, help build character and inculcate a sports culture? Sportsmanship is the quality of showing fairness, respect and generosity towards the opposing team. Are we achieving it ? One look around and it seems that we are nowhere near this ideal. We are creating ‘sportsmen’ with eyes on the medal, not love for the game. But perhaps once we have sportsmen, magnanimity will follow. In any case for a state which is often in the news for the wrong reasons, sportsmanship or no sportsmanship, a medal is a medal, and enough reason to rejoice.

( published in my column in the Haryana Tribune on 15/9/18)

Distance Education

Distance Education

The message filled me with dread but there seemed to be no escape. I gingerly typed k ( which is cooler than ok, which is much cooler than okay ) and waited for him to call. Seconds later he appeared on the screen, sleepy eyed and unshaven. This isn’t going to go well a small inner voice warned me, but sometimes no matter what, you have to do what needs to be done.

He had insisted and in a moment of weakness I had given in. My son had moved to USA and left his prized home theatre for me. My plea that I didn’t have much use for it as I am practically tone deaf didn’t deter him. The movers and packers didn’t deliver it on time so he had to leave without hooking it up. He assured me that installation was intuitive and I would be able to do it….and that he would help! And now the moment was upon me.

F50C4476-0BF7-4347-9BE6-DCCDE807E71CHe instructed me to look for a wire with a round end, I found it in the tangle of wires he had left and helpfully asked if I should insert it in the round socket. Without missing a beat he suggested I try inserting it in the square slot. “Stupid question, snappy answer” I suspect he had learnt it from me. I hadn’t taught this but had said it so often, that he must have imbibed it. Clearly, I had started on the wrong foot. I was determined to redeem myself so when he next asked me to look for a wire with a trapezoid end, I quickly asked if he meant the HDMI cable. Somewhat surprised, he nodded. With some of my self respect restored I showed it to him. Now came the tricky part, tilting the giant, wall mounted screen to insert it in its back. Squinting in the dark, sweating profusely from the effort, I located it among the million other sockets and stuck it in.

With my confidence growing, under his watchful eye I made a couple of other connections till I ran out of luck. He asked me to ensure that the right speaker is positioned on the right. Confused, I asked, “My right or the TV’s right?” I still think it is a very legitimate question because when I face the TV my right becomes the TV’s left. He scoffed and said that objects don’t have sides. I decided not to argue, he was talking in monosyllables anyway.

When all the connections were made I tried to switch on the system but the remote did not work. He told me to put in new cells, but I couldn’t open the lid. I tackled it with increasing force and frustration, all the while sensing mounting frustration from the other side of the screen. Exasperated, he blurted that it could not be as difficult as I made it look and asked me which part I was trying to slide. The next few moments were a revelation and have changed the way I look at the world. He explained that the long panel came off while the tiny lid like thingy stayed. To my mind this is definitely counter intuitive. If the back cover of a gadget is divided into unequal parts the smaller is removable, the bigger is fixed. An unwritten rule but a rule nonetheless. Seems this was another concept that I had to unlearn. My son ignored my laments and once again I relented. In any case there were more pressing matters on my mind. It was nearing midnight and I had realised that I didn’t have the much needed pencil cells. I roamed the house like a zombie looking for gadgets from which I could retrieve them. Finally took out two from the kitchen clock and two from the remote of my set top box. I rejoiced that the job was done but fate was to test me further.

After checking that the home theatre was duly ‘installed’, my son wanted me to switch on the set top box to ensure that it was receiving the requisite signal. It’s remote lay lifeless on my bed, with its belly ripped open. I trust the reader to guess what happened next so will skip those details and fast forward to the next morning. I switched on my favourite TV programme and the background score was music ( of a much better quality ) to my ears. Maybe I am not as tone deaf as I thought….or maybe just maybe, the previous night’s experience had sharpened my senses.

