Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Traditional and Natural Me :-)

While I clearly, do not have any memories of actually being born and attended to, say , in the first few years of my life, I have a conviction that folks in my house approached modern science from a very sturdy unshakable base of traditional knowledge. 

Looking at things today, more than 60 years later, it feels like I have grown up in a different age.  All the multinationals with their fibs and  lies  regarding faces, fairness, hair, silkiness et all had not yet then  looked at India, Tata's sold an oil shampoo in a most unimaginatively designed bottle, there was no TV, and no one would have filmed my travails and tangles with Shikekai hair washing, even if I had paid them. 

 Tradition was all about doing 30 suryanamaskars and 300 jumps, before you could even sight your breakfast, and never mind that the Sun had invocations for only 12 of them. You could always repeat the invocations :-)   .    It never made a difference if you were a girl. You were probably expected to do them better than your brother

We drank shudh milk. Tea and Bread was persona non grata.  Fresh mung dal khichadi (green chhilka), a spoon of homemade ghee, roasted poha papad, and freshly squeezed orange juice was what we had .  Sometimes we had buttermilk.  Soaps were around, but the mixture of choice while taking baths, was besan and ambehaldi mixed with fresh milk cream, slathered on, and washed off. Vicco fellows were around , but they made only tooth powder then, and turmeric creams didn't exist. Turns out that Dabur introduced the Lal Dantmanjan in 1970, else we would have been using that too.

We ate hand pounded rice, while everyone went ballistic on bright white local Ambemohor rice (that's where I got my aversion to Fair and Lovely :-)), and cribbed that the grains broke while pounding by hand. Cold pressed oil from the Ghanis was easily available then, and there was a permanent assembly line of milk products such as curds,buttermilk,white butter, and ghee , being prepared, in that order.  Seasonal fruit drinks like mango panha, kokum juice, were available in plenty, and although Coca Cola existed,  it was not available on our screens.

Some of my mother's closest friends were 2 sisters, one a Gynaec MD (alloptahic), and one a Vaidya MD Ayurveda. They introduced my mother to the actual recipe for ChyawanPrash from first principles.  This resulted in my brother and I, cleaning and pounding in the balcony, tons of special herbs with complicated names and flavors,  and stuff during school holidays, sometimes joined by friends, my mother sourcing the exact variety of amlas ("dongri" and not the fat juice laden ones), and all of it coming together in a  massive vessel which ended up slowly cooking stuff and being gently stirred, on a coal sigdi in the kitchen.  This Chyawanprash, duly approved by the Vaidya,  was lapped up not only by us, but was in great demand  from relatives and friends, who were duly gifted stuff in special jars every season.  Yes, I know Dabur launched Chyawanprash the year I was born, but I still swear by my mother's  Chyawanprash. 

Health conditions had traditional solutions too.  While a kaadhaa was the standard concoction for coughs and colds, with the dreaded taking-of-the-steam-with-a-towel-on-our-head,  there was a concoction with dried ginger, jaggery, nutmeg and some other ingredients cooked in a cast iron thick vessel, that we were given whenever we had stomach problems. This was so delicious , that we looked forward to someone else having digestion problems at times.  The most disgusting, horrible looking thing , however, was something called poultice, which was heated and prepared using flour, turmeric etc , in the aforementioned cast iron vessel, and applied when hot,  on scraped, cut, and injured knees etc, and wrapped in a bandage; we went off to school, amidst a sometimes unravelling bandage, emerging gooey stuff, and an entire set of classmates pointing at you. There were various oils in my mother's cupboard, and they were judiciously used depending on whether a chest was filling up with mucus, a headache was looming, or some unavoidable growing pains were happening in the lower limbs. Many years later i actually expressed surprise that linseed oil of my childhood was being applied to cricket bats. 

By the time I had my own children, the style of having a special darkened lactating /just-delivered mother's room had disappeared thanks to expensive real estate, and disappearing joint families.  But the standard traditional care for the newborn and the  mother was very much there.  

And so there was an old experienced lady who came by every day, completely cognizant of the fact that both mother and child have had a tumultuous birthing experience; the mother , with her body and mind yet to settle down after a physically traumatic yet happy event , and the child, getting adjusted to the brave new world  which was probably overpowering its senses.  There was a dedicated massage for the baby, with special attention to the fontanel on the scalp, and the limbs, being careful around the navel, still smarting from the umbilical cut.  There was a huge metal dish shaped container with lit charcoal, on which certain herbs were strewn, which on sublimation, generated some medicinal smoke. Inhalation of this was beneficial to the still coming-to-terms respiratory and digestive systems of the child.  The massage for the mother involved different actions for different parts of the body,  and actually served  to bring together again, all those physical and mental entities, that had worked overtime and were kind of scattered and fatigued post delivery.  Even the bathing had a system. Food was light, nutritious, and designed to benefit the baby, while shoring up the resources of the mother.   

Today, times have changed, and it is difficult for people to source such expert massage ladies and even the various Ayurvedic herbs that are used. Small crowded residences do not make it easy to have special dedicated rooms for all the activities of the mother and child.  Except, maybe in smaller towns and cities, where distances are shorter, people have more time, and there are more human resources available.

And so it makes sense for those having expertise, to make available oils and stuff that already have within them the ingredients. As they say "Sanskarit Oil". Dabur has amongst its many products the Lal Tail which contains Till Tail, Ratanjyot, Shankha Pushpi, Camphor and Urad. All designed to improve blood circulation, sleep, nourish muscles and bones, and prevent skin infections.  Those, worldwide,  researching neonates and their health, have found that this massage aids greatly in the way the child handles stress , and the associated hormones.  

Today's generation  is spoilt for choice. Every health condition or beauty query leads to a massive set of products that offer solutions.  Many look nice and attractive, but often contain harmful chemicals that mislead you with the foaming and smell and feel.  There are products available in the unorganized sector , that have a blatant disregard for quality and include  harmful ingredients in non trivial amounts.  And there is a pill for every minor health skirmish, when actually, some change of habits and sensible food would suffice.  

All kinds of massages and facials are touted as beauty treatments with outlandish costs. Diet is designed and recommended so that you are in competition with size zero beautiful filmy folks, and folks attach undue importance to the shape of their teeth and size of their nose, losing all their individuality, as they get sculpted plastically.  

