Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Schools of inattention

This post got me thinking .

Movies and how they influence you. Whether they should . What is considered good. And bad. How standards have changed. Whether movies have changed or the audience has changed. Whether it has anything to do with your childhood milieu.

And it took me back to the late 50's and early 60's .

I don't remember pouring over any kind of movie ads. Or my folks discussing movies, per se. Even our schools didn't encourage them. But I do remember talk about Marathi plays . Those that were famous, and often included the doyennes of classical music. The type of music that lives, even today.

If we ever went for a movie, it was considered useful and mandatory to watch the "Indian News Review" which preceded the main movie. Television was many light years away. I didn't even know then how a TV looked . The Indian News Review was like a mini-capsule of today's TV news on a maxi screen. It almost invariably showed Pandit Nehru inaugurating something, water flowing over dams, some visit of some famous person somewhere, floods, and for some reason, hockey games, the last with some really fast background music.

But I distinctly remember going with my parents and siblings to see a movie called "Tenzing and Hilary conquer Everest ". These were the sort of movies that we were encouraged to see. There were many Laurel and Hardy movies that occasionally happened, and we were allowed to watch these too. Not each and every one, though. Cinema was not something you enjoyed, say on a weekly basis. Then there was some vague movie I remember about Princess Margaret (sister of the current Monarch) of Britain getting married. Maybe the British High Commission brought it to India, but I remember that if you went as a class through school, you got discounted tickets. I remember my mother grudgingly saying yes to this outing from school. She knew Princess Margaret was not a patch on Tenzing, Hilary or Everest. But it was about going with your school, walking in twos, on your best behaviour, accompanied by your class teacher, and getting some kind of dose of how things happened in the rest of the world. Many world leaders were present there. Unlike today, "leaders" were few. And we recognized most of them as school children. There was a story book quality to all that business with white gowns, trains, horse carriages, tail coats, practiced smiles,and sanitized waving to throngs lining the London streets.

Occasionally there would be a Hindi movie based on our religious stories, which always ended with the victory of the simple, truthful, and brave over cheating, wicked and overconfident types. And we would see , may be, a couple of these , during an academic year or so. These stories were our routine fodder as we gathered several times a week, at night at our grandmother's to listen to her tell them. We never felt we were missing out on anything special if we missed out a particular movie, as such.

Which is not to say that my parents were conservative ogres.

Far from it.

Sports was a big part of our life. All of us were always going so many times a week for badminton, table tennis, kabaddi, kho-kho, or swimming coaching or something. Then there were music classes, for which someone came home to teach us. During our younger days, particularly for girls, learning classical dance was a big thing. I had many friends who learned, from the same teachers that I did, and these were all home tuitions. Our colony had a yearly Ganesh festival, and there was always a combined classical dance performance from all of us, during a festival evening, for which we practiced a lot. All this left us time only for school, homework, and for general playing with our friends on free evenings. And this was indulged in with a lot of gusto, sweaty clothes, scrapes, fights and everything.

Occasionally on weekends ,we climbed the Parvati Hill Temple at dawn with our friends, carrying notebooks, paints, colored pencils, water, and of course , mouth watering breakfast stuff, freshly prepared for us by our mothers , before dawn on a weekend morning. A lot of older indulgent regulars on the Hill often stopped by to see our terribly ordinary artwork, supposedly depicting sunrise over the landscape, interspersed with spoonfuls of Poha or Sabudhana Khichadi.

Not every family subscribed to this kind of entertainment.

I remember a friend once telling me that they (her folks and her) were planning to see a movie called "Naykinicha Sajja", which implied and hinted at helpless amoral behaviour from a heroine "madame". And they asked if I wanted to come. I still haven't forgotten the look on my mother's face when I asked her if I could go. There was always something at the back of one's mind that wondered why we couldn't go and others could. But there was always a conviction, that one listened to one's parents, and playing truant and hide and seek with that was not on.

And again, there was a time when there was a popular movie on a story from the scriptures about the churning of the ocean and fights between the Gods and Evil types. My friends and I, were allowed to see this, didn't want younger brothers with us, and loudly proclaimed that it was "girls only". Only to be told that there wasn't going to be any girls-girls-boys-boys stuff, and either we go together, shepherding our younger brothers, or the whole thing gets cancelled.

Much in the future, approaching adulthood, I enjoyed movies of a certain type, but was never desperate about seeing them. Movie music in Indian movies was many times the thing that attracted you, and you tended to remember that, rather than some outrageous scenes or dances where outfits were more important than the steps.

Opinions may differ. But I think that this kind of disciplined approach and learning over time, of what was essential and what was entertainment, built up a personal strength , where, later on , while staying in a hostel at college, I was able to prioritize my activities. I knew many girls who got totally drunk on the sudden independence, with no one to check on where they went, when they went and what they did. Many gave in to peer pressure in lieu of a sensible decision. And when I did see movies with my friends, I enjoyed them thoroughly or despised some of them, purely as entertainment, without treating them as something that dictated social norms or seriously affected my life.

Yes, some movies made you think, you recalled scenes. It's how you emerged from it all, that was important.

