Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Earth Gene

They say life evolved from a magical mix of the right chemicals on our planet, and amino acids happened . Apparently various organic carbon compounds containing carbon and water , when zapped by a great energy source give rise to amino acids, which are the mother and father of proteins, which are actually the things that manage our cells.

And so our DNA's are really based on the earth's biology.

To cut a long and complicated story short, I believe all our DNA's have some little coded strand somewhere, that links us to the land we call our own, inextricably linked to the chemistry of that special earth.

Somewhere , around 30-40 years ago, migration from India to the West was a sort of meandering river for several years. Most parents then , slogged very hard to educate their children , denying themselves things and saving up, and it was very common then for children to get financial aid from the Universities abroad because of their hardearned excellent academic performance. Today,
what with the economic situation changing over the years, the situation is so different that it is not uncommon to find one child studying/working abroad in a given urban family.

But there has been a price to pay, in terms of wistful parents in their old age, in a society, where there has been a sudden jump. From a society where grown children lived with their families with parents, quiet happily, to an entire population of old parents, that feels the geriatric loneliness, but continues to put up a smiling face to the world, taking solace in the fast communications and visuals of the web cam. Where emails have replaced a worried look, and webcam appearances fill in for a reassuring hand on the elbow.

M was a neighbor and my mother's great friend. Our entire childhood was spent hopping in and out of each other's houses, and we children looked upon her slightly older children, all sons, as kind of role models when we were in school. She was a natural teacher, and a Sanskrit and Mathematics scholar, besides being an amazing mimic with a dramatic bent. She coached students in these subjects at home throughout her life.

The 70's and eighties saw many of us go to the US, some for further studies to return later, and some to a new life in the New World, after completing post graduations. Empty nests were never earlier part of the Indian scene as such. The biggest trauma was seeing your daughter leave to go to her marital home, after her marriage. But somewhere around the late eighties and nineties these same parents suddenly started acknowledging the diminishing nest.

M had three sons, all in the US. One , who had lived with her all along, (and whose children she had looked after as a priority, like her own, so that the couple could work ,) had just left, and she and her husband, a literary person led their own peaceful life, occasionally struggling with old age health problems. They missed their grandkids a lot But didnt want to stand in the way of anyone's ambitions and career plans. The public face was a tad different from what we saw....

Between the two families, I was the only girl child who came back from grad school in the US and remained in India, and I would always go look them up on my visits to my maternal home. They would be full of news about their grandchildren and children. They had visited the US a few times for family occasions when some of the older grandchildren were young, and had great memories. M's health problems now limited her mobility, and so she didn't go on too many long trips. Instead she was a very enthusiastic participant in all kinds of social activities, and was my main accomplice when I was planning a surprise 61st birthday party for my mother, her best friend. She even composed a poem for that occasion and recited it.

One day, I got a call from home, giving me the terrible news. M's husband had passed away in his sleep, after complaining of slight discomfort, after a day spent with some visiting friends. M was devastated. So were my folks, who did their best to help her get back into the run of things in the house, once all the rush of people coming to offer condolences was over.

The children came down from the US. Some to help her organize the confusing paperwork, now that she was by herself. Some just because they thought they should come. And some. because they simply could not stay away. But everyone had to go back to their jobs. It cost a huge amount for entire families to visit, and while the sons came to visit, their families could not.

The nature and vibrancy of Indian society, enables a reasonably fast return to a normal life, with lots of neighbors, friends, relatives, crowding your day, leaving you little time to brood. M's leg was troubling her a bit more now, her movement was restricted. But a whole bunch of parents came by and urged her to take extra classes for their children, and she got used to a solitary life enlivened by these activities. Her friends would drop by, take her along to attend the Marathi theatre , which she really enjoyed. She stopped walking too much, and my mother really missed her friend when she herself was packing for a trip to the US to visit her own sons, and M could not come by because it meant she had to climb a floor. As very old friends since their late twenties with small children, they both shared a lot of confidences, and understood each other very well.

Then suddenly one day, i heard that M was shifting to the US. To be with her sons. They worried about her staying alone. This way she would be close by, and part of their lives. My mother knew about it several months earlier, when M had to make a decision. She could sense was M was thinking. But she also knew, that M would think of herself last, worry about her staying alone causing worry to her children, and as she said , "what could be better than living out your last few years around your children , enjoying their success in life ?".

Her youngest came to escort her to the US. She would stay initially with her youngest child . I had known this fellow as a baby, and was close to him. I was glad she would be with him to begin with. Her house, a rented place, with fixtures and furniture from the childrens' young days was locked up. The landlord, who himself had learned his maths and Sanskrit at her feet, said he would retain the place for her as long as she cared to visit. I would often walk past the place on my visits to my folks , see the boarded windows , search for a gleam of light unconsciously somewhere, suddenly get a lump in my throat and move on.

I lost my mother the next year, and M never saw her friend again.
My mother, had returned from a trip to the US where she had gone to attend a grandson's graduation. She had had a bit of a health scare there, but had managed on sheer will power. She flew a long tiring trip of 23 hours, almost exactly 9 years ago, to come stay with me for a while before going to her place. She never did. It was as if she was waiting to reach her homeland before she let go.

I did hear later on from M by post. She was very aware of the cost of long transatlantic phone calls, and restrained herself. I made several trips to my parents place during the year, to do some paperwork, and complete the various formalities, as I was the only child in India, and it fell upon me. I missed the old places to go to. And I wished M was there and that I could go talk to her about my mother.

A year later, on my visit to my parents' house, a neighbor mentioned M was back. Most folks were incredulous. I was, to put it simply, thrilled. I rushed off to her place that afternoon, and was presented with a tableau of M sitting in her living room, her leg resting on a pillow, and assorted middle school children with notebooks sitting around her . The parents in the locality had heard she was back, and had so much faith in her abilities to teach their children, that they came rushing in to welcome her and pleaded with her to start the classes again.

M was back doing what she loved.

I spent an evening with her, listening and talking, and what emerged was something different. She was very comfortable living with her sons . But she had nothing she could do, as unlike in India, there was no concept of people dropping in unannounced. The daughters in law had everything so well set, that they left her out of any work that she could help with in the house. And after so many years , her childrens' families were busy with their own lives, and had little time for her. Casual conversations almost never happened. Everyone was busy. This was worrisome for M. She alternated amongst the children, with the same final conclusion. She was a misfit. Something that was considered normal family conversation in an Indian set up, was now raising eyebrows here. She felt bad about her decision to return. But she wouldn't want to cause a problem in the lives of any of her sons, because she was unable to follow certain norms. Her leg disability restricted her ability to move out of the house, and everyone was very too busy to chauffeur her around, it seemed. Back in India, there were so many people around, she could always wave and stop a three wheeler and go wherever she wanted. Some were even available on phone and would come by to pick you up. She had a talk with her sons and families, and one fine day, her youngest who escorted her to the US, now accompanied her back to settle her in.

