Saturday, February 27, 2010

Telephone Tales

It has been an interesting 60 years. Thinking about telephones and telephony, that is.

For the first 7 years of my school, up to 1961, we did not have a telephone at home in Pune. It was not that it was expensive, but it was simply not available to everyone. There were waiting lists.

I came home one afternoon while in eight grade, to see a black rotary instrument sitting in the living room. Turned out, that many families we knew, also got these telephones on the same day. And almost immediately, the misuse began. History homework notes were exchanged in detail and dictated over the phone, arithmetic homework was checked assiduously, till a maternal and paternal outrage immediately put a stop to it. One doesn't remember having too much casual talk with friends over it, and it was used sparingly, like to contact the doctor, or the school etc. Overseas calls, then involved booking a call, and for some reason, understanding the accent of the overseas operator gave us a big high, and we would shout at the top of our voices when the connection happened, as if the voice needed to carry over the 12,000 miles ...

We soon went through a period up to , say mid eighties, when getting a phone installed was such a huge achievement. Particularly in Mumbai where I was living then. Keeping it working was even more of one. It was controlled by a public sector set up, and was basically a sellers market, where a lot more (in terms of surreptitious telephone services) was sold, besides telephone connections. Telephone repair mechanics ruled supreme, and one always admired folks working with the telephone department.

For many years I had a file of telephone complaints correspondence, probably classifying me persona non grata , with the fellows, who provided quick undocumented telephone repairs with a smile, while pocketing a disproportionately huge compulsory tip. Telephone wires still stretched through poles and trees, and there were several occasions, when I had to climb on the sloping roof of our apartment complex, to co-operate and verbally communicate with a guy on top of a pole, as he attempted to set things right.

We were the only folks in the building having a telephone, and it was often used as a community thing during some emergency time. One of our neighbors, had just had a prostate operation , and the histopathological exam of the excised sample, was indicating some not-so-nice , yet doubtful conclusions. The agitated lady came down to our house that evening, with the urologists number, and explained. They needed to call and fix up an urgent appointment.

We called. The first call reached a wrong number. This happened again and again, despite slow, proper, dialling of the stuff. The same lady would come on at the other end. And she finally asked us what our problem was, once she surmised that we weren't children surreptitiously having fun by making prank calls. Possibly there was a connection snafu somewhere in the cables, which was directing these calls to her number (with a difference of one digit).

Turned out that she happened to know the urologist, who stayed nearby. She understood our plight, and offered to send her son over to find out an appointment for us the next day, and asked us to call back in half a hour. We did. The urologist remembered this patient and the urgency and gave an appointment the next day. The unknown lady was profusely thanked by us. And to this day we don't know her name or where she stayed.....

Those were the old days. And we then had such "quality" wrong numbers and cross connections!

Today, with the advent of cell phones, and the communication sector opened up to private participation, the telephone has become a toy. Wires on landlines have gone underground, it is no longer attractive to be a telephone mechanic, and I don't climb on sloped terraces anymore, to shout at the mechanic on the telephone pole. Though, one, of course, does see random ditches being dug in the midst of heavy traffic, by the telephone people, to correct, what they call, cable faults.

But in today's wireless world, there are batteries of semi-trained young people sitting with lists and calling unknown people from there, to sell things.

Blue Chip investments, Prudential insurances, credit cards and debit cards from assorted fancy banks, and personal loans.

One person even called up to say that I would get a free fully paid trip for two, at some five star resort if I answered 4 questions, pertaining to the (India's) freedom struggle. I did. Successfully, and then was told to come to a vague place in Mumbai for a free dinner (for two), and a presentation, provided I brought my cheque book along. A friend got taken in by this and found out it was a timeshare scheme, where they closed the office and vanished into thin air after a few months.

There is another set up folks who call offering personal loans from various banks. The same banks, hold tight on rules, when you apply for a house loan or something and entangle you in paperwork. After once getting 8 calls in 2 days, something went like this :

"Good afternoon. I am calling from XXXXXXX bank. And we can offer you a personal loan " a male voice.

"But I don't need any loan right now. Besides who gave you my number? " Me.

"Ma'am. Just a few minutes. We have these very attractive schemes, personal loans up to 50,000. Cash."

" Look. Tell me if you need money. I will give you a personal loan." Me. With false bravado.

That bank probably struck me off their list.

The bank where I have been a customer for 35 years, recently made 9 phone calls to me. Different people asking the same question. Do I want a credit card ?(I already had one of theirs). To each one, I had to provide the same information from scratch. I finally sent them 10 identical emails saying the same thing. After which someone called to apologize.

But the worst thing to happen is this business of cellphone caller tunes and ring tones. Ages ago we only had the decent tring-tring.

Today, you are standing in a bus, crushed in the crowd, and something has just fallen down from your purse as you organize to buy a ticket. Someones phone rings and merrily plays the old favourite ,"Congratulations , and celebrations !"......

Then there is the guy who has just spat tobacco juice out from the window, and his phone rings and loudly plays "Sare jahan se Achha, Hindostan Hamara !".

Or there is this HUGE person, whose ring tone says something about "Pappu being unable to dance" (said with an expletive), which is supposed to be a popular song...... (I wouldn't even try dancing in the bus...)

There are folks who think nothing of playing emergency sirens, whistles, and shouts as ring tones.

But the concept of caller tunes is new. When you call someone, instead of the usual tone, you are compulsorily made to hear some stuff. Some have old film songs. Some have some patriotic music. Some have the latest hit in Hollywood and Bollywood. Some have religious prayers. I have even heard someone, who makes you listen to the typical concluding recitations done by priests during Hindu marriages, before he picks up the phone. I have heard baby laughs, cricket commentaries, and parodies of film villains.
My brain is clogged. I give up. I want the old days back again. When you had no choices and a simple standard ring. No sms's, no missed calls being used as tricks to indicate something, and no frequently changing phone schemes, while the phone company kind of bleeds you dry, slowly and steadily.

