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)

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’)