The Great Gamblers

The Great Gamblers

It’s raining as I write this. Not a gentle pitter-patter but a heavy downpour, with God adding a spectacular light and sound show for good measure. Thirty years ago, the ignorant me would have rejoiced at this. When I started practice in this suburb I had no idea about the delicate balance between rainfall and crops. For me, rain around this time of the year meant a few days of respite from the long, scorching North Indian summer. Once after a wide spread shower I commented on the pleasant, cool weather to a patient and he lamented how his crops had been razed to the ground, completely wiping him out . From then on I learnt to be more careful in venting my opinions and have acquired some basic knowledge on how farming is done in our country.

Agriculture is rain dependant in India. It has to be in the right quantity at the right time. Too little and droughts happen, too much and there are floods. But thats not all, rain at the wrong time can, in the least, effect the quality of grain and sometimes destroy the crop completely. Considering this, I have always been intrigued by the calm resignation with which traditional farmers deal with the situation. The common phrase they use for rainfall is, “ Ram baras gaya.” It is a blessing from above, no matter what, even if it ruins them.

F38DCC20-EE1C-4708-A421-56F058AECFB1Sadly, unpredictable rainfall is not the only adversity farmers face. Besides precipitation which is beyond anyone’s control there are other factors that can be improved if someone cared. Orthodox farming methods, ancient technology, inadequate storage facilities, inaccessible institutional loans, no crop insurance and unfair markets keep the farmers hovering around the poverty line. Because of this most agriculturalists do not want their children to follow their footsteps. Instead they want them to adopt more dependable means of income through white or blue collar jobs. There changing aspirations are reflected in the way children are named. When I started practice Zamidar Singh or Zamidara was a favoured name. Over the years the number of Subedar Singhs, Judge Singhs and Collector Singhs have grown. On the bright side I have come across some enterprising young men who are using modern farming methods and are happy doing what they do, but they are a rarity.

For an agriculture based economy the condition of food growers in our country is shamefully deplorable. Farmer suicides is a recurring theme in the parliament. It is brought up by the opposition to embarrass the government. A drama, just to grab eye balls and little else. And while we may debate, ad nauseam, which state and which ruling party has driven more farmers to take their own life, our concern should be elsewhere. Studies reveal that non-institutional debts are the leading cause of farmer suicides. This indicates that government loans don’t reach the neediest of the needy. More worrisome is the fact that educated farmers, those who are at least matriculate are more likely to take this extreme step as opposed to their illiterate brethren. A grim reminder that education will create awareness about the glaring injustices farmers face and their discontent will grow. Already, the younger generation does not see agriculture as a viable career option. You can sense it in the way youngsters engaged in farming respond to questions about their occupation. The answers range from the outright , “ Eebay toh kuchh nahin karta” ( I don’t do anything right now) to the more subtle “ Nyu hi maarhi moti kheti baadi kar lein” ( I do a little bit of farming) If, to the young farmers of a country, a peon’s job sounds more lucrative then a food grower’s, the country is heading for troubled times.

Baisakhi would have passed by the time this reaches you. It is a rural festival marking the beginning of the solar year and is celebrated with great fervour in the predominantly agricultural states of Haryana and Punjab. For the Sikhs the day also commemorates the founding of the Khalsa Panth by Guru Gobind Singh. More importantly, it celebrates the harvest season. Farmers rejoice and thank the Lord for their good fortune. But with rain and hailstorms damaging Rabi crops and an unreliable safety net, the reasons to rejoice keep diminishing. As always, promises of compensation from the government trickle in but the big question is, will it reach the poor farmers or will it be devoured by the greedy officials entrusted to distribute it.

Despite all this, farmers fight odds, put everything on stake and grow food for us. We get our daily bread because of these great gamblers. The question is, for how long will the hands that feed us ignore the injustice we mete out to them. There is a Haryanvi saying which applies to agriculture in particular and life in general. Khad pade te khet, nah te kooda ret ( Without manure a field is just a pile of dirt and sand). We have to try harder then, to ascertain that our farmlands don’t become wastelands. For that we will have to restore the farmer’s faith in the system and not let them drown in despair. It is a given that their livelihood depends on rains, but we, as a society, should ensure that their life does not depend on it.