When I see kids around us today, aping the fashions and language of the so called matinee idols, picking up vices, and developing attitudes that emphasize only results and not the means, I worry. Social mores are bombarded with gestures and attitudes, totally alien to us. All this is deemed acceptable, and some folks even feel less qualified if they do not pepper their conversation with obscene swear words. (Just see Twitter).

Of course , I call them swear words. Others laugh about that. I still cringe when I hear girls (for that matter, boys too) using such words, in their posts and blogs. At some point in my working life, I had to look after computer engineering lab sessions, and had to resort once to reminding some vociferous students that they were in a public place, a lab, not in their own homes or entertaining their friends, and minding their language (under the threat of being asked to leave their stations) , was the need of the hour.

I wonder if there is a dual persona situation. A persona you depict when with your parents, and a totally shocking one that you depict amidst peers. And how this affects your assessment of right and wrong. And your ability to be bravely unpopular , openly.

Movies have got worse today. Quick and fast monetary rewards appear feasible to young folks. Intolerance and violence is applauded. Vices are picked up because everyone is doing it. Under the guise of trying anything once. Ask them to try swimming under the same guidelines, and you will be surprised at how many will refuse to learn, run away.

Because role models have disappeared. Some have role models amongst family. Some had these amongst their friends. Most have no role models, because those who could have been, are busy earning to enjoy plusher and plusher lifestyles, and keeping up with the erstwhile Joneses.

Many of our movies depict the permissive social mores so common in the Western world. You don't see that stuff in your everyday neighborhood. Its either that or the old village style family revenge type mafia don movies. Today, you often read news items in the paper which make you wonder if it is a movie story or real life story.

Of course there are good movies occasionally. One sees them, enjoys them , recommends them.

But a different, simple , kind of indulged childhood, with some very strong insistence of yes and no, and lots of early parental time gives one the strength to enjoy the stuff, but keep things in perspective, and balance. Leaving ,what is seen on screen to be left on screen, and not contributing to storms and stress in your life.

A loss of this balance is stressful. And so you see a lot of stressed young people today. It shows in their health, their strength of mind, and their easy giving in. Agents of vice have always been around. An unstable mind is easy to bend. Its how you handle things that counts.

Robert Bresson, a photographer and Film director is known to have said :

"Cinema, radio, television, magazines are a school of inattention: people look without seeing, listen in without hearing.”

And he might have added, "react without thinking"...

Kind of a visual knee -jerk

One would tend to agree.

Saturday, September 25, 2010


Looking inwards is not in fashion.

Unless you are so discouraged by things happening around you, that you think your bodies have something to teach you.

And time and again, one comes across information , that enforces belief, that life in current society and the way we conduct it, could learn a lot from observing how our brain handles things.

Mathematicians, at the Case Western Reserve University, have recently published findings that suggest that "doing nothing" also costs the brain some energy . While various activities, such as reading, singing, practicing sports, plotting a revenge , planning to steal, cursing, etc could have various neurons clamouring to participate and fire in your brain, it turns out that even if you decide to give up all these exciting things for a while, relax and maintain zero activity, it costs your brain some activity. And you sometimes remember tension stuff from your office hundreds of miles away on a beach.

There are what one could call excite neurons and inhibit neurons. The excite neurons cause a generation of something called glutamate which tends to flood across, opening up gates for the excited neurons. In order to control all this we have something in the brain which are called astrocytes, which arrange for the production of a chemical acronymized as GABA, that creates "inhibiting" neurons. The astrocytes , like a responsible mother of two wild children arranges to mop up excess glutamate, manage the action of the inhibiting neurons, and this uses up a huge amount of oxygen and hence blood flow. Many mental problems in humans are caused uncontrolled glutamate flooding, and random firing of "excite" neurons in the brain.

Then there are ways in which newly formed neurons or brain cells are treated by the brain system. Unlike what we observe in the real world, where overnight leaders happen by virtue of their birth, new neurons in the brain are nurtured by this GABA. Like a new mother, initially GABA dedicates itself full time to the new neurons, as they develop connections . This changes to a pulsed attention from GABA, sort of like intermittent encouraging attention from a mother, who is encouraging a baby to walk. And the final steps, are when the neuron learns how to behave with its connections in a sea of glutamate, somewhat like an active child doing exploratory movements now across his house.

The neurons are then released as full time members of the brain. Yale scientists have reported that new neurons or brain cells, are actually on probation for close to 21 days, before they join the mainstream. Unlike the overnight heroes that routinely spout on our political horizon, the baby neurons are supposed to listen around before they first open their mouths. There are no shortcuts , and these 21 days are spent in getting messages, developing connections, and listening and observing the older adult neurons.

And just in case you think, that all the neurons are top class, firing around, acting smart, MIT scientists have found that it doesn't matter whether something useful is happening with the neurons , so long as they are doing something, and not lying dormant , playing dead. Earlier it was believed that useful neurons survived, and the non performing ones got rejected . But as in today's world, the system supports a decent amount of what we call non-performing assets . Sometimes , the neuron activity goes out of hand and we have instances of epilepsy.

It seems to me that we have a lot to learn from this .

