Spice Route

Spice Route

The egg came first, ending my eternal causality dilemma. A delicious cocktail of tender coconut and mango, served as a welcome drink in a mock egg shell. By the time the eighth course arrived, half of a minuscule bajra roti stuffed with caramelised onions and a dot of herbed butter, a tiny sprig stuck on top, I had realised the obvious. We would have to stop for dinner at some dhaba on our way home. This did not deter us, though, from admiring the burst of flavour in each tiny bite as it was presented on thoughtfully chosen platters. The waitress patiently explained how to eat each dish because the crockery was not china as we know it. Rasam was in a boat shaped tube with a small bada balanced on one end. The glass dispenser, perfectly designed to simultaneously deliver the rasam, vada and chutney in the mouth ! Herb oil dressing in a tiny dropper, lotus stem on a bed of radish dressing set on stone. I had never seen or savoured anything like this before. We were at a much hyped fancy restaurant having a long awaited 18 course meal. It had taken us two weeks to get a reservation.

As we were meticulously served course after course we started enjoying the indulgence. Mushroom soup served as chai where dried mushrooms were made to look like tea leaves, special treatment to truffle oil made it resemble powdered sugar and the mushroom broth was poured out of a kettle. That is attention to detail! We sampled varied regional cuisine and some international dishes, all with the chef’s signature twist. By the end of the main course we were pretty stuffed…..and we are big eaters! We sampled the five deserts nonetheless, which included miniature droplets of jalebi masqueraded as caviar, magical dark chocolate truffle suspended midair and the grand finale -candied oranges on a tree.

Priced at 3K per mouth ( after paying patronage to the farmer, feeding Gau Mata, and cleaning Ganga Mayiya !) it was a bit steep but worth every penny. We came away not just with a full belly but with some food for thought. Years of gorging on paneer tikkas and vegetable Manchurian had made us forget that hors d’oeuvre are meant to whet one’s appetite not fill the tummy! Here are the other lessons we learnt. Passion can transform a dish into a canvas, a dining table to an art gallery. Food tastes better when the portion size is small. If you eat slowly, time is a great filler!! We discovered a new way of eating. We saw, smelt, sampled, savoured and were surprisingly sated. Perfect for the connoisseurs and a good place to start for those who don’t understand food.

While confirming our booking the receptionist had curtly instructed on the dress code. Ladies could wear what they pleased but bare legs and open sandals were not acceptable for men. It was heartening to know that there are places where men, not women, have to follow diktats on attire. For me, that was truly the tiny cherry on the dainty cake!

( carried by the Hindustan Times on 11/5/2017)

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I…..me…..myself !!

I…..me…..myself !!

For want of a better word we called it a selfie danda, the name my son-in -law gave it when he presented one to me two years ago. It is a 4 ft telescopic rod on which you can mount your mobile and take a selfie by clicking a conveniently located button. If 2014 was the year of the selfie with everyone from the Pope to POTUS to our own newly elected PM joining the fray, then 2015 definitely belonged to the selfie danda.

Although technology and technique has evolved since, the problem with the selfie remains two fold. First, because the camera is literally in your face, your features get distorted and you end up looking crosseyed. Second, there is no way to include the scenery in the background and the resulting picture is just full of you. Here’s where the selfie danda, now officially called the selfie stick, comes to the rescue. It increases the distance between you and the lens hence gives your picture the necessary depth and perspective. “Perfect !!” He had said but I hadn’t agreed, simply because I was scared it marked the end of an era.

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I don’t mean to gloat but two years later I have been proved right. Do you remember how it was perfectly okay to stop a stranger and ask him to take your photograph. This is slowly becoming a thing of the past. As technology is helping people become more self sufficient social interaction is suffering. I noticed this while using public transport recently. Everyone seemed to be in their own world, chatting on the mobile, listening to music, playing games or filing reports, each one in his own bubble. A far cry from our childhood days when in train compartments, life histories and meals were shared with total strangers. By the end of the journey a common link in the form of a distant uncle or cousin would inevitably emerge.

We are witnessing a transition of attitudes with youngsters preferring to rely on their smartphones rather than asking a passerby for information, something, which would make them appear less tech-savvy. And I strongly suspect that just as my children cannot believe that complete strangers could walk into our home to watch the Sunday movie, their children will not believe that you could stop random people on the road to ask directions or take pictures.

