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.

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)

The eye of a storm

The eye of a storm

It always feels bad, but this time because it involved a close friend, it felt worse. The way we Indians are maimed, mutilated and mowed down in freak accidents. Last Friday evening the founders day celebration of our Health University was in full swing when the dust storm hit. The gust of wind toppled a five quintal truss pillar standing near the stage. My friend was one of the unfortunate five who were crushed under it, suffering multiple fractures including a spinal injury.

AB05E10B-B5DE-4066-BA0F-981460255896She was declared unlucky or lucky depending on one’s outlook and upbringing. Most felt that matters could have been worse. She could have suffered permanent neurological damage, lost a limb or even her life. I on the other hand thought that with a little caution, things could have been better. If the pillar was secured to the ground as it was supposed to be, she would not have been injured at all. Perhaps, in this case some will feel that we should be more forgiving. After all, what are the chances of a temporary structure not swaying in a dust storm that had the power to uproot trees and electric poles, damage billboards and throw water tanks off roof tops ( one landed in my garden!). We can defend the organisers and blame the wind velocity, but the truth is that unforeseen and extreme situations have to be considered while framing safety guidelines. More importantly, we, the citizens need to diligently follow these rules once they are in place.

This is a tall order considering the chaos around us. Look at all the preventable disasters which recur with astonishing regularity. Collapsing bridges, pillars buckling under their own weight, roads that cave in to swallow cars, precariously piled mountains of garbage, crumbling buildings, slums that turn into fire balls, highways which double as death traps and open manholes that live up to their name. All these incidents of the recent past demonstrate our usual callous, careless attitude. If we chase perfection we might catch excellence. But in true Indian ‘sab chalta hai’ style, we aim for mediocrity, just enough to get by. It isn’t surprising then, that things unravel and situations spin out of control so often.

To add to this callous attitude, we are a fatalistic society with amnesia. After every tragedy there are inquiries and assurances. There are also lessons which are never learnt and life goes on, till the next accident catches us off guard.

I am reminded of a joke which sounded funnier in my patient’s rustic Haryanvi dialect. Once a man fell from the second storey of his house and died. The crowd that gathered around the body noticed that there was a sharp peg jutting out from the ground next to where the man had landed. One wise man remarked, “ Thank God! he didn’t fall on the peg”. This aptly reflects our attitude. Even in the worst situation the average Indian will find something to be grateful for. This may be good in other spheres of life. But if we keep dismissing acts of negligence as God’s will, shrugging them off as pre-destined ; If we keep imagining worse situations and being thankful for what could have happened but didn’t ; how will we ever reach the much needed standards of caution and care ? We have to realise that freak accidents are a result of bad planning and if examined closely, all natural disasters have an element of human error!

( published as a part of my column in the Tribune on 9/6/2018)

Gharaunda Gets It!

Gharaunda Gets It!


Now that it had yielded results, it sounded less irritating, the recorded message which played on a loop, disturbing the early morning calm “ Nagarpalika aapke dwar…..shehar ko saaf suthra banane ke liye………”( the municipal committee is at your doorsteps to clean up your town). Suddenly everything fell into place, it all started making sense. Small things which I had noticed in the recent past and others which I had missed.


A few months back when I walked to a friend’s house I had noticed that the distinct stink of cow dung was less intense as I passed a few dairies located on the way. The drains which were usually clogged with animal waste were cleaner, the flow smoother.

A few weeks ago I was standing outside my nursing home when the garbage van passed. and the enthusiasm with which the young men were doing their work was surprising. After commending them on their job, on an impulse I asked if someone would remove the junk which was blocking the open drain next to our gate. Very dutifully, one of them said, “ Haanji woh bhi karenge, kyon nahin karenge. Naali wale safai karamchari alag hain Mein apne supervisor ko bol doonga” ( Yes of course it will be done. There are separate employees to clean the drains. I will bring it to my supervisor’s notice) His attitude and assurance was impressive enough, very different from the earlier safai karamcharis who showed up once a year around Diwali demanding their ill deserved bakhsheesh. I was further surprised when a few days later I found that the muck had actually been removed from the drain.

