Ship of Theseus

ship-of-theseus

If a ship is replaced part by part up to a point where not a single original part remains in it, is it still the same ship?

This is a central theme of the philosophical paradox and has been reflected in the 2012 movie of the same name (which I happened to watch yesterday….yes I know, I am late by a mere 5 years!). The film depicts the journey of three people who have had an organ transplantation, cornea, liver and kidney respectively. I wish the filmmaker would have delved a bit more on how the transplantation changed the recipients. Especially since the corneal transplant was done on a blind woman who was a talented photographer and would rely on sounds to capture pictures, before the surgery. After the surgery, I wonder if there was a difference on how she would perceive photography, now that she had both sight and sound to rely on.

But on a deeper level, we have all gone through periods of breaking down, learning and then moving on in life. At each of these ‘episodes’ we have given up a part of ourselves as in our beliefs, and gained some qualities to face life, become stronger. So even if we may not remain our ‘original’ factory setting self, the constant learning, re-learning has made us the person we are. Hence, by the Theseus paradox, we may not be how we started, but we are still our own unique self.

I believe that life’s constant motion of shaping our thoughts takes us on our path to spiritualism and our higher selves; however, we have made a mess of everything with soul, re birth, immortality etc. in this mix.  It would be simpler to just focus on the process of creating and re creating ourselves and getting through life, while being ethical with our surroundings.

However, ethics for me can be different from for instance, the monk in the film, who would walk miles and miles without footwear so that he doesn’t hurt insects on his path. A part of the monk did change though, as he was shown advocating against using animals in research at the beginning of his story and finally made peace and went through a liver transplant and medication regime, to survive liver cirrhosis. Both transplant technology and pharmaceutical industry use research on animals at some point in their development, and that was something the monk had to come to terms with.

It’s very difficult to go through the metamorphosis of having our principles crumble and regain our strengths, but that is exactly what makes life interesting as well. And perhaps we should not tag it with whether it was the right thing to do or wrong, since it was for that moment in our lives, we chose the best thing for ourselves.

One health- isn’t it a bit late for that?

While discussing a school assignment on different birds with my second grader, we watched videos of humming bird drawing out honey from flowers and weaver birds weaving artful nests. I also told her about the first time I had seen green pigeons. A pair of these green birds had made a nest close to my window and I had watched over them for a couple of months, till two young little birds were added on their family and then the four had flown away together… on their onward journey. There is something satisfying in bird watching and the way they conduct themselves. Unlike any other member of the animal kingdom, birds are perhaps the most sober and dignified and sometimes great entertainment!

The assignment also had a question regarding which birds had her parents seen when they were young and were rarely seen nowadays. When I was growing up in my grandmother’s house, we were often surrounded by sparrows and sometimes a couple of cawing crows. I don’t see sparrows anymore, especially in the cities I have lived as an adult. I tried finding some data on sparrows, unfortunately there is not a lot of research done on them. Their numbers are low and the ones who made it have migrated to greener, less polluted suburbs and villages. Two things caught my eye in the past week. The term ‘one health’ which really means to have everyone who deals with human, animal and environment health on one platform. Since 60% of diseases in man have some sort of origin in animals and since in turn, man has contributed to effectively denude the environment off more than 60% of its resources, now man has decided that we should all work together if we are to save ourselves from animals and the depleting environment. This is the big health jargon of 2017 that will be used over and over on all research applications, debates and talks this year and perhaps till we move on to something more ‘in’.

The CDC page on One Health, mentions “One health recognizes that the health of people is connected to the health of animals and the environment (www.cdc.gov/onehealth/)”. Isn’t it funny that it took us till 2017 to recognize that our health is connected to other beings around us? The real reason is perhaps that as researchers, we have all built our silos of working with our own folks with our own perceptions, like a medical professional may not be seen as a talented basic researcher, a  PhD is seen to be focused only on their bench work and not understand diseases, and veterinarians, well they have been completely dismissed from participating in any ‘serious research’ related platforms. As researchers, we have let our insecurities and sometimes dire selfishness keep us from sharing our results, collaborating and even talking openly about our interesting findings. When we cannot build bridges across our own fraternity, how will we come together on an unified ‘one health’ platform and work together to better our environment?

And why veterinarians alone? We should also partner with anthropologists who learn from living with communities who are closer to nature. The indigenous tribesmen of any country have been practicing living in harmony with nature for as long as the human civilization. We should perhaps seek our ‘one health’ answers from them.

The other item that I found interesting was that telomeres seem to grow longer in space. Isn’t it interesting that telomere which dictate ageing in an individual, grow longer in space? Was the incident a one off, or was it due to space being untouched by pollution, untouched by man as yet? Anyways, since we haven’t been able to find another earth to call our home yet, we should like our own spiritual growth, ‘look inwards’.

Would one health change our perceptions about working with each other for a better world?….only time will tell. Till then, I hope someone somewhere works on sparrows and  brings them back to my neighborhood!

 

 

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.

Sribble, Srabble….

Journey Home….

Tiny feet, tiny toes, delicate fingers, dot for a nose

Curly locs, cutest smile, brownest eyes with specks of starlight

While you sleep on my lap, sighing sometimes, without a care,

I wonder if you will find my home, to your liking, worth your share

Would you accept me as your mother, my darling little pixie glow?

For I have always known you are the one, from where I came and where I go

We have woven our dreams together in the past, with threads of hope, with desires to last

And even though I haven’t nourished you with my blood and with my health

I will raise you, as mine, with all my soul and all my strength.

But while you sleep on my lap, sighing sometimes, without a care,

I wonder if you will find my home, to your liking, worth your share….

-M

……………………………………………………………………………………………….