Like the glutamate and excite neurons, we have people who make it their life's vocation to excite and influence the population. Sometimes, and under false pretences, this does get out of hand. Like GABA and inhibitory neurons ,we do have inhibitory actions possible, in the form of attentive parents, good teachers, our law enforcement agencies, and well meaning folks. But the astrocytes or managing .monitoring entities of the real world, unlike those of the brain, cheat.

As in the brain ,there is energy required to inhibit something . That means, resources.

And that's where we , the so called homo sapiens move along ill advised paths. Reeking of corruption, and self aggrandisement. And so there is the scourge of uncontrolled epileptic behavior in society, be it terrorist related, or family-violence related, or self inflicted.

The nurturing on new neurons is a lesson in nurturing those not as abled as us. Today we want answers immediately, if possible even yesterday. We have no patience to wait. There is a technique in each case, of fully dedicating your time, and then slowly letting someone face the real world, bit by bit. Like the neurons, the intervening period is spent in observing and imbibing from those around you.

And just in case you think the brain is one perfect place, with 100% dedicated neurons doing their thing, think of those noisy truant neurons the MIT fellows looked at. We have so many such folks around us, doing nothing specific, wasting time, just hanging around. We continue along our busy paths, ignoring them. If we don't want these idle types to get into troublesome epileptic mode, we need to do something.

I don't really know whether the smart neurons in the brain try and teach these noisy neurons some thing. May be they teach by example. Maybe a few idle carried-away epileptic neurons get treated by some medication, that the doctor gives, that improves their behaviour. Maybe they then learn to observe the industrious ones and improve the nature of their activities.

I wish we had a "doctor" for those who are black spots in an otherwise useful society. Not necessary an MD, but someone who can impress, encourage, teach and modify the behaviour of these wasteful members of our society, who are prime target for those who encourage criminal activities.

We too have our glutamates and GABAs in society, trying to do their thing. But unlike neurons, we are stupid, obsessed with our own existence, and so it takes a long long time before some change is seen.

At a larger macro level, the brain even delegates certain activities to some systems that operate on their own, with assistance from the spinal cord. These systems even learn from experience. And incorporate their learning into their actions and reactions. Continuously in life.

Yet, our brain keeps an overall track of things, and is an excellent manager .

I doubt it has done an MBA. It probably never gave a Civil service exam . Its not even on Linkedin, Facebook or Twitter. Or the PM's business advisory committee. Or the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee.

Maybe that is the secret of its success.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Food of the Gods....

My first introduction to it, possibly about 59 years ago, would have been, when a maternal uncle, dipped a pure gold ring into a bowl containing it, and then allowed the stuff to drip on my tongue, as I sat in my mother's lap, watched by a large contingent of assorted grandparents and uncles and aunts, not to mention some children, who were waiting for the main program to get over so that they could get on with their portion of the same, nicely served in more reasonable quantities in silver bowls.

This was a child's first introduction to solid food, after birth.I can 't think of a better item to introduce a child to. Variously called Kheer (North and Western India), Payasam(south) , Payesh(Bengal and lands eastwards) etc depending on which part of India you lived in.

Of course the popularity of the item has never waned, and there are folks who even today, as adults, post the variety of payasam they have just had, on Facebook pages, and discuss the finer points of the recipe , if you ask.

Then there are those, who actually follow a rigid diet , run for exercise, get all apologetic about culinary indulgences appearing quickly as avoirdupois on their hips, but are totally and firmly convinced that payasam/kheer, has the amazing property of being quickly and totally convertible to ATP in your quadriceps, and other muscles of the leg. There have even been instances of folks being suddenly energized by visions of payasam, as they battle a tired mind and wooden legs, a kilometre away from the winning post at the half marathon.......

This dish goes back to ancient times, and is basically made by boiling rice or broken wheat in milk and sugar, and flavouring it with cardamoms, pistachios, raisins, saffron, and almonds. Certain kheers or payasams or also made from coconut milk, and utilise jaggery as the sweetener. Regional seasonal varieties using such sweeteners as palm gur jaggery are very popular in Bengal.

Indian food per se, is not served in courses, but as an entire meal, with each food item having its designated place in the plate (in modern times), and the plantain leaf , traditionally. And so kheer or payasam used to be part of a meal. However, it may also be enjoyed by itself as a dessert item.

Today payasam may be made with a variety of grains, and also from vermicelli.

For many years , I used to think it is an Indian speciality, and liked to think that the British rice pudding was a stiff upper lip version of what they took back from us, after we got our Independence. Unfortunately, a person called Gervase Markham actually published a recipe for that in 1615 and called it by the very depressing name of Whitepot, defeating my efforts at trying to prove that among the many things the British took away from us , including the Kohinoor diamond, kheer aka payasam ranks right up there; not embedded in the Queen's crown, but possibly enjoyed by her at dinner.

Turns out that Kheer, Payasam,Payesh , is more international than we think.

There are 12 varieties made in Asia alone, 29 in the whole of Europe including Russia, 6 varieties in North America, and 9 in South America. Sometimes the concoction is boiled, sometimes baked, and sometimes a little bit of both.

Asian versions always have lots of nuts and spices like cardamom, saffron , nutmeg.