When you get to be my age (64)  you realize that it is better to have a natural growth, with a decent traditional diet and habits which are in constructive interference with your environment , age and genetic tendencies.  And so you look back to traditional solutions to health, food and stress-relieving.

There are often stories about magical massages ; and I didn't believe many, till I was told this story about a person, who I know very well, and who himself confirmed this story.

 A relative , who is shortly turning 80, was born with a foot deformity. I do not know what it is called, but his toes would curl in and touch his heels. His mother, then at her parents' in Pune, post her delivery, was urged by folks to visit a very well known ayurevdic masseur-gentleman who was popularly known as Maharaaj Limaye, who had many successes to his credit. She did visit him with the baby , for many sessions, and by and by , he taught her the specific massage with the oil to be done for the child daily, since she didn't normally live in Pune and would soon be returning to her marital home in Gujarat. She continued to do the massage as directed, and the child's deformity was totally cured before the year was out. I was told about this by the mother herself.

(It might be interesting to know that the descendants of Maharaj Limaye, also imbibed the art and technique of doing this special oil massage. They were all educated folks like lawyers etc, and their father had told them, that this special gift of being able to give successful massage , was a social service, and was not to be used as a livelihood profession.  The various members would return from a full day at court , and then attend to long lines of people waiting to see them for the massage.)

And so, it is not just about the massage techniques, or the secret uniqueness of the oil. It is about having the correct mental approach, the dedication , the expertise, and a gratitude and respect for one's special gifts.

Physical and mental health in complete equilibrium with each other.   What Ayurveda is all about.

(submitted as an entry for the Indiblogger -Traditional Knowledge-Natural Growth contest.) 

Friday, October 25, 2013

Ancient wisdom, modern words

Having lived through a period when  the highlight of any Suraksha Tips given  to anyone, was "Dont talk to strangers" and "Get home before dark"  (50 years ago),  and then lived through a period of women emerging to work, and commute, where you wore fake gold mangalsutras and necklaces in crowded trains populated by expert chain snatchers,  it is very disappointing to see what we have come to in 2014.

I have known cases where a chain snatcher snatched a chain , which was fake, and then returned to the same spot the next day, to slap the lady returning from her job, berating her for wearing imitation jewellery.

At such times, it is better to err on the side of caution when deciding what care one must take for one's own security.

1.  Whenever you are travelling alone, do not accept  anything to drink or eat  from someone sitting alongside.  I've known of folks who fell quietly into a dead faint and had everything stolen including their muscle strength (due to the drug used).

2.  Carry a pepper spray in your handbag or purse. Red chilly powder also works.  A folding umbrella that opens at the click of a button is also useful. Umbrellas have been used as weapons by the women of Mumbai for donkey's years.  Blowing up something in a person's face gives you time. Possibly to get the pepper spray ready.  If you are trained self defence, even better.

3.  Ignore odd men and women who stop you to ask about addresses, and tell you that you dropped a hundred rupee note. Move on. They sometimes have accomplices .

4.  Rickshaws are the most common mode of quick transport in Mumbai.  If you are alone, sit to one side in the ricksha. And make a call (or at least appear to make one) to someone, saying how long you would be. Ensure you ask the driver loudly how long it will take to reach your destination and mention it to whoever on the phone.  Also mention the licence plate number. It is often written in white on the passenger side behind the driver's seat.  Make frequent calls and pretend to asnwer calls about where you have reached.  

5. Get out of any rickshaw, if a fellow joins up sitting with the driver in front. Tell him to get off, or get off yourself and talk loudly . Make sure you do this in a commercial area with shops around. You can always rush nearby to one.

6.  Always have some smart application like Smart Suraksha on your phone screen visible to you , when walking down a deserted road. (before i read about Smart Suraksha, I had on my phone two applications that, on pressing a screen button,  blew piercing police whistles and a siren respectively, very loudly. People even came in from the next room when i tested it.)  Do not be preoccupied texting or checking things on your phone. Most important, get those earplugs out of your ears.  You need to be aware of sounds around you.

7.   Do NOT  exchange personal details on social networking sites.  The current generation of youth has some convoluted ideas about what it means to be popular/important etc .  If you are the parent of a young man or woman , keep track of their activities, late calls and stuff. You are not in it for popularity, so be strict about things, and tell folks off when you think things are going too far. 

8.  When travelling in a elevator without an attendant, ensure you travel in a crowd.

9.  Install metal grill doors at your entrance, in addition to your normal doors.  Courier stuff etc can be handled through that, avoiding the risk of opening up your house to unknown types. Many people , can hoodwink security, and land up, under the guise of religious donations, delivery of items, asking for addresses.

10. Last but not least, dress appropriately at all times. There is a school of thought that says "I must have the freedom to dress as I please".  The same folks who espouse that, may be seen in a Church or Siddhivinayak temple in normal everyday clothes, heads covered and all that.  Why not avoid situations, where you are watched in a rear view mirror because  what you are wearing is attracting attention ?  Wear stuff in which it is easy to move; I am not saying wear hotpants instead of salwars; I know someone wearing nine yards who put the fear of God into a couple of troublemakers.   If you wear heels as part of your office wear, change to flats before you leave, to encourage quick and safe movement.

There is of course, always, safety in numbers.  But it is also about being alert, aware of the environment in which you are,  and not getting addicted to one of the most useful but troublesome contraptions of our times : cell phone games, and music with ears blocked shut.

Just wondering if anyone agrees, and how many might possibly be seething in anger at point no 10.

Ah well, at my age, I am like that only......

I am sharing my Smart Suraksha Tips at BlogAdda.com in association with Smart Suraksha App

Thursday, October 24, 2013

So Smart, Na !

Those were App-less days.

She would attend evening classes in a suburb 15 kilometres away, and take a bus back home. One would call her at some point, and feel reassured to hear, that she was already in a bus on her way home, or waiting for one at the bus stop opposite her Institute.

But that day was different. There was no response from her. The phone just kept ringing. As the evening turned to night, her parents got immensely worried, and were just leaving to contact the police , when there was a call from her.

