Friday, October 16, 2015

At the Cutting Edge......

 The Times of India initiated a Write India Campaign a few months ago. Eleven popular authors  would participate. Each month, a given author would indicate a certain passage, and the idea was those interested in participating would  include this passage and develop a short story and submit it.  There would be 10 stories highlighted each month, and one winner declared, who would win a Kindle.

Looking at  prompts and building stories around them is something that takes me back to school days, when you were given a subject and had to write essays.  Except , then, your teacher had something to say about it.  

In keeping with the spirit of going digital, you can now be a  0 or a 1.  And there are no feedback comments. 

 The second month results are out, and while it is very clear  that one is NOT  amongst the talented top 10,  it has been a fun thing to participate in. 

The same spirit of going digital now allows me a fun opportunity of  putting my zero category entry on the blog.  

 Chetan Bhagat  was the second author. The passage he specified was : 

She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her “blue silk scarf”. ..         (you could use the passage anywhere within the story)

--------------------------------------------My entry ----------------------------------------------

At the Cutting Edge.

Esha,  was  startled out of her reverie by the sudden braking of the CST local.  As usual, the train came to a stop just outside the main station, and waited, in anticipation, of a free platform, where she could disgorge her innards, full of active, hardworking, cheek to jowl standing folks, mobilizing to rush to work, hurrying across the grand interiors of the station.

Collecting her purse and a small handbag, she moved towards the door.  The train would start with a knowing jerk, and slowly glide into CST. 

Like a child homing to its mother.

No.  She didn’t want to think about it like that.  It hurt.   

There was a time when she found something hurtful, and quickly shoved it away from her mind,   trying to convince  herself  that her mind was at fault.   But when something happened again and again, she wondered.    

The last few years had gone by in a blur. 

Esha  Prabhu had become  Esha Gupta,   with great celebrations and  declarations.  She had met Harish at an Equal Streets event, where they were conducting a drawing competition for kids on the wondrously empty Sunday streets.   Many months of cutting chais, train rides, chats and chaats, whatsapp, FB and hanging around with each other’s   friends, they decided to take a step ahead.

Families met.   Appraised each other.  Smiled.  Approved.  And  Esha-Harish were now hyphenated.

Six months later, amidst all the mandatory pomp, ceremony, and social posturing, they were married.  The family owned factories and stuff, and the women did not need to work, although socially active at all times. 

Esha, who had completed her Masters in Social Work, wanted to work.  And that’s when she started sensing the speed breakers. Or maybe she should have called them potholes?

She would apply to some place, get a call, and just when she got ready to go, something would change, and the interview would get called off.   Sometimes she thought it was some disorganized HR of the company, sometimes she thought it was just her luck.  

Harish would be busy with his managerial responsibilities in his family enterprises, and when he was home, never really had an ear for such cribs.   On the rare occasions that he heard her out, he would suggest patience, respect for his folks, family traditions etc  etc.   And she would force herself to keep quiet, wondering what happened to the old Harish of Equal Streets.

Then, one day, something changed.   Within her, that is.

At first she couldn’t figure it out, and then she realized, she had missed her period.  

It was a matter of time and soon the women folk  were buzzing with the news.   Her parents were delighted, and so were the in-laws.  Many customary celebrations were done.    No one really said anything about her going to work.   And so she decided to enjoy this new phase in her life and think about work later.   Acutely aware of the changes, the shapes, the sense of movements within her, she faithfully went for checkups with her ma-in-law. 

Till she was advised a sonography. 

There was all that water she had to drink before the procedure, and then the actual sonography, and the rushing to the bathroom desperately afterwards, with her ma-in-law solicitously hovering.    Then the waiting for the report.

Not that she understood the technical jargon, but she heard someone say it was a baby girl.  And she smiled as she went to bed that night.  Clearly, law prevented mentioning this in the report.   But some whispers happen despite the law.   Which may have long arms, but sometimes has ears too,  that actually shut? 