As a matter of fact I feel that my grandchildren ( if there are ever any! ) may not believe that watching television was once a social medium characterised by a family sitting in front of the living room screen. The concept is rapidly being replaced by solitary viewers watching programs on smaller, more personal devices such as tablets and smartphones using ‘noise’ cancellation earphones.

The world is shrinking and so is our comfort zone. We zealously guard our personal space and right to privacy. It is making us more and more intolerant and wary of intrusion. Sometimes I miss watching TV with the entire clan, sush-ing each other, straining our ears to catch the dialogue over the din. Being overly self reliant, with no need for give and take, destroys the basis on which a society functions. Too much of anything isn’t good !

( carried as ‘Spice of Life’ in HT on 27/2/2017)

Time Machine

Time Machine

img_2987“Hmm, so not even the children?” my maid asked, not caring to hide her disdain. “No, just us siblings; our parents will accompany us, though.” I replied without a shred of guilt.

I had been through this drill so many times, had been judged by so many people, that I didn’t care anymore. After all it was just a holiday, a 15-day break. It was a family vacation that we had been planning for a long time, and now that we were about to embark on this journey, we were letting the news out, slowly, and on a need-to-know basis. The problem was that the family was not a family anymore, not by legal definition anyway, and we were quickly realising, the trip didn’t have social sanction.

It was a very generous rakhi gift from my brother. A 15-day break from the present to dwell in the past. A vacation with the family I was born into. After four and a half decades we wanted to abandon (temporarily!) our spouses and offspring and travel back in time, to revisit our childhood. We felt that not having ‘the others’ around was necessary for the sanctity of the experience.

Surprisingly the children, themselves young adults, took the news pretty well. In fact they encouraged us to make the most of this ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. and hoped to replicate it themselves in future. Our spouses were understandably less enthusiastic but agreed, albeit grudgingly. It was the rest of ‘our world’ who couldn’t see the need or relevance of such a trip.

We took the holiday nevertheless. Spent a week bonding in London before retracing our steps all the way to Canada. As I walked from one memory to the next, the line ‘there had been no years….’ from E.B White’s nostalgic gem, Once More to the Lake, kept playing in my mind. Just as he has described, the memories came rushing back, ones that I didn’t know existed. The scent of the wooden floor, the pattern of the wall tiles, the feel of the door knob, the green counter top in the kitchen, all triggered events of an era gone by.

Wandering through the past, I wondered about the future. What would my own children remember most about their home 40 years hence. With my son ready to take wing and daughter having a nest of her own I wish I had built more memories. I wish I had taken out the yellow picnic table more often and not complained about the pools of water they brought in after getting drenched in the rain.

I wish I had allowed messier marks on the growth chart, kept a pet earlier and adopted another one when it got lost. I wish I had snuggled with them instead of pulling them out of bed on Sunday mornings and had let the ‘inconsequential’ conversations flow beyond bed-time. I wish I had made ice lollies while they still cared and hadn’t forced aloo methi down their throats.

As they prepare to take flight I hope they remember the fragrance of flowers at the front door, the smoke rising from the barbecue and the warm sun on our backs on wintry afternoons. Sadly, we never spent much time on the terrace swing or got around to watch a storm from the gazebo in the garden. But I hope they’ll cherish memories of our bed, where hoisted on pillows we played cards amid accusations and counter-accusations of cheating. It is the place in the house where we have shared the most laughter per square inch.

I wish they forget the fights and the bickering, the sulks and the silences, and remember only the good times. As I despair at the time lost, time which could have been put to better use, my only consolation is that their most lasting memories will be the ones I can neither predict nor control. They will surface at the most unexpected moment. I can just hope that they will be happy ones.

