Friday, April 30, 2010

Z for Zzzzz

The last day of the A to Z blogging challenge, and I wished I could bow out with something really profound, but there seem to be no Z words at all.
Zip? Something that joins together divergent parts- link it to the blogging challenge. Possible, but I don't think I can inject either the right level of seriousness, or strike the right chord of levity.
Zoo? Animals captive in a zoo, people captive in cages of their own making. Alternately, blogland as a zoo- animals from all over the world co-existing in harmony. Again, I am not upto the task.
Zebra - last week, someone blogged about how each zebra is unique, and of how we should embrace our inner zebra. You may as well read Don't fight the stripe, Joanne says it much better than I ever could.

But there is one Z that I can blog about.


I had forgotten to reset the alarm clock last night, and when it went off this morning, I got up feeling I was ready to face the day. But I knew I had gone to bed an hour later than normal, and that I would have another late night today, so I turned off the alarm clock and gifted myself an extra hour of sleep.

Six months back, I would not even have thought of doing so. Six week after my surgery when I was allowed to resume my normal life, I promised myself that I would go for a run six days a week- no excuses. And I did.

Whether I had slept for three hours or six, I would wake up the moment my alarm clock went off. There were days when all I wanted were a few extra minutes of sleep, but I would firmly tell myself "don't be lazy. Nobody died from lack of sleep."

Till somebody did. The 42 year old CEO of an MNC collapsed after returning from the gym - a man in perfect health, conscious of his diet, religious about exercise. The only thing he never found time for was sleep.

People could die from lack of sleep. I went into the details a couple of months back, but just in case you don't want to go back and read the old post, I am reposting the technical details at the end of this post.

Now, I make sure I get my six hours every night. On days when I go to bed after midnight, I skip going to the gym, and on days when I don't feel like getting up even after getting my six hours, I give my body the benefit of doubt.

Sleep is important. Now, off to grab my Zzzzz!!!


Some facts on sleep deprivation –
- Short sleep duration (<5 or 5-6 hours) increased risk for high BP by 350% to 500% compared to those who slept longer than 6 hours per night. Paper published in 2009.
- Young people (25-49 years of age) are twice as likely to get high BP if they sleep less. Paper published in 2006.
- Individuals who slept less than 5 hours a night had a 3-fold increased risk of heart attacks. Paper published in 1999.
- Complete and partial lack of sleep increased the blood concentrations of High sensitivity C-Reactive Protein (hs-cRP), the strongest predictor of heart attacks. Even after getting adequate sleep later, the levels stayed high!!
- Just one night of sleep loss increases very toxic substances in body such as Interleukin-6 (IL-6), Tumour Necrosis Factor-Alpha (TNF-alpha) and C-reactive protein (cRP). They increase risks of many medical conditions, including cancer, arthritis andheart disease. Paper published in 2004.
- Sleeping for <=5 hours per night leads to 39% increase in heart disease. Sleeping for <=6 hours per night leads to 18% increase in heart disease. Paper published in 2006.
I haven’t checked the sources of any of these facts, but, even if only a few of them are true, it is obvious that lack of sleep is something one should be concerned about.

I know most of us push ourselves to the extreme. Spend a couple of minutes taking the Epworth Sleepiness Test –


A score of 0-9 is considered normal. Anything above that, and you may want to take a relook at your life.

Did you pass? Surprisingly (and reassuringly), I did!
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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Y is for Youth

The newspapers and TV channels are full of stories about directionless youth- the four college boys who taped a video of them sexually abusing a pre-teen and posted it on YouTube, the girl who lost control of her SUV and mowed down two people while consuming alcohol, the kids who kidnapped their best friend’s brother and killed him when they did not get the ransom money, the date rapes, the drunk driving, the lawlessness, the purposelessness. If you believe the media, there is no hope for the youth of the nation, and consequently for the nation itself.

But I cannot be that pessimistic. There is the girl who’s risen out of poverty and illiteracy, and dreams of becoming a lawyer. There is the boy who has a full-time job, plays sports at a competitive level, is studying for a college degree and still finds time to coach others in self-development. There is the girl who is the first female in her community to pass her school leaving exams, and who dreams big. There is the girl who refused to succumb to pressure from women much older than her, and stood firm for what she knew was right.

There are youth who seem to have lost their bearings, but there are also youth who have shown that their inner compass can weather all storms. As long as they are there, the future is in good hands.

Random Aside # 1
The other day, a collegue had on a t-shirt that said "if you swallow wet cement, you get stoned". Since it made no sense at all to me, I asked him to explain it. The guy gave a knowing smile, then proceeded to explain what ‘to get stoned’ meant.
I couldn’t see the point of it, so had to interject "Look, I may be old enough to be your mother, but I too was young once, and I definitely know what to get stoned means. All I wanted to know what was cement has to do with stone". He told me that when cement hardened, it became stone. The daughter-of-a-geologist in me took over, and I gave him a lecture on stone, the genesis of the various types of stones, and of how cement was in no way related to stone. He was literally squirming to get away, but I left him only after I thought I had sufficient revenge for being mistaken for a dinosaur. I wonder if he even realised how presumptuous he had been, and how rude.
He obviously considers me “old”. And I wonder if, when I was his age, I dismissed people of my age as being “too old to know anything”?

Random Aside # 2
And last night, I finally figured out why my six year old was losing so many chess matches – he kept sacrificing knights, rooks, castles and even his queen to protect his pawns. I tried explaining the hierarchy of chess men to him, and said, “if you have to sacrifice your pawn to get a knight do so, but never sacrifice your knight to get a pawn.”
“But”, he said in a confused tone. “isn’t the pawn the youngest of the chess men.”
When I nodded in affirmation he continued, “shouldn’t the young be protected? Why do you say I should let them die first?”
And guess what, he did have a point!

Image Credit - Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

X for Unknown

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference”
~”The Road Not Taken",1916, by Robert Frost

Readers often see the poem literally, as an expression of individualism. Critics typically view the poem as ironic. Frost himself warned "You have to be careful of that one; it's a tricky poem – very tricky."

Whatever the interpretation of the poem, there are times in your life when you stand at crossroads and need to choose which path to take.
A competitor makes you an offer- a higher salary, a better designation, a similar job profile to your current one. While you are trying to digest that, your boss takes you aside for a chat – would you want to move to a different department, same salary, huge opportunities for professional growth.
After three months of unemployment, you have two offers. Do you take the one that gives you a fat salary and a fancy designation, or the one where you get to do what you really love doing?
You have been going steady with a man for years, but he shows no signs of wanting to settle down. Do you stay with him, or break up and look for something else?
You’ve just got a promotion, when a friend tells you she’s planning to start something on her own- would you join her?

Often, you are so busy plodding along your chosen path, you do not even notice the trails that branch off. Sometimes, you make a conscious decision to stay on your well defined path, and sometimes you stay on because you don’t want to make the choice to pick another one.

There are times when I chose to continue on the path that I was already on, but the choices I really remember are the ones where I chose ‘the path less travelled by’.

Eight years back, I was at the pinnacle of my profession- I was staying only at five-star hotels, and had chauffer driven cars meet me at the airport when I travelled. I cheerfully chucked it all, and took up a job with a non-profit which paid me a fifth of what I was actually earning.
I got back to work within a fortnight of having my first child, but when he was six months old, decided I did not want to have to choose between child and career every day. I became a full-time mom (and discovered writing).
The kids didn’t want me to get back to work, the hubby wasn’t happy with putting the kids in Daycare, but I held firm and got back to work.