( published in my column in the Tribune on 14//2018)

A Son is Born

A Son is Born

It happens so often that I wondered why it irked so much. A pale, undernourished, breathless, fully pregnant women walked in for her first!! antenatal checkup. On being told that it was her fourth child I asked her why she was risking her life producing so many children. The question elicited the usual response. She summarily dismissed her three previous born, “Sab ladkiyan hain ji. Unka kya hai, apne ghar ki ho jayengi” ( All are daughters, they will leave for their marital homes ). A prevalent belief despite the fact that repeated studies have shown that though sons take health decisions for them, daughters are the primary caregivers of elderly parents.

4D87BD66-BEF8-425C-90E3-3BA94817AE75So when there was nothing unusual about it why was I so annoyed. Was it because the patient didn’t know better or was it because her husband had greeted me with a cheerful “Jai Mata di”, a common salutation in this region during the Navratris . In any case I couldn’t decide whom to feel more sorry for. The women who thought she would be redeemed if she produced a son, her hypocritical husband who worships the female form on a pedestal but not off it, the three daughters who don’t even count or the unborn whose life is ruined either way.

If it’s a girl she will join her sisters in a lifetime of despondency and bias, that is, if she survives the initial neglect of miffed parents. Surprisingly, things will be no better for a boy. The coveted son, the bearer of their name, the carrier of their protoplasm, the protector of their honour, the provider for their old age and the igniter of their funeral pyre. He, who will grant them a life worth living and a death worth dying for. He, who will rescue them from the cycle of rebirths and help them attain salvation. With so much pinned on him, he is doomed too.

But ‘Great Expectations’ are only part of the problem. A child that is seen as a saviour, a messiah , will be treated as one too. Fawned over by grandparents, waited on hand and foot by parents and indulged, perhaps grudgingly by siblings. The entire clan, grateful for his birth, catering to his every whim and wish. Is it surprising that he grows up with a sense of privilege and entitlement? That he thinks of himself as a blessing to his family, to mankind itself. A boy who grows up getting preferential treatment over his sisters is bound to think he is superior to them. It is only natural then, that after being spoilt rotten when he is unleashed on society he will join the force of misguided, misogynist men who undervalue women.

Driven by putra moh we needlessly pamper our sons turning them into male chauvinistic bigots who berate women. This attitude has far reaching consequences. We can cry ourselves hoarse chanting Beti bachao, beti padhao, but little will change. In Haryana, the female literacy rate has risen to 65% over the last twenty years, but the sex ratio continues to be abysmally low. Although education increases their potential, daughters need to be empowered socially and economically to fight the deeply resistant malady of son preference. Vlassoff, who has authored Gender Equality and Inequality in Rural India, Blessed with a Son has observed that to produce a son, women were willing to have upto three daughters, two of them unwanted. He further says that social and economic empowerment have a greater bearing on the number of daughters a woman is prepared to have in the hope of having a son than economic development which is quantified by the assets a family owns.

Social empowerment is an outcome of education, freedom to travel and make decisions. Economic empowerment is symbolised by a woman’s employment status. These two can not be achieved unless gender perception changes and women get an opportunity to grow. To create a society conducive to this we have to rethink the way we bring up our children. Pick up any school textbook and it is filled with misogynist filth. It could be seemingly innocuous things like showing girls with rolling pins and boys with stethoscopes which send subtle messages of gender roles, or asserting that ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘girls are weak’. We need to stop bombarding the pliable minds of children with this redundant patriarchy. Gender sensitisation has to start in our homes and schools. Only when we catch them young and make them grow will we have a generation of truly progressive youth.
The other day a man brought his sullen face ‘prodigal’ son for an ultrasound examination. When I asked his name the man laughed and said ‘ Sawa Lakh’ ( 1.25 lacs). “What type of name is that?” I wondered out aloud and the man chuckled happily. “Teen betiyon pe haath laga sai, mhare mein aise ko sawa lakh bola karein.” ( He was born after three daughters. We call such sons 1.25 lacs). I controlled my irritation, something which I rarely do. As I was finishing the scan, in some context, the father lamented, “Doctor sahib tham hi samjha do isko. Ke karein?Jo hum kuchh bolein toh mhare ko kataan bhage .” ( Doctor please explain it to him yourself. If we try to teach him anything he runs to bite us. What can we do?). Barely hiding my sarcasm, I retorted, “You can begin by not calling him Sawa lakh.” Giving extra credit for an extra appendage has its pitfalls!