M had tears in her eyes when she told me some of her experiences within the family. I made something simple for both of us that evening and both of us shared a quiet dinner. She with a daughter she never had, and me with a mother who was the closest to mine. There was a caretaker lady who came in every evening, cleaned up the place, stayed the night and left after breakfast in the morning, after M had had her bath. M needed help moving around.

I kept meeting M thereafter, often consulting her and confiding in her regarding whatever I was working on, and although physically deteriorating, you could see that she was happy with her life, grateful to all those who made her day, and enjoyed sudden visitors like me. Old students of hers insisted she attend their weddings, someone always came to escort and help her there, some people landed up with sweets to celebrate the success of their child in some exam that she had helped study for. Old folks from the locality, often dropped in to compare notes, talk about hired help, doctors and typical topics such people discuss. And she would write lots of letters. Like the one she wrote my daughter after she competed her boards successfully . Small things, but they thrilled us no end.

One night she went to sleep, and the care taker lady , taking tea to wake her, the next morning, found out that everything was over. Just like that. They called a nephew . He came, took charge and did all the rituals and formalities. None of her sons were able to come at such a short notice. After a suitable interval, the landlord requested the sons to shift the belongings as he wished to allocate the place to someone else, now that M was no more. And one of them came. To do the needful, as they say.

I often wonder, if there is an element of your own earth in your DNA. The feeling of wanting to wing home.

Various people have it to various extents . M had it. My mother had it. To some extent I have it too. I have travelled and stayed for longish periods in many countries, made some very close friends there. But I have always felt that this is my home and my place . Notwithstanding the daily uncertainties of life , the various hassles , unreliable innovative services , inability to do things on time etc etc, this is my place, and it is something, that probably sits there, winking , in one corner of the protein strings of my DNA, as the earth gene in my DNA. It probably came there when I grew up, and is , what scientists call, a dominant gene.

Dr Barbara McClintock, in her Nobel lecture (1983) on the human genome said :

"The ability of a cell to sense these broken ends, to direct them towards each other, and then to unite them so that the union of the two DNA strands is correctly oriented, is a particularly revealing example of the sensitivity of cells to all that is going on within them. They make wise decisions and act on them."

I certainly think the cells have the right idea. Some cells make wise decisions , some don't.

Some folks have that gene, some don't. Sometimes it is dominant, sometimes it is recessive.

As you get older , like me, you notice the dominancy peering round the corner.

And sometimes, you sit back, smile, take a deep breath, and say - "Welcome !".....

Saturday, September 26, 2009

To E and back

Human memory is a wonderful thing. They are still trying to figure out what determines how we remember stuff from how long ago. And just how the brain manages to keep all the links associated with that memory. And how it decides how to classify some memories as more memorable than the others.

In my childhood, memorizing of things was an important part. There were certain parts of scriptures and prayers that every child memorized and performed daily. Reaching home after an hectic evening spent playing outdoors, would see us all washed clean and changed, and sitting in the prayer room for the evening prayer recitations. Children regardless of age, joined in, and the younger ones, learned by simply hearing words again and again.
They would know the meanings a bit later.

Many of these recitations were in Sanskrit, and were said in firm ringing tones by groups of children . For some reason, saying mathematical tables around this time, was also in vogue. Could have been a left-brain, right-brain thing. Parents would be bustling around organizing meals and stuff with a sharp eye on these recitations, ensuring that no one was fooling around. Saying
tables up to 29 was almost the norm. Some folks with stricter parents even knew tables of half, three-fourths ("paoonkee"), one-fourths ("paokee"), one-and-a-half ("deedkee"), and even two-and-a-half ("adeechkee").

The ancestors believed in the adage of Use it or Lose it, and boy, did we use it. It wasn't just the maths, but we even memorized various language poetry as school requirements. All these things left indelible marks in our brain memory circuits, which kind of got sharpened finely with the repetitions over time.

I used to think that computers happened because someone tried to figure out the workings of a human brain. It certainly looks that folks were on more or less the correct track, when champion chess players actually started playing with machines. Over the years computers have gotten faster, slicker, and sometimes, it appears wiser, and the number of things that can be connected to them and enjoyed have increased by leaps and bounds, at the same time decreasing in size, that too, by leaps and bounds.

The Bard of Avon, would have been nonplussed to see that his entire works could fit on something that looked smaller than a slab of chocolate, and whats more, you could just carry it everywhere in your pocket, along with your loose change, wallet, credit cards, and other such mundane non literary things.

Having said that, the computers today, are
not even close to approaching how the brain works and coordinates happenings in our human body. Handling information passed on my media of different densities such as fluids, muscle tissues, cells , electrical impulses, etc, and then exercising decisions, given the physiological and environmental restraints, is something the computers will have a hard time replicating.

So far so good.

And then I hear about a person from Microsoft called
Gordon Bell, who is 75 years old, and has spent the last ten years moving stuff from his brain, on to computers. He moves around with all sorts of cameras and video equipment recording his life. He saves every scrap of paper , like restaurant receipts, and doctor's prescriptions and so on, and stores these as .pdf files, along with .pdf versions of every web page he visits. He has accumulated more than 35o gigabytes of stuff by now.

And the whole idea, is that by 2020, you won't need to remember anything yourself, as it will all be online.
Hopefully with an unbreakable password. Microsoft is actually working on something called a Sense Cam which would a pictorial record of your life.

I don't understand this.

Save everything you want with built-in redundancy. Watch it on a screen as you indulgently pat the CPU. You have a doubt, then you Google, and the thing points you to another place, where you go, and smile to yourself. Wonderful.
Your records remain after you don't.

Sometimes your old age may consist of memory related diseases, and dementia. The question is, what use is all this to you, if you
forget that it is there ? What use are all these stored facts, if seeing your children in a photo, leaves you inert, blank, and staring ?

And given, that you are spending all your good days, making life easy for your brain means, you are not encouraging your brain , to "learn", per se. You are actually training your brain to be robotic .
See, flip, switch, fastforward, stop, see, flip.....ad infinitum.

Why knowingly underutilise the brain ?
Have we evolved so far that we need to de-evolve and become stupider ? And what happens when all this millions of Gigabytes of stuff falls into the wrong hands ?

My concern is purely as an individual , who today sees so many people struggling to achieve a decent standard of living in the face of so many difficulties, and they do this , basically using their brains .

However I am pretty sure, there is one class of folks in India, who will violently oppose this archiving of life as proposed by Bell.

Our industrialists and politicians.

Imagine, a pen drive containing .pdf files, of all the before and after versions of websites , showing how you changed rules around to ensure your sister's brother-in-law's niece got the candidature from somewhere.

Imagine, video clippings of how you came out after a press conference in New Delhi, and told someone exactly the opposite to what you just said you would do, publicly.

Imagine, audio clippings of the phone call you received which forced you up your contribution for elections and quadruple it .

Imagine, a politician , now that his video and audio histories are public, being unable to deny an accusation about someone funding all his childrens' education abroad, presumably in return for some dicey change in import rules beneficial to someone.