And every one of those choices has given me immense personal and professional satisfaction. Had I not made those choices, I would be quite a different person. I am pretty sure I would still be my own best friend, but given a chance, I would not want to go back in time to change the choices I made.

What about you? Have you ever taken ‘the path less travelled by’, or even been tempted by it? Do you regret any of the choices you have made?

X stands for Unknown. Is X your friend?

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

W for WiP

I shared the first full-length story I ever wrote with half a dozen people, and heard back from four.
The first told me she liked my character development (though she absolutely disliked my main character), and thought I used dialogue very effectively. But, she informed me, the story flagged in parts and I would have to ruthlessly re-write huge chunks of it to keep the momentum going. Never one to shirk from hard work, I saved a new version of the manuscript on which I could start editing, when I heard from the second reader.
She loved the story. The voice, the characters, the way the story was pulled on through dialogue, and the sheer chickiness of the whole thing. She pointed out a couple of places where I had to do a bit of re-writing, but those were weak points that I had identified even on my own. Since I wanted to believe her, I did one round of revisions, and sent off queries to three publishers.
A couple of weeks after that, I heard back from a third reader. She liked what she read, but from a purely marketing viewpoint, felt I should focus on one of the four characters, instead of having four that are equally important. She suggested I start with a conflict, maybe flashback a little, but keep the focus on one character, with the rest of them being important supporting characters. Given the number of re-writes this particular writer has gone through for a book I thought was better than many published works even in the first draft, I was ready for a long haul.
But even before I completely digested the review, a fourth reader got back to me. She likes the book as it is, and her only suggestion was that I delete entirely a chapter which would have worked if it were a tale of one woman, but which only distracted from the main plot since I had four parallel stories.

The good news is that all four readers like the tone of the story, because that is the one thing most difficult to change. The bad news is that while two of them recommend making minor changes, and two others say it needs total overhauling. If I have to rewrite completely, I am more than happy to do so, but the opinion is divided 50:50 on whether or not the book needs it. Readers 1 and 4 are from India, the other two are not, so it is not a geographical thing. Readers 1 and 4 are exactly my age, the other till a little older, so it is not an age thing. All four read a lot, and all except 1 have written more novels than I have. Each of them is qualified to pass judgment, and I trust all of them to be impartial.
Then how this disconnect?

Reader 3 (Hart Johnson) perhaps nailed it with her comment “I LOVE sort of nebulous books that are about lives that connect but that don't acutely focus (like A Suitable Boy), but I KNOW . . . you can't sell anything that is too diffuse. I think it would help you to be a little less subtle as to who is the primary protagonist . . . focusing on one story as primary will help you sell it.”

Readers 2 and 4 looked at it as a story of four interconnected lives, while 1 and 3 looked in vain for a primary protagonist. It was upto me to decide what I wanted it to be, and re-write accordingly.
It was written as a story of four characters, and I would hate to dilute that by picking one primary character. I don’t have writerly aspirations of the magnitude of a Vikram Seth, but even chick-lit has examples of multiple protagonists *cough Candace Bushnell cough*.
I had to take a decision, and I did. I will go with my gut and send off queries to the other publishers on my list. If I don’t hear back from them, I can demolish and rebuild the entire structure, and re-submit to the same publishers under another name. To me, that sounds like the most sensible thing to do.

Update - Hours after posting this, I heard back from the publisher I thought would be the one most likely to take the bait- "this doesn't fit in with the immediately publishing plans". One down, five to go (yes, that is how many publishers we have in India). The good thing is that I can always do a total overhaul and re-submit next year.

Monday, April 26, 2010

V for Variety

“You are looking different today, someone told me. Is that a new outfit you are wearing?”
“Not exactly”, I assured her. “I normally wear this shirt with formal trousers. Today I am wearing it with faded jeans.” I also had on a pair of hoop earrings that I normally do not wear, and strappy sandals rather than formal shoes.
Quite apart from the fact that my outfit was more summer friendly than my normal work-wear, I wore what I wore because I wanted a change.
And don’t we all?
We don’t eat the same thing every day- we may do so out of necessity or convenience, but sooner rather than later, we crave a change.
We may wear the same thing every day, because it is convenient. But once in awhile, we want to break out of the mould and wear something quite different.

When we crave variety in food, and clothing, why do most of us go out of our way to surround ourselves with people just like us?
At the gym the other day, I encountered someone I haven’t met before. “I’ve never seen you before”, she said. “Are you new?”
“Not really”, I told her. “I normally come much earlier than I have today.”
“Earlier than this!”, she exclaimed. “What is the point? Once you have sent the kids and the husband off, you can really relax.”
“True, but I leave for work with my husband, so if I don’t’ come earlier, I can’t come at all.”
“You go out to work?”, she asked incredulously. I nodded, and she had nothing further to say to me.
In fact, when I tried to say goodbye to her before leaving, I found her going out of her way to avoid eye contact.

Whether she was opposed in principle to the idea of women going to work, or whether she did not think she would have anything in common with a woman who worked, it was clear that she didn’t want anything further to do with me after she found out I worked. Quite obviously, she was in her comfort zone with women who did not work, and didn’t want to waste time getting to know someone with whom she felt she would not have anything in common.

While I do like being with people like me, some of my closest friends are people with whom I have not very much in common. The last person who made me laugh did so, because what he said was something absolutely unexpected. The last person who made me think was someone who’s blog I may never have visited based entirely on their blogger profile. The last person who saved my life was someone who I would never have thought could even relate to my then current life situation.
My life would have been infinitely less interesting had I not actively sought out people not exactly like me. And that is one of the things I like most about the virtual world – you meet people you never would have otherwise, and once you get to know them, you realise you actually like them a lot.

Variety is what make the world an interesting one for everyone. You may all have your favourite genre, but sometimes, don’t you pick up a book that is totally different and fall proceed to fall in love with it?
What would we do without Variety?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Who doesn’t want to be someone else?

She wished she could be a mermaid, if only for a day. So she could sit on a rock and watch the waves- song on her lips, wind in her hair. No house to keep clean, no hungry family to feed. What more could anyone want?

She wished she could be human, if only for a day. So she could wear six-inch stilettos and mini-skirts. So she could dance all night in the arms of the man she loved. So she could love and be loved in return. What more could anyone want?

Who doesn’t want to be someone else?

Drabbles from around the world celebrating the many facets of Spring, only at the Burrow.
A drabble is a story told in exactly 100 words.

Original picture - Fantasy and Reality

Saturday, April 24, 2010

U for Universe

This was yet another of those letters where I couldn’t find anything to write about.
U for Uniforms? My sons’ obsession with drawing superheros? But it is costumes that they wear, not uniforms, isn’t it?
U for the Underworld? But that is something I know next to nothing about- the Mario Puzo variety, and the one that Osirus presides over!
U for Underground? I would have loved to write about possible solutions to the mass transportation problem in my city, but considering the city is only inches above the high tide mark, no solution can take place Underground.
U for YouTube? Not only would that be cheating, I am a total newbie to the site, and would have nothing to contribute.
U for Umbrella? I could write about the fun of splashing through puddles with nothing with a brightly coloured umbrella protecting me from getting drenched. But wouldn’t it make more sense to do that post AFTER the monsoons start?

I was no closer to finding a word for the letter, when I logged onto google and found this –
Today is the 20th Anniversary of the Hubble Space telescope. I had my U-post. “U for Universe”.