( published as a part of my column ‘ So Ordinary ‘ in the Tribune on 31/3/2018)

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Haryanvi by Nature

Haryanvi by Nature

Sunday mornings will never be the same again. I will sorely miss the potent, invigorating caffeine that was served in my newspaper. And although I don’t follow politics I loved Kaffeeklatsch for the way it was presented. The free flowing style, effortlessly moving from one topic to the next, reminiscent of the great Sardar but without the malice. I had a habit of reading the ending first, thus getting myself invited for coffee and then savouring the rest of the column, enjoying the brew. There was another reason for this ‘reading in reverse’ ritual. I could hardly wait to see how the next coffee invitation was phrased. As the nitpicking me watched, for almost three years, week after week, he did it graciously, with elan and style, without ever sounding repetitive. I never had a chance to meet Dr Harish Khare but I felt I knew him through his writings. Despite the fact that he was an outsider he always came across as one of our own, Haryanvi by nature….fearless, forceful, forthright and funny.

1C5AB02E-C834-48BA-857B-139CB6F4BA50But this is not the only reason why he will be missed at the Tribune. He was known to encourage new talent and give a chance to unheard voices. I know this because I am one of them. He was new to Tribune and I was new to the print world. Six months after my first ever published piece and with a measly eight articles to my credit I had had the nerve to ask him for a column. Instead of dismissing me, a green horn with no credentials, he granted my wish. I wrote ‘Reading the Pulse’ for a year after which I was offered space in the Haryana edition. I am sure many others will have similar stories of his magnanimity and kindness.

His absence will however be felt for many more reasons. The newspaper blossomed under his leadership. Apart from a more robust voice, it became more youthful, vibrant and urbane. He brought ‘The Hindu’ brand of impeccable English with him thus improving its language. He wrote Statecraft with passion, precision, persuasiveness and scathing wit. But most of all he will be remembered for the way he conducted himself in face of adversity. His words “……responsible journalism never felt as joyful as it does this afternoon ” at an event in Delhi will continue to inspire journalists around the country.

It is a given that an organisation is above an individual. Nonetheless his exit from Tribune hurts and there will be many who feel likewise. In this ‘ less than joyful’ afternoon I leave you with three quotes to ponder upon, none of them my own. All three have acquired greater meaning in the present milieu.

The first is a strategy for subjugation, Adolf Hitler said ” The best way to take control of a people and to control them utterly is to take away a little of their freedom at a time, to erode rights by a thousand tiny and almost imperceptible reductions. In this way the people will not see those rights and freedoms being removed until past the point at which these changes cannot be reversed. ”

The second defends dissent , Voltaire said, “I may not agree with what you say, but to your death I will protect your right to say it.”

And the third teaches survival skills,” Jat kahe jaatni ne, jo gaam mein sukhi raina, keedi kha gayee haathi ne, ji haan ji haan kehna.” ( A Jat tells his wife that to live happily in the village, she should agree to everything, even when someone says an ant has eaten an elephant )

The first two are from a bygone era and alien land but the ‘Tau-ism’ has its origin closer home and in these troubled times, will strike a chord with many.
We are blessed then, that for some, mere survival is not enough……

( I was honoured to read out my tribute to the man himself at the Chandīgarh Press Club)

The Tattler

The Tattler

Congratulations are in order. Users can do the un- doable or should I say undo the doable. The long awaited ‘ delete’ option is now available on What’s App. If you have ever sent a message to the wrong person or have mis-phrased a message in a moment of passion and then repented, you too must have prayed for this recourse to revoke. The sad news is that this facility comes with a caveat. You can’t delete a message without leaving a telltale mark. Like a badly erased error it leaves a readable residue ‘ this message was deleted’. A grim reminder to the others that something ‘ delete worthy’ had been conceived and written. I would have ignored this small fallout had I not noticed a long history of snoopy behaviour. The fact is, that in comparison to others, What’s App seems to enjoy being a scandalmonger. So while you can discretely unfriend someone or quietly leave a group on Facebook there is no such freedom here. Exits and expulsions are gleefully announced to all.

8A9867CA-8863-42F5-B4E1-81DCCBBF0B5BBut let me digress from my laments and start where it all started. Like many of my generation I have reluctantly warmed up to the world of electronic messaging. When I was new, a friend suggested I use nonstandard abbreviations and emoticons to sound young and hip. I tried but couldn’t tolerate the look of a misspelt word and worried that a grinning face would not be able to communicate my joy. So like an old hag I continue to type whole words. I have succumbed to its power though, and have surrendered all my free time to it.