( published in the Hindustan Times on 12/09/2018)

Picture this

Picture this

Once upon a time, not so long ago, there lived a king and queen who took too many pictures. If they wrote it, this is how my story would read. It was just three reels yet was becoming family folklore. We had committed the crime of taking more than a hundred pictures on our week long honeymoon. “That is more than fifteen snaps in a day,” the kinsmen solemnly observed. Thirty five years later, it is hard to believe that something that was considered such a colossal waste has become routine. In fact we take bursts of shots just to ensure that we get the perfect picture, sans closed eyes and queer smiles.

A7B83A44-D0F3-4F35-8F68-F78C2A9FF349Considering the way things were done in the past, it is amazing that we still got a fair yield of good pictures. To think that we took a single shot ( taking an extra was an ill affordable luxury ) and then waited months for the reel to be completed because pictures were taken on special occasions. Perhaps it worked because photography was a very serious and skilful business back then. So not only the photographer, the subjects were careful too, paying attention, standing stiff, looking straight into the lens. And then the idiot proof digital camera arrived and changed everything. It allowed anyone to take photos by trial and error, at no extra cost.

Before continuing I digress to provide some background to the clueless. A photo, nowadays, is a piece of digital information that can be instantly sent to a friend, uploaded on a website or edited on a computer. Before they were digitalised, cameras were analog devices that captured pictures as patterns of light and dark on silver treated reels of plastic film. The reel was developed using chemicals, thus fixing the latent invisible image as a negative. The negative was printed to get the positive, the photograph as we know it. The reel that had thirty six prized rectangular frames came in a cartridge which was snapped into the camera. The top and bottom of the reel had a row of little holes so each section of the film could be wound out of the way after a photo was taken, simultaneously releasing an unexposed frame ready for the next shot.

Sometimes by a stroke of luck the reel had an extra frame or two. So when you turned the lever after the thirty sixth exposure and it moved on, it was reason to rejoice. But this joy came with a caveat, if you could continue to wind the reel it meant that it had not been mounted correctly. This happened to us at the Ajanta Ellora caves. We wanted to take one last picture of the magnificent entrance when my husband noticed that the reel had finished. He gingerly pulled the lever and we were thrilled that there was an extra. After clicking the picture he happily declared that their seemed to be another and I quickly posed for it. It was only after three ‘ free’ clicks that we grew suspicious and checked to find that the reel wasn’t mounted. The end result, we don’t have a single picture of our visit. Nowadays with most of our pictures stored in virtual albums, clouds and webs I sometimes worry about their fate. If the system develops a glitch will all our memories be lost, gone in a flash, reduced to cyber dust ?

Talking of memories, I often reminisce of a childhood incident when I see the thoughtlessness with which we take pictures today. My class teacher had offered to take a family photograph at my birthday party. Moments later she apologised that she had inadvertently clicked when no one was looking. My father tried to comfort her saying that freezing a candid moment was good too. She sheepishly admitted that she hadn’t been looking either. And then both of them gravely agreed that it was a ‘dead loss’. Six months later when we got the reel developed, the envelope contained an off centre shot of the decorative light over our dining table. A dead loss indeed, made worse by the additional expenditure of consigning it to paper. Dad duly scolded the studio owner for this lapse and then decided to keep the photo in our album. Just to remind us kids what happens when you don’t pay attention. It is still housed there, a reminder of those simpler times when every picture counted!

( published in The Hindu on 2/9/2018)

Raksha Bandhan

Raksha Bandhan

The teenager sang it gleefully, his fingers drumming my table, the twinkle never leaving his eyes and his father, an old patient of mine, nodded with the beat, proud as punch at his son’s rendition.

Ho mantri teri chaal
Tera silly suraksha jaal
Ab main is se zyaada kya kahoon
Main gusse me gaali de gaya
Oye ki kariye, ki kariye
Dil chhalni sadda ho gaya
Oye ki kariye, ki kariye

The father son duo had wandered into the NCR in the wrong season, without enough reason and were caught in a lock down for VVIP movement. Seems the endless sitting in the car, waiting for convoys to pass, had transformed the son into a poet, or at least a rapper. The father boasted that this parody based on Yo Yo Honey Singh’s popular number was conceived as the cavalcade passed. Translated roughly it berates the minister’s movement and his security cover and laments the inconvenience there of.

