Summer Holiday!

This year during my daughter’s summer school break, we visited my parents in Kolkata, a city in the East of India. We were visiting the city after a gap of 4 years and were pleasantly surprised how much it has changed in the few years. For one, the city looks much cleaner and greener. The roads are wider and the parks near my parents home have been given a ‘facelift’ with fancy park benches, sculptors and lovely landscaping. The streets have decorative lamps and a lot is being done in terms of connecting the ends of the city through subways and roads. Kolkata reminds me of my own childhood, where my parents used to take me for every summer vacation. It reminds me of my grandmother’s home, where the kids used to have their fill of sweet juicy mangoes, tart tamarinds or homemade rice wafers during the lazy afternoons, while the adults religiously took their afternoon siestas. Kolkata is also the city where my father took me to see my first museums, planetarium and zoo.

This year, my dad took my daughter to visit some places in the city. I also realized (with a slight jealous pang) that my dad may well be my daughter’s favorite person on this planet. Unlike other cities of India where I grew up or worked, Kolkata is very unique in many ways. Everything can peacefully co exist in this city. Like the buildings from the 1800s and high rises, that may be neighbors and yet have managed to keep their places. From the first Chinese colonies in India to Armenian and Jewish heritage, people of every race, ethnicity, qualification, can find a place to co-exist here.

No wonder I liked New York City during the two years I spent there. It reminded me so much about India and particularly Kolkata. The sea of people of all races, the street carts selling gyros, dosas, biryani and the most wonderful Jackson Heights. With its rows of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian shops. In NYC, I also sampled international cuisines to my heart’s content. I think my heart is tied between a pho and a sushi, but still, I cannot turn down a warm toasty bagel with spinach cheese spread or a soft pretzel with apple almond dip!

The small street side independently owned shops in NYC are very similar to those in Kolkata. In Kolkata, people from different ethnicities have bonded well over food via their will to extend the boundaries of their cuisines, by way of flexibilities or through experimentation. I had my fill of traditional Bengali vegetables which I cannot cook or are unavailable in my city. One of my delectable is unripe green figs, which can be cooked with potatoes in tomato garlic gravy. I was fortunate enough that the lady who helps my mother at home brought us some young figs from her fig tree. Another dish that most Bengalis have tasted is a paste of Taro stems with fresh coconut. Traditional recipes that require more effort to cook are slowly being wiped out from our daily lives, but in Kolkata, many restaurants have begun to spring up which promise food from yesteryears which are now being replaced at home by quick fixes.

A book that I own named ‘The Calcutta Cookbook’ by Minakshi Dasgupta is quite a favorite and it covers recipes beyond all ethnicities that have now added to the Kolkata heritage. This year I had my fill of sweet mangoes and juicy litchis too. Of the 30 varieties of Mangoes available in India, Himsagar is my favourite. It is very sweet and has more flesh than other varieties. It is available only for 4 weeks in Kolkata, just like the litchis. The production of Himsagar is small, but to the Kolkata dweller, one Himsagar a day is a must while it is in season.

Below is a list of a few videos of Kolkata from the view point of a foodie-

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLeEK2YjC4Y

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=saIU-ahpsdE

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KHiLQYwZ0jo

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJblfGmlsE4

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2KBXfV9NsGg

 

Mother’s day- How do we save our mothers?

We have recently celebrated the woman who has helped us cope with life not only during our childhood, but also adulthood. We showed our appreciation to the superwoman, who shields us from everything that could cause us pain, and sometimes, to our embarrassment and sometimes joy, tries to guard us even when we are supposed to have found our own footing in the big world outside home. She is universally revered across cultures, religions, countries or the n number of divisions we have made to segregate ourselves.

But something isn’t right. Why are our mothers dying and why haven’t we been able to curtail this, even in 2017?  Maternal death is a serious issue especially in developing countries. Although we have brought down global maternal mortality by 47% since the 90s, as per the World Health Organization (WHO), about 830 women die due to pregnancy/delivery related problems around the world each day. These are mostly preventable. 99% of these deaths occur in the developing countries.  The odds of a 15 year old dying due to pregnancy/delivery related issue in developed countries is 1 in 4,990. In the developing nations, it is 1 in 180. Sadly most of these deaths occur due to reasons that are within our control.