The European versions often boast of cinnamon, lemon peels, vanilla, orange peels, and eggs, while the Nordic countries, it served with blobs of butter , whipped cream, strawberry/cherry sauces, oranges, and sometimes almonds.

Things get a bit merrier in North America , where they soak the raisins in rum, sherry or tequila, and go innovative with spices, and include, ginger, anise seed, cloves, allspice, and even shredded and toasted coconut flakes.

Things get even more wild in South America, where they include coffee as a flavouring, and raisins are soaked before use in sherry, rum, port wine, brandy and even whisky. Vanilla, cinnamon, coconut and cloves seem to be standard.

There are stories behind payasam/kheer, and whatever it is known as, in the above countries. For example, in Flemish and Dutch Christian folklore, it is a meal given to people who go to heaven, and they supposedly eat it with a Golden spoon.

While this requires someone to go to heaven and report back, Indian legends boast of a story, that could possibly be more believable.

Ambalapuzzha in Kerala in South India boasts of a very famous Krishna temple, constructed in AD 790 by a gentleman known by the amazing name of Chembakasserry Pooratam Thirunal Devanarayanan Thampuran and it is believed that the current figure of the deity was moved here from the famous Guruvayur temple to save it from the marauding armies of Tipu Sultan. At some point in history, the local king was visited by a sage who was actually Lord Krishna in disguise.

And they decided to play a game of chess.

The King being a bit more sensitive to things like wins and losses, asked what he had to do in case he lost. Whereupon the sage, simply said, starting with a single grain of rice in the first square of the chess board, and every subsequent square carrying double the amount of the previous , the king should simply give the total quantity of rice in 40 squares to the sage. The king, who had probably chosen horse riding over maths in school, thought the sage was being very modest and didn't like it at all, but the sage insisted.

Turns out that there wasn't sufficient rice in the kingdom to match the requirements, which reached one million by the 20th square and one trillion by the 40th square. The king was upset, and that was when the Lord revealed himself to the king, and urged him to serve payasam/kheer made out of the necessary rice to all the devotees who came to the temple, as "prasad" or "blessed food". Ever since then, Pal-Payasam (rice payasam) is served to everyone who visits the temple even today, and is greatly valued by the devotees.

However just in case you thought that Payasam / Kheer/ Payesh had only heavenly associations, I must hastily add that there are some spoilsport science types that have not been able to keep away.

In Tom Stoppard's play Arcadia, a lady called Thomasina keeps stirring a spoon of jam into the rice pudding/kheer/payasam, supposedly to demonstrate chaos. Then she asks if she can separate the stuff by stirring it backwards, where upon her teacher, a Septimus Hodge , says, no, it cant be, because according to Sir Issac Newton, the universe is deterministic.

Please . I mean why mix the two . Issac Newton and Payasam . A guy with a name audibly close to Septicemia. And with so many names available the lady had to be named after a man. Theories of chaos . And why waste all the good stuff. Not done . Not done. Its like having me and Anjelina Jolie in the same picture frame. Not done.

And finally, Douglas Adams in his famous Hitch Hikers guide, has a supercomputer called Deep Throat derive the pudding recipe from First Principles. ( edited : I seem to be so severely payasama-ized , that I even named the computer wrongly. The computer there was actually called Deep Thought, and not Deep Throat . I stand corrected, apologize for the mistake and gratefully thank my friend Suchita for pointing it out.)

I give up.

I mean, why add jam ? And blasphemously , stir it backwards and forwards in the payasam, or its western version, anyway ? And Thoughts, Deep or otherwise, could ideally be relishing sweet, white, thick, chilled or warm, fluids, garnished with spices and nuts, during or post a wonderful celebratory meal instead of fiddling around desperately with binary numbers.

For heaven's sake, it's just "1" or "0".

"1" means yes, I will have Payasam, and "0" means no, I wont.

And I always thought "0" was never an option.


Saturday, September 18, 2010

Magnificently Yum !

I realize I am saying nothing new, but we as society are in a state of flux; only thing is , it keeps bending westwards every now and then. I know its "one world" and all that, but while our contribution to the west (besides zero, ayurveda, yoga et al) consists of plenty of words from the vernacular English, grudgingly declared English by the Dictionary mafia (pucca, balti,doosra), we continue to be completely smitten by Western concepts, and behave accordingly .

I just came across this post, and cannot agree and empathize more with the author of the post. Globalization does not mean blind mindless aping of western standards, and icons. There are plenty of nice British things than mince patties and Yorkshire pudding. Paris certainly has more to give than frogs legs as a delicacy, Japanese culture can teach us so much more than sushi, but the cake is taken by our fashion designers, who , in a mindless aping of Milan designers, exhibit Indian Fall and Winter collections, in cities and metros, which have not had a Fall and Winter in the last several centuries. (Not that the Summer collections are anything out of this world, and I have yet to see a decent Monsoon Collection designed for leaping into buses with a dripping umbrella, while fighting a crowd of 15 people).

I was just wondering if it's all about descriptions, that really markets something, and should we be paying attention to fancy detailing of ordinary food to make it stand out as International cuisine.