She had been hit by a speeding bike while she stood at the very crowded bus stop opposite her Institute. She was knocked down, bleeding and hurt. Maybe she was recognized by the daily bus travellers , and the vendors behind the bus stop, but someone helped her get up , gave her a big handkerchief to stem the blood flow, and stopped a rickshaw which took them to the nearest municipal hospital. The kind gent, even waited and looked after a backpack, (and a bag containing a birthday cake from Merwan's) till someone in OPD did the stitches (just missing her eyes) , and dressed her injuries .  The person even asked her where she lived and accompanied her in a rickshaw, since she was a bit weak due to the loss of blood and impact. Closer to her house, and nauseous from fumes in the unending traffic jam, she had left the rickshaw, and started walking home; realizing her phone was still in her pocket, she called her folks, and told them what happened. They rushed to the entrance of their gated campus and were shocked to see her, blood smears on her clothes, bandages on her face, slowly lugging her backpack.

That was my daughter , and it was Christmas eve 2008.

When I read about this Smart Suraksha  today, all this came back to mind, and I wondered if things would have been different . I wished she  had  Smart Suraksha  on her phone. Perhaps she would have activated it  while on her way to the hospital, and we would have rushed there.  Maybe some of us would have automatically received a message. It would have given us her location. One is never always lucky as she was in the sort of people she met who helped her, and one could have activated friends in that area to rush to her aid, if her phone had had this app.  

These are difficult times. A thousand things go through your mind, until whoever has left home for work or study comes back home safely each evening. It is a sad state of affairs, but anything can happen... and this holds for members of either sex.  There are goondas, there is road rage, and misguided folks who take law into their own hands.

Times have changed today. While earlier, there was security in numbers, and by and large, Mumbai's BEST buses are the best,  our roads today are cursed with several new dangers. There are those unqualified to drive, who inflict themselves dangerously on innocent folks on the road. There are chain snatchers who whiz past on bikes, and attack you .  There are even folks who molest while blending in with the crowd, and attack.  There are some of us who travel in suburban trains , and  incidents of being attacked by drug crazed imbalanced molesters continue to be reported, particularly in compartments which are isolated at certain times. 

Then we have the new venues for trouble. Unimaginative constructions , troublesome in many ways for pedestrians,  who have less energy, speed,  and luck, in the face of horsepowered traffic that would have gone over skybridges/flyovers  with ease. But NO.  The sky walks that continue to be built across Mumbai, presumably to allow folks trouble free  access to places across roads with massive traffic. These sky walks are not used as much, and have now become places where  it is dangerous for women to be, particularly in the evenings, very early mornings, and by themselves.  Someone could follow you, and seize the moment.

Fear and panic often freezes your thinking. It sounds useful at such times to have a button you can press, that informs your loved ones, friends, and even police , about where you are.  Perhaps with a loud siren/whistle etc to attract folks around the venue. 

We are a nation that thrives on special benefits for folks deemed special . Mostly by themselves.   And so we have public  leaders , protected by , say, 37 constables and 5 cars ; some have fewer police protecting them, and so many have these protection forces just sitting outside their residences.  There are folks who crave for an upgrade in security, and pester the government , and receive it as a quid pro quid for something.  We even have police, protected by police .

Given the fact that those in power often gift themselves and others like themselves, contraptions like smart phones and laptops, at public expense,  there are several things one can suggest. Preinstall Smart Suraksha  on these phones.  Maybe call the version Smart Suraksha Grande Duo or something , in honor of the exalted status of these folks. Whenever these folks smell danger (and I can guarantee that they have a very keen qualified sense of smell), it should activate the nearest security squadron. Waise bhi, the guys in the Black Cat set up are trained to respond instantaneously.  You could have many such squadrons situated all over Mumbai, and these could be shared by our esteemed folks in power.

There are some companies, who give phones to their employees as a benefit. These could come preinstalled  with Smart Suraksha.  Unlike politicians who never have to justify any expenditure , or  refuse to give reasons for spending money, corporates could put this down to their share of Corporate Social Responsibility.  It will clearly be a useful thing for so many women employees , who must travel at odd hours. Particularly those in the news and broadcast industry, and those who work in shifts.

And now, just a little something to cheer everyone, in these  dangerous times.

There is an arterial east-west road that runs close to where we stay. In the process of road widening , it has become very difficult to cross this road, particularly with the increasing traffic and the fact that much of it disobeys traffic rules.  The road is used greatly by school kids, and several senior citizens who escort the younger kids to and from from kindergaarten. So the road authorities, in their knee jerk reaction, immediately constructed these foot over bridges, which are like shorter length sky walks.  Folks lugging bags of vegetables, senior citizens with climbing problems, and others refuse to use these, with the result, that these are now isolated places at certain times. The noise of the almost 24 hour traffic and the honking makes it impossible to hear anything from these bridges.

A few days ago, one heard that one of these hardly used sky walks, was being regularly used in the evenings.  By a gentleman, who coached kids of the neighborhood in karate. A whole bunch of small kids, gathered  there, in the evenings ,doing their karate exercises and workouts, guided by their teacher. Good exercise, away from bad local influences.  No disturbance, good strong surface with lighting,  and whats most important , free. 

I am sure there will be spoil sports. Someone will send these guys a stupid notice. These "someones" almost never notice hawkers on such bridges.

But my vote goes for these innovative folks  teaching their own Smart Suraksha

I am participating in the Seeking Smart Suraksha contest at BlogAdda.com in association with Smart Suraksha App

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Review of " Asura : Tale of the Vanquished"

"Asura: Tale of the Vanquished - The Story of Ravana and his people"  (Platinum Press 2013) ,  by Anand Neelakantan, was sent to me for review by Leadstart Publishing.

This has been a season for harking back to tales I heard in my childhood, more than half a century ago,  during nightly after-dinner story-sessions with my grandmother. I've just reviewed a book about Arjuna, and now this.  And what I remember very well, is my grandmother kind of nodding her head in a serious manner , and occasionally remarking that Ravana with all his kidnapping of Sita, terrorizing folks, ten heads, burning Hanuman's tail et al, was actually, a great devotee of Shiva, but destined to be the way he was.

This came back to me when I read this book.  A massive tome of 504 pages.

This book takes a fresh look at the story of Rama and Ravana from a different angle. In a way,  a book with less of Gods performing sudden miracles, and with an actual hint , that Vishnu , Shiva and Brahma , were actually mass leaders who achieved a kind of Godhood , thanks to the masses.  It talks about the Aryans and Dravidians, calling them Devas and Asuras, and the various societal changes that happen when they overrun and attack each other's kingdoms.  Very clearly, according to the author, the Devas and Asuras as conquerors, are identical in the way they ravage the  conquered , and clearly, there is nothing Godly about the name "Deva."