59748563-B77F-4AE7-AB59-A025424FF8DCIn India where security is overdone, most of us have been through this and although it doesn’t turn us into poets, it is frustrating nonetheless. To be fair, not every traffic jam is a VVIP’s doing, but whenever a person of eminence decides to move, the accompanying security detail makes a gridlock inevitable. This problem is felt more acutely in the capital where ten percent of the nearly five thousand protected species of our country live.

There is no debating the fact that the country’s high value assets need to be protected. Not only because an inability to do so would raise doubts on our nation’s might but because we are morally bound to protect people threatened because of their job, position or public stance. So depending on the perceived danger security of various kinds is provided to them. It could be the basic solitary gunmen or the very sophisticated Z plus security which involves more than thirty armed personnel, with X,Y and Z levels in between. The problem is that over the years ‘security cover’ has become a way of parading one’s clout and power, a status symbol, granted as a political favour. So gunmen are granted to ‘well connected’ people and in the absence of any real threat they are used to run errands. A gun toting toughie to fetch bread!

Apart from the wastage of trained personnel in a country where there is a dearth of law enforcers, this security cover comes at an exorbitant price. According to a 2012 report of the Bureau of Police Research and Development, ten thousand persons of varying degrees of importance were being protected by over three times the number of security personnel. Also, a recently released report states that two hundred and fifty crore of the taxpayer’s money was spent on it in 2014-15.

What’s more, security men are often high-handed and unnecessarily rude with the general public. In the western world, security cover is discreet and unobtrusive, causing minimum hassle to the common man. In India it’s a nightmare and leaves a trail of harassed people on the roads. Lives and livelihoods are put on stake as even ambulances are made to halt. The Ministry of Home Affairs in reply to an RTI revealed that the traffic can be stopped only for the President, the Vice President, the Prime Minister and visiting foreign dignitaries with President/ PM level security cover. There is a caveat though, state governments can impose their rules for smooth transit of VIPs and this is what brings traffic to a halt every now and then.

There are no easy solutions for this problem of Raksha- Bandhan, security for a few that ties the rest of us in knots. Providing adequate diversions, issuing timely advisories through social media and creating a VIP corridor on oft used routes are some obvious steps. But the most important one is to downsize the ‘endangered species’. Just like everything else in life, vulnerability is not permanent and the security blanket needs to be withdrawn or cut to size accordingly.

( published in the Tribune on 1/9/2018 as a part of my column ‘So Ordinary’)

Scared of the sacred

Scared of the sacred

As we weaved our way through them I could sense the fear. Our driver was overtly overly cautious. I wondered whether it was their overwhelming numbers or the unrestrained ebullient kinesics. Some prodding and the driver blurted how a car had been trashed and upturned earlier in the day because it had touched one of them. He further recounted a similar incident in his own company the previous year. Having suffered the loss of a car his employer had kept his taxis off the road, this being the first time he had let them out after a fortnight. A calculated risk to keep the wolf from the door.

A6D99EEF-0D1A-4FAB-8670-679852ACF68F
Let me first stop those of you who have conjured up images of us traveling through some God forsaken land with unruly mobs on the streets. We were in Devbhoomi, the land of Gods, returning from a trek to the Valley of flowers and our cause of concern were the hordes of holy pilgrims. Decades ago I would silently admire the fortitude and devotion of those who believed that bringing holy Ganga water to bathe the Linga of their local shrine made them a truer Shiv Bhakt. Over the years as they have increased in numbers and notoriety my adulation has slowly turned from dismay and disapproval to plain dread.

Back then, I found the fact that they were idolised and revered, their feet washed by the village elders uncalled for, a little over the top. But it was understandable as a way of social recognition for the marginalised, a time for them to step out of their exclusionary, often humiliating life and claim centre stage. Establishing proximity with the absolute was a bonus. Now as rose petals are showered from choppers, politicians make a beeline to honour them, state administration strives to facilitate their Yatra and the police ignore their unruly behaviour I wonder where this is heading.