I think only the Almighty can help.

And so I have a caller tune which is an old Marathi movie song, a devotional song, and a favourite. And it beseeches the Lord saying, my body is the safe-locker, my faith is the fixed deposit, and please to open the doors of heaven, please to open the doors......(And all the while, at least in the movie, some thieves are busy trying to hack open some safe deposit vault...)

Click to listen

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Kande Pohe Interviews

Intra : A Latin word meaning "within" or inside...

An interview is actually an intra-view. Where the interviewer looks inside your mind, to get an inside view of your thinking.

If you ignore the 'n' interviews at various levels one goes through, for jobs, where you are viewed as a possible thing to spend money on, and earn revenue from, I have had precisely 2 interviews in my life.

One interview in 2 parts on Blogadda recently, where I never saw the face of the interviewer.

And the other interview, about 38 years ago when I was an undergraduate in college, staying in a college hostel.

My college in Pune has a long history. The women's hostel or ladies' hostel as it is called has existed almost for a century now today. My mother went to that college and stayed in the hostel in the 1930's. They have various plaques and things on walls to commemorate building of various wings , thanks to some very generous donors.

30 years late in the late 60's another generous donor, an alumni, who was married into one of India's richest families, who was my mother's classmate and even remembered her , donated for a separate modern hostel wing, with slightly more modern facilities, where allocation of rooms was based on academic performance.

They were all double rooms, with the mandatory two beds, two tables, two chairs, two bookshelves, and something that resembled a broad cement mantelpiece above a bunch of built in cement cupboards. The food facilities were restricted to lunch and dinner, while we were supposed to figure out ourselves about breakfast, tea, and evening snacks etc on our own. Consequently, it was considered smart to own a kerosene stove, and subscribe to a milk delivery arrangement. We had two kerosene stoves.

Early mornings would see us making tea/coffee, and boiling a big container of milk, and making toast, since sliced bread was generally bought every few days. The same happened in the evenings when we returned from practicals/labs. Occasionally, someone would drop by with some alarming exciting news, and the stove would be forgotten, till there was a huge hiss followed by a smell of burned milk, as the boiling milk, completely overflowed out of the vessel and fell on red hot metal . In our junior year we had advanced to cooking various curries and rice, and that was useful when the messing arrangements and menu there was not to our liking.

One fine day we were told that a lady from the editorial section of a very prestigious and well known Marathi magazine was interviewing girls who had lived in college hostels/dorms, something that was on the rise, due to great awareness of education-for-girls. Someone decided that my roommate and I, (who roomed together all 4 years), would be ideal fodder. We both talked a lot, were outgoing, were fairly steeped in the hostel culture, and we were asked to also have some other younger girls with us when the interview happened.

The day was preceded by a massive cleaning effort, and dumping of unfolded clothes into cupboards tightly shut. We actually sprayed perfume in he room and ran the fan for a longish time, hoping to get rid of the lingering aroma of burnt spilt milk, which was like a trademark smell. Some fresh milk was bought and duly stored , sugar and tea containers were filled, and cookies and biscuits were kept ready. Someone thought up the idea of Kande Pohe, to impress the interviewer lady. Actually, it was the only snack I could make well then.

D-day. The lady duly arrived. A very kind lady, she was dripping with empathy for us girls, staying far away from the folds of the family. All kinds of nice and interesting questions were asked, amazement was expressed by her over our resourcefulness, our family backgrounds were asked and so on. Then we asked her if she would like tea/coffee. The lady was immensely overcome by our perceived generosity, the effort to be hospitable in such meagre surroundings without a proper kitchen etc . And we got busy with the preparing of Kande Pohe. Which needed a lot of onion to be cut.

This was actually very "tearfully" achieved, as none of us were used to cutting so much onion without lachrymal flow of great magnitude . Stuff was all in process, the water was boiling, milk was boiling, Kande Pohe was ready, and the Hostel guard came in , announcing that one the girls in our group had a visitor. There was no concept of co-ed dorms then, a fellow could get into trouble even stepping into the garden, forget hostel rooms, and so you went out to see and meet whoever. The interviewer lady was getting an expert view of "life in the hostel", visitors and all.

The only trouble was , she also asked us some more things then. With one of the girls gone out, we didn't realize that the milk was unattended, and the stove clearly did not have a simmer function. In those non IT days, it behaved in a binary fashion, full or zero.

Just when we were all having a good laugh and patting ourselves on how well everything seemed to be going, there was a familiar hissing noise, some darting glances, and all of us ignored the interviewer and ran to save the milk, and hide the smelly trauma.

To cut a long story short, the interviewer was treated to some candid hostel episodes, and she relished our Kande Pohe, amidst some doubtful coffee/tea, and a pervading whiff of "burnt milk on stove" . But she clearly remembered her childhood. She was a very nice lady, who reassured us that all this stuff was par for the course, not to worry, and that she had enjoyed talking to us.

The article duly appeared in the leading womens magazine of that time. Our parents were relived to know that the daughters were behaving OK, and proudly showed the issue to their friends.

The lady subsequently left that magazine, and is today the esteemed editor of a very wonderful magazine, "Miloon sarya Zanee" dedicated to women's issues in society, publishing quality literature , sometimes from even around the world.

She probably doesn't remember this insignificant blip in her life as a interviewer and editor.

But that was my first interview.

Times have changed.

With Blogadda, I never got to see a face to go with the words. I didn't have to rush around organizing the house, making snacks, and yes, boiling the milk.

If the milk did boil over, the interviewer was not treated to the burning smell.

And certainly the Adda types missed out on the Kande Pohe.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Price of everything, value of nothing ?

Notwithstanding the Agriculture and Civil Supplies Minister and his veiled warnings about price rise, we middle class types who shop locally at various vegetable stalls, continue to practice the fine art of bargaining and haggling. Of course, some slightly more advanced evolved types have this quality missing, but like everything else we can always attribute it to say, Darwin or global warming.