While the software was evolving I observed that not all changes could be called improvements. As if the ‘ last seen…..’ option was not intrusive enough, the twin blue check marks that followed helped compound people’s obsessive streak. These tiny ticks set the clock ticking by telling users whether the message has been read at the other end. Casual chitchat is thus turned into legal notice. The ‘ …..is typing’ information is equally annoying. It fills one with anticipation, specially when it goes on and on. It seems that the responder is trapped in verbosity but when the message reaches, sometimes, it’s just a ‘sure’ or worse a ‘thumbs up’ emoticon. Makes one think, since it couldn’t have taken that long to type four letters, so the message either got lost in transit or was deliberately deleted. The contribution of a slow internet connection notwithstanding, the ‘unsaid’ is bothersome.

Initially being part of a group was hassle free. You just had to turn the notifications off. You were then, free to read, if and when you wanted and respond if you felt like. Those days of careless abandon ended soon enough. In its endeavour to better the application they made it possible to get information about which members have received a post and who have seen it. So by a simple tap people know if you are ignoring them. The only way to escape is not to log in but the suspense of an unread message could kill you, or at least harm you gravely.

Are you on it, when were you last on it, did you receive the message, did you read the message, have you started replying, are you deliberating or being forthright and finally, did you delete a comment after an unguarded outburst? All moves are watched and dutifully reported. It is no longer a leisure activity, something which you can do when you have nothing else to do. It’s too much pressure for casual time pass. And although I assume that these upgradations must be well intended, you know whats up with What’s App …..it has become too much of a tattler!!

( published in the Hindustan Times on 14/3/2018)

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The Devi Paradox

The Devi Paradox

Last night was spent in forced piety. I was an unwilling participant to the liturgy of a devout neighbour. His hired negotiators beseeched and bargained in the darkness. Their prayers, inspired by raunchy Bollywood numbers blared on a screeching sound system till daybreak. Tossing and turning in my bed, I desperately begged Mata Rani to fulfill his wishes. No, not a case of neighbourly love, just that I can’t afford another sleepless night!

But this column is not about the way we inconvenience fellow humans in an attempt to please God. It is also not about Jaagrans, which are all-night vigils in honour of Hindu goddesses. The issue I am raising, and I believe it is a pertinent one, is how can females be simultaneously worshiped and abused in our culture. We seek the benevolence of various goddesses, Laxmi for wealth, Saraswati for knowledge, Durga for courage. We revere them and go to great lengths to please them but maltreat real women in offices, institutes, fields and homes.

4FF8F3A5-7221-42F0-8D87-D96286F27CCCA possible explanation for this hypocrisy, this false virtue has aptly been called the Devi Paradox. It is a state where particular women are put on a pedestal and respected for their ability to lead where as women in general have much lesser rights than men. The deification of women as goddesses who are feared and worshiped, pure and powerful, gentle and bloodthirsty, emotional and stoic, forgiving and vengeful, and any other stereotype one wishes to project onto the female sex has contributed to the persistence of these contradictory ideas about women. To put it simply, the notion of woman as goddess is a set of popular cultural memes that serve to believe anything about women and justify anyway they are treated and it is prevalent because it suits our patriarchal, male dominated society.

Manusmriti avers “Yatra naryastu pujyante ramante tatra devata” from which it can be inferred that we live in a blessed land because we worship the divine as female. But this is far from the truth. It has, in fact, been observed that the more a culture deifies women, the less rights women actually have in that culture. This deification of women could take many forms, including worshiping them as goddesses and assigning supernatural status referring to some mysterious ephemeral quality. Such beliefs help to perpetuate the notion that women need to be protected at the cost of their own freedom.

The laws of Manusmriti don’t apply because what we practice is not what we preach. Look at how women are perceived in our country by both men and women. India had a woman Prime Minister who was respected for most of her tenure as a strong and determined leader. Yet, half a century later, women are still tortured and killed for witchcraft. More and more women are reaching their potential to take up high level positions in board rooms and research labs but the sex ratio continues to dwindle. Female feticide and infanticide is still practiced to escape perceived difficulties in raising girls in a predominantly male-dominated society.

No amount of legislation or state intervention can uplift the status of women because it is a social problem. No one can help us till we, women, help ourselves. The change has to begin with us. We have to stop blaming society and start looking inwards for solutions. With women’s day fresh in our minds and Basant Navratri on the horizon lets hail our mothers when we say Jai Mata di. Let’s resolve not to consider our daughters as parayadhan and daughters- in -law paraye ghar ki. Lets educate our daughters and make them financially independent before marrying them off and ensure that they get a rightful share of ancestral property. Let’s learn to respect the daughters-in-law identity and not insist that she change her name after marriage. She should not have to shun her maternal home to become a part of her marital home. And most importantly, let’s not raise our sons like a privileged lot. Let’s inculcate gender sensitivity in them and teach them to be fair to the fair sex. Only after looking inwards and onwards should we look outwards and demand support from the state and society. These steps, that seem so ordinary can help us redeem ourselves.