When I had visited a nearby city for an early morning swim recently the unchecked littering was noticeable. Rotten vegetables and fruits dumped on the road, plastic and cardboard packaging strewn around, colourful plastic bags floating in the early morning breeze. That is when it first occurred to me that in sharp contrast my own ‘town’ ( the only ‘urban’ term I can use technically!) was spotless when I left. The roads freshly swept, neat piles of refuse waiting to be loaded on to the garbage van.

I had missed missing the hordes of stray animals though. Monkeys visited regularly and we were still privy to the occasional dogfights but the holy cows and unholy pigs were missing from action. No longer seen rummaging through the garbage and drinking from drains. I tried to remember the last time a pig had entered our premises and ravaged the vegetable patch, burying itself in the cool soil to escape the summer heat. It had been a common occurrence in the past. A nuisance for which we had no solution, we have to keep our gates open for the ‘bimar’ and hence can’t avoid the occasional beast. I did recall spotting some coloured pigs though . At that time I had thought they had taken part in the household’s Holi celebration. Now I knew better .

It was all there, in its full glory, in the morning paper. A recognition by the central government for a job well done. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), under the aegis of the Swachh Bharat Mission had announced the results of the Swachh Survekshan 2018 last week. This is a state initiative to instil a competitive spirit about cleanliness at ground level. A total of 4203 urban local bodies had been surveyed collecting data from three sources – service level progress, direct observation and citizen feedback. The localities had been categorised on the basis of population and the awards were given in each category for cleanest city, solid waste management, citizen feedback and innovation and best practices. Gharaunda, my town won the award in the last mentioned category. The news was specially noteworthy because it was the sole winner in the entire state of Haryana. While I gloated over this commendable achievement, a part of me felt ashamed that I had not appreciated the cleanliness till it screamed from the front page of a newspaper. Why are we so busy nitpicking that we miss the positive changes happening around us?

When I read that innovative means were used to solve the stray pig problem I imagined some advanced microchip buried in the hog’s rear to trace his movement. It was amusing to discover that the innovations were not high tech or expensive. They were basic strategies demonstrating resourcefulness, out of box thinking and willingness to work within constraints. The solution of stray pigs roaming the streets was an example of such ingenuity. Earlier it had been difficult to fix responsibility because no one would own up that the pigs were theirs. The authorities started sprinkling colours on stray pigs and followed them to their homes. The owners were then penalised for letting them loose. Similarly the problem of animal waste blocking the drains was solved by sending committee vans to collect cow dung from dairies. To prevent open defecation usage of toilets was encouraged. It was noted that people had taken subsidy for building toilets but were using the space for other purposes. A survey was conducted and action was taken against the defaulters.

The fact is, whether it is colour coding pigs or making people use toilets, it doesn’t take much to keep a city clean. Just the willingness to find a way and the perseverance to see it through. Ordinary measures can yield extraordinary results and it seems Gharaunda ( with the soft D or otherwise) gets it!

( published as a part of my column in the Tribune on 26/5/2018)

Of dogs and bitches

Of dogs and bitches

Last night I followed her. She was not her blithe, carefree self. She looked preoccupied, cautious, almost jumpy. To my experienced eyes none of these are good signs so I tagged along. I wish I hadn’t for I was shattered by what I saw. I cared for her deeply so it’s hard not to be affected. Since then I have been trying to console myself. Telling myself that we are different. All of us live with our past. All of us allow it to shape our future. But some of us know how to shrug the past. I think that is who I am………and this is what makes me different from her and most others. These lofty thoughts floated through my head as I rested in the warm winter sun. I had slept fitfully during the night and it had been an unusually busy morning. I had had to raise sleep- heavy eyelids on two occasions to investigate the commotion caused by some unruly guests.