Severe blood loss during pregnancy and post delivery is the main reason, followed closely by infections. In most cases of severe hemorrhage, injections of Oxytocin are enough to slow down blood loss. The many reasons for maternal death are health inequities, aka, basic services are not available to those who cannot pay for care. Distance to the nearest health care facility, availability of medicines in the facility, inadequate services are also key reasons adding up to the issue. A UNICEF led project in 6 states in India based on verbal autopsy of family members and community members of mothers who had lost their lives during child delivery, showed that cost for transport to the nearest health facility, literacy level of the mother, community awareness were leading cause of maternal deaths.

Personally I find the lack of awareness and non adherence to hygienic practices during childbirth and subsequent death of mothers due to infections, is most unsettling. Sepsis is a major problem, both in maternal as well as neonatal death. These defy all norms for extent of negligence. Additionally, through our incessant use of antibiotics we have successfully created microbes which are now resistant to most drugs, hence can easily compromise an infected mother and her newborn.

The WHO has recently adopted a resolution on sepsis that urges member nations to be more cognizant regarding causes, prevention and treatment of sepsis and tighten policies and regulations of activities leading to Antimicrobial resistance (AMR), to develop AMR stewardship activities and strengthen hygienic practices, clean childbirth practices and improvement in sanitation and nutrition.

Some of the basic things that we could do at our levels would be to create awareness amongst everyone we come in contact with. Every time we visit a clinic or a hospital, we could inquire about guidelines followed in infection management, waste management and AMR. We could also remind the health practitioners about hand hygiene and seek their advice in ways to prevent infections at our homes.

Every family needs a mother and every mother deserves a good healthy life, especially one that can be met by a few prevention steps

 

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A weekend of Gulzar

This weekend my phone was abuzz with messages from every whattsapp group and friends possible. And surprisingly all of them sent in lines from Gulzar’s poetry. As though, it was the most ‘in’ thing now, to send a few of his couplets. The fact that Gulzar has written poems on every emotion and circumstance possible in human life and penned the most memorable songs in the history of Indian cinema, was used quite conveniently by my friends, to depict their moods, or the weather, or what they were hoping for. The man is a genius. Not only has he mastered a subtle way of depicting life through his poetry, he has written plays, scripted films and directed some too.

His poems make me thank my Hindi teachers at school, for letting me learn and understand, one of the several languages that he writes in to reach the masses. There is a rich regional literature treasure in India, each state has its own language and often writers have used regional languages to communicate. However, Hindi and English are spoken throughout the country and taught at schools, in addition to the local state language in some states. Although there are some good translations of regional literature into Hindi and English medium, much of these remain unknown and unread in other parts of the country. Personally, I am not fond of translated literature, since I always feel that the original author’s perspectives are lost or dulled by the translator.

But I am grateful to those who take time in researching, understanding and translating, otherwise, we would never have known about the epics from all over the world, Coelho would sadly be absent from our lives, Love in the Times of Cholera would not have reached the girl growing up in Southern India and Tagore would have not won his Nobel in literature.

Here are a few of Gulzar’s couplets that I have attempted to translate. Hope that these convey his thoughts as closely as possible (courtesy: Rekhta)

  1. From ‘The Melting snow’

When the snow will melt on the mountain

And fog will lift its veil from the valley

The seeds would stretch their limbs

And open their sleepy lazy eyes

And even though,

the new young grass, will begin to green the mountain slopes

Notice carefully, the new spring

Would still have memories of the past season

For even now there would be remnants of tears of yesteryears,

In the melancholy eyes of the new buds that sprout.

My short understanding from the above- Dang! The memories….they never fade. Although we transform from one year to another, one goal to the other, who can forget the past? For as human, we carry our past into our present (maybe that’s a gift?).

  1. From ‘Books’

The books steal glances from within their unopened book case

Sometimes with a lonely, longing gaze

For we haven’t met in months

The evenings that were once spent in each other’s company

Are now used up viewing the computer screen

The books have begin to get restless

For they have now learnt to sleep walk

The books look on with a lonely, longing gaze

 

The values that they once narrated

With their endless passion

Those values don’t live in my house anymore

The relationships they had once proposed

They seem unstitched, undone, incomplete to me now

 

When I turn their pages, I begin to sigh

For many of their words have lost their meaning

For many of their words remain unused now

Terminologies forgotten, meaningless

 

The crystal utensils have made the earthen pots obsolete

For once a turn of a page would vet my appetite

And now at a click of a finger and in an instance

So many pages, pages within pages open by themselves

 

The bond with books has been forgotten

For sometimes they would rest on my heart as I lay,

Or sometimes carried possessively on my lap

Sometimes I would face them on my book stand of knees

Sometimes I would read them like a holy book

And touch them to my forehead in a prayer

 

Perhaps their contents are still accessible

But those dried flowers hidden within pages,

Those fragrant messages from companions

Those relationships forged by an excuse of lifting a fallen book for another…

What would happen to those?