Like :

Phulkas : Special organic wheat flower, stone ground, and personally mixed into a specialised dough, which is then rolled delicately on marble rounds, roasted on virgin iron griddles, and then allowed to bloom on a raw fire. Quite the toast of the party. Done right at your table and served with golden ghee. Melting Moments on contact .

Khichadi : Organic coastal rice, sometimes from the banks of the Ganga, soaked with broken green mung snug in its green proteinous cover, then drained, steeped ,stirred, and cooked to perfection with a whiff of cloves, hint of cinnamon and whole pepper corns , curry leaves straight from our backyard tree, curcumin (precursor to turmeric) to boost your health, all this with a lashing of ghee. (Served with our home specialities : crunchy roasted dry lentil rounds, and yogurt in personalised clay pots from Bihar.)

Bharli Wangi : Despite sounding Far Eastern, this is a signature dish from the Western Maharashtra. Fresh organic Baby Aubergines, ( stuffed with a blended mouthwatering mixture of shredded coconut, roasted sesame powder, onions, capsaicin-rich jalapeno-like chillies, crunchy coriander and roasty cumin mixtures, six different specialised Garam spices, with a hint of the sweetness of a trickle of jaggery) sauteed by our finest chefs in thick iron specially designed utensils, inspired from two centuries ago.

Soul Kadhi : Yo! Intentionally misspelt, milk of human kindness - coconut milk, as the shreds of the coconut, sacrifice themselves, over and over again, immersed in boiled filtered double purified Ganges water, blended and strained to a rich creamy perfection. Stained and spiced by organic kokum, freshly dried in the summer on cane mats in the coastal backwaters. Delcately spiced with garlic,cilantro and green chillies. Served ice cold in champagne flutes. Viva Sol Kadhi ! Kadhi for the Soul.

Khamang kakdi : Forget the dark Green variety of the humble cucumber. "Khire" is the variety we grow ourselves and use. Found only in India. Tiny pieces, marinated in salt, groundnut powder, cryshed green chillies, pinch sugar, lashings of lemon juice, crowned with a sizzling oil cumin asafotida dressing designed to heat and cool your taste buds simultaneously. Makes a great pair with Khichadi....

Batata wada : Macdonalds copied us, and then messed up. The original filler. Boiled mashed potato, dressed in tingling, mouthwatering spices, blanketed by a layer of light spiced porous garbanzo paste, fried to a brilliant golden brown, to match our golden summers . Can be eaten by itself, with organic relishes, chutneys, Indian salsas, as well as enclosed in pao, our organic answer to the "burger patty".

Aamras : "If there be heaven, this is it, this is it, this is it." We didnt say this, K. Gibran did. Straight from the home of the Alphonso Mango, from our own specially nurtured organic orchards, mangoes picked by experts who live there. Mango squeezed by hand, straight into a container, untouched by juicers and blenders, the slow mixing of juices and mango lumps, poured into a chilled bowl for you. Traditionally squeezed in holiday season by children in families, after removing shirts and tees, due to the danger of exciting juice stains spraying across. Our esteemed guests get to take the tablecloth home, should we create a mango stain while juicing the fruit.

And I havent even reached chutneys, pickles, and sweets and snacks as yet. The meaning of chutneys has been duly changed by the British, ever since the went back after Independence. We would like to get the original meaning back.

And our pickles are never greenish stuff in colorless fluid, that looks like cucumber pieces taking anti aging treatment. Pickles here, are more like a bhangda flamenco, that offers an exciting spicy kick.

..........................(Lady swathed in chiffon bends over to talk to someone in a Dolce and Gabbana sari, oblivious to her pearls dipping in the Sol Kadhi....)

"You mean you've never had a phulka ? Dont tell me you haven't yet been to the Blooming Wheat cafe ? Where do you live ? And what about batata wadas ..... no its nothing to do with tapas.... that's old stuff; I am surprised you dont patronize Shrikrishna Wada's; it's the In-place currently.

I'll let you in on a secret.

One of my nephew's wife's sister's, brothers in law, works with the WHO. And so we learn lots of things from him, are very concerned about all this mad cow disease , mercurified fish, SARS, viral bird flu stuff. And we get to hear about things before anyone else does.

Another uncle works at the National Institutes of Heath in Washington, and he sent us the food pyramid graphic.

Turns out, eating vegetarian is the answer. Unlike cows eating weird feeds, fish fainting in polluted seas, and chicken and birds playing truant at mealtimes, you can decide where to plant your veggies, and how to grow them....better still , how to cook them.

Of course we actually think the NIH got inspired about the pyramid, after seeing our Modaks....


This looks Yum !

Lunch, anyone ?

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Joy of Giving

Mukesh Ambani, according to predictions by the Forbes magazine, is slated to be the richest man in the world by 2014.

I assume that the predictions were not outsourced to us, notwithstanding our virtual patents on astrology, new rules from Mr B Obama, and other things. Maybe they heard about our messed up weather predictions, Commonwealth games stuff, Mumbai metro , and the Mumbai Nhava ShevaTrans Harbor Bridge, the last two still on paper.