I had just taken my school-leaving exams when the Hubble Telescope was shot into space. And in the months between leaving school and starting college, the Hubble Space Telescope became almost an obsession. Those were the days before the Internet and when you had only one channel on TV, so news was hard to come by. But I still managed to devour every tiny snippet of news that came out. I remember cheering when the Telescope was finally shot into space, and I remember groaning in despair when we got the news that one of the mirrors were not functioning, which would adversely affect the quality of images the telescope could pick up.
Somewhere along the line, I lost interest in the Hubble Telescope. I was vaguely aware of the fact that NASA had spent an awesome amount of time and effort in repairing the non-functioning mirror, and the spirit soared whenever I got to see some of the images sent back by the telescope. But I no longer followed the progress of Hubble in quite the breathless way in which I used to do.

Here are just some of the images that the Hubble Space Telescope sent back over the years.

NGC 2818, a planetary nebula

Individual stars at the centre of the globular cluster, Omega Centuri.
NGC 3603, an open star cluster
Whirlpool Galaxy, a face on spiral galaxy much like our own

Is it even possible not to be awed by the immense beauty of the Universe? And when you are in touch with the Universe, do you feel humbled because you are so insignificant in the larger scheme of things, or do you feel a surge of power because you realise that you are an intrinsic part of something so Grand?

Friday, April 23, 2010

T for "Test for Thyroid Today"

Four years back, when I was struggling to lose the weight I had put on between my two pregnancies, someone told me I should get my thyroid levels checked 'just in case'. Though I knew that one in five women was likely to suffer from a thyroid condition sometime during their lifetime, I never took the advice seriously. And when, after a lot of hard work, I actually managed to get back my pre-pregnancy weight, I shoved all thoughts of a potential thyroid condition into the attic of my mind.

Exactly a year back, I went to a gynaecologist for a routine check-up, and since I was getting a whole bunch of blood tests done, he asked me to get my TSH levels checked because as many as 35% of women over the age of 35 had a thyroid condition. I paid for the test, but never got down to picking up the report.

It was only when I was getting a battery of tests done prior to my hysterectomy that I found that the TSH levels in my blood were three times higher than the highest value in the normal range. I had been carrying a serious condition around for months, without even being aware of it.

Anyone I spoke to was amazed when I mentioned my condition to them. The most visible symptom of hypothyroidism is excessive weight gain- I had actually lost upto 10 kilogrammes and kept it off for over two years. Fatigue and lack of stamina were the next symptoms people looked for- a person who could run 10 kilometers did not particularly fit the bill. Depression, hair loss, ... none of the symptoms really fit. Sure I was snappy and irritable, but I chose to attribute it to the attitudes of some of the imbeciles I was surrounded by.

I had hypothyroidism, without displaying any of the symptoms associated with the condition, and I would never have found out about it if not for a purely routine test.

It is estimated that 59 million people in the US have a thyroid condition, but less than 20 million of them are diagnosed. My case was special, because I did not diaplay any of the symptoms. But think about the symptoms - weight gain, depression, fatigue, stress - they could be symptoms of a thyroid condition, or the manifestation of your lifestyle choices. When they feel tired or depressed, most women blame themselves- how many even think of getting tested for a thyroid imbalance?

It could be you, your mother, your sister, your daughter, your cousin, your best friend, your colleague, or it could be nobody you know. Get tested for Thyroid- all it takes is one pin-prick and a little bit of blood.

Edited to add - Ellie had an experience very similar to mine. She didn't gain weight, but couldn't lose the weight from the last pregnancy. She was tired. It took 3 years before she was finally diagnosed as having Hashimoto's.
Don't wait, just get tested. That one pill a day makes all the difference.
Top 10 things people should know about thyroid disorders.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

S for 'Save the World'

The other day, a friend of mine who is an avid trekker, a nature enthusiast, and a keen wildlife photographer was telling me about the time he hiked to the top of a mountain, and camped out for the night, just so he could witness the sunrise from what he described as the Top of the World. I was trying to visualise the sun pushing its way through a thick carpet of clouds, when he said, "Nature has given me more joy than anything else. I can't imagine what I would have missed out on if my uncle hadn't tackled my fear when I was in my teens."
"Why, what happened?", the writer and people watcher in me piped up.
"When I was very young", he told me. "I was scared of the Wild. I never went anywhere near Nature because I was worried about the unknown dangers that lurked there. When I told my uncle my fears, he said 'Why should you be afraid of the Wild? The wild should be afraid of you.' It took me a few weeks before I understood what he meant, but after that, Nature became my best friend."

Whether we clear forests to make land for cultivation, or kill tigers because we think they make good aphrodisiacs, or drive a monster car to a place we could easily walk to, we are the ones who harm Nature. In a few decades, we have succeeded in undoing the balance that took Millennia to create. And we have only ourselves to blame if our winters are too cold, our summers too hot, and our rains not enough to meet our need for water.

On Earth Day, let us take a couple of minutes to think about something I first came across when I was in my teens and haven't forgotten since, "Remember, we did not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrowed it from our children."

And did you know that a blog leaves a carbon footprint too?

These details are taken from the 'My Blog is Carbon Neutral" site.

How much carbon dioxide does your blog create?

According to a study by Alexander Wissner-Gross, PhD, physicist at Harvard University and environmental activist, an average website causes about 0.02g (0,0008oz.) of carbon dioxide for each visit. Assuming an average blog gets 15,000 visits a month, it has yearly carbon dioxide emissions of 3,6kg (8lb.). This can mainly be tracked back to the immense energy usage from (mainframe) computers, servers, and their cooling systems.

As demonstrated in the above calculation, the atmosphere can be relieved by an average of 5kg (11lb.) carbon dioxide every year by planting one tree. An average blog causes 3.6kg (8lb.) of carbon dioxide emissions. Consequently, a tree neutralises the carbon dioxide emissions of a blog. Since a tree lives for an average of 50 years, carbon dioxide emissions of your blog can be completely neutralised for this time period.

Here’s how you can help
Just write a short blog post about the programme “My blog is carbon neutral” and include a buttons on your site (ideally in the sidebar). Send the link of your blog to and they plant a tree for you, neutralising the carbon dioxide emissions of your blog. The trees will be planted in the spring of 2010 by the Arbor Day Foundation.

Happy Earth Day!
Help Save the World!

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

R for ... eRm, eR, eRm... well, R for a lot of things

Monday morning on the way to work, I had my R post written in my head- R for Religion, and the post was supposed to be about the religious intolerance that some schools dig into their student's heads in the name of religious instruction.

But by the time I got down to writing it, my six year old was reading out something to his younger brother, who was laughing hysterically at it. I found that my son was going "lada lada lada" over the words he did not know, and I wanted to blog about it. R for Reading it was going to be.

But before that happened, I got thinking about my poor right knee, and about how I decided to rest it for a few weeks to give it a chance to recover from the battering it has been receiving recently. R for Running it could have been, but I realised I have blogged about that very often in the past.

When I woke up in the morning, I knew I had to write my R post, but I just couldn't make up my mind what to blog about. Any of the above, all of them, or none of them.

So finally I decided to make it "R for the 3 Rs". Reading, wRiting and 'Rithmetic are supposed to be the three things that constitute an education. Strangely, I am passionate about all three. As my facebook profile says, "I read because I do not know what else to do in the spare time that I do not have. I write to get those pesky characters out of my head." And 'rithmetic because I can't dream of a life when I did not have numbers to play with.