Imagine a politician's twittering archives exposing the gulf between what he says and what he does.

Imagine how many evenings of boring political TV news would be avoided, if we only had video and audio archives of who instigated whose expulsion from which party, and who is actually telling the biggest lie while saying "I do not remember !".

For us common people, memories don't just have a value they have a fragrance as well.

How do you record the memory of a grandparent lifting a grandchild as a baby, and rubbing the nose against the baby's neck, sinking in the wonderful mixed aroma of milk and talcum powder ? Or the look on the face of a mother, as her teen aged daughter drops whatever she is doing and rushes in, shaking her head at the frumpy way her mother has worn the sari, and then sits down ,and does bits of pulling here and there so the border gracefully flows against the ground, as opposed to floating four inches above ground ? Or the lump in the throat as you recall your sons first violin recital on stage, and how he did wonderfully well, and then dashed to the loo as soon as the curtain fell.....

Mr Bell, the digitally obsessed brain archiver, however, continues his project .and calls this as akin to being a librarian of your life.

I think it's inevitable because so much content is being created. Virtually everything is coming in digitally -- everything from your photos to your videos to your music. ... I will love that day when the world is just bits. It's the ultimate in green, by the way.", he says in answer to a question on whether its possible to turn away people from such new technologies.

Don't know about this bit about "bits".

The word should have been "pits".

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Family : fame, name, and game ?

Wanting your offspring to follow your profession has its benefits. Sometimes disadvantages.

Things are of course easier, when there is a sort of a qualifying test admitting you to that profession. So a lawyer is secretly thrilled to bits when his son or daughter gets admission to Law school/college, and a set of doctor parents, breathe a sigh of relief after the dainty looking daughter actually manages to conquer her fear, vasovagal reflexes, and obsessive cleanliness syndrome, after successfully spending her initial med school semester dissecting bodies from the morgue.

I am sure Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Shiv Kumar Sharma, and all our great musicians with hard working children look on fondly as they enjoy their children's success in the musical world.

Actually, that's true everywhere. Before my current household help, K, started working with me, it was her mother A. who was the pillar I leaned upon when I first came to stay here. When widowhood, age and a cataract appeared on the scene, she "put in a word" with me for her daughter, who then came to help me, in her mother's place, and continues to do so today. She excels at everything her mother helped me with, and more, and is more like a friend today.

But it appears that some folks have super qualifications. They flit around . Geographically, as well as professionally. And Powerfully. This is election season in my state of Maharashtra. You would think that the people of the state would be qualified to judge who is good for them. But no. Everyone in politics with an offspring of electable age is making a beeline to Delhi, where the Queen Bee will decide who will get to fight the elections from the various constituencies. Of course there exists a Prince Bee, but as per documentable records, his princliness happened by demand from the clamouring masses, all clamouring in a very well organized manner, if you know what I mean.

So the Presidents son is selected a candidate, ignoring someone who has represented the place earlier well. Several ministers have their sons lined up , making the rounds in the capital, paying obeisance in the right manner in the right places, dressed in the approved political style, with assorted hanger-on's. A certain minister has brought in his daughter as well as son-in-law, and wants candidature for both.

This habit crosses party lines. The Opposition, not to be outdone, has selected daughters, nieces, and sons of party functionaries as candidates. The family thing even works in reverse. When the party fires the father, the son announces his resignation from the party. Sometimes the whole thing is orchestrated in ways that would make event managers squirm, and HR management types insist on removing the HR from their titles. The son of a recently accidentally deceased chief minister, organizes truckloads of people visiting him at his late father's official residence, and assorted "dedicated" types are assigned the duty and the cost, (the last to be suitably rewarded), of providing food , drink, and suitable incentive for these people, turn by turn, to impress the party high command into appointing him in his father's place. And never mind that folks staying in that area keep complaining about the traffic , noise, and delays.

This is, incidentally ,
not just an Indian phenomenon.

Irving Kristol is a well known neo conservative in US politics. Its amazing to see how his son, William, another neoconservative, got his start in politics. Prof. Katznelson, and eminent political scientist at Columbia in the late 90's describes a lunch conversation , during the first Bush administration, describing William Kristol's ascent into politics.

"The talk turned to William Kristol, then Dan Quayle's chief of staff, and how he got his start in politics. Irving recalled how he talked to his friend Harvey Mansfield at Harvard, who secured William a place there as both an undergrad and graduate student; how he talked to Pat Moynihan, then Nixon's domestic policy adviser, and got William an internship at the White House; how he talked to friends at the RNC [Republican National Committee] and secured a job for William after he got his Harvard Ph.D.; and how he arranged with still more friends for William to teach at Penn and the Kennedy School of Government.

"With that, Prof. Katznelson recalled, he then asked Irving what he thought of affirmative action. 'I oppose it,' Irving replied. 'It subverts meritocracy.' "

Mr William, would have been a perfect fit in Indian politics.

Having wandered so far in rarefied atmospheres of the posh and the powerful, it is instructive to note that for us ordinary types, carrying the same family name and even sometimes the same initial
doesn't help at all.

And I am not talking about exalted things like power and elections.

Back in the days when my children were small, and reserving train tickets involved standing in long queues and casting disturbed glances at certain people who seemed to be reaching the front of the queue again and again, I managed to book a couple of tickets for myself and son for a short journey to grandma's. It so happened that at the last minute , my son ended up delaying his trip and my daughter decided to accompany me.

The ticket , of course was not transferable. Not that the ticket checker ever demanded to see ID cards etc, but
theoretically, he could.

Had I been a politician, the entire job was apparently transferable.

This was just a measly train ticket, that too, of the common second class variety.

I didn't have time to go cancel one ticket, buy another, and expect to get the same seat, which was important as the children were young, and we would need to sit together. So I decided to brave it.

My daughter and I got on the train, she sitting in a place,
that the railways had assigned to my son. It was a short ride, and there were several small kids in the compartment. Indian trains have another feature , of mobile hawkers, that wander around selling everything from food to books to toys and games, and the children often look longingly at something another kid has bought. She made friends with some kids and they were playing across seats.

Somewhere in all this the ticket checker appeared . We all pulled out our tickets and submitted them for checking and punching. The ticket person would look at the ticket , ask us about our group and carry on after some scribbling on the ticket somewhere. When he came to me, my daughter was not in her seat, and she and a bunch of other kids were in the process of retrieving a spinning top, that had spun out of control under one of the seats. WhenI was asked about the second traveller , I just wordlessly pointed vaguely to the back of three kids, one of whom was a little boy, all three of them busy fooling with the top. Like G. Washington, I could not tell a lie. Here the operative word was "tell"; and I did not.

Traditionally, it's acceptable if women do not speak. In front of unknown males. In the "highest(!)" traditions, I innocently pointed at the kids, and pretended to look for my sandals, which I had removed before sitting cross legged in comfort, now that my daughter had vacated her seat, temporarily.