( carried by the Hindu on 10/1/17 as ‘ A break and some thoughts ‘)

Born Free

Born Free

The father of our nation recognised the power of violating laws and used it to fight foreign domination. Almost a century later, more than a billion of us, most of whom were born free, are trudging the same path not realising that the Britishers have left and by not obeying the laws of the land we only harm ourselves.
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Lets admit it, we are a nation of law breakers. We break them constantly and with impunity. We skip traffic lights and ignore speed limits, we overload goods and overcrowd passengers. Seat belts and helmets cramp our style. We drive as we please, stop when we want and turn when we have to and we pay heavily for this……sometimes with our lives

We ignore guidelines and evade taxes, we cheat on duties and surcharges, we undervalue and oversell, we sweet talk our way through pollution control, barge through check posts and trick our way through speed traps. We hate to be frisked and searched, questioned and probed……and we pay heavily for this……sometimes with our lives

We ace exams without appearing, procure false degrees and documents, we get life insurance without health checks and licenses without driving tests……..and we pay heavily for this…….. sometimes with our lives.

We drop names and flaunt connections,”Jaanta nahin mein kaun hoon ?” is a phrase we use shamelessly for petty gains. We bribe and berate, bully and beseech to get our way. We jump queues and skip procedure, we litter, spit and urinate, deface and defecate.. ….and we pay heavily for this….not with our lives….but we do pay.

It may appear that we have drifted towards lawlessness, but actually we have merely exposed our true self. Independence has given us the freedom to do as we please, and so we have dropped the garbs of civility and stand naked for all to see. Sociologists and historians blame it on centuries of repression. Most Indians lead lives of quiet desperation and walk around like tightly wound springs ready to unravel.

Our best behaviour is reserved for our foreign jaunts. On alien soil we patiently drive in lanes, follow procedure, clean up after ourselves and queue up for everything. Stripped of the clout we carry in our own land and scared of the consequences of unruly behaviour, we become law abiding citizens. Even in our own country, the discipline and humility with which disciples conduct themselves in sacred spaces shows that we are capable of discipline.

The problem is we lack character which is a result of consciousness. We have yet to learn the essence of virtuous living which is an end unto itself and is followed because it feels right, not out of fear or greed. Till then this waywardness has to be tamed by society and law. Sadly, the politician, police, paisa nexus helps the high and mighty escape unscathed, reducing the judiciary to a mockery.

We are not bad people, we are just misguided. We see the privileges enjoyed by our leaders and want to join in. We love to appear well connected and do what others can’t. Such is our misplaced notion of ‘ respect’ that if a person breaks a rule for us we feel honoured. To change this mindset we need true leaders. Consider this, a Minister submitting himself for a frisk, a pilot car stopping at a toll booth to pay for the chief minister’s motorcade, a party ‘heavy weight’ patiently waiting in line. Imagine the effect on the public psyche when they see that no one is above the law.

Lastly, a great nation can not be built without citizens of sound character and the training has to start at home. In a country which gave the world the philosophy of ‘ Nishkam Karma’ we teach our children to focus on the end no matter what be the means. As we dutifully shuttle our children from one coaching class to the next there is no time for character building. It is not surprising that these children become adults who have little sense of right and wrong.

Gandhi ji had advised us to be the change we wanted to see. So, finally, the onus is on us. Bapuji never doubted the ‘power of a small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission to alter the course of history’ and as his children neither should we.

( carried in the Hindustan Times on 25/11/2016)

Shades of Grey

Shades of Grey

A recent road trip from my father’s native village in Sagar M.P to my mother’s birthplace Banda U.P. was a bitter sweet experience. I was returning to this sedate region of Bundelkhand after two decades and was greeted by an almost perfect road amid dense teak forests and pristine valleys. Carelessly strewn plastic bags, a sign of modern existence were noticeably absent. I was soaking in the progress, the lush green fields judiciously irrigated by sprinklers when a gust of dust ruined it. As we approached the town of Kabrai we were surrounded by a haze. The decreased visibility was a blessing because what we could see was not a pretty sight. The trees were grey, the land covered with an inch deep layer of dust which rose with each passing vehicle. It was everywhere, on people, their homes, on the food they eat and in the air they breathe.

Stone mining started quite innocuously in this small town of district Mahoba U.P with two stone crusher companies in 1979. The operations grew with government support and now it has become a place for both legal and illegal stone mining. Despite being a socioeconomically important sector, these stone industries reflect blind ambition and have become a curse for local residents. Injudicious quarrying leads to ecological imbalance by way of stone dust emissions that adversely affect the ambient air quality, deplete mountains of the region and render farming lands barren. Continuous mining operations in the form of drilling, blasting, loading, and hauling are all sources of dust emission. When the stone is crushed, a substantial percentage of the dust emissions are carried to the surroundings by wind currents and vehicular movement.