The whole exercise is all about looking at some vegetables, touching/feeling/breaking(beans) for freshness, and then deciding what you think is a good affordable price that you will pay , say, per kilogram. During this time, the vendor is surreptitiously multitasking, completing monetary transactions, keeping one eye on you, and simultaneously thinking about what price he can get away with where you are concerned.

I used to think this was a way of life.

Turns out that this was actually a trigger for some hi-fi research.

Some guys at Duke University's Center for Neuroeconomic Studies, are doing research on how people see things, and ascertain the "worth" of what they see. And clearly, they did not have my vegetable vendor, and the price of fresh green peas in mind.

In what could be the world's first instance of using MCP (Male Chauvinistic Protocols), in their experiments, a bunch of chaps were shown 2 sets of pictures. One set was beautiful faces of women, and the other was pictures of money. They did MRI's to study the brain reactions and asked the participants if they'd pay more or less money to look at faces that were, respectively, more or less attractive.

As reported:

"During the fMRI experiment, heterosexual men viewed a set of female faces that had previously been rated for attractiveness by peers. Interspersed with the face pictures were pictures of money, shown in several denominations, which indicated real monetary gains or losses that the participant could later spend during the next phase of the experiment.

The participants made a series of economic decisions: Should they spend more of their money to see a more attractive face, or spend less money but see a less attractive face? Each participant made about one hundred of these decisions, spending from one to 12 cents each time.

Turns out that when we look at something, the brain does two things .

One part in the frontal cortex, just literally lights up and enjoys the experience. Another part of the frontal cortex basically decides the "worth" of that experience. Basically says, that such and such a face, evokes this value response; similar faces will evoke possibly the same response, but a more exciting/beautiful face may again evoke a different value response. You can guess, which parts of the fellows brains lit up when what was shown.

All this has a huge bearing for the marketing of goods to the consumer.

Think of all the funding used in this, which could have been used for, say, water resources, droughts, building shelters for those having none etc etc. Why ?

We have exponents who exploit and have known this theory, in droves, in our country.

Ministers, folks in high places, are very careful of who they meet. Frequently, the reputation of their visitors precedes their visitors. Any prosperous looking visitor who comes to see them, probably generates furious lightening in their (minister's) frontal cortex , as it were. Several parts light up in MRI's , simply thrilled about the possibilities of " easy acquisitions".

Simultaneously, sidey/posterior parts of the frontal cortex, get into a desperate calculation, figuring out , what the visitor could be expected to shell out. The eyes , of course, also light up; outside , as well as in brain regions controlling sight, and that's why we see so many powerful types wearing sunglasses and glares in daily life.

Then there is also the theory of brain-lighting-by-induction. The Duke fellows don't know about it. It is universally acknowledged , that those in the vicinity of folks who have these smart sidey/posterior cortexes, also develop, by evolution, and induction, some very sharp neurons of their own. The poor visitors , coming to explain their problems and seeking a solution, are completely aware of this, and get properly fleeced.

But I digress. I was talking about the vegetable vendor.

Its best to know one's level, in life and society.

Yes, the tomatoes looked good, and the capsicums too. Peas were supposed to be in season, so maybe I could check those? I look at some French beans and try breaking one to test its tender age. Of course I cannot ignore the cauliflowers.

I look up . At the vegetable vendor. He sizes me up. I ponder about the price. I am sure the sidey/posterior part of my cortex has hit upon a Rs 15 per kilogram rate, despite the fact that the other main part is thrilled about the freshness of the peas. The offer is made.

He packs someone else's carrots, hands them over, and looks at me. Half a smile on his face. he shakes his head. Maybe his sidey/posterior value-cortex rattles.

A LIGHT goes ON to his left, somewhere behind.

"20 Rs a kilo. But if you buy two kilos, you can pay me 32."

I am simply amazed. Maybe the theory of stuff lighting up works. Maybe the thing on his left was the sidey/posterior cortex.

I buy the two kilos. As I stuff the veggies into my cloth bag, I see a large figure in a sari, rising behind the vegetable stall. Its the vendor's wife.

"I can't see the coriander down there. So I thought I'd put on the bulb a bit early this evening, and finish cleaning the coriander leaves...."

I mean, I know we invented zero, and were way ahead of the world ,in astronomy and things in ancient days. I know Obama is worried about us producing more engineers and scientists than them.

But a lifestyle depicting frontal cortex lighting rules ? Regardless of level of social strata ? Maybe the Duke fellows should factor that in.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Interacting with Addas

When I was a child, the word "Adda" in Marathi (my mother tongue) didn't have connotations that were nice. It basically meant a collection of people , up to nothing useful, and Wikipedia defines it as " a noun, with the nominal form of the word meaning the location or nest of a group or community, usually shady people. "...

So mothers always referred to a bunch of no-gooders playing cards, as a card-adda, or a bunch of people sitting on a culvert and gossiping as a gossip adda. It is, of course , worth noting , that a bunch of dedicated students solving geometry homework riders were never referred to as "homework adda", and neither were ladies-getting-together-to-make-divali-sweets, called a ladies adda.

Over the years, meanings have changed.

Same with Adda.

And so today guys call themselves BlogAdda. They sit amidst a forest of blogs, their minds a-whirl , barely managing to keep their heads above the Niagara of information descending on them, one hand clutching the mouse pointing at the Back arrow.

They Tweet, and they Pick. Tangy Tuesdays Blogs and Spicy Saturdays Blogs. Wild Wednesdays, and Mindblowing Mondays still wait for Fabulous Fridays and Thrilling Thursdays...

I kept hoping they'd have Payasam Sunday Blogs . These young people don't realize that you don't alliterate on Sundays. (You read blogs while sipping spoonfuls of Payasam). Its OK. They will learn when they get to be my age...

Instead they asked me to do an Interview.