She can’t tell the exact moment things changed, but before she knew what was happening, she was told there was something wrong with the fetus; it was not destined to go to full term.   She was admitted to the hospital, and she emerged, with a uterus, completely bereft and a mind, completely blank.

Everyone made the solicitous noises, hovered around, and spoke of how young she was, and how there would be another time, and so on.   Harish was affected, and it was assumed, that his silence bespoke support to her. 

Life got back on to the previous well trodden track once again.  Like they say, time heals.  And time did its stuff.

A year later, she went through the exact same stuff. Conception, celebration, checkups, and an urgent D and C. This time she stayed a bit longer in hospital, and confirmed what she had always suspected since a year.   

Daughters were not wanted in the family.   And she was just a machine that kept getting rebooted time and again.   

Maybe it was time to move to a place of her own with Harish.  Maybe her unborn children would have a better future then.    She discussed this with him, and was not terribly surprised to see, that he did not want to do that. He was in his comfort zone, and who cared about whether she was?

She went home to her folks for a few days, and thought things out.  She decided to leave her marital home.   She couldn’t spend a lifetime fitting into a constantly changing random jigsaw puzzle.   Her parents were aghast.  Nice girls from good families didn’t do this.

And so she shifted out.  Both,  from her in-laws,  as well as her parents.  

The in-laws could figure out what to tell nosy folks, and her parents wouldn’t have to explain to folks who came with proposals for her younger sisters.   

She was qualified, and found a job with an NGO, and a small shared room in a women’s hostel, with leaky rooms, insufficient bathrooms, and terrible food.   There were health problems, gynaec  ones,   there were repercussions of the earlier surgical interventions, but she was beyond worry.   She would cross bridges when she reached them.

She was happy, as she traveled daily by Mumbai’s iconic but geriatric suburban railways, ensconced in the warmth of the fellowship of diverse women.

She loved her work, her colleagues from different backgrounds, the ethos, and her natural abilities ensured that she was appointed to a supervisor level person.   Years passed.  She kept in touch with her old friends, but life had changed.   She now enjoyed visiting schools and colleges to speak about the Social Work Discipline now available for undergraduates, and was much appreciated as a speaker.

Another day.   Another train ride.

She got in, or rather, got pushed in to the compartment that morning, and was pleased to see her usual companions of the trip.  Sometimes, they saved a seat for her, and sometimes, they shared their seat, offering to stand half the way, so she could sit.    They were single women, mothers of small kids, older women braving the tough crowds, and even school girls, travelling to schools. There were also the fisherwomen.  Nothing daunted them, as they clambered into the compartment, big baskets on their heads, tilted a bit sideways to avoid tangling with the middle pole at the entrance.   And then there were the hawkers. 

They often knew the regular commuters.   You could get anything in the train, from clothes, to trinkets, to bed sheets, to kurta pieces.   Vegetable portions and food too. Entrepreneurship at its best, because they knew the women going home would save time dealing with the veggies in their long one hour commute north.   Esha often admired those who actually chopped  and/or peeled stuff in the train, making good use of the time. 

The train glided into a junction en route, and a wave of humanity slid out, followed by another one getting in, stumbling to find a sitting place.   Something made her look.  It was a woman, possibly full term pregnant, and what looked like her mother or mother-in-law, chaperoning her.  The sisterhood conspired to create a seat for her, and the train departed, lulling everyone into its comfortable rhythm.

She could see the pregnant woman wince, and move and adjust herself, and the elder lady comfort her.  Her neighbors smiled at her. They had been through it all.  As always happens, there was chitchat.  They were on their way to one of Mumbai’s municipal hospitals.  The pregnant woman’s husband was in the general compartment.  And would join them at the terminus.

Suddenly, the woman moved, and tried to stand.   There was a buzz around her as a pool of liquid spread on the compartment floor.  Her neighbors got up, realizing what had happened, and shouted out for help.  Were there any nurses or paramedics travelling?  Possibly medical students?   