Ravana is portrayed as the son of a Brahmin father and Asura mother, very unfairly treated by his brother Kubera who ruled Sri lanka. Inspired by Mahabali  in his waning years, Ravana mobilizes  and inspires people around him to come together to attack and reclaim the throne  of Sri Lanka.  His ambition, and ruthless warring at one point has his kingdom extending right up to the Himalayas.   Sita, is portrayed as his daughter by Mandodari , his wife. Some prediction about Sita being detrimental to his kingdom, forces Ravana to send her away with someone, (more about him later) ,  to be done away with; which doesn't happen; Sita lives, is found by King Janaka, and this factoid joins in , like a tributary , to the Ramayana as we know it. The narrative proceeds with the kidnapping of Sita while she Ram and Lakshman are in Vanwaas, and there is her arrival in Ashokvan in Ravana's palace grounds. The attack of the Hanuman Brigade, the Setu, the arrival of Ram and Lakshman , and the ensuing detailed fighting.  Concluding in the death of Ravana, his thoughts at that point and so on.

There is however, a person called Bhadra who keeps flitting in and out of the narrative. Ravana, his ambitious behaviour, his uncaring attitude towards his common people, his emphasis on his own exalted status, his debauchery, may be constantly viewed vis-a-vis the happenings in Bhadra's life.  Having grievously suffered , and lost his entire family  in a ghastly manner at the hands of the Devas , he blindly supports Ravana in his efforts to establish a powerful Asura Empire.  He even images many of Ravana's attitudes in his own life; sudden wilful decision making unmindful of consequences, debauchery, killing at the drop of a hat, occasional  thuggery and thievery whenever required.  While Ravana , being excessively ambitious, occasionally wallows in mental dirt, Bhadra has no qualms wallowing in it physically, presumably in keeping  with , his place in that society.    And the story actually becomes the story of the Asura society, where lives of leaders and commoners are depicted with , if I may say so, excessive detail.

Some things make you wonder.  Ravana , who himself had a bit of a fair streak in his complexion thanks to his Brahmin father, wonders about why Rama looks so dark.   Given that Ravana is the emperor, he certainly has fairly bad security folks employed. Bhadra seems to not only sneak in through gates, but wander inside the palace rooms at will, doing his killing assignments .  There seems to be a style of "hanging around" in royal environments, with clearly undefined duties, with lots of bumbling staff outraging Ravana from time to time.   One admires, albeit a bit skeptically,  the incorporation of the Pushpak aeroplane as a hobby output of Ravana's engineer pa-in-law, and the story of Maricha (who accompanied Ravana for Sita kidnapping) killing a deer, and then flitting around wearing its skin to attract Sita's attention, and the subsequent effort by Rama and Lakshman to fulfil her wishes.

One admires the immensely varied imagination of the author as he tries to blend together known scripture stories, with his amazing narrative.  Nowhere  does Ravana get handicapped by his ten heads; defined as they are , as the nine human qualities that he has, as opposed to being above it all in a Godly way, and doing no wrong. It is interesting that the Deva's revel in a hierarchical societal structure where you get successively more and more untouchable as you come down the status ladder.  The author reminds us that the Asuras from the early days had what might be called a society that swore by socialism. Folks were equal, there was no single entity whose writ ran , and a committee decided on everything.

On the minus side, there is too much detailing of events, particularly in the beginning and ending sections.  The book is too lengthy, often rambles,  and could have done with some spiffy editing.  One often feels Bhadra keeps doing the same things again and again which gets tiring. The way the daily wars are described  towards the end, reminds me of cricket  matches. Detailed descriptions of daily strokeplay, end of the day's play, and the teams walking out to play the next day.

I know this is a work of fiction as it declares at the beginning in a Disclaimer. But sometimes it reminds me of how somethings are today. 

An erstwhile self-declared  socialist society giving in to the new capitalist world order. Rise of some leaders on the basis of short term impressions and successes, an entire set of so called disciples who hang on to every word, and apple-polish,  various leaders managing to commit all kinds of crimes and getting away with it, and others saving them based on their utility ;  so called leaders of socialist persuasion , amassing wealth of disproportionate levels, while ruling over a populace with sinking standards of living and civic amenities. Spouting lofty sounding words regarding women, and their treatment, while being and shielding someone who mistreats them. Different rules for different folks. Disrespecting those junior in position. Ravan would kick Bhadra, and some of his staff. Today  we see some tying shoelaces of superiors.

The entire concept of this book is very interesting. But it is entirely too long. I wish there was a frequent change of pace throughout the book. After a while one can even predict certain events in the book. 

One of the problems of books such as these which are based  on our scriptures and personages therein, is the massive cast of characters,  only a few of which last till the end of the book. Keeping track of them is very difficult.

And finally, I have a question. There seems to be an undefined  unchallenged  assumption that Devas were fair and decent looking, with a semblance of morals, where as Asuras have been described as dark, even black, disproportionate, amoral, ugly looking, drunkards, and wayward folk. Asuras of low societal standing were like Shurpanakha, ugly, vagabond, immoral and drunk; the higher status folks were  model folks, slightly fairer, like Mandodari and Sita, assuming the latter was really Ravana's daughter.
 Does Fair and Lovely also hold in celestial places and scriptures ? Or do we as Indians, continue to be greatly obsessed ?

Friday, October 18, 2013

Chocolate and the Anandamide Crisis

"Money cant buy happiness; but it can buy chocolate, which is kinda the same thing ...."

 Not any more.

Whoever said that, clearly did not have a clue about Global Warning; well, actually the latest warning,  that says that the Earth will run out of chocolate by 2020, or according to more hopeful people, by 2023.   

Turns out that the plantations in West Africa, Caribbean and South America , that hired cheap labor to grow cacao trees,  now find better returns if they grow crops like rubber.  Cacao trees will grow and fruit after 5 years, and the actual cocoa bean , is retrieved after some processing that involves removing the fruit pulp  from the cocoa fruit, and further working on the bittersweet chocolaty flavor bean inside.

Chocolate has been devoured since  1400 BC, though in a slightly different form than we are used to. The early Mayans and Mesoamericans relished it as a frothy hot drink, flavoured with chilli peppers ,  which must have been an acquired taste. A sixteenth century Jesuit Missionary has mentioned it as  "loathsome to such as are not acquainted with it, having a scum or froth that is very unpleasant taste".  At some point in time, cacao beans were actually used as barter currency , as Christopher Columbus, noticed, on his repeated trips in search of the Americas.