Religion is messy and politics makes it messier. As I rode past the chaos, a trail of plastic on the roadside, the stench of human excreta near the shivirs I noticed that the traditional Kanwariya was missing. The word “Kaavad” stems from Sanskrit which means a pole on the ends of which pots are hung. The undernourished, impoverished, saffron clad, barefoot man walking on the roadside, with urns tied to a decorated bamboo on his shoulders is a rare sight. In his place were these fighting fit boisterous men, bare chested or wearing matching tshirts, riding recklessly on motorbikes, jeeps and tractor trolleys, loud music blaring from their vehicles, claiming the road and other open spaces, a sense of entitlement in their demeanour.

Another noticeable development was the use of the Tricolour instead of the traditional saffron flag for decoration. Can and should the National flag be used in a religious function in a country as diverse as India? Is it, as some perceive a way to establish that all Hindu rituals are cultural and national while minority practices are alien and a nuisance to public order? An issue worth pondering, because when Shiva Bhakti is not enough and some Desh Bhakti has to be thrown in, when devotees sing praise of political leaders instead of the divine, when chants are replaced by loud digital music and when the Kanwariyas are neither Bhole nor bear kaavads, one should be wary, even scared of what is claimed to be sacred and sacrosanct .

( published in the Tribune on 18/8/2018)

Distant Friends

Distant Friends

We slowly gravitated towards each other, the seven of us, so different, yet so alike. By the end of second year we were inseparable and had a name Saptrishi. Our friendship survived the rigours of medical education, the insecurities of adolescence and three decades of silence. After leaving college all of us got busy in building careers and raising families. We met a few times in class reunions, rarely phoned each other and yet the bond stuck. So when four years ago we met with an aim to revive our friendship there were no grudges. Perhaps it was easy to forgive the long lapses in communication because all of us felt life’s velocity acutely.

F022DFD5-996C-45BB-A26A-3DAB81704E5EIt was a little sad that unlike our youth when we demanded each other’s attention, we now had relaxed, almost suspended expectations from each other. Our present relationship is not ideal, but it’s real. It is based on a mutual understanding of each other’s limitations. We have understood that the things that make friendship fragile also make it flexible. Free of responsibilities we meet more frequently and have even managed to take short trips together, just the seven of us.

With modern technology to our aid we now share more news more often. This makes me wonder does social media and instant messaging help sustain relationships? Armed with more efficient ways to communicate will the present generation never endure the long silences we did. The media multiplicity theory suggests that the more platforms on which friends communicate the stronger their friendship will be—so texting and emailing, sending each other what’s app jokes and links on Facebook all seem to play a role.

Although Emily Langan, an American Professor in communication has a diametrically opposite view. She postulates that there are various levels of maintaining a relationship. Digital communication can keep friendship alive and stable. A birthday wish, liking a profile picture or status update, supporting a comment can keep it breathing. But to turn it into a satisfying relationship needs more than an online presence. If you haven’t ever met you’re not really sharing experiences just updating each other on your separate lives. So it’s storytelling not shared living.

Before the advent of social media friendship was simple. An active friendship meant staying in touch, being involved and lending support. A dormant friendship had history, with no recent communication but an urge to meet when possible. A commemorative friend is a blast from the past, not someone you expect to hear from, or see. The current era of mediated relationships keeps this last group on life support and doesn’t let them fade away. So if keeps that friend from summer camp in your peripheral vision. With so many vying for our attention we end up maintaining more friendships and hence we do it shallowly.