The circulating dust is a source of environmental and health problems which subsequent governments have ignored. The last survey by UP Pollution Control Board was done in 2002. when the particulate matter was said to be 1800 micrograms per cubic metre, much above the permissible limit of 200 micrograms. Mining has increased over the years which suggests that the pollution has worsened. These minute respirable particles of silica lead to silicosis which damages the lungs and causes respiratory problems. Silicosis with tuberculosis or silico-tuberculosis is a leading cause of death in the region. Poverty which is the root cause of malnutrition and biomass burning further predisposes the locals.

Back home, smog has made its appearance and will worsen as the temperature falls. The post Diwali sickening gloom, which engulfed us is still a fresh memory. Broadly speaking air is more toxic in winter because it contains a larger contribution of combustion products. This along with smoke from burning farm residue, fireworks for Diwali, dust from construction sites and vehicle emissions had pushed up levels of tiny suspended particulate matter PM 2.5 and PM 10. Air quality index studies showed that they were hovering over 500 micrograms five times above their safe limit, enough to clog lungs and worsen heart ailments. Widespread rains can help clear this mess but we have to be think twice before praying for rain because when it rains, it pours. The civic authorities may blame it on unprecedented rainfall but the fact stays that there is not a single city in the country which doesn’t come to a grinding halt after a downpour.

The Centre for Science and Environment has reiterated that the recent spell of smog in Delhi was the worst in 17 years. It is a fact that air pollution has steadily increased over decades and stays above safe limits even in the summer months. Still, the contribution of Diwali fireworks in tipping the balance cannot be discounted. This opportunity will be lost if we don’t learn from it and say an emphatic and resounding no to crackers. Why am I harping about this now when the damage has already been done. For the simple reason that Diwali will come again next year and a pledge made while the memory of stinging eyes is still fresh, is more meaningful and easy to remember. Although I agree that saying no to crackers is not enough, it is still a good place to start.

In the evening the nip in the air is missing. It is still pretty warm for this time of the year, a reminder of global warming and melting icecaps. Cases of Dengue and Chikungunya have decreased only to return in greater number next year. This is another fallout of rapid, unplanned urbanisations with inadequate civic amenities. A look at these new debilitating diseases and the sea of suffering humanity makes one wonder about the relevance of the ‘development’ we keep chasing. The gloomy sky, moth eaten mountains, dust covered landscape, inundated land, unusually warm winter and ever evolving diseases are sad reminders of the damage we are doing to our planet.

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Almost famous

Almost famous

While clearing out my daughter’s cupboard drawers I came across some newspaper cuttings which took me back in time. It was the year Kalpana Chawla died. My daughter was in Class 11, in the school the astronaut had studied in. During her meteoric rise, KC never missed an opportunity to give back to her alma mater. As a goodwill gesture she had arranged for two students from the school to participate in the annual summer camp organised by the International Space School Foundation in Houston. Students from 20 countries participated in it and officials of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hosted them in their homes. During the camp the participants got a chance to interact with astronauts and were treated to a conducted tour of the NASA facility.

Traditionally, students who got selected received a passing mention in the local newspapers. But that year was different. Kalpana Chawla’s death on the Columbia Space Shuttle had made her and NASA a household name. A few months later my daughter and her friend got selected for the Summer Space Camp. The stage was set and the audience primed. The drama that followed was sheer madness and explains why we get the news we deserve.

It started quite innocuously. A local newspaper carried the report of the girl’s selection to NASA, forgetting the detail that it was a summer camp for high school children. It would be a lie to say I did not puff up with pride when I heard that my daughter’s picture was in the papers. The news was picked up by a few more local papers, and by the next morning the story had become bigger. We excitedly bought all those newspapers and read about our daughter’s ‘lofty’ achievements. As more dailies joined in, the story became more incredible. Now my daughter was not only going to NASA but being trained to be an astronaut Kalpana di ke adhure sapne poore karne ke liye (to fulfill Kalpana di’s unfinished dreams). A few days later we learnt that she was going to the moon, no less. Whereas earlier we had been thrilled by the media attention, it was now becoming an embarrassment.