42DE330B-7C0D-4D25-8D64-A30270D60408It was relatively peaceful now and I looked forward to my well deserved siesta. That is when I sensed her. I could feel her presence before opening my eyes, the unmistakable fragrance of Chanel mixed with her own musk. I could visualise her to the last detail. The meticulously achieved ‘wind swept’ hair, the layers of makeup to create a nude look, the carefully planned ‘casual’ attire. Oh, I knew her well, she was the Poodle. She was so vain, and went to great lengths to hide it. But I could see through her rehearsed laughter and practiced smile. I have to grudgingly admit though, that she was a rare combination of beauty and brains. She had what most men find desirable. She was dainty, demure and mysterious.

It was that time of the month again and they were meeting for their customary lunch. A ritual where they had a heart to heart talk and claimed to bare their souls. I often wondered whether she had a soul, or that any of them had souls worth baring. Most of what I knew about her came from overhearing the others. I knew that her husband had cheated on her. He had fallen for his young, nubile secretary. I knew that she knew and wondered if they knew. I knew that she had swallowed her pride and decided to let it go. But not before forcing her husband to replace the girl with a bespectacled, matron. She had became more careful about her looks and had started looking more carefully. And then she had let bygones be bygones. Shrugged the past after taking lessons for her future…..

She checked her reflection in the window pane and sat down at a table near me. I wondered who would come next. If the Rottweiler arrived then I would hear some juicy gossip about the Collie and the Bulldog, else I would get an update on the Rottweiler’s dwindling finances. It was amusing how they knew that the one who reached last would get talked about most, every aspect of her life would be ruthlessly dissected and laid bare. No wonder everyone was very punctual. I preferred the chitchat before all four of them were in attendance, afterwards the topics became more generalised and less fun.

Just then the Rottweiler swaggered in. The doorman stood up taller, the waiters cowered in a corner. She was a hard to please nit picker, so everyone tried to avoid her gaze and look busy. She didn’t command respect, she demanded it and most of the time got it. People pandered to her whims to steer clear of confrontation, to avoid creating a scene and be ridiculed in public. But I have seen the uncertainty on her face when she thinks no one is looking. After her husband’s death she has persevered to keep her herd together and the money lenders at bay. She tries hard to hide her shrinking resources and mounting bills. She spends hours on the computer tackling medical transcription. The job doesn’t pay well but she values the privacy. No one should ever know that she is no longer royalty, that she has to work to put food on the table, that the unpaid loans her husband has left behind could take away the roof over her head. She doesn’t know that they know. That they discuss her knock-off designer purse and fake diamonds behind her back. Industrious and alert she maintains a tough facade and tries to shrug her past and shape her
future …….

After the customary air kissing, she sat down at the table and ordered a drink. They started with some small talk and I strained my ears for the gossip that would inevitably follow. “Did you hear what Ms Goody two shoes has been upto?” crooned the Poodle. That is when the Collie pranced in. Till last night she had been my favourite. The bounce in her step reminded me of the frolicking canine Einstein, full of energy, always in a good mood and ready for a laugh. I had always felt a tinge of envy in the others voices when they referred to her. She seemed to have it all, in fact from what I have heard, she has always had it all. She was the proverbial it girl, had a torrid affair with the most popular boy in college and had given it all up for the security of an ‘arranged’ marriage. I know that it had not been entirely her decision, in fact she had resisted the proposal but her parents had slowly wore her down. She seemed to have settled well in domesticity, had bore two children. But honestly speaking, I had always been troubled by the momentary wistfulness which occasionally crossed her eyes. Yesterday, my suspicion was confirmed when she trudged into the past.

The Bulldog bustled in and broke my line of thought. She was short, squat and ugly. Her skin seemed a size too big for her and folds hung around her chin and arms. It was the result of indiscriminate rounds of fasting and feasting. She was dim witted and usually lagged behind in the conversation, constantly seeking explanations and clarifications. Her noisy breathing, a series of gasps and grunts added to the agony of her presence. I knew that she was an orphan who had clawed her way out of poverty. I often wondered how she became part of such an elite group. I myself, had held her in low esteem till I came to know about her past. She had been caught in the crossfire between warring communities. Rioters had barged into her home and killed her parents while she had watched from the wardrobe, where her mother had hurriedly hid her telling her not to breathe. She had survived, got over the nightmares, mistrust and bitterness. The only visible remnant of her night of horror was her erratic breathing. She habitually held her breath and followed it with loud gulps of air. It was amply visible that the others didn’t mind her idiosyncrasies and valued her, I just couldn’t figure why.