(And no, I didnt have to rush around shoving stuff under sofas, pushing chocolate wrappers under magazines, checking wilting flowers, changing into FabIndia outfits, or practicing my smile...:-))

Monday, February 15, 2010

Youngest at 80 and rocking....

Just saw this post . And the mind went into a fast rewind. Being the youngest can actually mean many things. At many ages. But at 80 ?

In our childhood, back in our schooldays, in Pune, she used to be a member of something called the All India Women's Council or something similar. They had all these wonderful projects going on, where needy women cooked and ran cafeterias in some Pune government offices. One of these was near my school, and whenever there was an evening meeting for her there, we escaped the bus travel, and met her there. Naturally, we had all kinds of yummy stuff, and then drove home with her.

This women's organization was very systematic. They had office bearers, they were affiliated to something in Delhi,, and they often had meetings. I remember, their President was a short but very imposing lady, who wore glasses, and lived on the banks of a river, below a vehicular bridge, in a very British Raj stone bungalow, with a huge garden. She always wore wonderful cottons, which seemed to be woven for her, with very traditional borders. The wife of an ICS retiree, you experienced a very different ethos in that house. For one thing, everyone wore footwear in the house, mild lipstick was the order of the day, and the household operated on automatic, as it were.

If you had guests, and wanted to ask if they would like some tea etc, all she had to do was just look sideways or something, and someone would appear by magic, and tiptoe away with the requirements, soon to appear with a tray of stuff. I actually looked around for a tinkling bell of sorts. But failed. Coming from a household, where calling out to one's sibling gave intense workouts to the larynx, this was absolutely impressive.

In those days , I went to an English school, (something a bit "forward" those days), and was totally enamoured of the piano, where you sat in a frock , with lipstick and high heels, hair cascading around your face, and played magical stuff as your school gathered for its daily morning assembly and hymns. The lady's house had this big impressive piano in the living room.

Sometimes we stopped by at her house on our way home from school with our mother, and one day, my day was made when she allowed me to sit at the piano, and play, Jana Gana Mana(the national anthem) with one finger. We became friends, after she rewarded me with a rose from her own garden. She was older to my mother and always enquired after us even as we grew up and got settled in our lives.

Cut to the late 90's.

My mother was now in her late 70's , almost 80, and no longer an active member of these Women's Associations. Many of her old friends from there were no more, some were plagued with old age mobility problems, some had troublesome knees, but communication was easier now, and they all kept in touch by telephone, paper, and even hearsay. Her friend with the piano was now quite old, but still kept in touch. Most of these ladies were unencumbered , offspring wise, and most of their husbands, were either comfortably home bound, and completely involved in some activity like writing, spearheading some movement of their own (anti smoking, rural health, rebirth of Sanskrit etc etc).

So I wasn't totally surprised to hear from my mother that there was trip going to the Andamans, specially for these Women's Council oldies. They were to be entertained for tea by the Lieutenant Governor of the Andaman Islands, and would be doing organized sight seeing. They would take a train to Chennai (24 hours) and then a flight over the Bay of Bengal for 2-3 hours. The return would be similar....

A whole bunch of ladies, average age 80, signed up for this. Some had recently had cataract surgery , some walked with a fancy 4-pronged cane, some had shaking hands, and a couple even had some fancy wigs they wore everywhere, because in reality they were almost bald.

Seeing the group off, kind of made you feel ashamed about the amount of fuss we make over small things. They were travelling by 3 tier sleeper, and to this day, I have no idea how the women climbed on to the topmost berth. Everyone wore sarees, some in 9 yards. But like my mother old me after they returned, "we all helped, and the younger ones (!) climbed up. "

I went to receive her on return, and suddenly found her to be enjoying some kind of star status amidst the ladies, who couldn't stop gushing and smiling at me , amidst the luggage and chaos on the platform.

Turns out that , the place they stayed at in Port Blair or wherever , had this great big staircase. The hilly terrain required that stuff be built on several levels. The ladies would come back tired after a day, and once dinner was done, and sleep beckoned, everyone would suddenly remember they needed water in some bottles, someone had forgotten something downstairs. My mother, at 79 was the "youngest", and rather than risk ladies with cataracts and canes struggling down the stairs in the dim lighting and loosing a possible foothold, she offered to do these errands. So she would do several trips up and down , every night before turning in, filling water bottles and bringing them up.

None of them believed in Bisleri too much, and thought that water shouldn't have to be "bought", for heavens sake. Then there was a lady who had sudden digestive problems, and my mother went down to the hotel kitchen and had some ginger concoction made and brought it up, which led to a successful outcome. Of course a lifetime of daily climbing the Parvati Hill temple was excellent training for my mother, although , plagued now with some niggling old age things.

Andamans had never seen anything like this group. All of them went to the Cellular Jail, and laboriously climbing up to the second floor cell occupied by Swatantraweer Savarkar, someone they looked up to in their young age , was something that took major part of one morning, but no one gave up. So many of them has actually been part of the freedom struggle days, and it brought back great emotions, now, at the fag end of their lives.

Seeing all these ladies back and excited was something for the eyes. Families had come to the train station to pick up the respective aunts and grandmas, emerging slowly from the compartments, one step at a time, some limping a bit due to a stiff knee, scarves wrapped around their faces, cardigans nicely buttoned over sarees.

The youngest, my mother, was tired. All that sitting in the train, she said. Although every couple of hours she would sort of walk around, as best as she could, in the running train, stopping by to chat with some lady here, pass something to another lady from someone else across her berth.

The whole family had come to pick her up , and that included a grandson, well into his teens. Then the second youngest in the entire group..

Couple of hours later, after a light meal, and the bags all open around her, she sat , rubbing her tired knees, with some ayurvedic oil, entertaining us with stories about her friends, all 80+....

Her children from the US were on the phone later. A tired grandmother, she spoke to them all, and then decided to call it a day. Fell asleep as soon as she lay down.

She didn't hear her grandson tell his uncles in the US, "You know what, Ajji rocks ..."