The electronic media joined the fray and the two teenagers were interviewed by various news channels. My daughter had been nervous during her first interview but gradually got used to the attention and handled questions like a pro. As the date of her departure approached she made it to some of the national dailies. Their news report was more matter of fact and not as effusive in praise, but the fact that it was on the front page was news enough! Proof that they too had joined the band that was playing to the gallery!

The hysteria continued. On the day of their departure we were told that our house was thronging with well-wishers and the telephone was ringing incessantly. This was far from the truth. People in our social circle knew it was just a summer camp so weren’t exactly ‘giddy with happiness’. After they left for Houston the hoopla subsided but as the return date approached a reporter asked me what we were planning for beti ji’s aavahan (daughter’s welcome). I noted the ‘ji’ with some concern and sheepishly told him we weren’t planning to go to the airport. He was astonished. How could we not welcome our celebrity daughter back? He told me some news channels were planning to interview her in the arrival lounge itself. This revelation caused a moral dilemma and once again reason lost. Worried that we would come across as uncaring parents we rushed to receive her. We were playing to the gallery too! Amid flashing cameras we hugged beti ji, provided the necessary sound bytes and brought her home. My husband wondered if we should throw a party in her honour — a suggestion I refused to consider.

The show was far from over. The ‘nation wanted to know’ about her training. One newspaper earnestly reported that the focus at the camp had been on practical skills and now the girls could go to Mars in a NASA space shuttle. To be fair, the statement was not totally baseless. That year the students’ project was titled ‘Mission to Mars’. But any sane person would know it was but make-believe. Sixteen-year-olds cannot become astronauts in a fortnight! While this report could be attributed to poor research, some others were propagated because they suited the mythical character that had been created. For instance, they wrote that my daughter aspired to become an aeronautical engineer when she had insisted she wanted to be a designer. Similarly they had reported that she danced on a ‘patriotic’ song at a cultural event just because it sounded good.

Like any such news story this one too died a natural death. For years since we would nostalgically recall our brush with fame. Dancing to a ‘patriotic song’ became our code for stretching the truth. I started reading reports of ‘rejoicing relatives’ and ‘ringing phones’ with a pinch of salt. Occasionally some patient of mine would ask if my daughter had returned from the moon, reminding me of the power of the media.

I now phoned my daughter and asked her if she wanted the newspaper cuttings. A happily married jewellery designer, she refused and, chuckling loudly, added that though she had trained for an expedition to Mars she would rather stay on earth.

( carried in the open space of The Hindu on 22/11/2016)img_3419 img_3421 img_3423

Maya

Maya

img_2674I was online when the news of the demonetisation trickled in. Too engrossed in the final moments of the Trump Hillary showdown, I wondered why the Prime Minister was talking about currency that had been phased out long ago. And then it slowly sinked in. He was referring to the money lying in my wallet. As he ominously declared that the notes would lose legal tender I thought of the million Cinderellas whose riches would turn into rags at the stroke of midnight.

I sat marvelling at the act, its intention, its execution and far reaching implications. Chutzpah was the word which kept resonating in my mind, brazen boldness. I watched news bulletins and listened as analysts fumbled on the issue. The newscasters had prepared for the American Presidential Elections. Trump leading the fray was a surprise, this was a shock and completely out of syllabus.

While I was looking for answers there was a scramble for damage control all around. People rushed to their trusted jewellers to invest in the yellow metal. Their trust was somewhat betrayed as gold prices climbed higher with each foot fall. Those who could think out of the box explored other avenues. Swanky automobiles, expensive gadgets, luxury holidays all were bought in the few hours before money lost its power.

A friend was waiting to pay for a T shirt he had bought in a mall. The woman ahead was getting gift cards made. As she fished out money from various pockets of her big designer purse and got dozens of cards made my friend became restless and left without making his purchase. It was only when he was on his way home that her ingenuity hit him. She had effectively turned lacs of rupees into legit money in the form of gift cards which could be used later.

To ensure that travellers do not get stuck the government announced that train and air tickets could be bought with old currency. Suddenly the sale of first class AC train tickets went up. People bought whatever tickets were available with a plan to get them refunded. It took a while for the government to realise and close the route. Similarly people bought large supply of medicines because the government had compassionately allowed old notes in chemist shops. A man bought diapers worth thirty thousand rupees to put his tainted money to use. Now he has to produce enough babies to taint the diapers!