As all four of them settled down and discussed what to order for lunch, I thought about the futility of their existence and how my life had been so much more meaningful. I had spent most of my life in the police force. I had earned the nickname ‘The Nose’ for my ability to sniff out trouble. I was valued and respected. One day a bomb exploded, injuring me and forcing a premature retirement. Since I didn’t have a family to fall back on I was assigned a care taker. Retirement didn’t suit me and although the caretaker was considerate his children weren’t. They didn’t understand that a decorated retiree will not fetch things or perform tricks to amuse them. One day I left without a word and roamed the streets. Hungry and tired, I opted for this job in a posh outdoor bistro. Its not that I was offered the position, in fact I created it myself. I hung around and got rid of lurking stray dogs who gawked at the guests. The owner thought that I could be useful and offered me dinner in return. Its an informal, unwritten agreement. I don’t have to do much, in return I get free meals, a comfortable place to sleep and all the gossip I can handle. As long as I appear disinterested and distant the owner doesn’t mind my eavesdropping on his guests. I think he would be less open to the idea if he knew how keen my sense of hearing is. Should I, who had an illustrious career of catching consignments of illegal drugs and explosives be chasing stray dogs at the fag end of my life. This question used to bother me a lot earlier but doesn’t any more. I have inferred that I should shrug the past and make peace with my present.

I didn’t realise when I dozed off. This is what I like about this job. Most of the time my presence is enough to intimidate the intruders, sometimes opening one eye and giving a hard condescending stare is all that is needed. Rarely do I have to raise my voice or chase the mongrels. My boss respects me for my aura, the invisible boundary I have created and my no fuss way of guarding it . When I woke up, I could hear the Bulldog talking animatedly on the phone. The others, as usual, had left. I snickered at the stupidity of the Bulldog. How could she not see that they always left on some pretext, forcing her to foot the bill. Just then she said something which made me sit up. Her exact words were,” Fodder for my jokes! You don’t know how much people reveal about themselves when they think that they are with a twit.” Then she laughed and added,” I love these lunches. Its fun to act stupid and you should see how it builds their self esteem. Their conversation keeps me in splits afterwards so its money well spent.” That is when it all came together. That is why they loved her. She made them feel good about themselves. And they helped her shrug the past……

It was nearly closing time by the time the Bulldog left and the waiters had started moving the upholstered chairs indoors. I am trusted with guarding the tables and the parasols. I have to admit that they are fixed to the ground making theft improbable but I have a role in keeping them pee free. I like to believe that I play a distinct part in the scheme of things, and that what I do matters.

I was basking in this glorious feeling of self importance when suddenly, I had a profound moment of enlightenment. I realised that like me, the Poodle who preens to prove herself, the Rottweiler who barks and bites to defend her brood, the Bulldog who dumbs down to fit in and the Collie who is not as perfect as she seems, all are victims of their circumstances. I understood that it is wrong to judge someone without knowing their journey. And instead of spurning her I should help the Collie let go of her past, just like the others had unwittingly taught me to move on. With this newly acquired wisdom I got out from beneath the table and made my way to claim the leftovers dumped on the street. But before that I needed to raise a leg and refresh the territorial markings. A day in a dog’s life is never done.

( carried in the Open Page of the Hindu on 13/5/2018).