On the eve of the day meant to celebrate it, let’s admit that friendship is difficult to define. From the very technical ‘ A voluntary relationship between equals sustained through reciprocal resource exchanges.’ To the whimsical ‘Somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy.’ To the practical ‘An acquaintance acquired by position or power’ a friend is a loosely used term. The undercurrent of joy is the only constant. So a friend, whether real or virtual is one who makes you happy and hence worth investing in…. har ek friend zaroori hota hai……

( published in my column in the Tribune on 4/8/2018)

Cats and Dogs

Cats and Dogs

It was like a sauna, without the health benefits. We sweltered and complained of the heat, while the humidity sapped up energy and killed productivity. And then as I was on my way to Gurugram via Rohtak, the sky grew dark and it started raining. The first few minutes were of sheer joy. It was exhilarating to watch the dust settle, the filth wash away in one giant sweep. As it rained some more my relief changed to concern. The newly built highway was filling up as were the neighbouring fields which have sunk lower as farmers sell inches of soil off their land for short term gains. By the time I reached Gurugram, our swanky metropolis, I was greeted with the familiar picture of unplanned urbanisation : overflowing sewers, submerged roads and traffic snarls.

1B1DB97D-FE3F-4817-8D99-D7877FAB5F4EA friend had once remarked that the true test of a ‘sarkari bangla’ is the first rain that washes off the whitewash, exposing the shabby jugaad underneath. The premise of this analogy can be expanded to conclude that monsoons reveal the real state of our country. Rains rudely remove the mask of modernisation to show gaping holes in our claim of sustainable development.

Economic growth that is reflected by a rising GDP has done little to improve the condition of the average Indian. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen had proposed HDI, Human Development Index as a more accurate marker of quality of life. Scandinavian countries where healthcare and education are given precedence, score better here. While the world debates the worth of these two, RSI, the Rain Strain Index could be an apt indicator of progress in India. A way to quantify how rains throw our system into a tizzy, it can be used to unmask unplanned development and state shortsightedness. The truth is, we can change names and bestow lofty titles but a city which comes to a grinding halt with a downpour can’t be called too smart.

The Indian monsoon has always been unpredictable and somewhat capricious. Every year we are caught between months of crippling drought and devastating floods. The situation has worsened as extreme rain events have increased in intensity and frequency. So much so that floods in the time of drought are now a reality. Even a ‘normal’ monsoon may cause more grief than relief by not bringing rain on time or chucking it down in a single massive deluge.

Scientists blame increased human emissions for this variability. While we can’t immediately control human emissions and the resulting climate change, we can greatly reduce its impact. The devastation that follows these catastrophic events is a result of mismanagement and poor planning. We have destroyed drainage in floodplains and allowed them to be inhabited. Embankments built to control rivers have closed nature’s safety valves. Lakes and ponds have been eaten away by real estate. Storm water drains are either clogged or non existent. Thus cities drown when extreme rainfall events happen.

It is time to accept that we are bearing the brunt of climate change and change ourselves. There is no time to debate, dither or dawdle. The only way out is by obsessively creating millions of connected living water structures that will sponge up floods and store water for droughts. These then need to be guarded as though our life depended on them, because it does.

( published as a part of my column in the Tribune on 21/7/2018)

Doctors today

Doctors today

Thirty two years ago I just needed an excuse to proudly count all thirty two of them, the doctors in my extended family. Three decades later only one of my nieces has wandered into a prestigious medical college and is already regretting it. For those who think that this data size is too small to be statistically significant I offer another example indicative of the present turmoil in the medical fraternity. This year the cutoff for NEET, the entrance exam for medical colleges across the country showed a significant drop. While some of it can be attributed to complex questions, the wariness of the brightest brains to pursue medicine can’t be ignored.

3C6A52B7-21EF-4235-9252-0C972542DC28The reason for this downtrend for what was once a coveted career choice are many. Vis-a-vis any other profession, medical education takes more years out of one’s life and more life out of one’s years. With a basic graduate degree rapidly becoming worthless it takes eight to ten years of relentless slogging to qualify. After the prohibitive cost of education, comes the expenditure of setting up a practice. Adding to the woes is a whole list of draconian laws and ill conceived regulations. Further the growing distrust and unrealistic expectations from patients has undermined any job satisfaction. Unruly public behaviour and blatant lawlessness, often provoked for political gain is the last straw that will break the back of medical services in our country.

