Friday, December 19, 2014

Unknown of the Mind

The mind is a fascinating piece of stuff. 

I am not sure if mind and the brain are the same, or whether mind is the software in the brain .

But strangely , one always assumed the "mind" was somewhere near the heart, a greatly esteemed organ , even before the technical intricacies of its working came to be known. .

In one's growing up years, there was an element of God associated with the mind. Firm beliefs that certain stotras and prayers afforded you relief in troubled times. Confirmations, that you sometimes got struck with a stroke of good sense simply by divine intervention of some sort.  And someone, with a convoluted sense of good and bad, and a perceived pest was simply that way as a result of his bad karma.

Today, in the days of brain chemicals, firing neurons, stubborn synapses, and angry amygdalas, there is still a sneaking  thought, that divine intervention still works; despite medications that , say, straighten you out, Some One Up There clearly has the final Say; and a lot of stuff that decides how your mind functions majorly depends on interactions and understanding of people around you.

He was in his late eighties. A sprightly , healthy person, with a love for exercise, yoga, literature, creative writing, and nutrition, and despite blood values that were exemplary, at some point age caught up with him. The body engine defaulted on energy and he was bedridden.

At first the mind functioned perfectly.  He had his favorite foods, favourite people, favourite topics , and things he greatly disapproved off. But it slowly became a great effort , physically to hold forth on these.  The mind was in full force, and he would get very angry about this inability, and  complain bitterly.

 His walking friends from the park near the house, came to visit him, and were amazed to hear him say that he would soon be joining them once he recovered.

That was the time, the mind made its foray into a wishful  realm.

He would talk and tell his caregivers about how he had just done a 2 km walk that morning, even specifying where he went. He would forget that he had lunch, and pull up folks for not bringing him his lunch. But he still remembered people. His caregivers, his doctor , his doctor's late grandpa (a doc who was his friend),  neighbors, and relatives.

Then came a time, when he stopped recognizing folks. Except his caregivers.

He would remember assorted details about others, but their names and the ability to recognize eluded him. He had overseas immediate family, and he forgot their names but remembered that they were "very far away"; he didn't recognize them when they came to see him.  

But interestingly, his mind kept track of the fact that he was supposed to recognize some folks and he couldn't, and so, whenever he now faced someone on a visit or on the phone, he would exclaim and act out a generic greeting, smiling and nodding his head, saying Hello, and Welcome, and so forth. It made the visitor feel good, the person on the phone , happy, and his daily caregivers were simply astounded to see how his mind was able , in its apparently confused state, to pull off this thing.

On random visits of folks like relatives he couldn't recognize, he would suddenly enquire about someone of theirs his mind  apparently connected to; but he simply couldn't put names  to people. It was as if there was a list of names in his mind, and a few records were corrupted, and so , unlinkable to other information. Strangely , he sometimes remembered the other info, but the link to the corresponding name had gone. 

A caregiver who worked in IT, often wondered whether there was anything like a "root" brain, that managed  all this linking, playacting,  memory and stuff.

The energy loss continued, and eating became a tiring activity, even though someone was feeding him his favorite foods.  He would go through stages of stupor, sleep, and non stop verbalizing. At times he was very alert in real time. He started confusing the identities of his caregivers, and often mentioned names of people who he imagined visited with him, but actually did not.  It became an effort even to open his eyes, and a a couple of spoonfuls of soup like sambhaar would tire him, and he would hold his hand up.

A kind of withdrawal  of his mind within itself was apparent to all, and everyone worked at communicating normally with him, and keeping up his normal routine , hoping it was a changeable phase.

The mind is a strange entity.

He had lost all concept of time, day and night. The caregivers kept caring and feeding him to keep up his energy levels,  whenever he was awake and amenable to it.  His eyes were mostly closed, and he would gesticulate with his hands and by mouthing words. Clearly , he was unable to identify people around him, and had stopped recognizing folks.

His daughter was feeding him soup late  that night.  Very clearly, he could not see that it was her.  He had a few spoons, and then indicated , that he had enough by holding up his palm in his bed.  He whispered his daughter's name, and in a perplexing display of energy, raised his entire arm up, trying to ascertain where she stood bending over him, and tried to  touch her face. With his eyes , open almost like slits, he imperceptibly moved his face, touched her face, mouthed her name, cupped her chin like you would for a small child, and then she felt his hand go limp  as she held it in her grasp.  

What came over his mind in his last moments ? How did he remember her name, and how did he know it was her feeding him ? What gave him the energy to lift his arms, seek and cup her face in his hand ?  Was there some unknown energy that fired his mind in his last moments , temporarily going back in time ?  Was there a final moment of revelation in his mind, when just for an instant, the brain functioned at full power, remembering his family, just before asymptotically sliding to a null value ? 