Or maybe she did.

It was the smile on her face.

Don't know if she understood the "rocking".

It didn't matter.

Daughters can make mistakes, but almost always grandsons can do no wrong....

Friday, February 12, 2010

An " Educated " Illiterate lady.....

Update(March 6, 2010) This post selected by Blogadda (Blog Partner of Indusladies IWD contest), as Spicy Saturday Pick......

Update(Feb 26): This post is now selected for display as one of the Top ten entries.

(category : Womens' education) Click the graphic on the far left.

(The following is a true story told to me, by the illiterate, smart lady who has been our family's household help for the last 25 years.)

In her words .....

" It's the story of the five of us. And I was the youngest of the children.

My parents, my two brothers and me. Father worked for one of the biggest Engineering Colleges in Mumbai, in the department that did repairs all over campus.

My two older brothers were in the huge school near the Market Gate. I used to feel so proud to see them going off each morning in their blue pants and white shirt. Sometimes I felt like going myself. Aaiyo ! How would I wear those blue frocks ? Exposing the knees and skirts billowing in the breeze ? Aaai would be furious. So I used to avidly pour through my brothers' books, and pretend I was studying them.

One passed 10th grade , the other did not. I was married off to someone recommended by our relatives in the native village.

At first it was exciting; a new life, new energy, new places. I had five children. One after another. Four sons, one daughter.

I heard the stories about the drinking. Every day, at sundown, it was so different from back home. Then the beatings began .

And I heard about the Other woman. And decided I did not want to hear any more.

I sent word to my father and mother . That was the smartest thing I did.

They came. And we left. My father carried my youngest , my daughter, in his arms , and asked me to walk ahead of him. With my mother, head held high.

I was back on campus. My children went to the big school. I helped my mother , who worked as a household help in four houses. She too was getting old. I took over my mothers work.

Like they say about the teachers in the college, when my mother grew old, she "retired".

My sons, studied with the help of the uncles, indulged in by the grandparents, and I decided my daughter too would study, and get all the opportunities I never knew I could have.

This time it was my mother who supported me. My father was getting old. His sons were now working. So while I worked various houses doing housework and cleaning, my mother would wait to make fresh hot chappaties , for her granddaughter, when she came back from school. Looking on proudly as she struggled to do homework, sometimes with the help of her brothers, sometimes despite them.

And then came the day, my father collapsed one day on his way home from visiting a friend. My mother was "super-un-educated", but super smart otherwise. She sat stoically at his bedside, occasionally coming out when his friends from department at college, came to see him, surreptitiously wiping her tears....

He died two days later. My children missed him a lot. He and my mother never went to school. But were more educated that many of the sirs and ladies I worked for.

I am both father and mother to my children. My daughter got married a few years ago. My sons decided to give her a wedding she would never forget.

In some ways, she never forgot her wedding.

Seven months of a different type of hell. Beatings. She did not have a father to call; just an old mother, and brothers.

But she had an education, she could read and write, and do simple sums, and was good at assorted craft work.

And so one evening she ran. No footwear, dressed in the one sari that she had been wearing through the day, and appeared at her mother's doorstep at 10 o'clock one night.

I just opened my heart out to her. So did her brothers. She was not going back. She had an education. She would stand on her own feet, and not be trampled.

My daughter has a daily job at a place where they make ready made clothes. Her grandmother can't see now. But her eyes light up whenever we visit. She is very proud of her granddaughter.

And all this because someone thought education is useful, and helped me send my daughter to school; you know, its not so much about what subjects you study ---its about learning to see a problem, and deciding how to solve it. My daughter went to school, then learned from life itself.

What education gave her was confidence.

Sometimes I really wonder, am I literate, illiterate, educated, or uneducated ? "


I would like to to tag my friends Manju, Padma, and G , and invite them to take part in this Indus Ladies IWD blogfest.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Doing Absolutely Nothing

Sometimes you get a slight breather from the myriads of stuff you've been tangling with over the years. And it is kind of interesting and instructive to look back....

She was one of those active types as a child. The type that rushes headlong into stuff because she needs to tryout what everyone else is doing. Including stuff , no one else is doing, because she thinks its so much fun.

Like when she learned how to cycle, from her brother, and was so thrilled with the balance, that she pedalled and pedalled , forgot the brakes, and stopped after she went headlong into a bush. Like the time she noticed that she could perform single-bar-somersaults on some restrictive bars put up at the lake side water entrance, and entertained all and sundry evening walkers with performances , till she once lost balance, fell down, and someone brought her home with a chin injury that needed stitches. Which of course needed two people to hold her, and one, a new male hospital attendant, fainted seeing all the stitching and blood, creating a separate crisis.

She took part in many annual days at school, besotted with the costumes, till swimming classes happened. And the excitement continued, but the venue changed. She took part in everything, fooled around once the classes were over, and once challenged her mother's friend to sit cross legged in water at the deep end, something she had been practicing. Her mother's friend got alarmed, and the lifeguard ended up putting a stop to this, explaining to her about the dangers of not being able to disentangle ones feet 15 feet below the water. She'd come home from workouts, and try lifting various people in the house, just to see if she was getting stronger.

Of course there was school. She loved things like English and history, and thought physics and algebra were a curse on mankind. It didn't help that the teaching was targeted at making smart people smarter and it ignored the folks below. And so she developed this thing, of not saying much in front of the teacher because she really didn't understand the lesson. The teacher added to that by making remarks like ,"You won't amount to much; you are no good at anything....etc"; difficult as it is to understand by us.

By and by, the school, as is the fashion today, got itself a counsellor person. And one day, her parents were asked to come see her.