For most of us fuel efficiency is the most important feature of an automobile. ‘Average kitna deti hai?’ is the first question any true blue blooded Indian will ask. Now people have stopped cribbing about their petrol guzzling cars. Since the government has allowed old currency to be used in petrol pumps an empty tank comes as a relief, a chance to put old cash to use before relieving it.

To say that the move took out the extravaganza from the fat Indian marriage is an understatement. This segment is worst hit as all the money which turns a wedding into a spectacle is paid in cash. I came across a bridegroom who looked rather grumpy with his garland made of thousand rupee notes. It didn’t help that his friends were making jokes about his ‘junk’ jewellery. As the baraat made its way to the bride’s home with the usual singing, dancing and showering of currency notes, I noticed there were more people scrambling for hundred rupee notes than the higher denominator ones. After a while the shower of small notes stopped. Perhaps the dispenser realised that he would need money for breakfast.

After a restless night a lady in the neighbourhood woke up early and visited the temple. She was not seeking solace in God as one would think. She had gone looking for small change but was beaten to it by some other enlightened soul. Only 500/- and 1000/- bills lay at the idol’s feet.

Happily, the last week was not only about milking the cow dry before abandoning it. It was also a time for camaraderie, introspection and realising the importance of the petty hundred rupee bill. A friend recounts how he had gone to buy munchies for his parents and spent two hundred instead of the intended three hundred. At the time he felt that the saved money could be put to better use. Now he feels guilty and wonders whether he was being wise or otherwise, just stingy.

With news of people buying gold at unheard of rates, leaving sackfuls of notes on roadsides and burning money I felt a little alienated , a little morose. A friend suggested I burn a sack of newspapers just to raise a stink. I don’t think that will work. Burnt currency smells different, perhaps, because the heart burns with it.

( published in my column in the Sunday Tribune on 20/11/2016)

Unfair Practices

Unfair Practices

Thirty years ago when I saw it for the first time I was amazed and alarmed in equal measure. I could see the finer details, even the unsavoury ones, as I had a ring side seat to the proceedings. The annual Dussehra Mela is held on a stretch of road just outside our clinic.

Back then I was unnerved by the wares laid out on the ground, narrowing the road to an alley . A sea of humanity thronged it, interspersed with the mandatory stray dogs and holy cows, a stampede in the making. Fresh out of medical school, with the idealism of youth I worried over the questionable additives in the brightly coloured sweet and spicy snacks. People casually swapping pesky flies as they ate off cursorily washed plates reminded me of the deadly epidemics I had read in text books.

All my trained eyes could see in the countless toys were parts small enough for imagechildren to swallow and choke on, with sharp edges which could cut and maim, bows and arrows which might blind, and the bright lead based paints on everything, which would slowly poison the unsuspecting kids when licked or chewed .

I was dismayed by the cheap cosmetics which had not been tested on animals, in fact had not been tested……period. Of suspect composition and packaged in dingy rooms they were being bought by clueless, aspiring beauty queens not knowing that they would do more harm than good. And the most worrisome item were Firecrackers, displayed in the open, they could turn into an inferno with a carelessly thrown bidi stub.

The zealous doctor in me wanted to warn them against hazardous toys and brightly colored food items. I wished they could see the harmful Metanil yellow and malachite green in their Barfi and that the ‘warq’ on it was toxic aluminium. I wanted to teach them the association of flies with gastroenteritis, dysentery and the deadly hepatitis. I felt compelled to educate them about skin allergies and rashes from cheap cosmetics. That the Kajal might contain lead which affects the brain and depresses bone marrow function. Whitening creams may contain mercury which will be absorbed from the skin and is poisonous. Most of the cheap lipstick, apart from causing pigmentation would be ingested and harmful metals like chromium and cadmium would end up in their bodies. Metals which are known carcinogens and will harm the liver and kidneys.

