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 ‘)

Three Lessons

Three Lessons

Circa 1968

I was in first grade and to teach us how the government is formed, Ms Lynn Butler, our teacher conducted a mock election. When the ballots were counted I emerged winner and was declared President and a boy who was much more popular, but had lesser votes, was made Vice- President. I was surprised by the outcome more so because I thought the word was Wife- President. I went up to the teacher and offered to take the lesser post being the ‘weaker sex’. She explained the meaning of ‘vice’ and added that even if the post was ‘wife’ President, my gender wouldn’t have mattered. She said, ” You should honour your classmate’s trust of choosing you for the top position and believe in yourself. There is nothing which a boy can do and you can’t.” Her words made a great impact on me at a time when I was picking up subtle hints on gender roles from society. I took up the post with a new found confidence and lasted the term without facing impeachment. This, despite some very unpopular decisions like shifting the water break from the second period to the third.

Circa 1978
As happened often, I had not done my homework. It was English class and our school Principal, Ms Vimla Raheja taught us. I was in tenth and being the senior most class in school she thought that our assignments needn’t be checked like fifth graders. She would ask a question from the lesson and a few of us would read out answers from our note books. Then she would discuss the various viewpoints and expect us to make corrections. Later on she would sign the copies in her office. That day she kept on asking me question after question and I pretended to read out the answers from my notebook. She didn’t seem to notice that anything was amiss and I was pleased that I had been able to fool her. While leaving she asked me to bring all the notebooks to her office. I complied unperturbed, knowing that she would not miss mine in the pile of twenty-five others. But to my amazement she asked me to take out my copy from the stack. As I stood there, dumbfounded, she calmly said, ” It may not always seem so, but living a lie is difficult. Accepting the truth is easier.” I managed a meek apology. She said she didn’t want to shame me in front of the class since I knew the lesson which was the purpose of the assignment. The showdown in private was necessary to make me realise that she was smarter than I thought. And then she said something unforgettable. She said that if I had considered doing it, I should have done it well and put up a more convincing performance. It is no surprise that she had many, much more illustrious students than me, the astronaut Kalpana Chawla being one of them.

Circa 1988
I was doing my post graduation and my boss Dr Sushila Rathi was a stern taskmaster. She felt that my potential was marred by my lackadaisical attitude and so was specially hard on me. She would constantly push me to do better, never accepting my excuses. Her usual refrain was, “Is that the best you could do?” One day, frustrated by the way I was holding the retractor to expose the abdominal cavity while she operated, she asked me if there was a better way of doing it. I changed the angle of my arm and the organ she was trying to stitch became clearly visible. She gave me a tired smile and said, ” Even the most mundane and insignificant jobs deserve perfection. Don’t wait for a bigger opportunity to showcase your talent. Do everything to the best of your ability and you’ll never have regrets.” Though I have not been able to reach her level of excellence, I think her advice helped me become the best I could be.

Three teachers, three lessons, received a decade apart, that made me the person I am. The first lesson taught me that I could do whatever I want, the second that if it was worth doing, it was worth doing well, and the third that doing well is not good enough, it had to be my personal best. The lessons don’t appear exceptionally profound but they worked because they were well timed and made sense to me. Most teachers try to inspire and ignite young minds, some recognise the perfect moment to do so. Few realise that their seemingly unremarkable words have the ability to change lives. Sadly, very few get the gratitude they deserve for doing so.

( published in Vidura ( April – Jun ‘18) , a magazine by the Press Institute of India )

The One Eyed Bride

The One Eyed Bride

This is a tale of simpler times and limited choices. A reminder that life existed before the advent of online shopping and express delivery. It was two days before my wedding. Dad’s friend, a rich poultry farmer had dropped by. When I went in to serve tea he casually remarked that I should stop using spectacles so that people get accustomed to seeing me without them. He was shocked when I told him, that I intended to wear them to my wedding. In the interrogation that ensued, I gave him the two reasons, I had till then, given to anyone who had dared to ask. The first was that I couldn’t see without them and the second I wanted to look like myself on my wedding, something I didn’t, sans specs. He airily dismissed my explanation and asked me if I had ever seen a bespectacled bride. Standing my ground I replied that although I hadn’t, I didn’t mind becoming the first.

Exasperated, he ignored me and addressed my father instead, asking how he was allowing such a travesty to happen. My father matter of factly said that the bride had the power to decide. By now uncle had inferred that the problem was bigger than he had initially thought. Imbecility ran in the family ! He wasn’t going to give up so easily though. Not wasting another moment he told me to get in his car so that we could go buy contact lenses. Enroute, I tried to explain that there was no way we could get them this fast . The year was 1985 and fresh out of medical school, I knew the drill. After the ophthalmologist did a detailed eye examination, the lenses were ordered from Aligarh. The whole process took at least a week.