Although 70% of the world chocolate consumption is attributable to Europe and the West, the growing Asian demand for chocolate has thrown the Cocoa plantations into a crisis. There simply isn't enough space to grow all the cacao beans that we will need in the future.

And we must brace for a Chocolate famine.

We are of course seized of the matter in India, :-)  and a special committee is looking into the growth and distribution aspects of chocolate and how the government can control things. :-(

Controlled temperature SEZ's  are on the anvil, which will simulate equatorial weather.  Many cities in central India, like Nagpur are in the race. The government has invited applications from all the corporates, though it has not yet been decided whether to auction the SEZ's or to hand out these things on first come first serve basis.  Given that no one is willing to be Minister of State for Chocolates, there is a proposal to introduce by ordinance The Unique Chocolate Authority of India (UCAI). Efforts are on to acquire Cadbury House in downtown Mumbai as headquarters, but talks are currently at a standstill, due to protests from a political party that is recommending 100% FDI in chocolate. The Investigative agencies are keeping a keen watch on representatives of Hersheys, Ferreo Rocher, Toblerone, who seem to be flitting in and out of the concerned ministries, while BNN-ICN is conducting polls to find out if there is an impending chocolate scam . Of course, some parties have demanded a reservation for certain folks in the SEZ's, and this has assumed interesting importance, given that whichever party rules after 2014, will be faced with chocolate politics should it run full term.

While powerful types continue to destroy the charm of chocolate by interfering, kids in primary school continue to arrive in class on their birthdays, dressed in civil clothes, clutching a bag of chocolates to distribute in class.  Small wrapped chocolates from glass jars, continue to be exchanged for small change , lighting up the eyes of kids accompanying adults. Ecstatic small kids still hide chocolate cream biscuits, in tightly held fists till they disintegrate, and the dunk the whole ones in milk, to lick them in delight. Chocolate cakes are still the flavor of the birthday,  and several pockets of school kids, have been known to have layered chocolate innards, thanks to  surreptitiously carrying slabs of chocolate in the hot sun.  Old folks still enjoy chocolate mints, despite their diabetes, and find it difficult to refuse when a child wordlessly offers them a bite from a huge chocolate slab.

What is true is that eating chocolate creates a "feel good" situation.  And this is a scientific fact. 

Chocolate contains almost 300 chemicals. Out of these caffeine and theobromine are amongst those that contribute to the wonderful feeling.  Folks who have been researching how the brain creates the "feel good" situation, have found that chocolate contains certain pharmacological active substances. Our brains have cells that have receptors for these, and lock on to these neurotransmitter type active substances when they arrive,  and pass on the information to the brain cells, which then give us the "feel good"  sensation.

Turns out, that chocolates, contain a neurotransmitter, called, believe it or not, Anandamide !   This is broken down quickly once absorbed into the cells, but turns out that chocolate contains other stuff that delay the breakdown of Anandamide, which explains how we tend to feel good for a long time after eating chocolate.  The fellows at the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego, probably do not realize how perfectly they have named the neurotransmitter, Anandamide.

I wonder if has an Indian connection.  "Ananda"***mide, indeed !

22 years ago, we visited the Hershey's factory near Ottawa in Canada, a trip which was of great interest to the daughter, then  aged 5.  There is a visitors' gallery all around the factory, where you can walk, and watch below, large cauldrons of chocolate being crushed, melted, mixed, and poured into different things , and kids often feel jealous of those empowered to hang around  near the stuff below. After a tour, they take you to an auditorium, where a film is shown .

The daughter watched the film, sitting at the edge of her seat, mouth agape, till they started showing , to the accompaniment of crescendo music, a huge vat of melted chocolate being poured copiously into some huge container.

At this point, she leans back, eyes closed, breathes in deeply , and seriously announces, "you know what, I could even smell the wonderful chocolate  from the film !".

A whole bunch of folks around us, suddenly looked at her with  indulgent respect.

And the lovely smells continued to emanate from the factory cauldrons below , which we had just seen. 

I don't know what further research is currently on regarding the chocolate and its effect on the brain.

But Anandamide, has certainly introduced  films with olfactory outputs.   I think Shrek, Walt Disney, Chacha Chaudhary  types, and others would have approved. 

Come 2020, where do get our dose of Anandamide ? Or will it appear as the JHMJRGNY (Jan Hit Mein Jari R G Neurotransmitter Yojana ) ?

*** Ananda ~  Happiness.  In my language, Marathi, and most Indian languages . 

Monday, October 14, 2013

The Life Giving Red : a public interest post.

This  is, what might be called , a post , in the public interest.

I have been an active blood donor,  before age and other factors disqualified me. The offspring now continue this tradition.

 And living as I do on an academic campus, where blood donation camps are held with great regularity , one tends to notice things, like fewer women, and a general willful ignorance of these camps, from folks who feel it is a very risky thing to do. (While looking for volunteers , ready to donate blood, many years ago, for a major surgery in a colleague's family, it once came to a point where folks crossed the road to the other side when they saw me coming.  :-)....    )

And so I thought I would outline the various steps that happen at a blood donation camp, when you approach.  This was held on Aug 12, 2013 in one of the huge halls on campus.

To begin with, you are welcomed and guided to a table where you fill out your personal details, and your health details.  They ask if you have recently been sick, if you've had any infectious diseases, and if so when . Also, if you have taken certain drugs when sick. Or otherwise .  Whether you smoke......

They want to know what vaccinations you have taken and when.  Questions are asked about whether you suffer from certain specific diseases, whether you take regular medicines for any medical problems, eg insulin, thyroid medication, hypertension medication .

If you have tattoos, you need to say how long ago you got them done . If you clear this step, you go to the next, else go home.

You then get on to a weighing scale. You get disqualified as a blood donor if you are less than a specified acceptable weight. 
 You then approach a desk with this form, and a blood technician pricks your finger with a disposable needle, and slips the drop into a beaker of cooper sulfate (blue solution).

If your haemoglobin is greater than 12.5, the blood drop sinks to the bottom. Else it remains dispersed on top, and you are prohibited from donating blood.