As it always happens, first there was a rush to see what had happened. And then better sense prevailed.  Yes, there was a trainee nurse travelling.  She dashed forward.  Asked the women to create a protective enclosure.  Several  dupattas  came off and were opened and tied  here and there, or even held  by folks  to allow the woman some privacy of sorts.   A few women including  Esha dashed  forth to help, and follow the trainee  nurse’s instructions.  Women carrying newspapers and tissues,  offered their supply. Those who carried  napkins and towels  offered everything they had.    

An amazing coming together,  of women, for women.   Some attended  to the impending birth, some supported her physically  as she pushed, some continued to say words of comfort, patting her and pushing back her hair from her face.

The adjoining gent’s compartment  could be  seen through a grill in the compartment wall, and some of the ladies sent word ,  after ascertaining the husband’s name;   his wife was in labour, was being attended ,  and they would keep him informed.    They then covered the grilled window.  

The Maximum city,  sometimes performs to more than maximum.

Guided by the nurse,  the woman delivered ,  and word was passed around  that they needed something to cut the umbilical cord.   The baby lay on the woman’s abdomen, amidst  what could have been called a   mess, but was actually  an amazing victory  for the child.   Esha suddenly remembered her friend who cut veggies every evening , and shouted out to her. 

Somewhere from the back , a knife was passed around and Esha  took charge and gave it to the nurse.  A fresh unopened razor blade would have been better, but then  a woman’s  life is more about knives and less about blades.

For an instant, she waited, and then the child was free.  A new entrant into the  world, learning even before  birth, what lay in store.   It was a girl, and the compartment rejoiced.  

In the meanwhile, the people in the adjoining gent’s compartment had informed the railway police,  who informed the motorman .   Somewhere before reaching the CST terminus,  the new mother, the new grandmother, the new father , and the nurse, got off and were rushed to the nearest hospital .

The compartment   got slowly back to normal,  wreathed in a euphoric high, as  the  ladies  made their way,  some to disembark,  some to  tentatively sit  till CST,  and some just to enjoy the breeze in the doorway.   There was adrenaline in the air,  and a sense of power and achievement.

Esha  glanced around,  and saw  folks move away  from the delivery scene.   A  jumble of  dupattas, towels,  newspapers, and  fluid.  

And somewhere amidst it all,  was  the knife.  Like her,   bloodied,   a bit from the skirmish, but more from the environment.   She  spied  a  part of a blue dupatta that was still untouched by the stuff, tore off a large piece, and wrapped it around the bloody knife.  Quietly  she held it in her arms as she anchored her purse on her shoulder and gravitated to the door.

She would soon be at CST and would need to disembark.

She walked , as if in a dream,  to the doors of the station,  and felt  a sudden loss of energy.   It was a coming down to normal, from the  extended  high  in the compartment, and she stopped in her path.

She needed to have a coffee.  And get her thoughts together.   

A  Starbucks beckoned.   She normally never went there due to what she thought were outrageous prices.   But she needed  to sit,  amidst some solitude and quiet.  She needed some time alone .

She felt strangely happy , and rich.  She had helped bring a little girl into this world.  Against huge odds.   There were no spic and span wards, no shiny instruments,  no surreptitious,  narrow minded , cheating family types,  but a huge  set of ordinary folks willing the little girl  to make it to this world.  All the dupattas were like silk , as if softly mobilizing to swaddle the child.

She smiled and felt a sense of closure.    Knives could kill, but then,  some knives were life givers.

She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her “blue silk scarf”. ..

She was home.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Pout is Out !

There is an amazing dog called Bozo , who has been the subject of many poems ( more than 50) , on my poetry blog Strewn Ashes.   (I once made a book about this  and Bozo has been clicked reading it ) . 

The reason Bozo is amazing, is not because he has all the "approved"  canine properties that make people go "Oooh !"  but because his eyes are so expressive , he is a thinking dog, and  is almost evolved. 