Hopefully tomorrow's post would make a little more sense than this one did.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Q for Queue

Seven million commuters use the Bombay suburban trains every day, making it one of the busiest urban transportation networks in the world. During peak hours, over 5,000 passengers squeeze themselves into a 9-car rake, at a density of 14 to 16 standing passengers per square meter of floor space. Add to it the fact that none of the trains are temperature controlled, and that an average journey takes between 45 to 90 minutes, and you will know why to travel by the local trains is to observe human behavior at its worst.

Anything between one to one and a half million people use the station where I get off, which means the only order that prevails is the rule of the jungle. Long before the station arrives, people jostle for a place near the door, so they can be the first to get off the train. The people waiting to board the train, start pushing their way in even before passengers have got a change to alight, and if you do not get out fast enough, the incoming surge pushes you so far in, you have no chance to get out at the station. To avoid that, most people start getting off the train long before it has come to a halt at the station.

On principle, I refuse to risk life and limb jumping on and off moving trains, when the halt at the station is long enough for everyone to do their stuff if they go about it in a mature manner. But even as I resolutely refuse to succumb to peer pressure and jump off, the press of people behind you makes it almost physically impossible to stay on the train till it comes to a halt. But I am a contrarian by heart and love resisting pressure of any kind- that stubborn streak ensures I do not jump off getting running trains far more than any thought of getting hurt does.

The other day, there was a schoolgirl standing by the door waiting to get off. The moment the train pulled into the station, and started slowing down, the mostly office going crowd started pressing down on her, compelling her to jump off. She refused. The train slowed down even more, but since it hadn’t come to a complete halt, the girl refused to get off. I admired the girl for refusing to succumb to pressure, but things soon got nasty. “Aree, chokri, what are you waiting for? Do you need a special invitation before you get off?”
The girl tried her best to ignore them, but the taunts flew at her from all directions. I had to admire the self confidence of the girl. The easiest thing in the world would be succumb to pressure, but she refused to do so.
But things soon turned ugly. “Hat saali. Off you, wretch”, said a lady and gave her a shove that sent her flying out of the train. Luckily, the train had almost come to a halt, and her fall was broken by the people waiting to board the train.
“I witnessed that”, I told the girl after I got off. If you want to make a complaint to the police, I am willing to come with you.”
Shaken though she was, she did not want to get unnecessarily tangled in a mess, and shook her head.

But I wonder. Had the girl fallen on the pavement and seriously injured herself, would the lady who pushed her have accepted responsibility? What if she had bounced off the pavement, fallen onto the tracks and been run over? Would the lady who had pushed her been charged with homicide? And what of the other people who did not actually push the girl, but who pressed forward to force her to get off. Would all of them have been accessories in the murder?

Which brings me to the question that bugs me every single time I use the train. Are those few seconds gained worth all that people risk in order to gain them? If everyone queues up, wouldn’t life be much easier for everyone? Or is it too simplistic to expect people to do that?

Monday, April 19, 2010

P for Passion, ... and Pharaohs

My friend, Meera, is a dancer. She’s not a professional dancer, in the sense that she doesn’t make a livelihood through dance, but she is as serious about her dance as any professional dancer.
Unfortunately, I haven’t see her dancing live, but I but am constantly amazed at the depth of emotion she manages to convey through her posture and her facial expressions. She is better than many ‘professional dancers’.
Not without reason. On the right side of 35, she is an anachronism in the world of dance, which is dominated by pretty young things in their early 20s. And yet, it is her increased years that make her such a good dancer.
She’s a wife and mother, she has experienced most of the emotions conveys through her dance. It is her emotional maturity that makes her a much better dancer than she herself must have been when she was younger and fitter.

Dance is a demanding mistress, and few women are able to make time for her after marriage and kids. They stop dancing, not because they want to, but because they are just not able to do so. Balancing work and family is hard enough, how do you fit in daily practice and group rehersals?
Meera has two kids under the age of seven. She edits and writes features for a living, and has four “yet to be published” novels on her desk. And yet, she manages to give public performances, both solo, and with her troupe.How does she manage, when so many others give up? Simply because dance is her passion, and she is willing to make any sacrifices necessary to be able to keep up with her passion.

Passion is something very close to my heart. I have often blogged about how it is almost pointless to do something unless you are passionate about it. And when you are truly passionate about something, with a little bit of determination, you can make time for it.
Most of us already know it. My friend proves it. With Passion, anything is possible. Without passion, most things are pointless.

Kid - "Papa, do you know who was the father of all Pharaohs?"
Father - "Must be Papa Pharaoh."
Kid - "You are hopeless, you don't know anything."
Father - "Of course it was Papa Pharaoh. Who else could it be?"
Kid- "Khepri was the father of all Pharaohs. He was an Egyptian God, and had the head of a scarab beetle."
Father- "Capri? I thought you wore capris."
Kid - "Papa, you are hopeless, you don't know anything at all."

[All photographs courtesy my friend, S. Meera]

The last photograph is my favourite. She'd depicting Lord Kama (the embodiment of pleasure and sexual gratification) shooting five arrows. Each arrow is tipped with different flowers, and causes a different agony- from the heart, to the lips, to the eyes, the body and the head.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Seeds take a long time to grow

“What are you doing?”, I asked my son.
He gave me a guilty look. “Nothing!”
“There is something”, I insisted. “Tell me, what’s in your hand?”
“This!” He had a slab of chocolate in his palm.
“What were you doing with that?”
“I was going to plant it”, he confessed. “Then it would have become a chocolate plant, and given me many chocolate fruits.”
I should have told him things didn’t really work that way; that only seeds grew into plants. But I couldn’t. “Plants take a long time to grow”, I told him. “You may have to wait long.”

Drabbles from around the world celebrating the many facets of Spring, only at the Burrow.

A drabble is a story told in exactly 100 words.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

O for Orange Belt

When my older one entered Grade 1 last year, we were asked to select two Extra-curricular Activities for him. After a bit of deliberation, we picked “Keyboards” and “Karate”. Keyboards because the kid is musically inclined and has been correctly identifying tunes since before he learnt to speak, and Karate because we thought he would fight less with his younger brother if he had martial arts to vent his pent up energy on.

Keyboards he hated from the very first day. Initially, I thought it was just lack of discipline- he did not like practicing, and how can you learn an instrument if you don’t make an effort – but later I realised that the teacher was perhaps not a very inspiring one. When he wanted to drop the Activity, I insisted that he finish the year, but promised that he could drop the Activity at the end of the year provided he made an effort during the year.

But karate, I always thought he liked. Wednesdays were the only day when I did not have trouble waking him up in the morning- I only had to mention the magic words, “today is karate day”, and he would get up without further ado. He was over the moon when he got his yellow belt at the end of the first term, and not only did the wear the belt almost constantly for two days, he couldn’t stop talking about the day when he would get his black belt. He was always ready to demonstrated his moves, and though I don’t know anything about martial arts, I was impressed by the way he moved.

Then, towards the end of the term, he stopped being interested in karate. He seemed almost indifferent to putting on his uniform and going to school on Wednesdays, and while he continued to demonstrate his moves at home, he informed me that he had no intention of continuing with the Activity in Grade 2.

I tried reasoning with him, but while he accepted my compliments gracefully, he refused to be swayed from his decision to discontinue the activity. “But you will get an orange belt next year, and a green belt the following year, and eventually you will get a black belt like your sir”, I told him, but it had no impact on him. “I don’t want to do karate. Karate is so silly,” he insisted.

I was disappointed, but eventually gave in to him. What was the point of forcing him to take up an Activity he was not keen on? It made sense to let him do what he liked, rather than what I thought he should be doing. I signed him up for basketball and capoeria.