Serious faces, some trying to read the mother, some, who knew the mother as a forthright person, secretly wondering how she would take this. And the counsellor very seriously said that her daughter was showing signs of "depression" ! When asked how she reached that conclusion , it seems the daughter remained quiet and uncommunicative in class. And wasn't very forthcoming in conversations with the counsellor. To the mother, who knew her child, this reeked of certain inabilities on the part of the counsellor. Did she study the child's history as a very young girl ? Did she talk to her friends ? Did she talk separately or otherwise with the parents ? NO.

It was time to move on. Explore other academic avenues. And Open Schooling gave an answer. The move was made, with the child's self esteem a bit scratched, but still intact. Sometimes, an ability, to not think too much about things, is a very useful thing. And the little girl was blessed with it. She thrived and flowered in the open schooling. She loved the mix of subjects and the way the knowledge was presented, and although the subjects were tough, she had immense motivation to study them. There were no ranks in class. The teacher would address the child as beta (=son), or beti (=daughter)....

School boards and college happened. She did well in the school boards. Percentages were useful and welcome but not the only important thing , and it was just fine that you put in, what was your best. Honestly. Which she did. College again had some very new subjects. And she found that although Maths was her Enemy no 1, the sort of maths she needed in the Food and Nutrition class , was interesting, and they allowed you the use of the calculator; they weren't testing your maths abilities, but your ability to decide how to get an answer to a calories calculation problem, something that you faced in real life. And so she excelled at the need based maths.

She has just got her final year results. And she has passed. She is now a graduate. She is also getting trained in some computer related software skills as well as skills that allow her to teach small children. Its a virtual weight of her parent's mind.

Our society, its mind spread thin over old thinking, rituals, age-old standards, new fangled opportunities and technologies, still thinks , that in any nice middle class home, having children who have graduated from college is the gold standard. Inability of someone to graduate is a cause of raised eyebrows. And discussions behind backs. Sometimes, changing your life to prioritise and help with your child's education problems, is questioned, and adversely commented on. Sometimes this concern shares space with time given by, say, the mother, to elder care in the family.

And so one learns to be strong, and focused, and recognize the wheat from the chaff.

But one wonders what would have happened, if the parent, on hearing the Depression diagnosis from a supremely unqualified unfortunately designated counsellor type, had subjected the child to medications and therapies . These kind of drugs can play havoc with your mind if one is unaware of the fact that they cannot be abruptly stopped and so on. In this case, the parents were lucky that they were medically bit more informed and educated since they read a lot and discussed things with their doctor friends routinely. And they knew their daughter. Well enough to ignore the errant counsellor person.

Which is not to run down counsellors, in general. There are some very outstanding counsellors around who do yeoman service in schools, instill confidence and self esteem in kids, and are full of useful knowledge and empathy. But schools seem to employ just anyone, without worrying about the quality, experience and their students.

But the most interesting comments upto now, have often come from those who are so completely immersed in careers, or in a life of such leisure, even the common sense emerges slowly.

The mother left a busy job after two decades and more, as it was then necessary to give more time to the young daughter and old folks in the family, simultaneously. As she now settles down, albeit slowly, to a slightly more relaxed life, one more responsibility in life sort of seen through, but several more on the horizon, a lot of those who criticised her decision to leave, thought her stupid to give up a source of income, often come up and ask, "But what do you do the whole day ?" ......

( Typical question from career types to housewives. But she has seen both sides. And equally enjoyed both. And been very busy at all times, particularly physically, within and without a "career" . After a long long time, she now treasures moments that allow her to read, meet friends, write, travel. Sometimes sleep. Spend time on hobbies. Sometimes just do nothing. She knows the problems are never over. But one must remain in balance to face whatever is served to one in life. And work honestly to find a solution)

But it's a typical question, asked by those, who despite "working", don't really know, that work isn't what someone else gives you, it is what you decide you need to do , and what you do, to solve a problem you face.

And so she, takes a deep contemplative breath, looks at her busy , questioning friends, gives them an evil grin, and says ,"Me ? Absolutely nothing !"


Sunday, February 07, 2010

Wise teeth and evolution in the 21st century....

Wisdom comes in many ways.

And despite all the fancy signalling and sparking in the brain, and messaging around of instructions, there is a subset of folks that believes that it comes through the teeth.

4.5 billion years ago, it is possible that my 75-millionth-cousin-10-million-times-removed had a real swinging lifestyle. Swinging from trees, charging around on all fours, grabbing leafy stuff here, a thick bark there, fruits galore, hunting smaller animals, tearing them with the bare teeth, and chomping away. Sometimes greed made him blind, and and gluttony caused tooth loss. Which was never a problem, because there were these teeth that erupted when you were like 17 -25 years old, and they sort of moved in to do the needful , as they say.

The Greeks called them sophronisteres, or Prudent Teeth; Arabs called them Ders-al-a'qel, or Teeth of the Mind, Spanish speaking countries referred to them as muela de juicio, or the Teeth of Judgment. And the Romans and Dutch finally decided to call them the Teeth of Wisdom. All this because the teeth appeared when the person was in his late teens or later, and you were supposed to have learnt from your mistakes by them, and realized some wisdom.

There is also another school of thought, that says, that shifting from a swinging lifestyle with raw tearable food , to a lifestyle, where we became upright soft chewing members of human society, actually ended up reducing the size of the jaw, due to non use of the teeth at the back.

Of course it so happened that the size of our brain increased around then. And the verdict is still out on whether the brain grew larger or the jaw grew smaller first. Never mind. But these wisdom teeth certainly became an issue, because they were there but had no place to grow.

So in an action, reminiscent of, how one tries to enter and acquire a foothold in the suburban trains in Mumbai at rush hour, these teeth push and shove and end up getting stuck in assorted positions. Crowding on a narrowed jaw prevents the teeth growth, and the rest of the teeth start cribbing in pain. At which point, all hell breaks lose, you get pain, abscesses, infections, and you rush to your dentist.

I used to wonder what people did when there were no dentists, no appointments, no anesthesia, no saliva sucking tubes, and fillings. I needn't have.