Would those be now forgotten as well?

My two bits- Although we now depend on e books and audiobooks, how can we forget the emotions of reading a thriller….. page by page, so many of those nights in our younger years, of being unable to sleep till we could finish a book?

Books were more than paper pages, they were ways to disappear into an imaginary land, of forging new relationships and being inspired….

Ahh! Gulzar….you made my weekend!

Regrets

I have come to realize that the only regret I will ever have when there is a loss in communication with people whom I had once known in the past, would be the inability to share my happiness or sorrow when I need to, in the present time. Relationships change and distance, death, differences of opinion create gaps, hollow vacuums. New people, new circumstances slowly reinstate the balance. But it is difficult to let go of familiarity, of knowing that someone who is no longer with you could have understood your view, understood you exactly the way you wanted to relay it.

This wall you have built around you,

That which now exiles you,

Does sunshine pass through on its way?

For, the same sunshine has warmed my heart,

Before it passed to you, through your wall

Hence, we are bonded in some way

Sometimes, little thoughts of delight

And sometimes, those that I try and fight

Stop me in my steps, midway

And then I wish I could share

These small things with those gone by

With whom I had traveled once

This road of life, for a short while….

MD

Strength of Prayer, of wanting nothing

When I was sixteen years old, I traveled on my own on a train for 2 days to see my relatives in another city. Even though I grew up in a very protective environment, my parents did give me the independence to discover myself from time to time. And although my parents called every day during that particular trip and came to take me home after two weeks of what was originally planned to be a full month of ‘independent’ vacation; at the end, I did get to stay with all my cousins for a good enough time and had a great summer that year.

On that train journey when I was greatly enjoying being on my own, I chatted up with some of my co passengers. It was the age of bewilderment and innocence. Not even for a moment did I feel nervous about talking with total strangers. I remember some of them bought me snacks and tea and I accepted gratefully. If it was today, I would have thought multiple times about accepting things from strangers. I have also killed the innocent urge to strike up conversations with people I don’t know.

On this trip for at least a part of the journey; one of my co passenger was a young yogi who would probably be in his early twenties. He had a pointed beard and knotted his hair on top of his head in a bun. He wore orange garments, sat straight and had ear phones in both ears. He would open his eyes from time to time and look outside the window, not to gaze at anything particularly but probably to add meaning to whatever he was listening. At some point, we had started talking. He was on his way to North India to help people devastated by a recent flood. He worked with Bharat Sevashram and seemed very happy with his life.

We were talking about God and divine presence and he had asked me if I prayed. I have never been overtly religious. My parents are practicing Hindus, actually quite orthodox, but have never forced me to abide by or follow any practice. As a result, my faith has been an evolution, metamorphosing over the years with my own life’s experiences, changing with my perceptions of the divine. At sixteen, I had laughed and told the Yogi that I prayed before exam results came out. He had asked me not to request for anything the next time I prayed.

I had been amused, how could one not ask for anything while praying. Wasn’t this the sole purpose of believing in a greater presence, of having an assurance that the most powerful can fulfill every need?

I did not understand him then, but now, over time, I have realized how powerful it is to pray and not ask, but thank. I find a deep peace in my daily prayers and praying for others. It has allowed me to overcome the biggest obstacle in my own life; my own self. One does not have to follow any religion to pray. You could think of the universe, the strength of the cosmos as being the most powerful and pray keeping that strength in mind. It is wonderfully satisfying to think of oneself as the tiniest dot amongst the vastness and that one doesn’t have control over everything.

Like many conundrums in my life, I am a partial atheist. An unusual believer. I did study science, but have never felt a need to give up my faith in both the divine and in science. Cant they co exist? I understand how Darwin would have felt, while learning to be a clergyman and discovering that evolution was the key to life forms. However, he may have been an unusual believer himself.

Like my parents, I do not expect my daughter to practice any particular faith, however, I do not think I could bear the thought of her traveling on her own, away from home, not at sixteen and perhaps not even at twenty!