On the last day of school, when I went to pick up his report card, the teacher handed me an orange belt. Around the same time that he suddenly developed his aversion to the activity, my son had taken his exams and had been awarded the next higher belt. His assessment in karate was also good – straight Bs. Why the kid suddenly decided to give up the activity when he was clearly good at it, is beyond me. All I know is that the orange belt he earned may never be worn. Unless he changes his mind next year.

Things are inexplicable, aren’t; they?

Friday, April 16, 2010

N for Networking

I was at work the other day when my phone rang. I recognised the number immediately- it was the mother of one of the girls in my younger one's class. The holidays had just started, so it was unlikely she was calling to pass on a message. Maybe she wanted to set up a play date or something. I wanted to ignore the call, but if I did, I would only have to call back later. I groaned inwardly, and took the call. Luckily, she got to the point almost immediately.
"You work for a NGO, don't you?", she asked. "I wonder if you know any organisation that helps cancer patients who cannot afford treatment. You see, my brother-in-law's driver has cancer, and they just cannot afford treatment. I was wondering if there was anyone who could help."
I started telling her that I work for a non-profit that works with children, and we have absolutely nothing in common with organisations in the health sector, but by the time the words formed, what came out was something like, "You could try Cancer Patients Association. They are based in Worli and I know they subsidise treatments for people who cannot afford it. And there is this other lady who is a cancer survivor herself. Her organisation mainly does counselling, but on a case to case basis, they try to raise money for deserving people. And of course, you could always try..."
Ten minutes later, the lady had details of five organisations that she could approach, including one where I knew the founder personally, even though we had been out of touch for nearly six years. She was thrilled to get so many leads, and I was equally happy that I had been able to help someone.

And that got me thinking about Networking. Now there are some people who are born networkers, but I never considered myself one of them. An only child, I was always quite self contained and did not have any great need for personal friendships. I was friendly with people, but never went out of my way to keep in touch. To be perfectly honest, I almost considered "Networking" a bad word. Networking was something people who did not have much to recommend themselves did to advance themselves. In fact, there were times in my life when I actually went out of my way to avoid contact with people who had passed out of my life.

And then I discovered LinkedIn, and Facebook. I discovered people I had even forgotten I knew, and I found that I liked interacting with them outside real time. Without quite realising it, I found myself storing random bits of information in my brain, and pretty soon found myself making connections. The school mate who was looking for an editor, the friend who did freelance editing. The colleague looking to change jobs, a batch-mate who wanted to recruit someone with a similar profile. An NGO desperate for donations, a funder looking for an organisation similar to that. I found myself networking all the time, and I found that I enjoyed it.

All my life, I had known two things about my brain - that it had the capacity to store an almost infinite amount of trivial information, and that my neural pathways were wired in a way that made seemingly random connections between disconnected pieces of information to come up with something almost intuitive. Looked at dispassionately, my brain was hard wired for Networking.

Networking, I now realise, is anything but a dirty word. Networking has the capacity to connect two needs, and come up with a synergistic relationship. Networking creates a cat's cradle out of a tangled mass of wool. And when it is used to do good, there is nothing more fulfilling than that.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

M for Mummies, .... and Money

“I am King Tutankhamun”, declared the first grader. I became the Pharaoh when I was nine years old. I died unexpectedly a few days back at the age of nineteen. The priests are going to prepare my body for mummification now.”

The high priest, with his attendant priests proceeded to do just that. Amidst much giggling and elbowing, the first graders took the parents through the process of embalming and mummification.
They washed the body, took out the vital organs and preserved them in a canopic jar.
They then let the body stay for 40 days, before embalming and wrapping it, preparing it for entombing.
For someone like me, who had only a very sketchy idea about process, it was a learning experience. In fact, the entire "End of the Term Culmination Show" was.

The kids were supposed to show us tiny capsules of what they learnt during the term. Instead, they ended up teaching me more about Ancient Egypt than a lifetime of seeking knowledge has done.

I had heard the names of Ra, Isis and Anubis . But my six-year old’s class introduced me to Horus, Khepri, Osiris, Thoth and Ma’at, and even told me what each of them looked like and what they oversaw.

I consider myself a reasonably well informed person, but I am constantly learning new things from my kids. If it is Ancient Egypt his month, last month, it had been dinosaurs. After realising how ignorant I was about those extinct creatures, I had spent a few hours researching dinosaurs, just so I could keep up with my four-year old. And even after that, I was caught on the back-foot when he asked me “Mamma, what is the name of Triceratop’s bother?” Answer – “A rhinoceros”. Obvious, after you know the answer- they do have similarly placed horns!

I distinctly remember being far ahead in mathematics and language when I was in the same class as each of my kids, but I definitely did not know as much about the world as they do. And neither were my lessons brought alive to me through collaborative projects, as is being done in my sons’ school. Primary education these days seems to focus more on developing a love for learning than in actually teaching skills. While I do not deny the need for skills, I do think this is a much better way of doing things, don’t you?

And while on the subject of kids, don't even try reasoning with them- you can never beat them on logic!

This weekend, we realised that both our ATM cards had expired, and while we had been sent new ones, we hadn't initiated the process of activating them. Not having anticipated it, we hadn't drawn money from the bank, and found on Saturday night that we had just enough money to last till Monday.
"Let's go to the cafe and have a milkshake", suggested the older one.
"Yes, lets", said the younger one pulling on his crocs.
"We can, baby", I tried to reason. "Haven't you been listening to Papa and Mamma? We don't have enough money for milkshakes, and the cafe doesn't accept cards."
"No problem, get some money", said the older one.
"Where from? I am telling you, our cards don't work, so we can't get money from the ATM."
"Then just go to a money shop, and buy some money."

Can anybody have an answer to that?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