The state may not fully acknowledge their role but small nursing homes form the backbone of healthcare in India. Typically run by doctor couples, they are responsible for providing affordable treatment in a country where shabby government hospitals are too uncaring and swanky corporate hospitals are too expensive. These ‘doctor couple’ run hospitals are on the verge of extinction as their children look for less taxing and more fulfilling careers. Adequate rest and sleep is something doctors prescribe but can’t practice. I realised this when due to various reasons, I stopped conducting deliveries and taking in emergencies five years ago. The first fortnight felt strange. I was not used to a full night of undisturbed sleep, something that most people take for granted. Not surprisingly, my children did not follow my footsteps.

Doctors today feel misunderstood and unfairly maligned. Introspection on all fronts is the need of the hour. The public has to understand that if the cost of medical care has increased, its standard has improved too. Newer investigations, better treatment modalities and expensive equipment has played a role in improving the longevity and quality of life. Instead of going hard on private practitioners the government has to try harder to provide affordable healthcare to the masses. It also needs to regulate drug pricing, control lawlessness and ensure that court directives are followed and doctors are not unduly harassed. Doctors can’t escape their role in this mess. They need to weed the black sheep and break the nexus with drug companies and labs. Peer review and audits to discourage unnecessary procedures is a good way to restore faith.

Lastly, we doctors need to work on our soft skills. In the thirty years of my rural practice one thing has constantly intrigued me. Despite suffering blatant negligence in the hands of quacks patients are very forgiving to them. The most common adjectives used for the erring ‘doctor’ is bechara seedha sada. This opposed to any negligence, perceived or otherwise, on the part of a qualified doctor, is dealt with anger and the need to seek redressal. I have often wondered why the quack is seen as a well meaning ally whereas we are seen as uncaring robbers out to fleece them. Does a shiny exterior intimidate patients ? Does our ‘medicalese’ filled with facts and figures alienate them? Does being forthright and truthful take precedence over being kind and compassionate? Does knowing the course of a disease leave no room to offer comfort and hope? Questions worth pondering because disgruntled doctors, distrustful patients and demeaning authorities are a recipe for disaster in which everyone will lose.

(published in my column in the Haryana Tribune on 7/7/2018)

Faith and Disbelief

Faith and Disbelief

As I was driving home from a party recently I noticed that the Kohinoor on my ring was missing. I use the word Kohinoor very loosely here. For us non- royals any diamond upward thirty cents qualifies for the title. In any case, the loss was enough to give me an arrhythmia if not an heart attack. My friend, who was with me, nearly had one out of compassion.

5D90DCD4-C910-49CB-8EF9-5CE6273B995EFighting the mounting panic, I tried to think logically. I inferred that the stone must have fallen in the car else I would have noticed it earlier. It was getting dark when we reached home and systematically searched the car, but in vain. I felt it was impossible to find the diamond at the venue of the party. The banquet hall was not the only place I had been to. I had used the toilet, took the lift, walked through the foyer and out to the car lot. The stone could have fallen anywhere. Heartbroken, I tried to be philosophical about my loss. I did what I could, using the Karma theory, I blamed it on some past sin.

Two hours later my friend’s husband called and said that we shouldn’t give up without looking for the missing gem at the venue. I tried to reason with him, telling him that it was impossible to find a tiny diamond in such a vast area, it would have been easier had I lost the entire ring. He disagreed saying that anyone would have picked up the ring. But since no one knew the value of a loose stone, it would be lying where it fell. We just had to go back and get it. Using the probability index, he theorised that the chances of finding it were maximum where I had spent most time which was sitting at a table in the front.

I was reluctant, but he was persistent so I finally gave in. On the way, he tried harnessing positive vibes by recounting miraculous lost and found stories. While I dutifully nodded to his tales, the sceptic me kept thinking that finding mine was impossible. As we entered the hotel premises he prophesied, that since he had sought God’s blessings, we would not return empty handed.