The ticket inspector looked bored . He still had half the train to complete. He did a squiggle of sorts on the ticket , returned it to me, and left.

Sometimes, I think the ticket checker knew what was happening. Maybe he had children. Maybe he too, had to stand in line for everything. And maybe, he too noticed, that for some folks in the country, the entry into a queue, is from the top.

It was enough for him that my children had the same last name as me. There as no need to check the qualifications. All they wanted to do was play....

My daughter doesnt remember this event at all. Despite the ease with which everything ocurred, I dont think this is something I want her to learn to do. Technology has cooperated, and today I dont need to go stand in lines to purchase tickets, and curse those coming in out of turn.

It just occurred to me, that had I been a politician, this kind of stuff would have probably been in her DNA.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Swinging times, blogging times

Nestled as I am in one of the most wooded areas, meeting my blogger friends for a lunch, in a campus greened by the monsoon, appeared to be a great idea. Except as soon as we agreed on a date in September, the rains started to play truant.

But the area is still greener and calmer than the chaos outside, with plenty of parking and no tow trucks making rounds . There was also no danger of having to leap over road dividers , or suddenly taking off on shopping sprees post-lunch.

And so they met. Five of them , for real, and one of them, virtually.

The virtual one was usually the instigator of these lunches. Nudging comments about how it's been a long time since the last meet. He travelled the most for these lunches, often arriving for it with his luggage, and then catching a bus post-lunch to his house 200 kilometres away. This time , a week before the lunch , he called, citing scheduling problems. Timing changes weren't the solution.

What he would miss this time was a new member joining us for the lunch. A lady we all read and admire, and feel we already know. This time we would put a face to the thoughts.

And then there were the usual suspects.

One who has made these blogging meals an international thing.

Another , who came straight from teaching at college on a Saturday morning, is a kind of soul-sister-in-bus-travel; she walked down a shade-dappled road lined with palm trees, her face creasing into a big smile as soon as she sighted the older one squinting against the noon day searing sun.

The new member drove in. We had never met her in person. But the car kind of hesitated at the gate , turning in. We couldn't see a thing through the tinted glass. But we were sure it was her.

And she emerged, smiling at us, deciding to herself, who was who. Certain last names in India often mean certain typical features, particularly in the color of the eyes. And she wasn't wrong.

Very soon the eldest arrived, sporting a new jazzy family car. Granddaughters dictate choices and grandfathers quietly agree.

In the short time that these four met, non stop conversation and exclamations over knowing common people could be clearly heard.

The last one, may possibly be the youngest, and he succeeds admirably in being an enigma. He lives the closest, but is often involved in secret pursuits of the running kind. Which is to be admired given the deplorable condition of the roads in this area.

One suspects that he runs with his camera, and never with his phone. And you get to see some amazing observations on his blog. Rumour has it that he is preparing to run the marathon , and Saturdays are practice days. He drove in last, and folks say he would have possibly been a couple of kilograms lighter had he not possibly gorged on some excellent idlis and sambar prepared by his wife in the morning, before the run.

They had just settled down at their table, when the virtual blogger called. Imagine the scene. Lunchtime on the green outskirts of Pune. A husband working in Mumbai during the week is home on a Saturday, and his wife has made his favourite stuff, and they are about to start a meal.

Suddenly, he notices the time, whips out his cell phone, and makes a call.
He wishes he could have been there. They all take turns talking to him. His spouse shakes her head. All this blogging is getting too much. Write all you want . Comment. Why eat with them ? The Almighty obliges her. There are network problems and the call gets terminated.

It feels like everyone has grown up a bit. Not that there is much left to grow for at least some of us, but the younger ones appear quieter this time. Less leg pulling. Maybe its the heat. Maybe they are hungry. They've even turned vegetarian.

The place is roomy. Lots of space between tables. You can get up, turn and nobody's mushroom masala gets flipped on the neighbor's lap. They order a basket of parathas and a few veggies and raita. Its hot, fresh of the griddle, and good. They have come just before the rush begins, and have the undivided attention of the serving staff.

I watch. Someone famous walks by. Some magazine has declared him one of the 50 powerful folks in IT industry in India. I have known him in our respective younger days, and he is delighted to know that we are having a bloggers meet. He is introduced to all. I mention the 50-powerful stuff. He just waves it off. Maybe sometime in the future, when lunches are passe, we have bloggers fruit meets, and the youngest ones is done with his marathons, we can look at a picture in the paper, and say, "Oh yeah, we know him ! The Bloggers lunch !"....

One of them is wearing a Tee that says "Guess" . Its not clear what. Then he whips out 5 packages from somewhere. Wonderful classics . One for each of us. Some of us have read them in school. Our children would enjoy these evergreen books.

We take some photographs. On campus, these kind of spontaneous activities are seen amidst students, sometimes, at the lunch place. Folks are amused to see us grownups ,moving around, taking pictures, changing places to bring a much needed symmetry to too much weight on one side. Some innocent folks at other tables are cajoled into taking a picture of all of us. It helps that there is plenty of space to move, and we are not in danger of dashing into the waiter arriving with vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce.

We shortly leave, and take a short walk near the lake. A great lake breeze blows in, amidst the construction
rubble that stands destroying the beauty of the place. There is a fountain on one side in the midst of an artificial lake. On the other side, a huge lake, the afternoon sun glinting on the surface.

Its time to turn back. I thought all that greenery and water would give a sense of calm. It did, Till we reached a huge banyan tree , which was probably there originally before we became a campus.

I could see a pair or arms kind of itching to perform . And it had to be the youngest one.

The first lunch had the two youngest devouring an icecream with great relish. The second time we went, the french fries almost had some people in trouble. This time things appeared unusually subdued. There was less leg pulling. Less teasing . Less guffawing. Maybe the youngsters were growing up. Hmm.

I guess some people never change. That tree was too good a thing to bypass. You don't see too many such trees around these days. In Mumbai.

But this was a sight for sore eyes. Those banyan tree hanging roots were so inviting.

Corporate fitness marathon types finally becoming the swinging type. ADA***, you have competition.

We oldies need to look out. Its the age of the Swinging Blogger....

*** Anil Dhirubhai Ambani, India's answer to Bill Gates, Warren Buffet etc. Except thatthis guy is a fitness fiend, and runs the marathon every year.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

World Hide-and-Seek Games 2010

Stop. Don't rush and Google this. I have just defined these games. Might take a while before I publish this .

Why ?

Because I have just discovered , that here in India, such world level games have
nothing to do with sports, per se. But it is important, that folks with certain aptitudes, bid for these games. Given, that the non sport benefits of these games are stupendous, and sometimes of immense social significance.

A long time ago, sometime in the late 80's new Delhi hosted the Asian Games. The persons appointed to oversee the stuff , built Games villages, stadii, velodromes, and numerous sports things, along with great road and city facilities . Some hundreds of special buses were bought for transport of the athletes, and once everything was over, Delhi had decent roads, good grounds and stuff, and a whole bunch of these buses were given to Mumbai for usage between cities. I have and continue to use these buses today. Select folks with the right connections in the right places, qualified to buy the Games village flats, but we don't discuss that.