L for Lost in London

It was my last day in London, and the only day I had free to do a little bit of sightseeing. Not that I hadn’t managed to soak in the atmosphere of the place – when you travelled as much as I did on business, you learnt the art of waking up early and taking walks around the neighbourhood. But there was still so much I wanted to “see” and experience; I virtually wanted to cram a lifetime of books into a single day.
In my hurry to be out and about, I transfer the notebook where I had written down the address of the place I was staying from my bag to my rucksack. I realised my mistake before I had gone too far, but didn’t want to waste precious time going back to fetch it. After all, how hard could it be to get back? All I had to do was to retrace the route from the Underground station. I looked around for landmarks- there didn’t seem to be too many of them, but wasn’t one grey stone church at the corner where the lane intersected the main Finchley Road enough to find my way back? I made a mental note of the nearest underground station before hopping onto a bus that would take me to Baker Street.
Nine hours later, the one thing I did not want to do was head back. My head was full of dizzying experiences – Speaker’s Corner at Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square, coffee at St. Pauls’, 10 Downing Street, 222-B Baker Street, Abbey Road, Picadelly Circus, Buckingham Palace. PG Wodehouse, Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie and assorted other favourites were creating kaleidoscopic patterns in my brain. But it was getting dark, and a light drizzle had started so, very reluctantly, I took the train to Finchley Road.
I always prided myself on my sense of direction, and had no reason to doubt that I had taken the right exit to get out of the station. I crossed the road and started walking in the direction where I knew the church should be. But the church wasn’t where I thought it should be. Maybe I had misjudged the distance – not something I would normally do, but things do look different in the dark than in bright sunlight. I kept walking. Double the distance, but still not church. Triple the distance, and still no church.
I knew I was lost. Perhaps I should ask someone for directions? But there didn’t seem to be anyone about. I thought back and realised that I hadn’t seen a single person ever since I realised I was lost. To a person from India, it was inexplicable that you could be in the middle of a capital city and not see a single soul, but that was the way it was.
The drizzle turned into rain. I got soaked to the skin (who in their right minds carries an umbrella with them in November?). I started shivering. I nearly started crying. My adventure was fast turning into a nightmare. I knew nobody in the city (I had moved into the empty house of a colleague for one night only because I didn’t have hotel reservation for the last day), it was a Sunday so I couldn’t try the Indian Embassy, and I had a flight to catch in less than 10 hours. I could hail a cab- if London cabs were as good as they were supposed to be, they should be able to find the place even without an address- but there were none to be seen. I could see myself wandering around the city forever, not being able to get back to the life I had left behind. While London was definitely the city I would most have loved moving to, I didn’t particularly want to spend a lifetime wandering on the streets of the city, looking for an address I couldn’t remember.
I stubbed my toe on the pavement and burst into tears. I stumbled around for what seemed like hours (my watch later told me it was barely 15 minutes). The city that had filled me with so much joy just a couple of hours back had turned black, bleak and cold. Then suddenly, I saw a mirage- a neon lit “Dominos Pizza” sign. I rushed towards it – “Delivery in 30 minutes or your money back” – if they couldn’t tell me how to get to where I wanted to go, nobody could.
“I need to get to Fincley Lane”, I stammered.
“You are a long way from that, love”, I was told. “That’s at the other end of the city.”
“Finchley Way, then, or maybe Finchley Row. I know it is Finchley something”, I was getting desperate.
“Are you sure you can’t remember anything about the place”, he asked politely.
“Well, there was a grey church where the road intersected Finchley Road”, I told him desperately. “But you could see an Underground Station from there, and I have been walking hours after getting off at Finchley Road…” I rambled on, and completely missed seeing his face suddenly light up.
“It is the Swizz Cottage station that you want”, he said. “There is a church diagonally opposite, which may be the one you want.”
He gave me precise instructions, and within ten minutes, I was back in the room warming my toes in front of the radiator.
Where I would have been if not for Dominos Pizza, I don’t even want to think about. Maybe I would have stumbled on and eventually found the place. Or maybe I would have continued walking on the streets till eternity.
After that incident, I’ve never stepped out without my address. Though it is nice being Found, I can think of few things worse than getting lost.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

K for Kicking... a ball

[This story is loosely based on the grandmother of one of the girls on our programme.]

Main buddhi hoon. I am an old woman. Is this the age to be running around in a field kicking a ball?”
“Why Dadi, are you afraid?”
Aree baba. I have never played football in my life. How do you expect me to start playing at this age.”
Dadi, you taught me that unless I tried something, I would never know if I could do it or not. Now, I am telling you the same thing. If you are too scared to try kicking the ball, how will you ever know fi you can play football or not.”
“No buts, Dadi. All my life you have been telling me I should not give up without trying. But when it comes to yourself, you don’t practice what you preach. We are one player short. Are you coming with me to play football or not?”
“If you put it that way, how can I refuse?”

Fatima knew that her grandmother was a formidable woman. She was twenty when she lost her husband. Knowing that she could never bring up two daughters on her own, she had married again. Her second husband had not been as well off as the first, and her life had been a constant struggle to ensure that her family did not go to bed hungry. Though her husband had not wanted his wife to work, she had been forced to take on embroidery work to supplement the family income.
None of her children attended school beyond the fourth grade- the sons had been put to work as soon as they turned ten, and the girls had been kept at home till they could be married off. It was only after her three sons started earning that she knew financial stability for the first time.

Fatima was the first of her grandchildren, and the apple of her eye. When Fatima completed her fourth grade, there was talk of pulling her out of school, but her grandmother would not hear of it.
“My Fatima is the best student in her school”, she declared proudly. “She will study as long as she wants to.”
Nothing could sway her from her decision to ensure her granddaughter stayed in school. Not arguments how it was not necessary for girls to study, and definitely not arguments about what the neighbours would say.
“I don’t care what anyone says, my granddaughter is going to school. Other people are just jealous because my Fatima is a better student than their sons.”

Proposals started trickling around the time Fatima entered the tenth grade. Fatima’s parents almost fomalised a match, but her grandmother turned it down.
“My Fatima is too young to get married. Let her first finish her studies.”
They tried telling her that it was a wonderful match, but she brushed them aside.
“My Fatima is one in a million. If they like her so much, let them wait.”

Fatima passed her Board Exams with distinction, and got a scholarship from the government to continue her studies. Fatima’s grandmother couldn’t contain her excitement. “Nobody in our entire community has done so well in the Exams”, she said. “Ask for anything you want and I’ll give it to you.”
“We are one member short in our team. Come and play football with me”, Fatima replied.

If Fatima's friends were surprised to see her grandmother on the playing field, they did not show it. They even passed the ball to her often, and waited patiently while she tried to kick it. When she finally made contact and the ball soared into the air, the girls from both teams gave her a long ovation.
“I have never played any sport in my life”, she said after the match was over. “Thank you so much for letting me play.”
“We loved having you here, Dadi”, said the girls. “You will come back to play again, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course I will. I will come every day, and Ishallah, someday, I may even score a goal.”
Ishallah, you will”, said Fatima giving her grandmother a big hug. “And one day, I will definitely become a doctor.”

Fatima and her grandmother knew there were only three steps between you and success - the ability to dream; the courage to start and the persistence to keep going.

Main buddhi hoon." - "I am an old woman.
"Dadi" - grandmother
"Aare baba" - "come on child
"Ishallah" - "god willing", literally, "if Allah so wishes"

Monday, April 12, 2010

J for Journey

There are few things more spectacular than the rising sun painting the sky in myriad hues. The slight brightening of the sky, the gradual delineation of the horizon, the addition of streaks of colours one by one, the sun slowly peeking out like a shy kid, till in one flash of glory, everything is replaced by the blank canvas of the morning sky.
I witnessed one of those glorious sunrises from an aeroplane in February 2001, when I was travelling to Cochin for a meeting with my favourite client. For a long time, I was filled with wonder, and finally, the physical words tumbled out of my mouth, "How wonderful this is. I am sure I am the luckiest person alive."
The statement was inspired by the glorious sight I had just witnessed, but that was a period when I was feeling truly blessed. I had a job that gave me immense pleasure- one couldn't have asked for a better boss, or better colleagues, my clients all loved me, and I was making a name for myself in the industry and people asked for me by name to be on an engagement. My husband and I had been married three years, and were blissfully content with leading out separate lives together. Most of my friends were pregnant or lactating, but the peer-pressure never got to me- I was too happy with my life to want kids in the picture complicating things. A few months short of my 30th birthday, I did not want anything in life that I did not already have.
Things could not have been better, and the sunrise I had just witnessed only made me articulate what I truly believed.