Andrea Cucina and her team from University of Missouri-Columbia, discovered that 8000-9000 years ago, ancient India had the technology to drill teeth and remove decay. Examining fossils in Mehgarh (now in Pakistan) , they found proof that all kinds of treatments were done then on teeth. Fine holes were found drilled deep on the eating surface of several different male molars in the fossils. These were examined under an electron microscope to confirm that no bacteria could have done this drilling job, and the cavities showed perfect rounding like that which is observed when the teeth are used for eating. They even observed concentric grooves on the teeth, that could only come from drilling. And what also helped is that they knew that Mehgarh folks tilled land, reared livestock, and also specialised in gem jewellery where they specialised in drilling minute holes in them.

While sticking gems on teeth to enhance your brilliant smile may have been the fashion then, the team came to the conclusion that certain herbal mixtures were probably introduced into these holes for treatment of teeth, and that local dentists were doing very nicely, thank you. Around 8-9 thousand years ago.

So it was with a sense of confidence that my daughter and I proceeded to our dentist, for what was to be an extraction of her wisdom teeth. Thanks to generations of slurping over McD, Vada Pav, Shrikhand, KFC, Cakes, rosgullas, sandesh, Gulab jamuns, chocolates and assorted goodies, human jaws were becoming smaller due to lack of use.

Her wisdom teeth in their limited wisdom, saw no way out, and were crookedly pushing around in the jaw. Causing lots of trouble for the normal population of teeth, including one deadly infection, where it was trying to burst through the bone. Like we do with elected representatives who are troublesome, we decided to get rid of them.

Xrays of the whole jaw (in one single shot) can today pinpoint the wisdom teeth in action. They would cut her jaw under local anesthesia, and take a bunch of pliers, yank the stuff out, and then stitch up that area. These days, there is also new technology in the form of bone grafting , which allows a bone to grow from the existing bone, into the gap, and avoid what are known as dry socket problems..

A crisp Sunday morning (yes, we work on Sundays), 7 am , saw us at the clinic, where a young lady maxillofacial surgeon , was to perform the deed. She and my usual dentist conferred over the Xrays. I tried looking at things, of course from the other side , ie the wrong side of the Xray. I also like to keep my ears attuned to what they might be saying about the case. But all I saw were the faces of the two dentists superimposed on a skeletal face.

"We suggest you get both of them out today", she said. "It will be a bit more time, but the post operative medicines and stuff will work nicely on both with the same dosage, and its better not to wait for something to get infected and painful , like it happened in the case of the left wisdom tooth".

I could only nod. I had had this done for myself about 20 years ago, with slightly less sophisticated technology, and knew the trauma. I wouldn't mind all four wisdom teeth together. Its just that I didn't know that such drastic things were done.

But they had already begun with anesthetic injections, lots of oohing and aahing by my daughter , and groaning, and feet being suddenly pulled up in pain. The movement would mess up stuff, and so I restrained the feet while the surgeon lady and my dentist did the stuff in the jaw. And I continue to wonder why the dentists chair doesn't have seat belts, from head to toe.

The smiling young girl, suddenly became a puffed up, hurting upset individual. The pliers and drills, and stitches followed, and we became the owners of two priceless wisdom teeth.

I asked about the others.

" You know what, your daughter doesn't have the other 2 wisdom teeth ! She has only two.! So she is now absolutely done as far as wisdom teeth extraction. That's why I suggested the second extraction today itself. "
We're back. In a regime of antibiotics, antiseptic gargles, disappearing anesthesia, a slightly angry puff on the face, giving character to a normally docile girl. Tubs of ice cream are being devoured, friends have been calling, and the good news of this being the last wisdom teeth extraction of her life is being broadcast.

She has gone off to attend a class in the city, with strict instructions about medicine timings and eating and drinking restrictions, and minding the crowds in the bus. ( I know some think I have a knack for imagining scenarios, but it is not unknown for a standee in a crowded bus, to get hit by someones briefcase , post a sudden desperate braking by the driver to avoid a meandering cow.)

But I am wondering. They say wisdom teeth kind of receding into unimportance, non-use, and crooked growing in a small jaw, is a sign of evolution.

I guess we all evolve. With appendices, tailbones, third eyelids, four wisdom teeth, and other useless stuff still sitting around in an idle manner in our bodies.

But my daughter is on to the next level of evolution. She never grew 2 of them. The system just got rid of them when the genes were being installed. Daughter of the 21st century . ....

(Back on the ground. Incidentally, evolved or not , did you keep the icecream back in the freezer ?.....)

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Dire Straits : Brinjal

We are a country with a huge diversity of people, religions, weather, communities, languages, fruits, vegetables, fish, birds, animals, philosophies, music, musical instruments, handicrafts, textiles, art, vehicles, vehicular habits, medicinal systems, political parties, diseases. You get the general idea.

Somehow, with all these slots into which we can be neatly put, we remain, always in a state of undefined , sympathetic flux, basically happy, tolerant and enjoying what little we have.

But some of us, are incredibly stupid,naive and greedy.

These are of course, universal traits, but one worries about their local manifestation.

Along comes a company like Monsanto, and tells us there is something wrong with Brinjal. Eggplant to some. Aubergine to others.

To be very specific, its growth.

Mind you, brinjal has a history of 4000 years of growth in India. It is the country of its origin. Given the range of temperatures across India, it has been widely grown anywhere the temperature did not dip below 5 degrees C. Which is almost everywhere with the exception of the Himalaya regions. We grow the widest variety of brinjals here, and cook it in numerous ways, and even use the raw variety in Ayurvedic medicinal systems.

Among the various pests that trouble this plant, one of them is called the Brinjal Fruit and Shoot Borer (BFSB). This pest spends a dedicated lifetime on this plant, and the larva/caterpillars eat all over the leaves, flowers and fruit, spoiling existing as well as potential fruit. Usual pesticides dont work. And any stronger poisonous treatment would make the brinjals dangerous to eat, for you and me.