As I brace myself for nine nights of ear piercing Devi Pooja, I look around and wonder why we don’t honour the Devis amongst us. From the grit and brute strength of Sakshi Malik to the poise and beauty of Manushi Chillar, Haryana girls seem to have a lot worth idolising. They are determined to succeed, and they don’t ask for much…. just a chance to live. “Mhari chhoriyan kya chhorron se kam hai?” ( Are our daughters any less than sons?”) boasts the father in Dangal, a biopic on the medal winning Phogat sisters. With our sex ratio hovering at 900 girls for every 1000 boys, sadly but in all honesty, we will have to reply in the affirmative, “Haan, kafi kam!” ( yes, quite less)

( published in my column  in the Haryana Tribune on 10/3/2018)

Tunnel Vision

Tunnel Vision

B83E6E9E-B35F-4C9D-859B-3E87DFCFA5D0It wasn’t a lack of effort. I was trying really hard but still couldn’t see it. A small text box on the top right corner of my screen. I was on the phone with my son and he was helping me fill in a code which would get me a thirty percent ‘first timer’ discount on a purchase. It was my first time, which was precisely why I qualified for the discount. The frustrating part was that it was my first time of online shopping ever, not just on this particular website.

Its not that I haven’t tasted the convenience and the competitive pricing of home shopping. It’s just that I never did it myself. I would send my wish list to my daughter/ son who would do the rest. I, thus reaped the benefits without the bother. With my fifty fifth birthday edging close I had set some targets for myself, cyber shopping being one of them. I was determined to be self reliant, at least for my shopping needs when I went over the hill…..

As my son’s exasperation grew I debated doing what I usually do. Post him a screenshot in which he encircles the deceptive ‘character’ lurking in some corner and sends it back with an eye roll emoticon and some snide comment about my tunnel vision. Before I could make this offer he said that he would order the merchandise and hung up. Like always, I worried that someday I might make him roll his eyes so far back in his sockets that the blacks will disappear altogether.

For a person who has been using a computer for quarter of a century my knowledge of it is painfully inadequate. Mostly because I use it as a typewriter which allows mistakes, a readily available encyclopaedia and a handy video player. After the call ended I decided to look more carefully. How difficult could it be ? So I scanned the 9.7 inch screen pixel by pixel and came upon a ‘support ‘option. Now my training from the days of Wordstar 4.0 have taught me to stay away from help and support offers. Its like getting stuck in the marsh. The more you try to climb out, the deeper you sink into the muck.

Going against all that I had learnt on those sleepy summer afternoons more than two decades back I gingerly pressed the support option and a dialog box appeared. I was asked to type my query as clearly as possible. I half heartedly wrote out my question to no one in particular. I wasn’t expecting a response but Swati appeared almost instantaneously.

She asked which email ID I had used to place the order, flustered, I typed it wrong. Without blowing a fuse she nudged me in the right direction asking me to confirm it and I realised my mistake. That sorted, she tried to help me spot the elusive text box and when I couldn’t, she offered to call. As she courteously ‘madam- ed’ me we discovered that I was on the wrong page. Then she respectfully, patiently, walked me through the process, reassuring me that what had happened wasn’t unusual….a nice way of saying that I wasn’t unusually dumb! Rid of the fear of ridicule I got it right. The process felt easy and intuitive as my son had always claimed. Transaction completed I told Swati how kind and courteous she was vis-à-vis my own progeny. She graciously shrugged it off saying she was just doing her job.

So it all seems perfect. Readily available, round the clock support without derision and sarcasm. A niggling thought has been bothering me though. Will that be one reason less to call my children and hear their voice?

( published in the Open Page of the Hindu on 4/3/2018)

All Things Nice

All Things Nice

At a conference recently I called up my husband for some errand. More used to the somewhat dry and matter of fact “854F91B4-9372-4B40-8BA3-D3C0B8AA7731Haan bolo” ( yes, speak) I was completely taken aback by the bright and sunny “ Hello ji” at the other end. My mind raced as I tried to figure out what had changed in the intervening hours since I had left home. And then I realised that I was using my friend’s phone as mine had a network problem. “ Mein hoon!” ( it’s me!) I said, a little sarcastically, revealing my identity. Without missing a beat and ably hiding his embarrassment he responded, “Haan bolo.

