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)

Twisted Mother Tongue

Twisted Mother Tongue

777ED1BD-E532-4328-BF00-166553536C1FAwaiting an appointment, I was roaming the corridors of a premium medical college in the capital. A tired, old man hobbled up to me and asked if I could direct him to the TB ward. I told him he was standing right next to it and pointed at the signboard. He haltingly read ‘ phoophsiya yakshma vibhag’ written under Department of Pulmonary Tuberculosis (T.B) and remained clueless. I pitied his plight. He could read the Hindi script ( Devanagari lipi) but not understand what he read. And although he might have understood it in English, he couldn’t decipher the alphabets. Sadly, he wasn’t alone in his ignorance of the ‘ mother tongue’. Although I take great pride in my ‘ sahityik’ Hindi, phephre ki tapedik or kshay rog is the best translation I can do. I have never heard the term ‘Phoophsiye yakshma’ before.

After he left I looked around and came across some other unfamiliar words. I could guess that hridyachikitsavigyan meant Cardiology, but dhegvigyan and antehsrav vigyan were totally alien. They were certainly not my mother tongue, this, when my mother belongs to the Hindi speaking cow belt!

The problem is, Hindi is not one but three languages, the one we speak and understand (a mix of Hindi, English, Urdu and local lingo) the one we read or write in ( sahityik/ literary version ) and the sarkari official kind ( with never heard words). In an effort to protect its sanctity the custodians often forget that the primary function of any language is to communicate. If most people don’t understand it, its purpose is defeated. It is reduced to an adornment, merely decorative in function.

I recount another incident to make my case. My nurse showed me a letter her daughter had received from an institute where she was pursuing stenography. “Tankan aivam ashulipi pariksha ke pariksharthi swagat-patal par panjikaran karayenge,” it proclaimed haughtily. After using the online shabdkosh I was able to translate “Typing aur shorthand test ke ummeedwar reception par registration karayenge.” Phew!

Lingual vs practical has always been a dilemma and it’s intensity is felt more acutely in the present milieu. To make people understand vs to maintain the sanctity of our language maybe a difficult choice for some. But for ordinary people pragmatism will always score over misconceived patriotism. For one, Hindi is not our national language. No language has been granted this status by our constitution. Hindi along with English is our official language and one of the twenty two scheduled languages of the Republic of India. Like other Indo Aryan languages it is a direct descendant of Vedic Sanskrit, which was the language of the upper caste. Manak Hindi was a logical step to let go of the complexity of Sanskrit and create a simple language for the masses.

Now in an effort to preserve its purity, Sanskrit components are being used to coin new words as replacement for foreign terms ( tadbhav shabd) . Most of these neologisms are calques of English words which are already deeply engraved in our vocabulary. Trying to replace telephone with doorbhash and engineer with abhiyanta are such examples. I wonder where it will stop? For it is impossible to imagine my duniya without dil, dimag and dost, all words of Urdu descent.

Another Hindi week concluded with the state debating steps to encourage usage of our mother tongue. The simplest solution is to simplify it! But as I type this on the Kunjipatal of my Sangpak to reach the editor through the antarjalkram, I worry, will my idea get lost in translation?

( published in my column in the Tribune on 29/9/18)

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)