Three years later, I was on another flight out of Mumbai. A lot had happened in the meantime. I had changed jobs two times, lost my mother-in-law, saw my father's health start going down rapidly after an operation. My husband and I had re-evaluated our priorities in life, and I had got pregnant and given birth to a lovely baby. I was travelling to Bangalore to introduce my twelve week old to his grandparents.
Motherhood had been a challenge. A Type A person, I found it almost impossible to deal with the unpredictability of having a colicky baby in the house. I wished I had been made to pass an exam before being presented with a baby, so I would not make such a hash of motherhood. But overshadowing the Agony of Motherhood had been the Estacy.
Those unexpected smiles, the tiny fingers tightening their grip on your much larger one, the feeling of satisfaction when his curves neatly fitted into your own. Sleep deprived though I was, there were still nights when I used to wake-up and just stare at the Perfection that was my baby. I was looking forward to three weeks with my parents where they could bond with the grandchild they had waited so many years for.
The air-hostess was making the inflight announcements, I put my baby to breast, gave a contented sigh and looked out of the window. The sun was making a gradual descent into the Arabian sea, after painting a Masterpiece on the sky.
Memories stirred. I recalled the last time I had seen a similar display mounted outside my aeroplane window. Unbidden, the words came to my lips, "How wonderful this is. I am sure I am the luckiest person alive."
I had the most beautiful baby in the world. What more could anyone want?

I had journeyed far in those three years. But at the end of the journey, I found I was in the same place as I had been when I had started - at Peace with myself, and wanting nothing more than what I already had. I am still on that journey, and want nothing more than that it continue forever.

Photograph of the sunrise taken without permission from my Mother.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Festival of Colours

[Holi is celebrated on the last full moon in the lunar month of Phalgun, which fell on March 1 this year. The festival celebrates the Advent of Spring, though given the nature of seasons in India, it is often the only day of Spring.]

You can use dry dry herbal colours that wash off easily. Or use a paste of almost indelible aluminum paint.
You can buy your colours from a store. Or soak flowers overnight to extract your own colours.
You can smear colours on a person’s face before giving them a hug. Or throw balloons with coloured water from behind.
You can play with your friends, and use the festival to make new ones. Or play dirty and get your revenge on enemies.

Whatever you prefer, you have to celebrate Holi, to bid goodbye to winter and herald the advent of summer.

Drabbles from around the world celebrating the many facets of Spring, only at the Burrow.

A drabble is a story told in exactly 100 words.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

I for India, and for Interview

India's most crowded metropolis has two faces-

Don't Touch
Over 20 million residents crowded into an island city. When resources are scarce and people have to jostle for every inch of space, it takes very little for the ugly "Don't Touch" face to reveal itself. Tempers are short, the smallest things trigger an utterly unnecessary response, people fight over the most trivial matters, and you have no way of predicting how someone will respond to something totally innocent.

And yet, this is the city that attracts more migrants every year than the population of a mid-sized town in the US or England. This is the city where, even if you don't make your millions, you make enough to feed yourself and your family. This is the city that people escape to when faced with starvation in their villages, and however pathetic the conditions they are forced to live in, few return to their villages.

Also, both statements are in English- the language of the colonists who built the city adn made her great, but the language which is now being sought to be kicked out of the city.


On a different note, Faith Pray (yes, that is her real name) of Sacred Dirt was nice enough to invite me over for afternoon tea at her place today, and even published our conversation. She's got some treats for everyone at her coffee shop.

Friday, April 9, 2010

H is for Hitler

[This post is partially dedicated to Marvin Wilson. A couple of months back, one of his comments was swallowed by Blogger, but he thought I had deleted it, and was nice enough to ask me why I did so. I'd assured him that I would never delete a comment unless it was so offensive as to cause distress to too many other people, and even then, I would inform before deleting.
If today's post doesn't convince him that I meant what I said, nothing will.]

Last November, I had reviewed a book written by a wildly popular Indian author chronicling the love story of a Punjabi boy and a Tamilian girl. I dismissed the book as a collection of stereotypes and clich├ęd situations, but it was perhaps for those very reasons that it went on to become a runaway bestseller. The book, after all, was not written for me- it was written for the less discerning reader- the literary equivalent of the audience of a David Dhawan Bollywood movie.

Thought the author of the book claims it is based on his own love affair, even if he had set out to write a completely fictional story, it is likely he would have chosen protagonists from the same communities as the ones he actually wrote about.

The stereotypical South Indian and the stereotypical North Indain are at two extremes of the spectrum.
The nerdy Madrasi (because that is what the stereotypical South Indian is referred to as), in his ill fitting, shabby clothes, using his fingers to eat curd-rice from a banana leaf and speaking in an accent nobody can understand. He wouldn't recognise a joke if it danced naked in front of him, and his philosophy would be "simple living, high thinking" .
The crass North Indian couldn't be more different. Everything about his is loud, flashy and boisterous - his music, his clothes, his car, his wife's jewellery, his house. He's never seen without a leg of tandoori chicken in one hand and a glass of single malt in the other, and when he is not swaying like a maniac to music, he's cracking non-veg jokes.
The book was the success it was precisely because it did not deviate from either stereotype, but my review made it amply clear that I found the book distasteful in the extreme.

I'd posted the review five months back, and was rather surprised to find that someone had commented on it a couple of days back. When I read the comment, I was stunned by the vitriolic attack -
I'm a north indian male and it's really flattering to see the south indian females marrying the north indians males. After all the south indian males are ugly black monkeys, who are poor in every department of manhood. In looks and physique the south indian males are pathetic compared to the north indian males.The south indian males are the ugliest specimens in india and even the toilet cleaners in north india look more handsome than them. My only advice to south indian females is to marry north indian males so that they can improve the gene pool of the future generations by having beautiful children.

How dare he contaminate my blog with such trash, was my first and only thought.

"Ugly black monkeys"? Excuse me! While the average North Indian is fairer than the average South Indian, I know of several individual South Indian males who are much fairer than most North Indians. And in any case, does the variation of a couple of shades in skin colour matter at all?
"poor in every department of manhood"? If I choose to interpret this the way it is perhaps meant to be, I can only wonder how a seemingly heterosexual male knows. But perhaps he means that the stereotypical North Indian male is the life and soul of the party unlike this South Indian counterpart. If that is what he means, he can keep it. The South Indian male would rather conquer Silicon Valley than waste time on parties.
But what perhaps got me most angry was his statement that " even the toilet cleaners in north India look more handsome than....". What's wrong with being a toilet cleaner? I clean my toilets, and that doesn't make me inferior to anyone. To make someone else do the jobs that you don't want to do, and then to make them out to be inferior creatures because they work for you, that's precisely the sentiment that Indians need to shed before the country can take its rightful place among the top nations in the world.

I happen to be a South Indian married to a North Indian which makes me the person he is talking about when he mentions "improving the gene pool by having beautiful children". But despite the fact that he was complimenting my kids, the comment made my blood boil.

There are few things I detest more than intolerance, and racial/ religious/ regional parochialism. Despite our deep seated need to label ourselves, we are all human beings. We have the right to disagree, we even have the right to hate, but it is a human being we should be disagreeing with (or hating), not the label we choose to put on them. It was precisely this kind of hatred that led to the Holocast, and it is this kind of hatred that is responsible for so much of what is wrong with the world today.

If I could, I would like to press the delete button and exterminate the parochial sentiments of the person who posted the comment, but delete his comment, I could not bring myself to do. After all, while I think I am right, he too thinks he is right, and who am I to deny him the freedom of speech.

I did not, however, have the energy to counter his statement with facts, so all I said was -
I believe in freedom of speech, which is why I am not deleting your comment, but if you feel looks are the only thing that matters, you probably have a few hard lessons coming your way.
He is unlikely to come back and read my reply, and I would rather he not, because I am not sure I have the energy to engage in a war of words with him. But I do hope he sees the error of his ways soon.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

G for Glamour

When the Indian tennis player, Sania Mirza, burst into the third round of the Australian Open in 2005, she began attracting mass publicity and not just in India. She came like a breath of fresh air in a world ruled by the Williams sisters- stunningly attractive, immensely talented, and with a great future ahead of her.