His mentor and chronicler, my friend, Deepak Amembal (with whom he lives) , posts a picture of his every week.  So many times, Bozo has stuff to say on the going ons around him, proclivities of machines and humans,  and mindless following of customs by folks. 

The latest post had this picture, and a question "Am I pouting?" , which triggered something I have been wanting to ask for a long time. 

 What is the connection between taking what are known as "Selfies" and "pouting" ?

 What makes presumably , otherwise sensible, well known, publicity conscious folks pout in photographs , that they take of themselves ? 

Why do they never have a surprised , cheerful, "Aiiyo" type expression when they click themselves ?  Which is how a normal, hard working, god fearing, ordinary looking   human would react ?  

Researchers from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore  conducted studies where they looked for cues in selfies that are related to selfie owners’ degree of agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness.   They even connected things to locations , and poses in which folks took selfies . 

600 people on a social networking site answered detailed questionaires , and when these were correlated with the selfies , the research indicated the following connection with  character traits and selfies : 

Some studies have even defined the Duckface or Pout , as an effort at making the lips look bigger and attractive.  
Go have a look at ancient sculptures and paintings . Check if the apsaras and courtesans are pouting.  On the other hand,  they look so happy and secure with what they are. 
We have our own beauty standards.  You may or may not follow them,  since you tend to slavishly follow the West. 
And so, clobbered by Western beauty standards ,  surreptitiously encouraged by all the multinational cosmetic firms raking in the moolah in India, where anything can be claimed in ads and the hordes will rush in ,  our celebrities  ape the west, wear skimpy outfits, contort their bodies, and pout.  To be universally acceptable. 

Have Selfies by all means. 

Look serious in them , if that is your natural tendency.  

Show all your pearlies, and smile widely , if that is your style; you will have made somebody's day.  Your dentist will be pleased or even detect a potential customer. 

A grinning selfie could be a winner ;  you will not know unless you learn to grin at yourself as you click. 

If you think you present competition to Mona Lisa, even those knowing smiles are welcome.   

If you are upset, you can even look angry in selfies. Some folks have made movie careers out of that.

Of course,  if if you are neurotic , you can always pout, and keep track of what new expression someone in Hollywood comes up with. 


And so Bozo, to answer your question, No, you are not pouting, and I hope you never do.   

You are a fellow who has made peace with the world, little things satisfy you,  you never put on a show ,  and you always express your gratitude  in little ways unique to you.  You still have quirks, like chasing birds in the balcony and telling off crows.  But that's OK.  

Sometimes, you even smile . 

If you look serious,  it is because you are now older,  aware of happenings around you,  and most important, you are a Thinking Dog. 

More power to fellows like you !

Friday, October 09, 2015

Whose place is this anyway ?

I have this firm belief that there is a lot for us to learn from the way the human body is set up and works. 

It has all the elements of our existing societies  built in,  and we need to study that to look for solutions  in our troubled human societies .

I just read this article, "Who's Living with whom?  Bacterial Cells Vs Human cells in the body ".

Please do read the article.

It is not about who owns the body . It is not about who came first . And it is not about who is good and who is bad.  

From the time we are born, our bodies, in the highest tradition of Atithee Devo Bhava  and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,  play host to a huge amount of bacteria . It could be from human contact with other humans, or due to our newborn proclivity to pick up everything and first stick it inside the mouth.   At any given time, the ration of bacterial cells to human cells , is like 10 to 1.

The thing to understand, is that NOT all the bacteria are classified as the enemy. Over the years a whole bunch gets inside our bodies and settles down in the gut; that is stomach and intestines.  It is known that there are at least 500 species of bacteria that have settled down in the human body.

They are known to do several things. 

They help in the digestion of foods by appropriate breaking down of the food like complex carbs, the various B vitamins and the amino acids, into stuff our body can readily use.

And they also help handle "outsider" stuff like  foreigner pharmaceutical chemical stuff , which is new to the body systems.  