Once the lady has entered and documented your data, you proceed to the next desk, where some more paper processing happens, and you are then given a thick (probably layered) numbered blood bag , the number registered against your details.


You are now allocated a bed, and a doctor checks your blood pressure before proceeding.

A disposable syringe/needle is  inserted into a vein in your arm, and it is all taped in securely. You are given a flexible ball to squeeze every now and then which aids in a proper flow of blood .

The blood smoothly flows into the  blood bag  you were given which already contains blood chemicals to keep the blood at the correct density.  The blood bag sits on a weighing scale and is an exact pointer regarding how much blood is being collected.

The amount of blood collected is 350 mls. (Actually, the bag already contains 150 grams of anticoagulant, so only 200 gms of your blood is collected ;  This fact brought to my notice by the 3rd commenter on this post - a doctor)

Here is a picture  of a student blood donor in action.  There are several doctors making the rounds of all the beds where donors are giving blood, ensuring that everything is OK, and that there is no discomfort for the patient. 

Once the 350 mls of blood  are collected, the needle inserted in the vein is removed,  the aperture is patted with a piece of sterilised cotton, and you lie down and rest for 10 minutes, with your arm bent at the elbow.
 A small amount of your blood is poured into small appropriately labelled test tube like  things with lids.  This allows your blood to be tested for certain things before the entire blood bag can be taken for further processing into usable sections, like platelets, plasma etc.

 If anything untoward is detected in your blood, your collection is discarded.

A picture of the labelled blood bags in their special containers may be see here.

Once you get up, you are welcomed with some tea , lemonade or refreshments like biscuits , in another part of the hall.

A technician removes the cotton wool, checks your arm , cleans the needle insertion point with spirit, and puts a pucca sticking tape across it.

You are now ready to go. Home, to your office, to play, or anywhere else. I know some overenthusiastic type who even went swimming a few hours later.

But you must collect your certificate and blood donation card before you go.  This mentions your reference number in their register, and allows you to to help out anyone in need of blood  , by giving them this card to use at a blood bank.

 We were visited by the doctors, and technical staff of the KEM  Hospital , which is one of Mumbai's very well known and old  public hospitals.

This was the bus that brought them , their staff, their materials, and instruments.

Regardless  of how modern, fancy, capable and clever the blood donation handling staff is, and how spacious the premises are, nothing happens without the co-operation of  the local folks.

This is a tee shirt rear view, displaying the name of a student organization called  "Samvaad" on campus that involves itself in social causes.  I met several volunteers of this organization at this blood donation camp, and students  generously donate every year.

The entire  thing is organized tirelessly , year after year, by the Sthaniya Lokadhikar Committee and I was told that they also belong to a  Mumbai blood donors group, that is often contacted for unusual blood group requests, and have had the honor of having one of their donors go to Chennai for a special donation of blood which was urgently required. 

Something, you can safely do , say twice a year. Your blood gets separated and used as platelets , plasma, and other things , and different individuals in need get the benefit from a single donation.

Some folks say, they cannot bear the sight of blood.  

Just think. If you can actually learn to bear the sight, you might be able to help someone in an emergency somewhere .

All it takes, is some encouraging company, a strong belief,  and half and hour at the most.


Friday, October 11, 2013

Conversations with God

Half a century ago, in a childhood spent primarily in Pune,  you came home , dusty, after playing with your friends every evening, washed up, changed clothes, and got started on pre dinner evening prayers. It was mostly Bheemarupi Maharudra , recited with wide eyed wonder amidst mind visuals of a Hanuman flying through the air carrying mountains, and the Ramraksha. One was in Sanskrit, the other in old Marathi.

What made the thing interesting, however, was the fact that these recitations were followed by a spirited recitation of mathematical tables from 2 to 21.  You couldn't make any mistakes, and you had dinner only after you did a complete prostrate namaskar in front of the Gods, once the tables were done.

There was an implicit understanding  here, that learning and reciting prayers was not enough; you needed to put in work by yourself, for the Lord to take cognizance of you.

So we grew up, with a good mix of rituals mixed with some common sense, and quickly learnt that God tended to look slightly more favorably on kids who put in hard work along with prayers, as opposed to desperate prayers alone.

My late mother , was the to-date only women trustee member of one of Pune's very well known ancient temple trusts, and often involved herself amidst the devotees , particularly , students and children. Come February and March, and the Ganpati temple would see a huge spurt in serious looking students who would arrive and spend large amounts of time, going round and round the sanctum sanctorum, 108 times, mouthing the various Ganpati names and prayers. Then one day, she called them aside, and advised them to spend that time studying hard instead, and maybe visit the temple for a short time to freshen your thoughts and pray.  Ganpati wasn't going to make you pass if you didn't put in your own hard work.

And so we grew up, watching rituals and stuff, absorbing what we could , but with a no nonsense understanding that you did your best before invoking God to come and give the finishing touches. We were not encouraged to do trade-offs with God; like "if you grant me this, I will do this"; or "if such and such happens , I will perform some extravagant ritual", etc etc.

And so, today there are different reasons to pray to God, than there were, when we were children.

It is often done sometimes to bring solace to someone in the family who has been physically suffering despite immense efforts of the family and medical community. Many times to bring peace to the troubled minds of those doing the caretaking.

 It is often done to seek guidance in troubled times. With parents no more, you need to seek guidance from another elder .

Sometimes it is a sense of gratitude , for what you have been given in life, and the way you have received it. For the continuing good health of family. For blessings bestowed on, say, a child, to show him/her the way forward. For situations that could have been worse, but were not, thanks to good timely advice from someone.

For someone's safe return home, in an increasingly dangerous world.  For friends , who are secretly, actually, family.

And so very often , it is to beseech Him to make this a safer country for girls, given the recent horrendous happenings; to make people less violent , and more truthful and caring.

There are no rituals on a daily basis, other than lighting a lamp/agarbathies and worshipping with flowers. There  is an undeniable  sense, that someone, like a Parent, is watching, and helping me keep on track.

But then life is not always ruled by the head. The heart has its place. And so we have occasions, when we celebrate with God, and call these occasions as festivals. It is , as if,  it is party time with the Lord, and there is dressing up, and adorning and decorating, and singing and chanting.

Unlike my parents who learnt in their own different childhoods and developed knowledge and expertise regarding  worship celebrations, and could often have priests to conduct the pooja,   I had multifarious childhood activities and am not similarly blessed. And so, in an effort to bring to the household today, a bit of some past memories , I look for something to help me .