In three decades, things have improved but not greatly so. Firecrackers are off limits and so are stray animals. The Administration is more visible and there is some method to the madness. I have learnt not to worry too much, to keep my concerns to myself and to not play the party pooper.I have noticed that despite newer methods of entertainment, the interest in the village fair has not waned. And now, amid the chaos, I also see the gaiety and the bonhomie. The laughter and the merry making. The bright clothes and the carefree spirit. The energy and the enthusiasm. The sparkle in the eyes as they haggle for bargains. Children happily carrying their purchase in multicoloured polythene bags, the type which were banned long ago. I have learnt to look beyond this plastic which will clog drains and block bovine intestines.

The truth is, despite my misgivings, there has never been a stampede in the fair or an epidemic following it, nor is there a spurt of choking children in its wake. Maybe people are more resistant to infection, maybe the kids are smarter and know that toys are not edible, or, maybe they are blessed and God takes special care of them. For they are simple people and it surprises me how small things bring them joy. The pleasure they, even adults, derive from blowing party horns and trumpets has to be seen to be believed.

Year after year as people walk to the Ramlila ground for ‘Raavan -dahan’ the noise from their cheap toy trumpets hits a crescendo. As the giant effigies burn and collapse to the ground, people start their homeward journey, happy to have done their bit against evil. In a country where most people live on the edge and corruption and violence is rampant, it makes sense to reaffirm faith in honesty, to celebrate what’s good and righteous, to hope that truth will prevail. For hope is all that we have.

(published in the Sunday Tribune ‘ Reading the Pulse’ on 16/10/2016)

Didi’s anthem

Didi’s anthem

I vividly remember the last time I saw her. She was fighting a losing battle with cancer and was confined to a wheelchair. It was the school’s annual day and I was attending as an alumna. At the end of the function everyone stood up for the national anthem. She was too weak to rise. But as we reached the second stanza she struggled to an erect stance and stood in attention well after the last strains of ‘jaya he’ died. She passed away peacefully a few days later. This is my favourite image of patriotic fervour. Of my frail school Principal respectfully standing in honour of our national anthem, small beads of perspiration shining on her brow.

Some may wonder how her gesture helped the nation and this is what she would have said, “By respecting the national anthem we honour what it stands for. A small payback gesture for the decades of anguish and struggle our ancestors underwent to realise the dream of an Indian Republic and the hardship our soldiers face to protect its sovereignty and integrity.”

And although I respect Didi, as we fondly called her, and her respect for our national anthem, I feel it is perfectly alright if it does not stir someone else in the same way. In a highly globalised world where national identity can be confusing many rational people don’t feel patriotic. The fact remains, though, that we all reap benefits from people who do. For it is hard to believe that a soldier risks his life for the remuneration alone. It is his love for the motherland and sacrifice which makes it possible for us to debate the relevance of nationalism in our living rooms.

Like any educated, free thinking Indian I too have had my doubts about the origin and validity of our national anthem. Whether indeed, Tagore wrote it in honour of King George V and not our country? Whether Bankim Chandra’s Vandematram with it’s lyrics eulogising the motherland would have been a better choice? Whether we should force others to sing it? Whether it should be a compulsory part of the school assembly? And lastly whether knowing it should be a measure of loyalty towards the country ?

From the time it was chosen our anthem has been shrouded in controversy. Its language, which is the ‘regional’ Bengali has been a contentious issue. There have been repeated calls to replace the word Sindh, which is now in Pakistan, with Kashmir, Andhra, Kamrup or Madhya and Adhinayak, which some believe refers to King George V with Mangal. Recently, a legal battle was fought in Kerala where students of the Jehovah’s Witness sect were expelled from school for refusing to sing it. This decision was upheld by the high court, but reversed by the Supreme Court. A judgment which did not go down too well with many. National anthems deliberately aim to co-opt the emotive powers of music towards nationalistic ends. So it is understandable, but not acceptable when emotions are riled by such issues.

Other nations have faced worse problems. Our neighbours did not have an anthem for several years because East and West Pakistan could not decide between Bengali or Urdu as the language. Spain couldn’t agree on lyrics that could satisfy all political elements, so settled for a wordless Royal March. South Africa’s anthem is a mishmash of Xhosa, Zulu and Sesotho languages, then reverts to the old anthem of the apartheid state before ending with an English verse!