8557EA09-F7B5-4180-8913-4E37A3E3FCB7Uncle, as we fondly called him, ignored all I said. With the confidence money brings, he barged into the Eye Doctor’s office and declared, “ She has to get married in two days. She can’t see without glasses and I won’t let her get married with them. Give her contact lenses.” And then to strengthen his case he invoked the fraternal bond,“ She is a doctor too”. The doctor looked at me, unimpressed, and commented that I should know how much time the procedure took. Unruffled, uncle used his most powerful weapon yet. He invoked the paternal bond, “ Son, have you forgotten me? I am your father’s friend.”

The doctor replied that although he had recognised him there was still nothing he could do. Unfazed, uncle parked himself opposite the doctor and asked him to think hard, saying that a solution would emerge. “Don’t you have a pair lying around somewhere.“ he suggested helpfully. The doctor opened his mouth to explain the concept of ‘lens power’ and then sensing its futility decided against it. He sat contemplating under uncle’s watchful eye, and eventually said that he had one lens which was almost of the same power I needed. Uncle jumped, and with a winning grin exclaimed, “ That will do. She can garland the groom with one eye.”

So everything ended perfectly. Uncle had another feather in his cap and a story to tell, so did the eye doctor and I. The tradition of the flawless, demure, Indian bride was preserved. I skilfully put the noose around my husband with my under corrected single eye. This was contrary to what my textbooks said about binocular vision being necessary for perception of depth. But then, perhaps, the fact that marriages are made in heaven guided me to my destiny.

( published as ‘Spice of life’ in the Hindustan Times on 30/4/18)



Misfortunes never come singly, they come in groups. As do rapes, or news there of. It started as a trickle and became a surge. First there was one, and then another and then some more. Cases were reported from across the country, brutality and depravity being the common theme.

As always, more than sympathy and concern for the victim, there was a feeling of horror and disgust about the gruesome incident, a collective shame and the need to distance oneself from it. Thus began the denials, the justifications, the communal angle, the conspiracy theories and the blame games.

DF35256B-44D9-439C-9900-2B2DB9AA2889And then the usual analysis, discussing the incident threadbare in newsrooms, drawing rooms and on social media. This time since a child was involved we were spared the details about what she was wearing and what she was doing and whether she was asking for it. This time we sunk deeper though. The debate was whether she got more than her fair share of sympathy because she belonged to a minority community. Whether a Hindu raped by a Muslim would have evoked the same response. Whether the rape and its reporting was just a drama, a ploy to malign the ruling party.

This was followed by the customary, well meaning voices going berserk, demanding justice, an eye for an eye. An exemplary punishment to deter the psychopaths. The usual clamour for death. Not understanding that certainty of punishment is more important than its severity. Most sexual offenders know their way out of the swamp, so the severity of the punishment loses relevance. A person will jump into the muck only if he knows that he can swim out of it or has someone who will help him do so. The fact that it took three months for this case to hit national headlines shows similar forces at work here.

Although the first reaction to such acts of depravity is the urge to hang the perverts or castrate them, rape can’t be eliminated by punishing the rapists in a barbaric manner. The problem isn’t these few bad men and their unrestrained sexual urges. Had it been just them it could have been treated as an aberration, easily eliminating this statistical anomaly. The fact of the matter is that sexual abuse in various forms runs far and deep in our society. The High Court pointed to another adverse effect of the death penalty when it recently questioned the centre’s hastily passed ordinance recommending it for the rape of a minor. A decision which it said, besides doing little good may cost the victim her life. If the punishment for rape and murder is the same, there is little to stop the offender from killing off the victim. Also, by resorting to capital punishment we conveniently ignore the root cause, the ubiquitous misogynistic culture from which sexual crimes sprout.

If one cares to notice, our medieval, patriarchal mindset is on display in the aftermath of a rape. Resistance to register the case, blaming and shaming the victim, condoning the crime, protecting the accused, proposing ulterior motives are all parts of this spectrum. The worst and most damaging is the comments ( or silence!) of those who make our laws and are entrusted to protect them. The underlying theme of these mindless rants is the complete absence of male accountability. The common belief is that the burden of social order and morality lies with women. How can a society decide and enforce moral values if there is a foundational disagreement over what those values are? To eradicate rape we have to eliminate the notion of women being a sexual object, an idea which is etched in our psyche and strengthened by our upbringing, education, and media influences. The truth is, we can reach a solution only when our society becomes a gender egalitarian one.

Another bothersome fallout is that after failing to protect the victim we go through great lengths to protect her identity. By giving her a far fetched mythical name we take away the human angle from the story. We also perpetuate the theory that she should be ashamed of what has happened to her and hide behind a veil of anonymity. A survivor should be commended for her courage. The perpetrator of the crime should hide in shame, as should the people around her, for failing to protect her from bodily harm. In this particular case the only detail worth hiding was her religion for what does religion have to do with it. A child is a child irrespective of which God didn’t answer her prayers on that fateful day.

In our profession we encourage cancer survivors to come forward, share their experience thus helping others in a similar predicament. While doing good unto others, this exercise is known to help healing. Since rape is a social disease it should be treated in a similar manner. Only a multi prong approach will help eradicate this evil. So while our government works on changing laws we need to change the way we look at rape, rape survivors and rapists.

(published in my column in the Tribune on 28/4/2018)

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)


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)