To me Ganpati, Laxmi, Saraswati,  Kali, are all one.  (With the balance tilting a wee bit in favor of Ganpati....) .

This part of the year, is a celebration of all of them, be it Ganeshotsav, Durga Pujo, Dassehra, Divali.  And I am very happy, that the Cycle Pure Agarbathies have come up with a Lakshmi Pooja Pack, with all the required paraphernalia, including an audio CD of shlokas. (Come to think of it, pooja or worship, originally , was always do-it-yourself (DIY); after an age when priests would be coming to conduct poojas (at some homes, they still do),  life has actually come full circle ....) 

Maybe I will remember all the older childhood stuff all over again, some shlokas will have a familiar ring.

Maybe the children, now older ,  will learn something new.  The younger ones, will enjoy much like we did, and will , maybe, have questions.....

Much like the little boy from the Cycle Brand Agarbathies ad who asks "What if there was no God ?", only to have his sister ask him ,in reply, about who could have managed to smartly put coconut water inside the coconut ....

Submitted as an entry for the Cycle Pure ‘Your Reason To Pray’ contest by Womens Web.

Monday, October 07, 2013

Face Values

Some folks go through life wrapped up into themselves.

And some folks go around as if life is a buffet to be enjoyed, rich with assorted folks crossing your paths with a variety of faces,  hiding behind them a variety of stories and stuff.

It might be an interesting game to have people guess from your writeup, which place you are writing about...

A self absorbed, half dormant look, occasionally shifting as the backpack shifts, a demeanour of someone averse to baths, ironed clothes, and chappals in proper pairs,  a random smile/laugh as he adjusts a wire stuck in his ear, and mutters about submissions.

A square middle-aged countenance, a safari suited look of importance, traversing through impatient crowds , to unlock places of study. A heavy lidded look exuding power of controlling entry, face-up walking through the entrance, the Pied Piper where rats are replaced by students.  A nod, a smile, and suddenly a straightened respectful look, as someone else with power and confidence personified walks in, nodding to all.

A few ladies in similar colored Navratri coded silks, confident in their own, but an imperceptible sideways glance at some new jewellery sported by one of their group; an occasional deep breath , wishing away the tiredness of an early rising, to cook festival stuff for the family dabbas. A clear disapproving look at the last minute girl rushing into the lift,  with narrow jeans and a tee.

A bored face on a tired body on a stool inside the lift;  he has had it with the pervading festival scents and perfumes and the camphored silks. He stares at the closed steel doors, with a disgusted sideways glance at a lady occupying place for two. The exodus on the upper floor, and he smiles at the despatch person, who starts on his paper rounds , office to office. The lift is not for going down. But he smiles with a look that says "Gravity, go to hell!" and they both continue down, stopping only for a chaiwalla lugging 25 paper cups and a teapot.

A sudden straightening of folks,  crisp in uniforms, a self twirling moustache helplessly doing its thing, and folks with a powerful proud demeanour follow a smiling person , as he walks in from the porch. Salutes, nods, and they turn back, pumped up for what they might do best; wave and whistle at badly parked cars, note down licence numbers of vehicles,  and  stand guard outside the local Kendriya Vidyalaya as 15 big buses, assorted cars, and an exodus of  school kids create a daily chaos amidst 70 Rs/kilo onions being unloaded outside a vegetable vendor's shop.

Some, with a fresh look, much aided by a fresh change of clothes, running shoes, rackets, and "we don't want to be late" expression of urgency, fast walking towards the grounds. An expression of  clear disregard on their faces, of various folks  disapprovingly noticing their attire,  a sudden grin and rushing to hi-five  someone, a speeding up in apprehension as they note the time.   In direct contrast, to the foot scraping , wet hair, laugh-filled,  fun walk  back, in anticipation of what might be a decent meal at their mess, as they dodge senior citizens on their sedate walks at dusk, on the now well populated road.

A few pint sized folks, in raptures over the loss of training wheels on bicycles, blissfully rattling down the sidewalks at speed, with various parents running behind. A few tired pint sizes, with plastered hair, and tired hungry looks, and dripping plastic bags, straining up the slope on their way back from the swimming pool, fibbing to each other about how they would bunk the next day, suddenly making way for what looks like a uncle teacher type, out on his daily run, who thinks they need to walk in single file and not block the road.

An occasional rickshawalla, with a beatific look on his face,  stunned by the greenery, the limited willful traffic  , the very Film City type ambiance due to the lake  and gardens,  as he stops by  at a no-parking roadside, one foot outside on the road, crushing something in his palm, before popping it into his mouth. Shaken back to reality by an empty rickshaw going the opposite way, he gives no one-in-particular, a "ah, life is like that" look, reverses minutes before a Maruti Gypsy with security rolls up, and accelerates away to the gate.         
And then there is a puffed up little school girl, cycling home with single minded pedalling, her face impatient with the interference of so many four wheelers freewheeling across the roads; polite waves to aunties, grins at classmates , hair falling across and sticking to her sweaty forehead; the thrill at having topped the class is difficult to hide, and it shows in her eyes, as she holds out a hand to indicate a turn, wobbles a bit due to her heavy schoolbag, dodges a random dog, and is now on her last leg, her face simply waiting to burst with her news.

A few folks in no-nonsense looks and nine yard sarees, plastic bags in hand, steps accelerating towards their destination,  their face a mask that hides a home trauma that consists of a drunk husband, a jobless son, and  sick ma-in-law; they sometimes cannot read or write, but always make it on the dot at the given time in a given house for housework.  Always acknowledging similar colleagues with a smile,  waving to kids leaving for school,  from places where they work with the kids' mothers; you sometimes see anger and grief blacken the faces as they talk to friends, pouring out their woes in troubles  in building compounds, and then the mask is back. 

Of course, there are those with determined strides, conference bags on shoulders, name badges around their necks, shoes nicely polished , apprehension present but trying to hide it on their faces; it is their first day here,  they quietly observe the more loquacious amongst them, and make their way to the conference venue.