Like I said, the mind is a fascinating thing.  Like I said , the mind may be the software in the brain. 

But somewhere,  despite all the fancy brain research, medications, predictability of brain conditions, and theories of development of a single cell into a homo sapien over millions of years,  why does it keep occurring to me, that there will always be an Unknown of the Mind ?
 And possibly, what I believed in my growing up years , was true ?

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Write is Right....

As a society ,  we have an amazing aptitude for latching on to new technology, sometimes, albeit thoughtlessly, and almost always , in a hurry. 

When this has something to do with teaching kids in their preschool days, one needs to start asking questions.

Today, I see kids, sitting in strollers, fiddling with cell phones, tapping and sliding fingers, and playing games. Same goes for kids of preschool age, and the parents proudly look on, as the kids activate Apps, plays games and so on.  This translates to cartoons on television at home  , watched regularly at fixed times. Fiddling with knobs and tapping to invoke things is supposed to indicate that the kid is technologically smart.  Preschool days, means sending kids to some kind of coaching classes to prepare them , for, heavens sake, interviews, that will decide their admission status.

Researchers from Tel Aviv University collaborating with the School of Education at UIUC in the US, have just  published  a study , in the Early Childhood Research Quarterly explaining,  why early writing, preceding any formal education, plays an instrumental role in improving a child's literacy level, vocabulary, and fine motor skills.

 Given that today's kids are clobbered with written words, pictures, and stuff flowing endlessly in color, past their field of vision , as they fiddle around with smart phones, tablets, and computers, this research simply confirms what , say, my parents knew. 

Even in our digital age, early parental writing support is key to children's literacy

Twenty years ago, the daughter attended kindergaarten in Germany after spending a year in Junior kindergaarten in Mumbai. We were aghast to learn that children in Germany, by law, were strictly kept away from writing/per se, till they went to first grade at six; and this was because of some muscle development issues in the fingers. (The daughter by then , having attended a year of KG in India, was happily spelling and writing, 3 letter words phonetically).

I just wondered how our parents managed, more than 60 years ago, with no Internet, no rules imposed on education of such young kids, no phones, cell or otherwise, and no television.  Clearly, they were also not privy to papers being published on the subject. 

I remember my school being an English medium school, and the fact that we enjoyed lots of nursery rhymes and lustily sang, accompanied by a wonderful teacher playing the piano, did not stop my folks from doing their bit, to ensure that I learned what they thought was missing.

We had a student from a neighboring  Ved Shala who came by to teach us the various stotras we were supposed to know in Sanskrit, 3 days a week. We also had another teacher who came to train us in writing well; those were days of pencils and slates, ball points were a novelty out of reach and clearly not on the scene, and fountain pens were something you got only in class 8. We used to use a sharpened bamboo reed, called "boru",  dip it in an ink pot, and write the marathi alphabet in large letters in a book, for practice , at home, marvelling at the fine edges it gave to the end of letters.   There were lots of marathi and english children's books in the house, and we would attempt to read these, sometimes challenged and sometimes aided  by folks at home.  I remember learning how cat was pronounced, and then discovering delightedly , that I could spell fat , bat and that. 

There was a daily activity of what is called "Shudhh lekhan". Using a pencil.  We would copy a longish paragraph , in English and Marathi, from somewhere, it could be a magazine, the newspaper, or even a book. The idea was to improve your handwriting, learn certain words in a natural way since they were used often, and also train your finger  musculature .   

By and by , the Vedshala teacher got to a stage where he was teaching us Raamraksha,related to our holy scriptures, a few verses everyday, learned in a augmented manner.   He would tell us the general meaning, and slowly we realized some commonly used features in Sanskrit, without anyone forcing it on us.   The English education was happening side by side with the Marathi.  Both reading and writing.

Having realized how words were spelt, I was fairly fearless about making up my own spellings. Particularly of Marathi words.

My parents were away in the north  due to my father's posting, where my mother had taken time off from our schooling  etc , to help set up a working house .  My aunt and uncle stayed with us, so as to keep all our activities going without a break, as school was still in term.  We were supposed to write letters to our parents like twice a week, describing what we were doing and the general scene.

My mother suddenly got a postcard where it said we had progressed till "EtamRamabalopetamrakshaayaasukrutipathet".      For a long time they tried to figure out what was being said. And then they realized that I was reporting to them, that we had reached the tenth stanza of the Ramaraksha which went as :

एतां रामबलोपेतां रक्षां य: सुकृती पठॆत्‌ ।
                                        स चिरायु: सुखी पुत्री विजयी विनयी भवेत्‌ ॥१०

There was a lot of laughter,  various friends  at the place joining in and exclaiming about the innovative spellings. 