Money has always been there. Disproportionately distributed in life. When I was a child, the Privy Purses had already been abolished, and visible manifestations of obscene wealth, were few and far between. Yes, there were hugely moneyed people around, but their wealth was never manifested like it is now. You would watch a dignified looking old person, preside judiciously at a meeting, and never realise that he was the ex-owner of a State.

I used to know , in my early childhood, someone in his sixties, who we used to visit a lot.

Born at the fag end of the 19th century, he came from a very poor family in a village in the western part of my state. It was then the done thing for the son of the family to make his way to the big city, for education, in the face of huge cash crunches and other troubles. Well meaning families would give a place to sleep, in return for a chore like filling water, or being a messenger boy, and there existed a social system , called Madhukri, whereby, families took upon themselves to provide a wholesome lunch for such boys, once a week. And so this boy, would eat at 6 different houses each week, the families doing what could be called, a precursor of what is today called Corporate Social Responsibility, and the system spread this load equitably across several families. There could have been a thin strain of the stress of "asking for food" in all this, but it helped keep egos under control, when you needed to prioritize things in your mind.

Which this boy did very well. He excelled at his studies, which were conducted in the harshest of environments, literally under streetlamps. By and by , he qualified to be an Engineer, where his proficiency earned him government scholarships and tuition help. The same single minded devotion saw him go to to England for training , and he returned to grace a responsible government post in what was then called the Central Provinces, in India.

Life was comfortable, he was happily married and had children. But destiny had other plans, and the children lost their mother at a very young age, leaving this man with memories and new responsibilities, as both father and mother to the kids. He never got married again, despite various overtures from well meaning families, because he didn't want to inflict a step-culture on his children.

He had the means and skills to conduct a household, and took a great interest in educating his kids, and particularly his daughter, who seemed to be academically inclined. He ensured she enjoyed the little things all girls enjoy, by always keeping in touch with her various aunts, who were very happy to help, and it was not unknown for him to have driven across town to one of them, just so his daughter could have her hair braided in some complicated way which all girls in her class were sporting.

Towards the end of his career, he decided to shift to Pune. He never forgot his roots, and spent a large portion of his judiciously managed savings, helping out in the education of deserving students. We would often observe him being visited by various young people, who he would talk to , asking about their progress, and occasionally someone would come by with a box of sweets to celebrate a hard earned brilliant graduation. He became a patron of some excellent educational societies, that started colleges across the state, and had very eminent educationists as advisers .

When he sensed his failing health, he expressed a wish to donate, what was then considered a outstandingly huge amount to the University, so that needy, hardworking, engineering students with good grades could be financially assisted , from the interest of the original sum.

Those were days when prosperity meant you had a rambling house, with all kinds of staff, even someone to pour warm water on your feet, when you arrived from outside, with someone else standing by with a towel. You had cars with drivers, personal attendants, male secretaries cum man Fridays, and you moved in exalted circles.

So it was an education in itself, to see this man washing his own clothes and hanging them on the wash line, and sweeping his own room daily. It wasn't that there was no help. But that was the way he preferred. His academically well qualified daughter had an opportunity to accompany her husband on a scholarship to the US in the 40's , and was hesitating because of a young son; he offered to look after the child (in the face of hesitant in laws), and urged her to make use of this wonderful opportunity. She listened and came back with a degree herself from Columbia University.

He must have passed away when I was 7 or 8 years old. We never knew he had such great and well known friends, particularly from the field of education.

His children knew of his wish to donate to the University, and consulted these qualified people. He wasn't a millionaire or anything, but what he taught his children by personal example was never forgotten. His three children together, after his death, donated the sum, then considered huge, to the University, in the form of securities, in companies, which like him, were blue chip and highly respected. Today none of his children are alive, but his grandchildren take an active interest as advisers in this.

Some people , are rich in money, and the manifestations are in terms of more and more houses, with more and more stories; more and more cars, and even aeroplanes, because they are like toys - you buy the latest, because you must fit in with what the world thinks you should be. You ensure you are seen moving in exalted circles, currently considered powerful. It is all about buying "people" and their confidence in you.

Life, to them , is basically, all about pluses and multiplications. Derivatives are sometimes studied, and Integrations are all about assets. Minuses are useful as tax sops, but, Divisions make you uncomfortable. So you avoid them. And you fight them . And the winner takes all.

And, of course, to hell with people.

The old man I knew will never make it to Forbes. When he passed away, the discussion was all about giving, and never really about taking. Individually or en masse.

No monuments, temples, statues in his honor. But a complete set of generations, that are inspired to live , in a manner where the priorities are suggested, not forced , by him.

This is supposed to lead up to the Joy of Giving week. (Sept 26- Oct 2)

Of gestures, slogans and graphics designed by advertising people to make you feel guilty. Or generous. Givers will be facilitated. Commissions will be subtracted. And the receivers will be grateful.

And I will once again think of this old gentleman, who taught us what a Lifetime of Giving was all about.......

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Learning from within

There is a lot of discussion about creation.

How the human body was created, did it evolve, or did it get a head start due to what could be called divine interventions. While this may be a subject for intense debate in theological, scientific and Darwinian circles, sometimes the advent of old age and a lifetime of observing the body and your environment , has some lessons in living. For us as a society.