Perhaps it is the intuition of our forefathers or the melody of Tagore’s lyrics that as we march into the seventieth year of independence our diverse and fractured country can still, almost all and in unison sing the praise of the charioteer of our destiny. Hopefully, the rest will join in once they understand what Vimla Raheja Didi tried to teach, to forget our differences and salute what the song represents. Jaya he to that.

( published in the Hindustan Times on 20/9/2016)

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Labour Pains

Labour Pains

imageIn the thirty years of my practice, their number has decreased and I used to think that there will come a time when none will be left. Fresh out of medical school, brimming with bookish knowledge, more idealistic than worldly wise, it bothered me no end. But slowly, I got used to it. Back then, it was common for my elderly patients to calculate their age from the riots of partition, as in” Maar kaat ke waqt mein dus saal ki thi.” Being a border state it was expected that it bore the brunt of the violence surrounding our independence. But I still found it disconcerting that it was all they remembered of that time. Probing questions about the jubilation of becoming a free nation, the euphoria of sending the Britishers packing, the celebration and the proverbial distribution of sweets were greeted with stony silence.

And then one day a patient asked me how it mattered, “Raja kaun hai kya farak padta hai, hum toh rank hi rahenge, khet tab jot te the, khet ab jot te hain.” Although he had a point it is still unsettling that for many people in this part of the country 1947, is called ‘maar kaat’ and brought only tragic memories. It is sad that the birth of independent India was overshadowed with labour pains of such magnitude that the baby itself lay ignored.

As I mentioned, the number of people who remember the partition has declined over the years. But recently, quite unexpectedly, a Sikh patient told me that he was about twelve years old at the time of the riots. I looked at him with surprise. He seemed around forty, maybe a well preserved fifty but not a day older than that. And then it dawned on me. He was talking about the riots of 1984, which followed Smt Indira Gandhi’s assassination. A chill ran down my spine as I realised that there will never be a time when such people do not exist. With mob violence becoming a recurring theme of the world, our society will always have people fighting the demons of the past. People who were caught in the crossfire and scarred for life. People whose life is divided into a before and after by a tragic event which was not of their making.

I am not a social scientist but interact with enough people to understand that such incidents have ramifications beyond the individual. This is a social trauma and affects the way we think and function. Even if it is not outwardly evident the hurt lingers on and becomes the victim’s identity. The thread of trust is broken, irreparably, in most cases. Victims feel betrayed and have difficulty in trusting friends and neighbours. What is worse is that this distrust is wittingly or unwittingly passed down to their children. So it is not only detrimental to the social fabric but ruins the mindset of future generations as well.

The repercussions don’t end here. It affects economic growth too. People avoid places associated with unpleasant memories for education or livelihood. The worst fallout is the creation of ghettos. Victims start believing in the safety of numbers and gravitate towards their own kind. In rural Haryana, it is common to have whole villages dominated by one caste. Even in urban India such separation exists with entire colonies inhabited by a particular sect. The segregation of society on the lines of religion and caste is never good. Seeking solace among their own with a thinly disguised resentment towards ‘others’ leads to a situation where the slightest rumour can cause ruin. Birds of the same feather flocking together works only for birds and the bird brained.

These incidents of violence, communal or otherwise, are on the rise. With prejudice and preconceived notions deeply etched in our intellect, distrust and suspicion in our hearts, discontent and resentment brewing in our minds and our blood simmering with contempt, it is not surprising that we boil over at the smallest provocation. We just need an excuse to vent our anger on those whom we perceive as the cause of our misery.

Till the time we fully understand and eradicate this mindset the only solution is to forgive, forget and move on. Resilience, the ability to bounce back is our only saviour. Personal resilience is more common than perceived and almost half of the subjects in a study conducted by George Bonanno had it. It is not a lack of emotion but the ability to function despite the grief, a quality which needs to be bolstered . Such pliancy is aided by the belief that there is a greater purpose to life and that negative experiences lead to learning & personal growth. All major religions teach this and here in lies the irony. Religion, which is often at the root of rioting, if used properly helps heal the trauma it caused! In any case it is reassuring that, even in the worst circumstances a sizeable minority is available to support the traumatised. Social order thus falls on the shoulders of the common man who is able to see the futility of communalism and understands Gandhi’s words, “This lawlessness is a monster with many faces. It hurts all in the end, including those who are primarily responsible for it.”

(Published in the Tribune in my column on 4/9/16)