The hall had been swept. The tables and chairs stacked in the centre. We first inspected the place I had been sitting and then spread out. Within two minutes my friend announced her first find, which turned out to be a crystal, but she kept finding things. Her husband had meanwhile got hold of the sweeper and was making him go through the garbage. He too had eyes only for sparkly objects and kept finding crystals, zircon and fake pearls. I looked around half heartedly, thinking of all the nooks and crannies where the diamond could have landed. All I could see was rips in the carpet, holes in the upholstery, cracks in the plaster and accumulated grime. Not surprisingly, I found nothing. I wondered aloud how anyone could spot a tiny stone in all the filth. That is when my friend called out, holding up a brilliantly luminous sparkler in her palm. As unbelievable as it sounds she had found it. Minutes earlier I had combed the same area with my cynical, non believing gaze and had found nothing.

On the way back apart from gratitude for my friends, fate and the forces above, I was filled with awe. In a small way I had witnessed the power of faith. My friend could see it because she believed that she could. I didn’t because I thought I couldn’t. Have been wondering since. Could this be a turning point in my life, that profound moment that converts me from a doubting sceptic to a believer in miracles ? Faith can move mountains…of that, I am still not sure, but it certainly helps find stones!

( published in the Hindustan Times on 6/7/2018)

Taking its Toll

Taking its Toll

First an affirmation, although I have not studied it as a subject, my location makes me an expert in this field. Gharaunda, my hometown is flanked by Toll Plazas on both sides, I have thus become a specialist on how ‘toll takers’ take their toll.

Most times there is a queue of impatiently honking cars at the plaza. Primarily it is due to the lackadaisical attitude of the toll takers which is further aggravated by the exact amount of change they have to fish out for each transaction. I have never quite understood why calculation of toll tax is such an exacting science? Can’t 145/- be rounded off to 150/-. Another regular irritant is the shift change. Watching the toll takers casually log out of the system and unhurriedly handover the bounty to their successors is the ultimate test of patience. Frequent system breakdowns that leads to unplanned closing of lanes adds to the misery.

But the longest and ugliest delays are caused when the toll taker refuses to acknowledge some self acclaimed VIP and grant him special status. Every ‘aam’ Indian must have seen this scene of a ‘khaas’ Indian holding up the lane while establishing his credentials using the infamous “Tu jaanta nahin mein kaun hoon.“ I humbly offer two solutions to counter this menace. The first is to have a separate ‘Mujhe pehchano mein hoon Don’ lane for such people. The lane could open out into a comfy cafeteria where they can display their connections without bothering us lesser mortals.

832ED5BC-17B9-4BC1-8BE2-5380063FF113The second more sensible option is to do away with the ‘ Exempt Culture ’ all together. Why should anyone not pay ? In U.K ( and we claim to follow them! ) even the Queen pays toll tax on a turnpike. We too, need to take down the ridiculous boards displaying the long list of exempted dignitaries. They solve no purpose anyway, because every Haryanvi thinks he is a governor, if not the President of India! If deemed necessary the toll can be reimbursed, just like the state reimburses all other expenses of these dignitaries. Once the public understands that everyone pays irrespective of class and clout these arguments will end. At present exemption is viewed as an entitlement. You haven’t truly arrived till a toll taker respectfully waves you through the haloed gates without charging.

Another reason why the public is wary of paying is because toll is viewed as an unjust financial burden. Toll plazas are quick to come up, sometimes even before the highway is completed, and difficult to close down, frequently requiring legal intervention. They are known to under report the number of vehicles plying the route to keep collecting money beyond the stipulated time.

If viewed closely, the time and fuel saved due to wider, smoother roads is offset by these barriers that hold back idling vehicles . Switching off the engine is not an option lest the car ahead moves a millimetre and one doesn’t advance quickly enough, causing angry honks from behind. The needless wastage of precious fuel and the resulting environmental pollution is no laughing matter. Rough estimates have put annual losses due to toll plaza delays at 60,000 crore rupees.

The government has tried to counter these delays by introducing Fast tags. A single smart card that works across the nation and is cheaper than cash payment would encourage more people to use it. But in the end, we need to look for alternatives. There has to be a better way to collect tax than by creating bottlenecks in already choked roads.

( published as part of my column in the Tribune on 23/6/18)