The old man and the garden

The institute where I work, has a beautiful garden. On cold wintry lunch hours, when the courtyard is filled with faculty and students out to soak the mid morning fleeting sunshine, one cannot not notice the vibrant colours of Asters, Marigold, Dahlias, Cosmos and red and yellow leaves of ornamentals. Every morning when I arrive for work, I see the gardener, an elderly gentleman, tugging along, alone in the garden. He works early mornings and late evenings. He usually hums an earthy tune, sometimes breaks into a rasping cough, sometimes looks around his pots and foliages, in the most paternal way possible. One day when he was pruning a Neem tree, I had gone forward and asked him for some leaves. I like the bitter taste of Neem and Bittergourd, especially if they are cooked with Tomatoes and Brinjals.

The gardener had given away the youngest, tender, rusty leaves of pruned branches to me and advised that these were the best to taste and easiest to cook. I had asked him how long he had been with our organization. He had always been with us. And he had always been a gardener ever since he could remember. He seemed so happy and proud as he looked around his canvas. I felt so content just knowing that a simple life is enough for people even in this year of 2017. A life of nurturing and caring and putting in love into whatever one is doing. He also tends to his plants in a most unhurried way. It seems like he has reached a place where time doesn’t matter.

As I debate over faculty development programmes, attending International meetings and conferences, bagging large funded projects, with my other faculty colleagues, my thoughts go over to the old man and the garden. Did he never need to build his skills or go on an exchange programme to enrich himself? How did he teach himself of scientific ways of manuring, pollinating, asexual plant breeding? How does he know that certain plant need only certain angle of sunlight and some need more water than the others? Is experience enough to teach one everything there is to know about ones professional needs? Or is it necessary to reach a stage where lines between professional life aspirations and personal life satisfaction blur and become one?

Like Earnest Hemingway’s book, sometimes one doesn’t need tangibles, certificates, physical acquisitions to assure oneself of one’s worth. Sometimes feelings suffice, small joys and a knowing in what you have and what you had are enough to keep one going. It doesn’t matter if there are storms in your way, what you will build with love will keep you coming back and you wouldn’t even realize the storms you have weathered to reach your happiness.

RIP Ms Fisher

Our childhood is often hinged on special fictional characters that have an impact on our imagination as we grow up. Sherlock Holmes, Feluda, Jo from Louisa Alcott’s Little Women, Jupiter Jones are some familiar with mine. However, of all, Princess Leia by far had the strongest impression and even today there are moments when the Start Wars characters help me smile. My first Star Wars movie was the Return of the Jedi, which I watched in the late 80s with a group of neighborhood friends in our homely defence camp movie theater, aptly named ‘Manoranjan’ (Hindi for entertainment). For the cheapest movie tickets in town and the no frills, no balcony, close to home experience, it was a real treat to sit back relax in a familiar audience setting and lose ourselves to the world of imagination. Although it would be the last movie hall on this planet to show any particular film, sometimes after 3-4 years of its release, we still loved to watch movies in Manoranjan.

Since the 80s, I have watched the Return of the Jedi at different time points in my life and like a good book, it has been a new experience, a new understanding, each time. This particular movie was no less than any Bollywood high grosser. It had action, emotion, a great plot and lots of comedy (also a great background score). What’s not to like in a strong woman, a nation’s decision maker, fighting for her nation? Add to it a personal dimension of a lost and found brother, a controversial father and George Lucas’s exemplary project execution and of course Han Solo’s crooked charm!

Princess Leia had great leadership qualities and was skilled at rational persuasion. She was liked by all forms of creatures in the movie and her empathy bonded her people together. I also liked that Lucas had not made her out a superwoman with super powers; rather he stuck with her as a more human self, with normal physical limits, albeit with an active, thinking mind and expert in handling arms. I almost named my daughter Leia and I do hope mine outgrows her fascination with everything Barbie and takes notice of fictional characters that have strong individualism who do not rely on certain ways of physical appearance or a wardrobe filled with pink or fuchsia colored apparel, to lead a healthy, happy life.

As another year flies past, I hope 2017 will be a year for great books, great science, great movies and great examples of world peace. As every country moves towards a more nationalistic way of thinking, they don’t exit from international collaboration. Would I ever be able to watch Star Wars, sitting in a small movie theater in an Indian city without some form of international collaboration? And wouldn’t it be a form of foolishness not to invest in a global market, for any type of business?

But coming back to the Return of the Jedi, and although I am saddened at Ms Fisher’s untimely and sad demise, her portrayal of Princess Leia will live on till the end of time and hopefully, continue to inspire many more to come.