This has been a season of extremes. In health, as well as climate. As well as our attitudes. "Our", includes those who purport to "manage " life for us. Inside and outside our bodies.

And so I was delighted to hear about "cytokines". Which are really what can be called cell-cell messengers. The original SMS system before Nokia, Blackberry, Ericsson, and Samsung types started claiming credit.

Whenever you get, say, hurt somewhere, or face an infection (bacteria, virus, etc), the white blood cells in your blood mobilize for handling it with the help of macrophages which are like security guards. Some doing local fighting, some wandering around in the body tackling possible infiltration. As part of this procedure they create conditions whereby messages are relayed , about this impending invader, through protein messengers throughout your body. While all this causes, swellings, and fluid collections, and war situations at the point of hurt/infection, these white cells also do the very important work of sending messages out to the rest of the body, and the various defending armies (in the form of various types of fighter cells). This very important work is done by these protein messengers , or cytokines.

(watch this for an animation of capturing invaders and release of cytokines)

The cytokines are very intelligent in the way they convey stuff. Sometimes its a local skirmish with an invading thing, complete with scratches, fluid swellings, pains, followed by some new skin, winning the whole war.

Sometimes the human body responds by producing antibodies, that latch on to these invader items, and traipsing through the bloodstream, signal to the various fighting entities in your organs saying, "Attack now, I've identified the crooks" .

Sometimes, they even arrange to remember these things , so that should the same invader attack the body again, something goes , "Aha ! I know you guys....bad news..bring on the army !" and the antibodies do their stuff.

The question arises as to whether this business of getting excited about fighting the invaders can get out of control. I mean, sometimes, the cytokines may travel far and wide into the body's nervous system, may go around so strongly as to affect the body's thermostat and you get fevers, sometimes out of control. Occasionally, aided by certain conditions, the normal cells may get destroyed along with the diseased, in an uncontrolled fashion. Leading to health catastrophes.

And so, it is not always true, that the more cytokines the merrier. There appears to be a kind of optimum kind of messaging done by an optimum amount of cytokines, which keeps the body in fine fettle and keeps things less wayward . And we have had some old technologies through the ages for that, which we unfortunately do not follow, or look at, today, with only a cosmetic emphasis.

There are techniques that help achieve this. Researchers in Los Angeles' Cedars-Sinai's Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences recently studied the effect of massage on the immune system of adults, and found that massaging resulted notable decrease in most cytokines produced by stimulated white blood cells. The idea is to have sufficient number of well trained cytokines as opposed to an automatic flooding where a few may just be wayward and mess things up.

Babies have been massaged daily before bath, since time immemorial in India, and in 2006, the University of Warwick (the researcher had the intriguing name of Dr Underdown) announced research results where they found that massaging infants, made them less stressed, sleep better, and cry less. This was of course supported by confirming that they then had reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as a decent release of Melatonin, that aided sleep. Of course reduced levels of stress make for better handling of danger by our bodies .

The correspondence with our daily lives is amazing.

We have our daily urban and rural lives. We have invaders, and trouble makers. We have defense mechanisms.

Some places have huge numbers of law enforcement types, with an amazing lack of communication . These cities always keep complaining of inability to recruit more, while ignoring levels of training for their existing members. The problem always, is of timely and intelligent communication between sections. Whether it is sections of police, sections of an alarmed populace, sections of the government, and even the Press. Large quantities do not always imply better checking and action. In fact it always leads to misuse of scarce resources, and uncontrolled increase of panic. Totally innocent citizenry often pays the price.

We need to figure out ways of having meaningful communication between the government, citizens, and law enforcers. Like the white cells, the body organs, and the cytokines, we need to have high levels of understanding amongst us. The government, like the white cells, sends the cytokines out to relay the danger message. But it errs in depending on the huge number of unmonitored staff it sends. A more reasonable number, armed intelligently would be more sensible, than a large population without adequate intelligence, training and arms, as happened in 26/11.

The body has lots of checks an balances, and in the rare cases that the cytokines lose control of themselves, we suffer something like a "cytokine storm", uncontrolled fevers, pandemics, severe symptoms, unpredictable events.

Today, we , as people , are similarly placed. Money, recession, inflation, resources, false assurances, anger, killings, corruption, are invading our lives. We treat everything with a knee jerk reaction, and the powers that be continue to handle each thing with a new committee, a new agency, , new rules, unconcerned that it may actually be the responsibility of an existing set up . Vote bank politics, instead of development, has taken precedence in a multi religious country. Those who purport to be social cytokines, have actually created a "cytokine storm".

And so we need something similar to a "massage" for our living. Something that shakes up the wayward rampant cytokines into orderly socially useful entities, doing meaningful messaging in society. Maybe it is something like looking out for our immediate environment, protecting it opposing bad personal habits, refusing to pay for things out of turn, respecting the value of hard earned money, prioritising education over grabbing of luxuries, having the guts to be unpopular in the process of sticking to ones principles when it benefits society in the long run, and understanding, that every celebration of something good happening to you, must make you think and share it with those not so fortunate and /or differently abled.