Then there are those supremely confident folks, who are seen sometimes walking at a leisurely pace, nodding to themselves, fingers curved on an imaginary blackboard,  perhaps sometime humming a classical song, looking at the watch, and suddenly speeding up, nodding at young folks en route, shaking their heads at a situation that implies more construction means more progress.  They sometimes go by on two wheelers and four wheelers, nostalgical about times when you could park closer to your work   place. An imperceptible straightening as they enter the hallowed precincts, and its time to get chalk dust on your trousers by then.

And finally, there are some, who actually do not understand what the fuss is all about.  This is their land, since time immemorial, their ancestors roamed here, and they see looks of incredulity on the faces of supposedly smart folks, with 2 legs, a swollen head, messed up digestions and less than half their energy. They wander around with inscrutable expressions, ideal for kings and rulers, they give dangerous looks to two wheelers daring to change gears in their vicinity, and almost do a lumbering  catwalk through the long corridor that is a landmark of the area, shooing off dogs trying to latch on. They relax on the mowed lawns chewing the cud,  ruminating on the sudden high density of two legged folks that  they see around them.

Over the years, they have noticed one huge difference.

Earlier, people walked with groups, and friends. Today, they have wires in their years, they talk to themselves, and   some even have their elbows permanently bent as they hold on to their ears with some contraption.

Yes, another difference too.

These days, they also sense something dangerous , particularly on hot days at nights.  Their faces show fear.   A fear of the striped, roaring , black and gold fast one, that encroaches from the jungles surrounding the adjoining lake, and looks for prey.

Theirs is just to carry on with life, with a brave face. 

But sometimes, just sometimes,  they wonder, why no one has projects to "save"  them , and there is so much fuss about the gold and black fast one.....

And they realize, that one must simply learn to  face it all..... 

Friday, October 04, 2013

Review : Arjuna, Saga of a Pandava Warrior Prince by Anuja Chandramouli

This book was sent to me by Leadstart Publishing. Published in 2013 by  Platinum Press, an imprint of Leadstart Publishing, this book of 363 pages, is dedicated to the most admired warrior from the Mahabharata Epic, the Pandava Warrior Prince , Arjun. 

At the outset, one has to greatly admire the stupendous research done by the author,  Anuja Chandramouli, to ferret out a plethora of details and gems of information , hitherto unknown, to someone like me, who grew up listening to grandmother's stories from the epics, almost 50 years ago, almost on a nightly post dinner basis.

The books has a massive four page long cast of characters , which have been defined under various categories, right at the start of the book. A select glossary of Sanskrit terms/words is made available at the end of the book for clarity. 

The story starts with the ancestors of the Pandavas, the genetic inter-connections between the various key ancestors. The author has delved fairly deep into family trees, to clarify details, which again, get terribly mind boggling, as polygamy, various immaculate conceptions via various Gods,  abandonments and adoptions,  children born out of flames in yagnyas, et al  are present in glorious detail.

The author has painted the various key personalities expertly.  Each of the Pandavas, the Kaurava top folks, the advising elders who were supposed to guide , Lord Krishna,  the majestic Draupadi , the unfortunate Karna are painstakingly  colored and described in detailed shades.

Unlike many books based on epics and scriptures, which generate some kind of disbelief and awe,  there is a sense of human ease about this style of writing.  Many human qualities are seen in folks. The younger Pandavas are never permanently tongue tied vis-a-vis Yudhishtira, and there are times when Bheem, Nakul and Sahadev even crack jokes along with Arjun quietly in front of him.   While the story in the first 60% of the book is really about Arjun, the banishing of the Pandavas away in the jungles for 12-13 years,  even Arjun going on a side trip to heaven and impressing Gods there, and returning with weapon goodies, the story appears to slowly narrow to  the story of Karna , the most unfortunate personality in the Mahabharata.  There is heavy detailing of the various battle plans, Chakravyuhas,  the various special weapons (with exception points)  , Gods appearing every now and then , sometimes to grant a wish, sometimes to applaud something with a shower of flowers.

This book could have become tedious due to the detail.  Fortunately, beyond the first half, the amount of sudden new characters with weird powers reduce, and the story is more about right, wrong, greed, power, good, evil, revenge, being faithful to the ruler or to your conscience, and being smart .

To someone, who has never heard the stories earlier , it would be completely shocking to see folks casting spells, and giving "Shaaps " simply because they didn't like something or someone disturbed them.  It would have been unnerving to have Indra and the Sun frequently make trips to earth to interfere in the proceedings, just like that, and Pandavas  traveling around the country, meeting kings, taking a fancy to some beautiful princess and marrying them appears to be a usual thing, possibly a tradition in those days, but clearly something that complicated life. 

But it is also a story of the super brave Abhimanyu, the raring to go Ghatotkach who even in death , fell on the opposing army and killed folks by crushing them. It is a story of strong women , who stood by other strong women right till the end, and indulgent women, who spoilt their royal kids, when a strict rebuke would have helped. It is a story about how war misguides a populace,  once the majority refuses to see reason. It is a story of queens with some very human attributes, and lack of guts in facing things, like in the case of Kunti,  who gives birth and abandons the child in a basket in the river; then years later, lands up at that son's place to identify herself, and ask for special consideration as a mother whose 2 sons are fighting each other to kill.   

But one cannot help feel, that Arjuna was able to be what he was, very clearly because of Lord Krishna.   While none of the Pandavas were good at what would be called today as "having talks" with the enemy/opposition,  Lord Krishna, was at pains to discuss things with folks like Karna , when the war was about to reach its fiercest point , and whats more, Karna was able to stand his own ground, on reasons , that one would even give today. Anticipating events, and primarily using his charioteer position smartly, the Lord performed at crucial moments  to save Arjuna during the war. I mean, it helps to have someone with "inside information" on your side, not to mention brilliant navigation abilities.    

This is a story we see around us even today. Good rulers, bad rulers. Nonethical practices being justified as correct by unscrupulous higher ups. Righteous folks at the top, who cannot take a systems view, but cause havoc because of their adamant stands.  People who believe, brawn is better than brain.   One time respected elders who slowly fade out of the scene, to be abused behind their backs.  Assorted princes lording it over others by virtue of genetics.  Gutless courtiers.  Backstabbing.  Abuse of women and killing of children.  Strangely, no one talks about daughters in the Mahabharata  (much is mentioned about Pandavas' sons ), and today too, daughters are , by and large, ignored.

The question is, is there a Lord Krishna visible anywhere,  and if he does appear, will we have the sense to listen ? 

This book kind of grows on you as you go deep into it. Read it.