Women with times

Women with times

Back then, I was younger and essentially a more patient doctor. I indulged the little idiosyncrasies a rural practice entailed, in fact I enjoyed them. Among my favourites and one that I found endearingly silly was the response to a very basic question. It amused me no end at how women would blush when I asked their husband’s name. If a family member was with them they would coyly nudge him or her to do the needful. On the rare instances when they were unaccompanied and I was in a good mood, the guessing game would begin. On one such occasion the patient made a circle with her hands, and meaningfully pointed upwards. “Sooraj” I suggested, and when she shook her head “Surya Prakash” I said and then, not giving up I offered “Ravi” another synonym of the sun. She shook her head vigorously indicating that I was on the wrong track. “Chander Prakash” I said doubtfully and she nodded excitedly, “ Haanji, Chand Prakash, Chand Prakash” and then realising that she had taken her husband’s name not once but twice, hid her reddened face in her dupatta.

D4D75F55-8D41-402C-A7FF-C97894456B17Women of this region have come a long way from those ‘not-taking-the-husband’s- name’ days. Thirty years ago they dressed in drab salwar kameez with a dupatta draped over their head. The older lot still dress traditionally but now the palette is more vibrant, the cuts more form flattering and the headgear occasionally missing. The young have moved on to jeans, kurtis and other indo-western mishmash. It is not just the attire but the attitude that has changed. Women appear more confident, more assertive of their role in the scheme of things.

Back then thumb impressions were the norm. Few women could write their names, fewer still could read their own signatures, a shaky scrawl they had learnt in Praurh Shikhsha Kendras. A fallout of the state’s shortsighted shortcut to literacy, teaching them to ‘ write ’ their names without knowing the alphabets. Now-a-days many sign in cursive English, the ultimate proof of an education. The ink pad is seldom needed, that too, mostly for migrant labour.

In those days a twenty year old girl could, by default be assumed ‘happily’ married. Divorced, separated or remarried women were virtually unheard of. Now, it is common to come across single girls in their late twenties studying, working, building a career, marriage on the horizon but not the goal. Girls with dreams in their eyes and determination in their manner. Girls with a mind of their own. Girls not willing to settle for less.

House work stays unappreciated as does everything else women do around the house. As medical students we did a project on working hours of rural women and discovered that the average village women worked fourteen hours a day cooking and cleaning, fetching water and fodder, tending to children, elders and livestock. In the three decades of my practice I am still irked when her occupation is described as “Kuchh nahin karti” ( does nothing). My irritation grows further when the women seemingly agree. Society needs to recognise women’s role as nurturers, care givers and homemakers but that can only happen when women stop undervaluing themselves.

Home deliveries have slowly phased out. Institutional deliveries are almost universal. Two children are the norm. Some even stop at one,…… if it is a son! Stopping at two daughters is still a rarity. Most will keep trying till they have at least one ankh ka tara. It is a consolation that the need for binocular vision is no longer felt so acutely. Back then the common explanation for the need of a second son was, ‘Ek ankh ka dekhna bhi ke dekhna.’ Daughters didn’t count then, they don’t count now. Not as heirs, legal descendants or carriers of the family name anyway.

It is not uncommon to come across new brides who are obvious imports from other states. Some don’t know the language, some have unfamiliar features. Although cultural and ethnic mixing should be viewed as a good sign for any society their sight fills me with dread and despair. They are a grim reminder of the falling gender ratio in our home state. It is because we have killed our own daughters that we cannot find daughters- in- law. The need to bring brides from far off lands, Himachal, Uttar Pradesh and even West Bengal should set off alarms of the impending doom that is upon us.

On the bright side, sometimes, just sometimes, I come across a patient who confidently, assertively agrees to an investigation without looking inquiringly at her husband. When I started practice even a twenty rupee haemoglobin test had to be sanctioned by a male member of the family. I take this as an indication of their participation in economic decisions. A sign that things are slowly but surely changing. Undoubtedly, the road to redemption is never a linear one. It is more like a dance, one step forward, two step backwards. It is reassuring then, that more and more women are dancing to their own tunes. Patriarchy, khap panchayats, violence, unsafe environs continue to mar women’s potential. Still, men walking ahead, transistor in hand with wife following, baby in one arm, bag in the other and a trunk on the head is a scene of the past. Transistors have been replaced by smart phones, women have become smarter and men, at least the smart ones have noticed!

( Published in the Tribune as part of my column ‘So Ordinary ‘)