Many years later, some of them visited us when we were much older and recalled this episode.  

Entertainment apart, this was the ethos in which we were taught and educated. Before serious schooling and subjects etc kicked in. I learned to write and understand the nuances of spelling, much before we started getting dictation in school, and I never ever by-hearted or memorized any spellings. To this day. 

My parents didn't know about all the fancy research, they didn't know when you should introduce kids to writing.  We often drew things and wrote things on the Shahbad stone floor tiles at home, sometimes for fun, sometimes for practice. If one of us showed aptitude for performing arts, that too was encouraged. But care was taken to see that whatever literature was around in the house was age appropriate for us.   

I often wonder if we have become a nation of followers.  Some new technology comes, we follow the herd. Something known to us, returns back to us as a western concept, we follow the herd.  An entire generation of my time, now has to deal with the current generation, that has taken avidly to sms lingo which is hemlock for the English language.  People have forgotten the art of writing letters, and putting down points in an organized manner.  Consequently, we have an entire generation , that sometimes, doesn't even bother to read.  Try writing in a complaint, and nine times out of ten, the person responsible for solving your problem has not bothered to read. 

 Then these good folks in Tel Aviv University and Univ of Illinois at Urbana   Champagne  publish their research. It appears in the Internet in a mailing list I subscribe to. Tomorrow it will appear in the Times of India. And everyone will seriously take note of it and start new educational theories. Someone in some ministry will suddenly issue a dictat, and something that we did using common sense and a sense of dedication , will be forced on us as a sudden rule.

Many folks my age, relocated to other countries, and brought up their children there. They probably used the same ideas that their parents did, when bringing them up.

These folks faced a different educational system, than say, my children did.

I wish those guys in Tel Aviv and UIUC had spoken to me. 

Never mind.

I would have told them the secret behind the preponderance of Indians amongst the winners of Spelling Bees in the US.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Railonama : Review

I received "Railonama : Unforgettable Train Stories" by Anupama Sharma as part of the Blogadda Book Reviews program.  Published by GoodTimes Books, 2014,  this is a nice compact book of 240 pages, and is a lovely collection of Indian Railway experiences of people across a wide spectrum.

After a childhood  of travelling to the posting place of a civil-services-parent, during each vacation, from Pune, a history of travelling to and from college away from home in my late teens, and then later on , travelling with a small child, I completely identify with many stories  selected for this anthology.

Stories selected here, are from submissions from all over the world, and not just India, and it is interesting to read a non Indian's perspective on many things that we take for granted. Train travel in India is clearly not about mechanical wonders, speeds, and timings, but more about people who continue their inclusive home lifestyles right into the train.

There are stories of long distance strains, mountain railways, about-to-be-extinct-metre-gauge trains, and even short distance iconic trains like the Pune Mumbai Deccan Queen.  The unfolding of regional panoramas  as the trains chug across the Indo Gangetic, or peninsular landscape, the observable change in foods and cooking styles, predominance of teas/coffees as a beverage of the masses, the color, the habit, and attitudes of co passengers, all make for a wonderful read. The selection and arrangement of the stories is excellent, and one always looks forward to the next story .

There are a few inspired poems, mostly by those from outside India, who are clearly smitten by the romance of the railways,  stories of entire families, routinely travelling  long distances with large baggage, visiting the head of the household at his posting, episodes of kids getting down at stations to get things and then barely jumping on to the train as it chugs away from the platform,  random disobedient fearless small kids who wander on platforms while their tired mother sleeps with another infant, and how these kids are taken under one's wing and disciplined, by rank outsiders , something that will happen only in India.  Unknown concerned parents worrying about a young girl travelling back alone to college, and likely to miss her classes.   And a story , about the unwilling-to-go all-knowledgeable co passenger, who insists on forcing solutions on you, which never work, and who ends up being firmly told off.

Clearly, one cannot enumerate the stories here. It is not the purpose of this book review.

But as someone, who travelled in the late 50's from Pune to Arrah(in Bihar) in a compartment with only 8 berths, and a central free area where you could  even play langdi, then traveled every year, in the sixties ,  in college, from Pune to Mumbai, lugging a sitar in an unreserved ladies compartment, and since then has braved the Mumbai Suburban Central Railway , sometimes lugging chutney stones and homemade brooms, being assisted by the co passengers , and sometimes, travelling with small children who were embarrassed with my handling of the massive pushy crowds,  I totally identify with the many stories  in this book.

I congratulate Anupama Sharma on zeroing in on this topic. her selection of stories, and for an extremely delightful read !

Go get this book.      

This review is a part of the biggest Book Review Program for Indian Bloggers. Participate now to get free books!