For those who didn’t get the joke, let me elaborate. Like most married couples we think that a secure relationship gives us the freedom to do away with the pleasantries and bare our fangs. We have been together long enough to consider niceties a needless formality, a feeling which is further exemplified by our location. Although I wasn’t born as one, I have become a Haryanvi, gradually, overtime. And like any true blue native I take pride in saying what I mean and meaning what I say. I like to get straight to the matter without mincing words. The small talk, the pleasantries, a prelude to any civilised conversation seems pointless.

Surprisingly, we reserve such behaviour for the overly familiar and the unfamiliar. For various reasons we Indians, particularly North Indians and peculiarly Haryanvis are distrustful of strangers. We don’t look at them, we don’t smile at them and we certainly don’t greet them. To the rest of the world this undue caution forms the basis of what is mistaken as our trademark haughtiness and rudeness.

On my overseas jaunts I have always found their little courtesies artificial. The “how are you doing, have a great day, nice sun today, enjoy the weather, stay safe, have a nice weekend, etc “ seem meaningless coming from complete strangers. I have felt that most of these wishes are mechanical with no feelings involved, some are superficial accompanied with smiles that don’t reach the eyes, only in a few the genuineness comes across.

I started doubting my stance after a recent conversation with a friend. A pedigreed Haryanvi he ‘converted’ when he visited San Diego for a short term fellowship. Initially wary of the niceties floating around, he noticed that these seemingly inconsequential greetings spiked up the entire environment. He started feeling more upbeat and happy. After some days he was uttering these “niceties” too, and emphasises that on many occasions his eyes did light up while delivering them. He has since realised that feeling a feeling is not enough, communication is paramount, whether it is love, gratitude or greetings.

Back from a road trip to Rajasthan where the musical “ Padharo mhare desh” reverberates from every nook and corner and Gujarat where “ Kem chho ?” is not a question but an affirmation I have been thinking. Are we, in our misplaced notion of being forthright and straightforward missing out on social etiquette? Is a fake smile worse than a sullen face? Isn’t a insincere greeting better than no greeting at all? And lastly, can we alter this behaviour which is ingrained in our persona ? Ordinary questions….but worth pondering.

The problem is if you are drilled to not interact with strangers as a kid it is difficult to suddenly change when you attain adulthood. Historians blame our suspicious attitude on the loot and plunder that our ancestors endured as foreign invaders made their way to Delhi. But isn’t it time to let bygones be bygones and ask a perfect stranger “Sab raaji khushi ?” ( All is well, I hope?) It isn’t totally risk free though, for he may respond with a “Ghana angrez se ke?” which is a rhetorical question reprimanding someone for being too anglicised!

( published in the Tribune in my column ‘ So Ordinary’ on 24/2/10)

Gymming Shimming

Gymming Shimming

Gymming karta hai ji” accused the mother of my patient, a young boy with vague pain abdomen. Suppressing a smile I told her that she should be happy that he is active and cares about his health. My words unleashed a deluge of emotion. She wondered why he ran for an hour on the treadmill but used his car for errands in the neighbourhood, why he thought lifting a sack of rice would strain his back but barbells won’t, why he preferred to sweat out in the stuffy gym instead of a refreshing walk to the fields

12740054-6808-4EE1-A5F7-19413041E417Her lament makes sense in rural India where the outdoor air is still crisp and gym hygiene is questionable. As more and more Indians join the to fitness crusade every vacant hall has been transformed into a gym and everybody with a ‘body’ has become a trainer. Since this sector is unregulated there is no science and little art involved. The result is young boys and girls pumping iron and thumping treadmills, toiling for that perfect body without a clue. Using ridiculous amounts of protein supplements and even anabolic steroids to hasten progress. Exercising without proper form and technique can do more harm than good, specially when unprepared bodies are forced through its rigours. It can wear down knees, pull muscles and strain spines. Moreover stuffy rooms without proper ventilation are a breeding ground for infection.