So what has been happening in the last 4000 years ? The sensible Indian farmer has been using natural solutions. The BFSB has some natural enemies, like the an entire army (ordinary, 3 striped, seven striped) of ladybird beetles, and a bug called, Campyloneura sp.

For one thing, brinjal is a 90-120 day crop. So the farmer takes different types of veggie crops to give BFSB a break. He also inter crops this plant with things like coriander, cow peas and maize, which have a typical odor that attracts the various spiders and ladybirds. This essentially confuses the BFSB, and also makes the unconfused ones face some ladybird fighters. Farmers know that the small and stout brinjals are more affected by the BFSB, so he gives preference to planting the long and slender variety. They also sometimes use Neem Seed extract on the plants, like Neem cakes applied at the root, which affects the BFSB life cycle.

Also the larvae of the BFSB, after all that eating and chewing , become pupas and silky cocoons, and fall down along with the wilted stems of the plant on the ground, along with other dead plant tissue. So the farmer basically burns up all this rot, or composts it to chemically change it.

Since male BFSB moths are stupider than the females, farmers also use pheromone water traps, across their fields, which are bottles with a solution that attracts and catches males, who are then unavailable for fertilising the eggs.

And this is how, we have been enjoying decent brinjals all along. Literally for thousands of years. Without any problems.

Earlier we had colonizers. Now we have Monsanto.

Earlier we had the East India Company. Now we have Ministers.

They (Monsanto) fool around with plant structure, introduce genes that alter the plant. One such is called Bacillus Thuringiensis. Immortalized these days as BT. This results in protein crystals in the plant, and when the BFSB's come for a bite, the meal turns out to be their last supper, as these proteins destroy their digestive tract. Of course the protein is not just in the fruit, leaves or flowers or stem, but all over the plant, and by contact, surely , in the soil. You also need to worry about pollination of ordinary old style plants by these plants, say in neighboring fields.

But what you need to worry the most is that everytime you plant a crop now, you need to buy new seeds from Monsanto. You cannot keep aside some seeds from the latest crop for replanting the next time around, as has been the age old custom.

The amazing thing is, the authorities are smitten by Monsanto. They are about to allow the introduction of BT Brinjal in India. Although there is something called the Cartagena Protocol, which does not allow genetic alteration of something in its country of origin. The authorities and Monsanto couldn't care less.

With the vast amount of public sector enterprises in India, there is no independent safety testing of these BT products being done by the government, which is again, blind to the conflict of interest that is clear as the majority of tests are being done by a company promoting the BT-brinjal.

With just 90 days worth of testing in fields in India. With glaring objectionable facts in the reports, such as the BT protein being found in crops from non-testing areas. Such as change in the composition of cowmilk in cows who grazed in those areas; diarrhea, higher water consumption, liver weight decrease in rats fed on BT; change in blood clotting time, for the worse, in goats; and the BT protein generating new proteins that are resistant to the antibiotic kanamycin, used in humans.

This is just to name a few of the findings.

The Supreme Court appointed an independent scientific expert who is going hoarse about various tests and the way they were conducted, but authorities play deaf. There is a charade being enacted to ensure smooth entry of the BT-brinjal.

We haven't learned anything from those that fought for our independence. Life isn't about kowtowing to those that celebrate power, money, and control. It is about improving the lot of someone who has less, so that he can look back, and feel happy , that he is bringing his children into a better world. Someone born at Independence, retiring now, at 60, must now look forward, disgusted, with a government that has learned nothing.

Monsanto has earlier done the same with BT Corn, and BT Cotton. The latter has contributed majorly in the compete destruction of the life of the Vidarbha farmer. Not to mention causing physical and medical problems for those in contact with it. And soil sterility.

Countries like Zambia have refused food aid from the US when it was found that the corn would contain unknown percentage of BT corn, preferring to starve, than feed dangerous food to thelr citizens. Europe has refused genetically modified food. Austria said no, after looking at tests conducted over 20 months.

But Monsanto must be thrilled to bits as our government offers them a billion free guinea pigs to test the effect of BT -veggies on humans. In the meanwhile , they will control the seeds, the pricing, and the growing of food in India, and create dedicated pesticides , which they themselves will produce and market. (Reminds me of what someone told me about software anti virus companies having a special new virus creation section, that ensures them a perennial market).

While reams are being written about costs and benefits in money terms for farmers, there has been no study on long term comparisons between other organic methods of pest control vis-a-vis this hi-fi-genetic fiddling. There is a planned ignorance of the small and marginal farmers, and their capacity to raise required resources.

That's colonization of the modern type. The humiliation of the Indian farmer. By a chemical seed capitalist. Notice, how nobody wants to do genetic fooling with fancy things like asparagus, different types of fancy lettuce, artichokes, grapes, mangoes, and the concentration is on the proletarian items, like brinjals, bananas, corn, tomatoes, what , rice, and I hear, maybe cauliflower. The BT-brinjal, incidentally, is banned in the European Union.

There have been no independent tests done by the Ministry of Health, and the whole thing is being pushed through by interested parties with great force, with some helpful grunts from, Cornell University, USAID, and of course, the villain of the piece, Monsanto.

So, the next time you go to the neighborhood vegetable vendor, and see the super smooth, similar shaped, one size, brinjals, start worrying about whether it is BT or non-BT. I am sure, no one , including the government knows. Or wants to know.

Maybe the Reserve Bank needs to get into the act. Introduce BT-Money. Whenever, someone "swallows" it instead of earning it by working honestly and hard, it should affect the digestive system of the swallower and destroy it. Those that shut their eyes to the dangers will open them when they are "BT-fied" themselves by "BT-Money".

Now why didn't anyone think of that !

Stupid me.

Maybe someone did, and unlike bt-brinjal , it it was nipped in the bud, (by the loot and shoot borer), due to the overriding concerns of several worthies, and we never got to hear about it.

Like the unhappy results of some tests.

Baingan bharta anyone ?