I wish someone would hold some kind of games in Mumbai. We have 2 stadii already ready. One under renovation. Several swimming pools. Several football grounds which also double as hockey grounds.

Any sport that involves aiming and flinging things can be practiced on the sidelines of the suburban railway lines a la the recent happening, where an austerity-enabled young VVIP, travelled by an AC train near Delhi; and out of
all the compartments that looked identical, four kids , playing with stones (maybe due to lack of a school in their village) , were able to target with exact accuracy, the window (in a moving train), closest to him . While the cops are chasing these kids, maybe our sports types could chase them and train them for the throwing events...

Preparations for the Commonwealth Games are on, in Delhi, mostly behind schedule, say some. However, that's not something that interests me.

It seems , in order to show Delhi as a modern city, the Municipal Authorities are constructing around 1000 toilet blocks in the market areas, and these will actually be toilet cum coffee complexes complete with flower shops and convenience shopping etc. Each of these are supposed to cost 1 crore (10 million) rupees. They will ask companies with an established brand image to build and operate these on a 20 year lease. Advertising revenues on these toilets would be the big attraction, and these companies would be responsible for the upkeep and maintenance.
Someone with an important look mentioned that these would be disabled friendly and would have nappy changing stations.

Much as they might try, maybe it wont be feasible to have a Games village. In Mumbai, that is.

But at least we can have the bathrooms.

And so this suggestion about bidding or even announcing the First World Hide-and-Seek Games 2010 in Mumbai.

Hide-and-seek is a game that goes back several centuries, possibly even in years we refer to as B.C. It has been an Universal game. Several people, popularly called today as politicians, even practice the Game philosophy in real life. They Seek things, then they acquire those, and then they Hide those. The rules of the game keep changing. For every country. Every time. Evevery day. And the cycle continues. Ad Infinitum.

I mean , all this business about Running, Hurdles, Long Jump, High Jump is stuff so many of us do unconsciously,
every single day, as we run and leap into running transport. In monsoon days, we even swim and wade through , like in a triathlon. And lets not speak about all those sports where you fling things. Discuss-throw, Shot puts, javelins, all pale into insignificance, before our political throwing experts, who specialise in throwing stuff in political meetings, and are now perfecting the shoes and chappal throws.

Hide and Seek, on an International scale , is a very sophisticated game. Mumbai, with its celebrated slums and alleys offers unsurpassed hiding places. It even offers a Seaside area for having the Inaugural function, where teams from across the world will march by and our ministers can stand in tracksuits and applaud, in the presence of some VIP from Delhi. Visualize teams from West Indies, Iraq, Iran, US, Australia,UK, Germany, France, and even Pakistan, marching past, waving, and simultaneously mentally storing the nooks and alleys as possible hiding places. Think of the 3 wheeler autorickshaw-wallahs of Mumbai, providing a cultural program for the occasion highlighting their amazing driving and turning prowess, complete with booming stereo music. Think of all the speeches, the receptions, complimentary gifts, souvenirs. There are immense possibilities , for cashing in, if you can supply uniforms, build huge platforms, do catering and so on. Almost a certainty if you have the right connections.

But the big attraction, according to my household help, whose household bathroom is 100 yards away from her own 50 square feet "house", will be the bathrooms.

Her eyes light up.

"Ago baya ! ("=Oh my !")", she exclaims, hands on her hips, as she hears this.

Just think.

The "Welcome to Mumbai " from the airport will be drastically different. Roadsides will get cleaner. Railways will have less accidents along the tracks early in the morning. Women will have a choice of using the bathrooms when the need arises and not only when it is dark. Taps will actually issue water, instead of hissing air. You might actually emerge cleaner after using the bathroom. Those driving longish distances will not see cars parked on the roadside, with a fellow standing with his back to the traffic , somewhere amidst the roadside bushes. With companies maintaining the premises, and doing the upkeep, there will not be cases of tap attachments being stolen from plumbing pipes , simply for the selling cost of the metal.

While my household help doesn't see her self sitting around and sipping coffee at one of the "cafes" there, more for reasons of time and money, than anything else, she says she would be thrilled , if they offer free, cool, pure, potable water, to people in that area, particularly the children who play in that area, and the women who currently congregate at unearthly hours, to fill water for their daily needs, amidst a crowd, fighting over a slowly dribbling tap.

She doesn't say anything about the flower shops. And I don't ask. She has the free run of the rose plants in my balcony, and I enjoy seeing some of those flowers affixed to her bun, when she does that. She always asks.

And about the advertising. Its OK with her. She is willing to see pictures of cars, makeup, cellphones, houses, furniture, two-wheelers, jewellery , even politicians, pasted all over the area.

She cant read.

But she will enjoy the graphics. And hope that her next generation can enjoy all those things.

And most of all,
she will have a clean bathroom.

Now, if only the powers that be make a bid to host the 2010 World Hide-and-Seek games in Mumbai ......sigh.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Austerity and the case of obedient neurons...

Neurobiologist Mark Changizi, an assistant professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and his research group have something new to say about our brains and cities.

Yes, you heard it right.

According to this group, just like evolution through the ages has shaped us and our brains into what we are, so have cities developed similarly based on the evolving efforts of entrepreneurs, developers and politicians.

As we evolve as a species, it's not just the size of the brain or the number of neurons that increase. Actually the connections between the neurons or the synapses grow in number and variety. As in a city, where simply doubling the number of roads won't work, unless we have interconnecting freeways, and exits and stuff.

All this is wonderful so long is it remains in the journal it is published in.

What worries me is the converse.

If peoples' brain-setups are to reflect the state of a city, , I fear for the people of Mumbai.

Think of a smart neuron trying to send a message, through the synapse, to another neuron several inches away. It swishes through the synapse, swiftly taking turns and choosing paths, and then all of a sudden feels sidelined by other neurons. They are all waiting to pass through a clogged synapse, suddenly narrowed, and there is one hefty thought blocking the path.

Or an obedient neuron, taking the path it has taken, for the last several years, millions of times a day, properly showing signals and stuff at every synapse crossing. It suddenly hits a swelling, that looks suspiciously like a Mumbai cop. Fine negotiating skills are on display, and the cop moves aside to let it pass , after papers are exchanged. The cop issues it a ticket where the fault is listed as "communicating wirelessly with the cerebrum while driving", and some other green colored pricey papers are acquired from the neuron.

Of course, these days, swellings here and there are a usual risk for the neurons, trying to transmit messages through the synapses. Sometimes the swelling is so bad, that the message never reaches the ankle muscles next to the brakes. And the super evolved human fails to brake before the pothole, causing a bump. Which of course, resolves the swelling, and the neuronal and synaptic traffic continues, with the hippocampus muttering obscenities under its breath.