But all is not bad. With few cycling and pedestrian tracks, vanishing open spaces and untamed beasts ( natural and man made! ) on our roads, some indoor activity is better than none. It is heartening then, that fitness is trending. More encouraging is the fact that the clientele of gyms is changing. It is not only the teenager vying for the chiseled body or the bride-in-waiting striving to lose extra pounds before matchmaking begins. It is not only the desperate new mom trying to shed the extra tyres or the balding man with a lifestyle disease. It is also the apparently healthy people who have made it a part of their routine. It is about being a part of a community, a little me time away from life’s responsibilities. An empowering cocoon of privacy, of self indulgence.

It is because of this trend that single sex gyms (read female only) are a rage in smaller towns. A place where women can bare their batwings and jiggle their tummies without self consciously worrying about the male gaze. Although more and more women opt for trendy sportswear it is not uncommon to spot them sweating out in their night suits or the more acceptable salwar kameez. The impromptu social networking is an escape from domestic drudgery, somewhat like a hen party, but with health benefits. Mindless chitchat intermingles freely with grunts and heaves over shoulder presses. Common goals and shared post-workout snacks further sweeten the deal. Part kitty group, part muscle shrine!

This is quite different from the swanky gym chains of metropolitan cities with qualified trainers, nutritionists and counsellors. Equipped with modern machines and boasting of latest exercise routines, they are impersonal but perhaps more effective in unleashing the lean, mean you. And for those city slickers who don’t know where to begin, Physiogyms are the newest addition where the body is prepared for the gym, a sort of preschool to fitness.

And now the million dollar question, do we really need gyms ? Don’t we Indians get enough exercise throwing our weight around, running around in circles and dodging responsibility. The sad truth is that with our cities becoming gas chambers, we desperately need gyms to shape up an unfit country. We are facing an epidemic of lifestyle diseases like hypertension and obesity. India has the highest number of Diabetics in the world. Indians need gyms, to workout and be fighting fit…….so that they can throw their weight around, run around in circles and dodge responsibility with greater strength and ease !

Dr Manju Gupta is a gynaecologist who plays doctor in Gharaunda, a small town of Haryana

( published in Metro Plus of the Hindu on 10/2/2018)

The Cell Theory

The Cell Theory

Reams and reams have been written trying to explain why men and women are the way they are. From claiming that they are from different planets to going into their traditional roles in prehistoric times everything has been tried. I am a gynaecologist and would like to present a theory based on reproductive biology. There is no medical-ese ahead and you won’t get lost in long winding words. Anyone who has read this far knows that a baby is made by the union of the mother’s ovum and the father’s sperm. So let me take it from there.

BD639AC7-CC5A-4A6F-9500-C2CAACDABA58First a little on the development of the ovum. There are two ovaries in a women’s body and at the beginning of a menstrual cycle both gear up to form follicles which house the ova. Many follicles begin this journey but once one outgrows the others and becomes dominant the rest recede. This allows their chosen representative to get enough nutrition and grow unhindered. Such is the sense of purpose in these follicles that if per chance more than one matures there is a risk of conceiving twins, triplets and more. Now, once a month, at the designated time, this mature follicle ruptures and releases the ovum in the peritoneal cavity. For those who don’t grasp the enormity of this statement lets just say that it is a space big enough to get lost in. But this ovum with single minded determination finds its way up the funnel shaped end of the fallopian tube and travels to its cavernous ampulla for its rendezvous with the sperm.

On the other side, in what can only be called a colossal waste of protoplasm, billions of sperms are released with each ejaculation. Such is the mob mentality of this overzealous tailed cell that it cannot function without its peers for company. So much so, that although it takes only one sperm to fertilise the ovum even millions of them are said to be too few to get the job done. These sperms, teeming with nervous energy , are deposited quite close to their destination but get lost in all types of crevices and spaces because they are too arrogant to ask for directions. They run amok, driven by a sole purpose but, sadly, with no game plan . Finally a few thousand, more out of good fortune than anything else, catch sight of the ovum and race each other to reach it.

Biologically speaking only one sperm is required for fertilisation and the ovum knows this. For that matter, the sperms also know this but don’t care. Once a sperm enters, the ovum tries to make the sperms see sense by making its walls impregnable , the equivalent of hanging a house full board. But the sperms cannot take no for an answer and keep trying anyway. In the process many are beheaded and maimed. Their fate does not stop more from banging against the walls and getting killed too.

Now sometimes, due to a freak accident of nature, persistence pays off and two sperms manage to fertilise the ovum. In such a scenario two things are known to happen. Sometimes the maternal nucleus excuses herself and leaves the sperm nuclei to their own devices. In their misguided notion of self sufficiency the paternal nuclei try the baby building business on their own and end up with a bunch of grapes called a molar pregnancy. At other times the sperm nuclei force the maternal nucleus to stay and do the job. This union results in a pregnancy which is partly molar and never viable. There is a limit to what coercion can yield!