Another thing they do , is "Occupy" . They crowd out spaces , and colonize, and effectively deny  places to outsider disease pathogens that might want to settle in an cause a disturbance to the balance of the human body. And so we come to the conclusion, that  our ability to fight infections, keep our bodies running well in dynamic balance with all the other body systems , really owes a lot to the bacterial occupations, and their synergy and respect they might have developed for human cells. 

Our gut, is often called the 2nd brain.  Which is not a myth, but a fact. More brain cells or neurons are found in the gut, than, say, in the spinal cord.  This is called the enteric nervous system and it produces 2 neuro transmitters (brain cell messengers) that have a lot do with mental afflictions when their imbalance happens.  What we eat, how it is is processed, and how the gut brain responds , has a lot to do with the performance of these bacteria in the gut.

And now you will understand, why so many cultures in Asia/India, have traditionally had fermented foods as part of their diet.  A natural encouragement for the good bacteria to colonize.

So why do I get so delighted with all this knowledge ?

Because, like the article that triggered this range of thoughts, we have reached a state in our country's social set up, where we are now demanding "Who's living with whom? " and  "who  has the right to do what ....."

Some folks think they are the host, some others think they are the bacteria. And vice versa.  Some folks think the bacteria are bad, and after a  time, end up appreciating them and changing their opinion.

Some of the bacteria are sometimes more loyal to the body than the human cells.  And instead of applauding like in the body,  we start suspecting them of having a ulterior motive.

In times of danger and external attacks, the bacteria and human cells, neighbors over generations, fight the intruder as one.  Sometimes though , victory is a long winded process, as the intruder bacteria, manage to interfere in processes, possibly momentarily fool the human and good bacteria.  

There are a lot of knowledgeable, well meaning folks in society. But sometimes, personal material imbalances  tilt the societal balance, and they fall prey to planned bad advice from those that are hell bent on disrupting the  stability of the situation.

Like in the human body, external medications, pharmacological solutions exist, but always with side effects, and  we as a society are so oblivious to them as we go overboard , in what could be solutions, with immediate impact but with disastrous long term consequences.

And we simply do not understand that the solution lies in everyone playing their enlightened role to improve the balances in society.  There is no individual win or loss. 

And so the question to be asked is not "Who is living with whom?" but  "Now that we are living together , how can we make the best possible use of the situation, and create new learnings and processes, so as to make it a healthier society ?".

It doesn't matter who is the human cell and who is the bacteria.

What is important is to note that both need to coexist.

Having said all this,  one must say that elements of our anatomy, have a great amount of respect for those that oversee their living and prospering.  Occasionally, the brain may issue fatwas , leading to inflammations and pains.  But these are always with a view to giving the rest of the anatomy practice in what they do best, and teaching some entity of our anatomy a lesson.  

Which is learnt.

And that seems to be the basic difference .

The body learns.

We , of the supremely brilliant evolved cerebral cortex,  simply don't.   

Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Digital, digital !

There is this big campaign happening currently where the key word is Digital. And it worries me. Because "digits" means fingers , and fingers belong to humans.

Hundreds of moons ago, I used to work  in  field which was politely called Data Processing.

I would talk to clients, study systems, design systems , program them in whatever language was popular then,  test them, prepare instruction manuals, and one fine day, the system went into production with live actual data.  It was a world of punched cards,  readers, voluminous paper outputs, and stringent data checks with lots of man-machine interactions.

What came out of all this, was "information" , regarding, say, inventories, funds, personnel, etc etc, which presumably was looked at by the managers.

Then PC's arrived, and "data" suddenly became "information", or at least pretended to be. Something appearing on a screen gave it a lot of sanctity, like the Gandhi cap being worn by folks for a similar effect.

Data Processing suddenly became Information Technology.  The sad part , was , that in many cases, humans at managerial levels could not keep up with the speed of Intel Inside, erroneous data migrated through the system like folks coming daily into Mumbai, and becoming untraceable.

In many cases there was loss of security, ie,  complete uncertainty about who could change what data, officially.   I had personal experience of many such episodes .