Sometimes the brain gets used to BIG traffic. Some pushy neurons create their own paths, because the normal brain pathways are too small for them. These neurons also have some rogue followers, who hover around creating a synapse here, and a path there, and parts of the cerebrum get so excited, that they lose control over the ligaments and muscles, not to mention voice. That's when violence happens.

I am just wondering what diversion in the brain pathways gave rise to the planning and deployment of the Mumbai Sealink. Did some neurons simply go haywire, and run berserk around the temporal and occipital areas of the brain to make a running landing at the top of the spinal cord, bypassing the usual shove-shove-push-push synaptic travel ?

Do folks in Delhi have slightly more highly evolved neuronal activity ? Possibly better designed synapses, complete with graceful green neuronic roundabouts, around which most obedient neuronic messages travel, unless of course there is a red signal corresponding to Mother Neuronic Synaptic activity, at which point most ordinary neurons give up, stand still, and start cursing the grey matter.

A new school of thought postulates that some neurons are thinking of travel without the help of synapses and cerebral help. The idea is not to convey messages to anything in the real world, such as your hands, legs, eyes, or ears.

The message is directly conveyed to your pocket and someone else's pocket. These neurons never suffer the ignominy of pushing other neurons at clogged synapses, waiting in line to say their stuff, and falling into swellings here and there.

They simply fly.

Which is a revelation. Explains all the 5 star behaviour patterns of the "public servants", the minsters. The personal planes. The chronic inability to have unstarred meals. The insensitivity to declare that exercise needs the 5 star gym, when you can jog in Lodhi gardens along with your alphabetic plus plus security.

But even neurons have their bad days. Like when the Mother Neuronic Authority of New Delhi declares AUSTERITY to be the latest buzz word.

I wonder what the corresponding brain changes will be , given that there has been a clarion call for "Austerity", from the senior most of the cabinet ministers, supported by those who think austerity needs to be seen rather than practiced.

Hopefully, a clean wash of all the synapses, behaviour restrictions on neurons, and a life where priority is given to those that follow cerebral rules.

Time to say Jai Ho ?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Cleanliness, Godliness.....

She had moved into the house when her children were in elementary school.

Then considered on the outskirts of town, the big attraction was a neighborhood children's park and zoo that was coming up, a several centuries old ancient temple on a hill that was a bit further away, and a closer situated Ganesha temple , situated in what was euphemistically called a lake. There were lots of trees around, mango, tamarind and the like, and traffic then being minimal and sometimes even nonexistent, her children basically treated their colony as a huge playground.

She enjoyed plays and cultural lecture programs, and wasn't a big admirer of what are today called Bollywood movies. She was also a fitness enthusiast, something a bit unusual for women in those days. And so some of the empty spaces in the colony were informally converted to tennis and badminton courts, and weekends saw neighbors and friends enjoying several games, always followed by a wonderful tea afterwards, which everyone took turns making.

She would make a daily trip to the temple on the hill, once her husband and children had left for the day. Almost 110 steps, each big enough for an elephant to lie down. They said it was made that way so the king could ride up to the top on an elephant.

She made many friends among the young and old who climbed along with her, and on weekends her children accompanied her, running the whole thing at a stretch, and then waiting for her, panting, somewhere above, as the fellow running the sugarcane juice stall there, looked on indulgently. She often took interest in repairs and stuff being done, as well as preservation of trees on the slopes, which were slowly being subject to human encroachment, thanks to a burgeoning population. Anyone , man or woman, always felt free to approach her with their problem, whether it was to do with education, health, or even a complaint against some one, and she never refused help.

When her children were in their 20's the family moved to Mumbai, where her husband was posted, and although she couldn't visit the temple now, she did keep in touch with her friends from there.

Retirements and a return to her old house soon happened, and along with it, a recognition of her love for the temple on the hill. The government appointed her as one of the trustee of the temple, the only lady to have graced such a position to this day.

Although on the wrong side of 60, she had continued her daily visits to the Hill Temple and Lake Temple on her return, but she now did that with a renewed sense of faith, duty and responsibility. Along with the usual duties of presiding over the counting and accounting of temple offerings, planning various religious and cultural events for the devotees, she also turned her attention to encroachment by hawkers on the hill Temple steps, and the installation of strong side bars for the the benefit of the several senior citizens, well into their nineties, who continued to visit . Tree plantation was taken up on her initiative to counter the encroachment as well as maintain the ecological balance of the hill, and she would be there, at 11 am on a sunny day, walking around with the horticulture person, with an umbrella to protect her from a hot mid-day sun, nodding at some new planted trees, bending to observe some new growth, and slowly traipsing across the rocky terrain to return to the huge steps, which would take her back home.

The children with their children now, occasionally went with her when they came to visit. There were lots of people involved in small jobs there, like managing the footwear left by the devotees at the entrance, and distribution of the prasad (blessed food) packets at another window. Indian Gods are worshipped in bare washed feet, and so there was another person who saw to the functioning and maintenance of the feet washing place. She was a stickler for God's house being very clean, and there was a dedicated band of old employees who were in charge.

There were also some folks who thought all this was a bit much. A lady trustee at that. And what did she mean by walking around and checking out stuff. There were several other trustees and none , bar one, did that. And then there was a fine undefined hierarchy amongst the people at the temple. Priests were supreme. They were your interface with the Deity. Like a proxy server.

One day, on her daily visit, she was about to return and was proceeding to the footwear place to collect her's, when she saw what appeared to be a new young trainee priest cockily walking back from the inner temple sanctum; he was carrying something , then he suddenly turned , and spit something on to one side.

She stopped. And turned back. Went up to the guy. Asked him to go get a pail of water , disinfectant and broom from the maintenance section. He went. Watched by several other staff on various duties who had seen everything. They wondered what would happen. Priests were, well, holy. You didn't tangle with them. Regardless of who you were.

He returned. With someone else carrying the bucket and disinfectant, and broom. She took it from him. Splashed some water around , then the disinfectant , and was about to use the broom herself, when everyone realized what was happening.

"Ma'am , please, I will ask the staff to clean this ," and the priest looked up to find someone.

She handed him the bucket and the broom, and asked him to do it himself.

You could cut the silence with a knife.

"We have no business putting up notices and warnings around the temple if we cannot set the example ourselves. You spat. If someone has seen you spitting, which was totally wrong, they would think they too could carry on behaving the same way. I want you to show them that rules are for everyone, and all of us are responsible for following rules and keeping the place clean. "

And the young man bent down and swept the place clean. A small episode, but a telling one, that indicates how an entire set of employees can be motivated if they see their boss doing something like this.

She continued as a trustee for the appointed period, although her ability to ask inconvenient questions during awarding civil work contracts to folks who she thought were bad performers earned her the wrath of some colleagues. All males. Messages went up and down the necessary places, and her inconvenient honesty saw her being replaced by a more pliant person.

She is no more.