Aristotle averred that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We can infer from this cell theory that women are determined, smart, organised and know what they want……… Men, are just men!

( published in Vidura – a quarterly magazine by the Press Institute of India)

Taking Offence

Taking Offence

A disclaimer first, I am not qualified to say what I am about to, but will say it anyway. It’s a free country after all. Not only am I entitled to an opinion based on half baked information, but I can use brute force to impose it on others. If some citizens can threaten to kill, maim and self immolate without actually seeing what is offending them then I retain the right to say that the cinematography is breathtakingly beautiful, Deepika looks ravishing and Ranveer has outdone himself. I base my opinion on past records, hearsay and some snatches I have caught on the net…. because Padmavat did not release in a cinema near me!

It was just a dream that became a nightmare. Somehow, someone, somewhere dreamt that in the upcoming film Allauddin Khilji has a dream about being intimate with queen Padmavati. Despite vehement denials by the director Sanjay Leela Bhansali that no such dream sequence was being shot, all hell broke loose. The film set was vandalised and Bhansali was slapped for his alleged impudence. Things didn’t end here. The story gained momentum and grew bigger as did the public perception of injustice. So by the time the movie was ready for release last December , Deepika Padukone’s nose was at risk of being cut short and so was Bhansali’s life. Blood thirsty mobs were ready to kill, maim, deface and destroy to restore the honour of a queen whose very existence is debatable. King Ratan Sen’s descendants were out on the streets demanding a ban on the film.

For those who don’t follow Bollywood, a little background information first. Padmavat, one of India’s most expensive movies, is based on a 16th-century Sufi poem by the same name. It is about Alauddin Khilji, the sultan of Delhi, and his obsession for Padmini, the wife of King Ratan Sen who ruled Chittor. The story of Khilji’s attack on Chittor, the slaying of Ratan Sen, and the mass self-immolation ( Johar ) by the women of the kingdom is part history, part legend. While Khilji and Ratan Sen are established historical figures, Padmini’s existence is more of a myth, this poem being the first known reference of her. But fact and fiction have a tendency to merge for the sake of a good controversy and an excuse to unleash the monster within.

So despite being duly certified by the censor board after following its recommendations, including a name change from Padmavati to Padmavat many states chose to ban the film, Haryana being one of them. As I watched the enraged mobs going on a rampage for the sake of some misplaced sense of honour I wondered why such sentiments are not stoked when real women are abused and disgraced. Haryana has an ugly track record of crime against women, most of which are much worse then innocuous wet dreams. Salman Rushdie’s famous inference offers some insight into this matter, “Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved, perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.”

The Supreme Court direction that the state should ensure safe release of the film did not help matters. When people take law into their hands, the law of the land has a way of not working. So instead of the grandeur and razzmatazz associated with Bollywood, the opening Thursday of the film presented another stereotype of modern India to the world: violence, intolerance, and the diminishing space for free expression. Movies did run into trouble over their content in the past too, but this protest was based on mere public perception much before anyone saw it. Hundreds of supporters of fringe groups like the Karni Sena ran amok across the country, blocking roads and burning buses, ensuring that the film was not screened. The most shameful incident occurred closer home, in apna Gurugram, where they stoned a bus full of school children.

Perhaps I am not as enlightened as the protesters hence not so acutely aware of my rich heritage. Whatever be the reason I have never felt compelled to protect a glorious past at the risk of ruining the present and endangering the future. And although I am just a lowly aberrant, I would like to further my case with some Haryanvi folk wisdom. It’s an oft repeated saying about damage control “Ibay kimay na bigdaya , ibey toh beti baap ke ghar seh” . Roughly translated it means that a situation can be resolved till the daughter is at her parent’s home, after which reputation suffers. In a world where news travels at the speed of light, images of petrified children cowering in a school bus while an unruly mob pelts stones at them does more harm to Brand India than Deepika’s bare belly in some Jhoomar sequence. We should be more careful of what leaves our home and how.

A few days ago, a friend joked, “ At least we Haryanvis don’t believe in gender discrimination. If it was a no to Padmavati it is a no to Padmavat.” A perfectly ordinary comment, made in jest….but with the worst sex ratio in the country I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

( published in the Haryana Tribune on 10/2/10)