I am continually amazed at the thoughtfulness with which whosoever/whatever has designed our bodies. Intricate sensing and relaying of information, varied responses in varied sequences by different parts and organs, built-in defense mechanisms, manifestation of symptoms, and all the while, the body doesn't need to , say, shut down, for repairs, like we need to for ordinary man-made machines. The crowning glory , if I may refer to it as such, is the brilliantly designed , moderately sized, neuroplastic brain, which manages all this, all the while "learning" and storing away what it has learnt for appropriate timely use.

We are so busy keeping up with each other in a material world, that we continue to be blind to something that has so many answers for our problems, concept wise and otherwise. We refuse to look within ourselves.

At something that we have had since birth.

Our bodies.

Monday, September 06, 2010

Life loads.

She was called all types on names, good and bad, right since she was small. And one of the things never attributed to her, was the word "dainty".

Childhood was all about thoroughly enjoying school, the outdoors, sports, good academic success, lots of friends, brothers who essentially kept her on her toes, and parents who encouraged her in everything like learning to play musical instruments, classical dance , art, etc etc. Exercise was insisted upon as a daily requirement, and she remembered doing her daily surya namaskars, often under the disapproving gaze of certain ladylike aunts, who thought this was taking things too far.

By and by , she even stayed away from home in college which was in another city, and got used to lugging her own luggage around, regardless of of the weight and number of pieces. This habit continued throughout her life, to the consternation of several folks, whose idea of an acceptable woman was someone who wasn't heard when she walked, was only heard when she agreed with you, and who looked at folks beseechingly for help when faced with what could be classified as , physically insurmountable problems, like leaping across ditches, stepping down from some very high steps, putting her two wheeler on the stand, digging in gardens, and so on. You get the idea.

She always was in the forefront carrying luggage for visiting guests, and would gravitate to the heaviest piece, unless someone anticipated her move and took the piece themselves. Loading and unloading stuff from taxis and cars was par for the course. When the car got stuck on the highway, while dropping some folks to the train station, the taxi driver who stopped to help looked on in awe as she backed up the car back to back with the cab, and swiftly transferred stuff , boot to boot, and told the taxi driver to rush full speed, to make the train before it left.

Of course, shifting houses after that was nothing new , and her help was greatly sought and offered. She actually enjoyed doing all this.

Somewhere in the middle ages, there entered a mental aspect to all this. There were worries, problems, tensions, but a lifetime of "facing" weighty situations, meant that she always assumed a solution was just around the corner, and thereabouts, sometimes time wise.. She was often loaded with worrisome thoughts; for the present, for the future, for people close to her, and those who counted in her life. But the habit of rushing in to assist, whenever help was needed , never changed; be it something physical, or even a load on some one's perturbed mind.

At one point it was the immense weight of responsibilities. Quick and correct decision making. Consulting the right people. Finding a golden mean between the eccentricities of someone's old age and medical needs. Sometimes some one's young age, and willfulness. Some punches to the ego. Some urges to punch right back. A need for self control. Reigning in of a mind, more disposed towards a wild gallop.

The human body is a wonderful thing, and it slowly reduced the rpm's at which her body functioned, in an enlightened display of mind-body interaction.

But like a car which is being forced up a slope in high gear, willfully ignoring the need to get into a lower gear, she ended up facing "knocking" ; only, this time, it was in her body engine.

Fate sometimes knocks, and we are unable to hear it. The same happened with her. It took a while for her to understand the need to slow down. Certain afflictions forced her to think. Some excruciating pains, sometimes of the mind, but mostly of the body. Shredding her confidence.

I see her often now, wearing an arm pouch, which, she actually thought, was a sling. She leans back and rests her head on the pillow that she keeps against the wall on the top of the sofa. Her shoulder muscles have issued her a warning. I see her cringe as she suddenly gets a spasm of pain in her arm. There is a smell of methyl salicylate ointment around. She hates it, but she can't do without it. She tells me of being surprised at being unable to lift the vessel with a litre of milk , kept on the stove, something she has been doing since time immemorial. A hint of a cynical amused smile as she tells about being unable to hold the steering wheel of the car , up there, and how she drove a day ago, possibly for the last time , with hands at the bottom of the steering wheel, something they did as children , trying to show off then. An avid crazy book reader, inability to hold up (to read) a thickish book on Obama by David Remnick ( a gift to her), bothers her.

Perhaps all this is saying something. About loading and unloading. In life.

I tell her it's time to sit back, and enjoy a nice cup of tea someone else makes for her. I offer to make one . The energizing and exciting physical loads of childhood mix wonderfully , with the passage of time, with those weighing in the mind. Slowly the latter matter more. And together, they eat away the fabric of your strength. In the muscles and sometimes, the mind.

Darning is always possible, provided you notice the wear and tear in time. The body actually knows how to darn its own. She must wear the arm pouch and control movement for many weeks. Her body and mind must both rest.

She tells me it is difficult. But sighs and leans back. I smile. She smiles. I hand her the cup of tea, and the cream biscuits she loves, but pretends to avoid. She moves to adjust her arm in the pouch, so she can hold the cup nicely. Supported by her left hand.

Life loads have a habit of fluidity. Physical to mental and back again. In always a new mix.

Right now its both. She agrees

And I wish her well, as I take the empty cup from her , taking it to her kitchen.