But her daughter was told the above story when she recently visited the Hill temple on a visit to her maternal house, with her own daughter. Old white haired seniors, leaning on sticks, a smart young man , who actually started out doing an evening job, managing the footwear , when in school, and the chief clerk in the office, who was retired, but was so attached to the temple , he came everyday to help anyway. The old lady who filled the water. The gardener who watered the plants.

And the young trainee fellow, now a senior assistant to the chief priest. All the oldsters spoke very highly of him. He learned his lesson well. And was himself very strict with the new trainees and their behaviour.

They recognized her as her mother's daughter. And came and spent a wonderful half hour recounting how things were earlier in her mother's time.

She wished them all, and stopped by at the entrance to have a last look at the inner sanctum, before descending down the steps . There was a puja in progress. Someone came out , to pour some water from the puja containing old flowers, at the roots of an old tree on the premises. He looked up as he straightened.

A flickr of doubt and recognition. He nodded. Folded his hands in a Namaste. She did too.

They wished each other. And it was time for her to go.

She looked up and took a deep breath. Folks had learned .

Her mother would have been so pleased. ...

Monday, September 07, 2009

Your Good Name, please ?

It might be a considerable understatement, but so many things in my country are mind boggling to say the least.

Being the first person in my family to go to a what was called an "English-medium " school (where the medium of instruction was English), my introduction to our wide variety of religions, castes , languages and names here, happened very early , possibly in Nursery School. While we learned enough about religion and caste in social studies much later, the real fun part was the names, and all my friends who went to Marathi(my mother tongue) medium schools, missed out on this.

This was the middle fifties, and my nursery school teacher , a Mrs Rowe, wore frocks, high heels, lipstick, and played the piano, and we would sing our nursery rhymes, enraptured, because she looked like someone on movie posters. Later on in elementary classes we had teachers called Arbuthnott and Williams and Desouza.

An entire batch of Parsi (Zorastrian) teachers took over in 4th grade. Suddenly in some cases, frocks gave way to sarees, worn , what I thought, was in the wrong directions. They had names like Mrs Dewan, Miss Ghaswalla, Miss Kerawala, Mrs Pastakia, Mrs Cooper . Many of them lived in Western style, and their children played the piano and got prizes in school. My friends in class were a great mix of Christians, Parsees, Moslems, Hindus, Sikhs, and Anglo-Indians. The early sixties in high school, saw me change schools, and now we had a mix of Moslem, Parsi, Hindu, Jewish and Christian teachers.

That was my great introduction to Indian Naming Systems.

My community, a subset amidst Hindu's , were rigid about our middle names being our father's first name, and the last name/surname being the family name. So , say, Barack Obama, would have been Barack Barack Obama , because his father was Barack Hussein Obama.

In the Parsee (Zorastrian) community, it was customary to indicate the profession through the surname or last name. So someone who merchandized wine/liquor would be Daruwala (Daru=liquor), fodder merchants (Ghaswalla, ghas = fodder), land owners (Poonawalla, Billimoria, Mahabaleshwarwalla, Bhiwandiwala), professions (Patel,Driver,Treasurywalla,Dewan). They often used their father's name as the middle name.

Our late PM Mrs Indira Gandhi was married to a Parsi, Feroze Gandhi. Had his name been Feroze Daruwala, history might have taken an unexpected turn.

Given that Obama senior worked in the Kenyan Minsitry of Finance, a Parsi Obama would have been Barack Barack Treasurywala ....

Sikhs normally keep things simple. Sikhs usually have unigender names distinguishable only by the last names, which are either Singh for males and Kaur for females. So Obama would be Barack Singh Obama, and his daughter would be Malia Kaur Obama.

Anyone with friends from South India, always ended up being good at spelling.

Their names were always traditional and religious, and they always enjoyed having several initials. Unlike Hindus and Parsis in my state, you couldn't tell who was whose son, by simply hearing a South Indian Hindu name. The child's name was often preceded by an initial, corresponding to his father's name. Sometimes even in addition to the grandfather's name. As if this wasn't enough, folks enjoyed adding an initial, corresponding to their native place. What is interesting, is that Moslems who hailed from the South of India often followed these customs.

Our ex-president, President (Dr.) A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, had initials that indicated that he was the son of Januladabdeen, grandson of Pakir, and great grandson of Avul. He could have added one more initial to indicate his native place in Kerala State, but did not.

And so Obama would be H. C. O. B. Barack (standing for Hawaii Chicago Obama Barack Barack ) and his daughter would be H. C. O. B. Malia.

Upto 1995 the current record for maximum number of initials was held by M. S. S. R. C. V. L. N. S Chakaravarthy of Karnataka , with a total of 71 letters in the expansion.

Just in case people were getting attracted towards modern short names like Kavi , Suresh, Ajit etc, the Chennai Municipal authorities announced recently that folks naming their children after heavenly folks in the approved old style, would be gifted a gold coin on registering a birth.

It might explain the reason why the US Spelling Bee finals always have a good proportion of children from South Indian families. Its all those complicated names they learn to spell from kindergaarten.

Which is not to say, that traditional methods are slavishly followed all the time. There are some people who are such great admirers of International personalities, that they appropriate those names too, regardless of whether they are first names or family names.

The Alemao family of Goa has members named as Churchill B. Alemao and his brothers, Roosevelt B. Alemao and Kennedy B. Alemao, with Mr Churchill being a member of Parliament in India ! There are leading political and powerful luminaries in Chennai who answer to the name M. K. Stalin, and one of the cricketers selected to represent Chennai Super Kings in the Indian Premier League is named Napoleon Einstein.

And we also have our share of modern types, who experiment and name their children as Proton Padmanabhan, Alpha Jyothis and Omega Jyothis. I am sure they will miss out on the Chennai Municipality Gold Coin offer.

However, it has taken an uneducated man from one of India's most backward states (Uttar Pradesh), to show how children should be named without worrying about anything like religion, parental names, family names, or place of origin.

The Times of India (Monday Sept 7, 2009) reports that
labourer Mithai Lal, 45, and his wife Chandrasena, 42, named their seven children after the political leaders as they believe that this would bring them good fortune.

And so they have an all India set up in their house, named after folks who have never seen eye to eye on anything. And Mithai Lal always includes the last names of the leaders.

Lucknow: Here Jayalalithaa (leading Southern politician) takes Bal Thackeray (Erstwhile political boss in Maharashtra) on her lap when he sobs, Manmohan Singh (our current PM) is fond of riding on Mulayam Singh’s (Leading Northern politician, PM aspirant), shoulders, while Kalyan Singh and Rajnath Singh (both wily northern politicians) have no differences and love playing cricket with Giani Zail Singh (Our late Ex-President, an accomodating Sikh politician). The next one to join them could well be Mayawati (today's leading northern politician, better known for erecting statues to herself).

The couple expects
one more child later this year and hopes it will be a girl so that they can name her after UP Chief Minister Mayawati. The family lives in Jalalpur town in UP’s Ambedkar Nagar district, 180 km from Lucknow. “As I firmly believe names can change one’s destiny, I named my six sons and one daughter after popular politicians of the country,’’ Mithai Lal said.