Not as strong as the current lot of players, she brought in the crowds like few of them could. Long before she was seeding in any Grand Slam tournament, her growing popularity ensured that her matches were being scheduled on Centre Court.
She was the darling of a nation with few sporting icons to look upto, and her combination of raw talent and stunning looks ensured she had an equally large fan following outside the country.

Great things were expected to Sania Mirza, but somehow she never quite lived upto the promise she displayed. One of the first endorsement deals she signed was for a manufacturer of gold jewellery- that turned out to be prophetic. After the initial few months, she started generating more column inches for her lifestyle than for her game. Link-ups with Bollywood stars, controversies over her sartorial choices.
Suddenly, the Golden Girl could do no right. She was the brand ambassador for a campaign to save the girl child, but generated more column inches when Muslim clerics criticised her for wearing "un-Islamic" clothes on the court. Instead of being projected as a role model for girls in the sub-continent, people chose to stir up unnecessary controversy when, at a press conference, she inadvertently put up her feet on a table which had the national flag.
A different person may have fought back and silenced her critics with her performance, but the Glamour Girl didn't. Five years after she hit the limelight, her second serve remains as weak as ever. On a good day, she is still one of the best players around, but there is no consistency in her performance. All these years later, she is still a mine of talent, but perhaps it is now too late to extract the gold.

She is now making headlines of a different kind. She's getting married to the equally controversial Pakistani cricketer, Shoaib Malik, and speculation is rift about whether she will continue to play after marriage, and if so, for which country. There are also the people who question if she is marrying for love, or into a betting syndicate. And I am not even getting into the soap-operaish saga of the alleged previous marriage of Shoaib's - the truth of which may never be known.

To me, those conversations are purely academic- all that matters is that she is unlikely to ever become the player she could have been. She's gone on record saying that the only thing she is currently bothered about is whether her hair looks good on her wedding day or not. She seems to have completely forgotten about the hard court season that is currently going on, and the amount of tennis she is missing.

And while I wish the couple well, I can't help wondering. Had Sania Mirza not been as attractive and glamourous as she is, would she have achieved her full potential as a tennis player?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

F for Fighting Fat and Fitness

I was on the treadmill the other day, when I overheard a lady telling the attendant at the gym, “I have gained 2 kilos in the last three months. You have to get rid of it somehow.”
“I’ll do what I can”, the attendant said, a little unnecessarily, I thought. “But you need to put in effort from your side.”
“I don’t know about all that”, the lady said rather truculently. “You have to somehow get rid of those two kilos.”
The gym attendant asked the lady to get on the treadmill, and while she was walking, asked her basic questions about her history.
“Earlier, I could get rid of the extra weight by controlling my diet for a couple of weeks”, the lady said in reply to direct question. “But that’s not working anymore. Which is why I have come to you.”
“If that’s the case, Ma’am, maybe you should also consult a dietitian”, the attendant suggested gently.
“Nonsense! I know everything there is to know about diets and it is not working. You have to get rid of the extra weight.”

I struggled to keep the cynical look out of my face, while the exchange was going on. The lady had an almost enviable figure, and didn’t “need” to lose two kilos. While I totally advocate the need to incorporate exercise into your daily routine, I am always skeptical of people who set miniscule targets of weight loss – the moment they achieve their objective, they stop working out, and soon end up undoing all the good work. While I would be pleasantly surprised if proved wrong, this lady definitely fell in the category.
Since running always gives you time for reflection, I thought of the difference between that lady and me. I work out almost every day, and even on days when I don’t, I end up walking 2 to 3 kilometers on my way to and from work. And yet, my weight has remained stable for over two years. I would definitely like to lose a couple of inches in the lower part of the body , but don’t stress myself because the inch loss is just not happening. After all, I can now carry off practically anything I want to wear, and most of what I cannot carry off are clothes I wouldn’t want to wear in the first place.
Why then do I force myself to get out of bed in the morning, when I can easily skip the gym and sleep an hour longer?
Simply because fitness matters to me. After my surgery last year, the gynecologist was surprised at how quickly I was back on my feet- I wasn’t because I knew my muscles were strong, even if they did not look as toned as they could. I push myself in the gym, not because I want to lose weight, or get better muscle tone, but because I enjoy the adrenaline rush I get when I exercise- I am noticeably more grumpy on days when I skip my routine.

“I can’t do all that weights and things.” A complaining voice broke into my thoughts. “If I do, my body will ache for days. And in any case, I think bulging muscles don’t look good on women.”
“But, Ma’am, how can I make you lose weight if you don’t listen to me?”, the attendant tried to reason.
“How you make me lose weight is your lookout. I am not doing weight training.”

I should envy her figure, instead I felt sorry for her. With her attitude, she’ll never experience the joy of running, or the thrill of doing something she could not even dream of attempting a few weeks back.
Fighting fat is important, but Fitness is far more important to me.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

E for Education

Though the Constitution of India guarantees free and compulsory education to children upto the age of 14, a third of the 200 million children between the ages 6 and 14 are not in school. There are a number of reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that there are just not enough schools to cater to all the children of school-going age, and the few schools that are there are so short staffed, the children don’t learn much in school and so are pressured to drop-out.
Studies have borne out the existence of the high drop-out rate. While enrollment in Grade 1 is nearly 85%, by the time they reach Grade 5, the figure drops down to less than 60%. Families that send their 6-year old children to school take them out almost as soon as the children become functionally literate.

The government machinery has failed totally where it comes to making education accessible for all.

Rather than look for viable alternatives, the Parliament of India, last week, passed the Right to Education Act making education a fundamental right of all children in the age group 6 to 14 years. In a nation which already guaranteed free and compulsory education, the intent of the Act doesn’t go much beyond semantics.

The only significant change is that the government has made it mandatory for all private schools to reserve 25% of their seats for economically disadvantaged children at the entry level. Since privately run schools necessarily need to make profits, the government would reimburse the expenditure incurred by the schools in making the seats available to children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

On the face of it, it seems like a great idea- when private schools are flourishing across the country, why not use that infrastructure to provide education for all? But is it really such a great idea? Tution fees account for only a small proportion of the total expenditure incurred in sending a child to private schools – there are uniforms and sports uniforms, books and stationary, field trips and costumes for annual days. Will the government reimburse all those expenses, and if it does not, will the parents be able to afford it?

Even if children from disadvantaged backgrounds enroll at the entry level, they are sure to drop out before the end of the year, leaving them no better off than they would have been in the absence of such reservations.

The situation seems almost hopeless. The government doesn’t have the infrastructure to provide education for all, and if accessing private schools is not a workable solution, does that mean children are destined not to get an education?

Not at all. The solution is there for all to see, but for some reason, the Government chooses to ignore it. Non-formal education!

Across urban and rural India, there are non-profit organizations that provide basic education to children of various backgrounds. There are organizations that conduct classes in workshops that employ child labour and there are organizations that conduct lessons within school buildings beyond school hours. There are organizations that train volunteers to conduct classes for small groups of children, and there are organizations that replicate the government system of one teacher schools in rural areas.

Instead of offering to reimburse private schools, if the Government pumps the same amount of money into non-profits, primary education for all need no longer remain a dream. I can only hope that the Government realizes it sooner rather than later.

I believe that “Education for All” is neither a slogan nor a dream- it is a basic entitlement, and while the Right to Education Act recognizes the fact, it is unlikely to go very far in actualizing it.


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