There was a time when on the 15th of every month, a large sum (by middle class standards)  would be credited to my account and then debited on the 17th. It was not me doing this or anyone I recognised . This was at a well known nationalised bank. I was intrigued, and someone even told me to go withdraw money on the 16th just to see what would happen. When I asked at the bank, they directed me to their HQ computer room, and asked me to check there. I was told that some data came on a CD from some agency, and it was processed regularly. The HQ man offered to show the CD data, and I ended up telling him the commands to open the file and read, since I knew the software and he didn't.   Back to the bank branch, and after much personal investigation, it turned out that the branch manager had no clue about account codification, and  someone at an extension counter was given the same account code as mine at the regular branch. Instead of correcting this (assuming that they called this a mistake), they found it simpler to credit and debit large sums in my account. This went on for 6 months till I raised a hue and a cry.

Then there was a time when I retired and  it was mandatory to create a pension account. Used to having joint accounts, I was informed that this would be a single named account where the nominee would always be the spouse. This was at India's premier nationalized bank. I wanted the bank to realize that making children your nominee was a more sensible thing, but there was no choice. Then one day, I applied for a new chequebook on that account.  Gone were the days when you got chequebooks free. It came by post, my account was debited with charges, and when I checked , I was aghast to find that the single name printed at the bottom of each check was the spouse's. I slogged for donkeys years, retired, created a pension account in a single name, and the bank still managed to put the wrong name. On visiting the bank, the officer glared at me , and told me they would send me a new chequebook, but I would be charged again for the postage.  He had the right to make stupid mistakes, but no right to waive the charges.

Then there was a Security situation in the place where i used to work, and the spouse still did. Every resident of the campus had family ID cards, mentioning dependents etc. When the status of the spouse temporarily changed  a few years ago, both of us got new id cards. Then they said that the daughter, defined as a dependent for decades on our records , would be given a  "daily entry pass" which would need monthly renewals and signatures at the gates.  I wondered about the "entry" since we already lived inside.   It was only when I raised a hue and cry , insisted on turning in our id cards , demanded daily entry passes for us too, promised to sign in at the gates everyday and approached the section head, that someone saw the problem and solved it.

The problem turned out to be that the right to change data for a person was erroneously granted to security section when it should have been administration (which maintains personal and family  data for a given employee) . As a result,  newly created  designations having to do with specially bestowed honors on an employee , completely confuse  a section which has no clue about it.Sorry to say, the state of affairs still continues.....

It is not just us.  Courier company delivery people make deliberate wrong entries on digital tracking records saying "party unavailable", "residence locked" etc  when you have been at home the whole day.  All this to avoid an inconvenient  delivery. Sort of using the system to beat the system.

I worry about going completely digital.  I worry about  the people who make it their life's mission to devise tricks and shortcuts given a system .

But then there are also those who are sticklers for rules. Even if it means changing a fact of life .  Or should I say , death.

Post my father's passing away, I was involved with applying for the requisite certificates and documents, and was surprised to see a very well organized set of steps everyone had to follow.  You applied at a counter, submitted the required papers, mentioned the number of copies. They cross checked it for details , with the  paperwork from the cremation place , and you returned 2-3 days later to collect the death certificates.

I lived in another city and made a trip just to collect these certificates. When I enquired at the window, I was told that the date of expiry , on the doctors certificate and cremation certificate appeared to differ, and the change could only be done at the Municipal Head Quarters, some distance away , at a section , where only one person had the rights to modify data .  I rushed in an auto, and wandered through some unlabelled dark labyrinths at the Head Quarters, till I reached an office populated with just two people. A boss and an data entry person.  They effected the change in the blink of an eye, I asked to see the modified record on screen, and I rushed back to get my certificate copies before the place closed for lunch.

Digital or not. I was just pleased to see someone somewhere following rules. ....

Omar Khayaam once wrote " The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,......"

Clearly, he was an analogue type. He simply did not know what havoc a  digital tapping finger could bring......