While 18-year-old Mulayam is the eldest son, the youngest, Bal Thackeray, is just five
months. The others sons—Kalyan Singh, Zail Singh, Rajnath Singh and Manmohan Singh—are 16, 15, 13 and five, respectively. Jayalalitha is eight years old. “Despite coming from a Dalit community, but braving all odds, Behenji (Maya) emerged as one of the most powerful politicians of the country. We too belong to the community and want to have a daughter who could make her parents feel proud like Mayawati,’’ Chandrasena said"

Just wondering, what choices they would consider if they have , say one more son and one more daughter .

Maybe go International. And name a son after George Bush. Or even Prince Charles. And maybe a daughter after Hilary Clinton.


Older folks in India never ask your name. They always ask what "Your Good Name " is .

Regardless of whether you are named after any politician.....national or international.

Thats why I am Ugich Konitari . It means , "Just Somebody, Just Like That".

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Of Baths and Rooms

My earliest memories of a bathroom, are of a first floor house, with a half terrace (that ran the length of the house), at one end of which was what would today be called a "bathroom complex", but was really just a bunch of Indian Style WC's and a bathing room. Much of a school day morning would be spent banging on bathroom doors, shouting at people to come out, while simultaneously enjoying a pleasant nippy morning on the cool terrace, admiring the just emerging mango blossoms, new roses flowering down in the garden, or even sometimes , admiringly watching the neighbor's tenant's daughter go off for badminton practice, shorts and all, accompanied by her Dad.

All of us children had to do Surya Namaskars (Sun Salutations), before we could have breakfast, and one didn't worship the Sun unclean; hence all the noise outside the bathrooms. Bathrooms in our time, and even today continue to be very simple and basic. One thing that people were earlier very particular about was the separation of Toilet and Bath. You never had a largish enclosure with a toilet , a bath area , and mirrors etc. It somehow took away the from the "pure" aspect of the bath, to have a gaping toilet next to it. The benefit of all this was, that we never had situations of one person locking up a bathroom with an entire family outside banging on the doors.

Pune, the place where I grew up, had fairly cold winters. Things like "central heating" etc didn't exist. Neither did running hot water although running cold water was plentiful. Most of our bathrooms then , held an ancient contraption, made out of copper , which was a rudimentary boiler, referred to as "bamb". It had a cylindrical body with a tap, around a central concentric cylindrical part, and a place at the bottom to put and burn hot coals in it. The entire thing stood on a tripod.

Before we children landed up for baths, someone would have got up, cleaned and started the water heating in this thing, charcoals glinting on a pan at the bottom, wisps of smoke emanating through the chimney-like central tube, and the water heating in the copper would give off a typical mild aroma. Soap was considered a special thing. Nobody really believed in it, but our bathroom always had bowl containing a paste of special turmeric (ambehalad), garbanzo flour (besan), and fresh cream. Cleaning your body and particularly your face, with this was highly approved, had depilatory uses, and you even felt great after you washed this off. Those scheduled to wash their hair had to wait, and do their stuff after we left for school, and that was done using a concoction of shikekai (soap nut powder)boiled in solution.

There would be a huge stone cube set into the bathroom floor of Shahbad stone, and one sat on this, and had a bath. There were no tubs, and showers were yet to appear on the scene. Then , like today, we filled a bucket with hot water from the "bamb", mixed cold water with it to our convenience, and had a great bath with a single bucket of water. Water was also important in the toilet set up; certainly for flushes, but more so, as toilet paper was frowned upon, and everyone washed clean with water from a tap , mug and bucket suitably placed. Of course the Indian style toilets , which are actually a healthier alternative, allowed this method in an easier manner.

No candles, no sprays, no choice of perfumes, but once the day's human cleaning was over, the bathroom would would have a wonderful smell, a mix up of charcoal, copper, turmeric, oil, shikekai, and of course sunlight soap, which would be premixed into a bucket of water where worn clothes would be immersed for the daily washing, done around mid morning, and hung out to dry on a clothesline on the terrace. Petticoats and sarees flying in the breeze merrily with assorted pajamas never bothered anyone, and if they did, then you looked down on those people as unnecessarily nouveau riche.

The ash generated from all that charcoal, was collected and used along with coconut fibres , for cleaning the daily cooking and eating utensils.

It has been an interesting life, seeing people of the old school (of bathrooms), adjust to what may be called International bathroom life. Elders from the family who travelled to the US to visit immediate family, abhorred the business of washing machines. You washed your clothes everyday, and while everyone else contributed to the twice a week laundry, grandmothers could be seen washing their clothes daily, and hanging them out to dry on the clotheslines, luckily available and "allowed" (that's a subject for a separate post, but i fail to see the connection between locality rules, prestige, decor, and clotheslines in the sun) , where they visited in California. When the elder son designed and had his house built many years ago, he had properly separated and segregated toilet and bath sections in his bathrooms, so his visiting folks would feel comfortable.

Tubs don't impress. The idea of washing and rinsing with the same water , doesn't hold, well, any water. And in a typical Indian family bathroom, rugs on the floor would be a complete disaster. The floor is much cooler, and easier to clean. Most normal middle class house will today have 1-1.5 bathrooms. The "bamb" has given way to the electric geyser. Children who swear by the lauryl sulfate in beauty soaps, designed to put a glow, get allergies if they use the garbanzo flour paste. Times change.

If you think about it, the attitude towards baths across the world is different. Bathing here, is a necessity, like brushing your teeth, washing your hands, and the attitude is all about getting on with it and finishing, so someone else can use the bathroom. I have seen my mother kind of speechlessly skeptical after seeing a bathroom with vases of flowers, photographs, paintings, a book and magazine rack beside the toilet, a radio playing music to clean yourself by.

But this often happens in societies where the bathroom has an owner attribute. It is possible to talk about 'my bathroom" and "her bathroom". We are still OK with "our bathroom".

While I have always wondered , historically, how bathrooms came into vogue, there is an interesting story about how and why, the British, who introduced the Railways in India, actually decided to introduce bathrooms in trains.

Okhil Chandra Sen wrote this letter to the Sahibganj divisional
railway office in 1909. It is on display at the Railway Museum in New Delhi . It was also reproduced under the caption "Travelers' Tales" in the Far Eastern Economic Review.

"I am arrive by passenger train Ahmedpur station and my belly is too
much swelling with jackfruit. I am therefore went to privy. Just I
doing the nuisance and that guard making whistle blow for train to go
off and I am running with 'lotah' in one hand and 'dhoti' in the next
when I am fall over and expose all my shocking to man and female women
on plateform. I am got leaved at Ahmedpur station.

This too much bad, if passenger go to make dung that damn guard not
wait train five minutes for him. I am therefore pray your honour to
make big fine on that guard for public sake. Otherwise I am making big
report to papers."

This graphic report has historical value.

It led to the introduction of toil
ets on Indian trains.