You are seven

This year you are seven and soon you will touch eleven,

and then a fine woman you will be, with truth in your step and courage in your hair

through all this though, I wish you joy, for a life that matters, a life that cares

and through it all, I wish you love, a love fulfilling, a love with dreams, with hopes to share

and most of all I wish for you, a life without a hint of pain

For all the pain should end with me, all hardships I am ready to gain

May the sadness in my eyes, never touch your sacred space

For you my darling pixie glow, may only laughter and tenderness remain!

-M

 

 

Intergenerational transmission of poverty and escaping the poverty trap

Image result for intergenerational poverty india

Last weekend I watched a delightful movie on something quite close to my heart. ‘Nil Battey Sannata’ depicted a mother and daughter’s journey through life. There were several moments which I could totally identify with. It was superb acting by a very able cast and although the subject was very down to earth, of a mother’s trials to provide a good future for her daughter, the cinema did do justice to balance all emotions very well. The teenage daughter had already resigned to the fact that her mother wouldn’t be able to put her through an expensive higher education, and had gone ahead and explored options of choosing a career as a nanny, something within her realms and ability.

A few days ago I was involved in a project dealing with intergenerational transmission of poverty and some of the dialogues in the movie brought back thoughts from work. The mother depicted in the movie was a daily wage earner, working in the informal sector. In India and many other lower and middle income countries, there is a huge section of population working in the informal sector and most survive on day to day earnings. Some don’t have enough to meet their daily needs and most do not have anything to save for the future. And this brings in another worry of a huge population of elderly people resulting from the same informal sector, without any sort of retirement savings.

I strongly feel that every human has a right to dream a rosy future and somewhere when one is consumed with thoughts solely of how they/their family can survive the next day, life is not completely justified. There is some information from research and mostly from the field of economics that intergenerational poverty is transmitted from parent to children especially in those living below the poverty line (BPL). Somewhere, there is a little mismatch, since the huge middle class strata of India, which extends from those just above the poverty line to those doing very well, often times demonstrate examples of children capable of attaining their dreams through hard work and education loans and scholarships and being able to climb from one strata to that higher. This is somehow extremely difficult for the poorest of the poor (BPL), even though many of the schools have very similar opportunities for growth. Additional aspects such as health and nutrition have been implied to add to lower school attendance in children and the reasons for being unable to escape the poverty trap become complex with multiple compounding factors.

What has been seen to work to some extent is conditional cash transfers (CCT). And more evidence from research is needed in this area. Pilot projects where cash transfers were made to the BPL families, tagged with compulsory school attendance, or availing government immunization/health programmes were seen to effect family nutrition and quality of life in a positive manner. School attendance also improved due to better nutrition and health. This would probably be a mechanism to escape the poverty trap. However, much more needs to be done in a proper structured manner. Also the process for CCT needs to be efficient without involving too many intermediaries that can raise avenues for corruption or bureaucracy or both (one stop mobile money transfer has worked well in Kenya). Community cooperatives also work to some extent, however, a strong community engagement, community participatory action methods are needed to be explored.

I am often frustrated that researchers do not come together to build sustainable projects. Grants are mostly driven with motivation for a few publications, or a PhD degree or obtaining a faculty position. Sustainable projects can be made possible only by a multidisciplinary team and until researchers stop working in silos where an economist only works with another economist and a qualitative researcher only with their own folks, it will be very difficult to achieve anything meaningful on the ground. One can generate multiple models of why things are not working, but ground level realities require tangible practical solutions and most importantly, ones which are sustainable in minimum resource settings.

Picture acknowledgement- Asian Development Bank

Serendipity- life’s little secret!

christmas-lights-1288083660-large-article-0 1328625_original 220px-foaming_filter_coffee images

Last month I met a friend after 23 years. And surprisingly, we picked ourselves up from where we had left, so many eons ago. We were in touch infrequently though, through these years, maybe once a year wishing ourselves a Happy New Year, and sometimes once in 3 years congratulating over a new job or a new turn in life. It was great to finally meet, and although we did not remember as many details of our past lives together, nor had a lot to discuss about what had happened in between, I felt at peace, from an inner knowing that someone’s there, and will always care. We were happy to be in the present, content both while talking, and the silence in between.

I have met other friends after a long gap and unfortunately did not connect with them in this way. Perhaps, life had taken us too far away from each other. I am not sure if animals have similar social behaviours and raise an eyebrow and go ‘How you doin?’ when they meet each other after a long gap. I am sure dogs can recognize people, mine did, when I was in and out of home during my education and would visit back once a year. I remember one winter morning, when I was several continents away, receiving the dreaded phone call about Pluto being no more. I had been expecting it since he was sick and ailing for some time. But the finality did hurt. Strangely, that night when I was alone in the apartment, tired and asleep, I was awaken by a sensation of something wet over my feet, very similar to when Pluto used to lick my feet at home when he needed me to wake up and attend to him.

As the world shrinks, we keep meeting and re-meeting people. During my stay in New York, I used to often see a person every morning, on my way to work. He would take an opposite route and we would meet at cross roads and smile courteously. To my amazement, when I relocated to India, he was sitting in my new office, as my colleague and with whom I had a good time working for the next few years. I had never imagined we would be in a similar profession and be colleagues in the same office!  What are the odds of that! Serendipity! One of life’s beautiful aspects.

Little things in life bring big surprises. Like when your brain tells you that you have devoured all the chocolates you left in a jar, but never the less, your hopeful fingers contact one final little dark delectable, sticking in one corner, away from the limelight, just so you can pick it up and be happy all over again!

At this time of the year, I wish everyone the same happiness, it is Christmas time after all….of warm glowing lights and hot cup of whatever your favorite beverage is. And in this time of demonetization, I am sure Santa has a debit card from the Bank of the North Pole!

Warm wishes everyone!