Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Passing On....

(Inspired by a wonderful post by my friend Zephyr Nag)

First quarter of the last century...

She had lost her mother at a very young age. Her father, never remarried, in those days of  alarming step-behaviours,  and his being both father and mother to her was actually an education for her.  Her father , had risen to his position, from very humble beginings by virtue of pure hard work and struggle, and helping out folks who needed resources for education was something he religiously did, and she imbibed an attitude that no formal education could have given her.

Attitudes can never be taught. They have to observed, imbibed and learned. And practised. 

Her own children grew up, with a conservative bringing up, in the face of different lifestyles they observed in their often cosmopolitan classmates. There was entire set of unrelated folks who owed their college education to her and her husband, who assisted them with fees and books, and often, even some counseling. And there was never a pervading spirit of highlighting what-chariity-you-did, have-vs-have-nots-publicity etc ,  in all this giving and taking. This was how life was lived. Period. 

By and by her children settled down in their own lives. And she travelled around the world, being the indulgent grandparent who attended the important milestones in the lives of the grandkids.  Be it someone's graduation,  be it someone's important sports meet , or even someone's annual day or felicitation somewhere. Grandpa didnt travel so much, and so she had to be present.

On  a winter's day in November 2000, at 83, she returned, tired  and jet lagged from attending the eldest grandson's graduation in the US. Her own daughter in India had just returned from attending a state sports meet with her own daughter, and travelled back with grandpa to Mumbai to receive her.  It was Divali, an they would all stay together for a while at the daughter's.    

This granddaughter was an adopted child, who then didnt know about her own adoption. But the daughter's family had made it a point everyyear, to visit the orphanage near their house , during Bhaidooj every Divali, when they took sweets for the kids there  and played with them.

That Bhaidooj, she was still coming out from her jetlag and preferred to rest at home.  Grandpa had just returned from his morning walk, and was reading the papers and getting orgainzed when the family set out for the morning visit.

"So are you guys off to visit the temple ? "  he asked , gesturing at his daughter, son-in-law, grandson and granddaughter .

Before they could answer, she looked up from some vegetables she was sorting and cutting.

 Like so many of her ilk, she could never sit idle; the hands were always busy, helping or giving.

"Yes. Something almost like that . Like a temple. "  she said, looking into the distance, as they waved goodbye to the family off on their annual morning trip to the orphanage.

Her daughter never forgot those words.

They were not to know that, that  was her last day with them. She collapsed that evening , was hospitalized and passed away 2 days later.

One of the biggest legacies she left,  was the understanding, that religion , was not how you did rituals, and got intimidated by Gods and  rules.

It was really, how you learned to give , from what little you had.  It was about respect and empathy for those life stories which were not as happy and secure as yours. It was about thinking something deeper than appearances, looks, and a spik-and-span life.  And it was never something you shouted from the rooftops...

 A learning and a set of values , imbibed, hopefully, by her descendants, over all the years.....

Saturday, June 23, 2012

She clicks, you click, we all click .....

Photography is the best form of imitation .

Don't know who said that, but I guess I just did .

National Geographic Moment Awards are happening, and the daughter, a completely self taught photographer is participating.

Photographs in five categories have been invited : Wildlife, landscapes, conservation/earth/, people, India........

Found out about this only recently, and looks like the last date might happen soon .

This is an appeal to all my friends to click below and vote on all her photos. She will be greatly encouraged!

It only asks for your email address, and a person can vote for a photo, only once.

The link

 Thank you, Merci, Shukriya, Dhanyavad, Dhanyabad, Aabhaar,  Danke schön, arigato gozaimasu , Terima Kasih, Mamnoon, Obrigada, Спасибо, Nandree,  Dhanyavaadaalu, Gracias, Asante, Kiitos, Diolch, Teşekkür ederim, Dhan Waad, Grazzi, Dziękuję,  Gamsahapnida,  Grazie, Euxaristo, Todah, Salamat, Shokrun, Xie Xie.........!!!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Flash of Knowledge...

Staying in a college hostel as an undergraduate, meant you went home during vacations, and thanks to my father's transferable job, I often ended up going to new places, most of them in mofussil areas.

This was the late 60's.  The living spaces were all in special colonies, some with old British style houses, with  wildly growing gardens, and very often, a very propah club, where you went in the evenings to play badminton, talk, and watch folks playing bridge and argue about calls. Typically in the outskirts of small towns, with hardly any traffic, and then there were the fireflies !  No, we didn't catch them and put them in bottles, but always marvelled at the scene and wondered, as we walked home through the trees...

I remembered the fireflies, when I recently came across this wonderful visual above (with explanations) , posted by my FB friend Suhas Baljekar .....

Lots of fires and flies in Mumbai today, but a sad lack of fireflies.  

 I learnt how these insects had really, one of the most energy efficient lighting systems .

And there was actually a  Devil in the Details.....

Fireflies contain a pigment called Luciferon. In the presence of a body enzyme called Luciferase, a dollop of ATP (Adenosine triphosphate, which is like an energy molecule) and oxygen, the pigment oxidises  to create light

There are several theories about how the fireflies set the light on and off, having to do with controlling oxygen, or the nerve cells , but what is very noteworthy, is that the production of light here is very efficient. 100% of the energy is light energy here, with no wastage in the form of heat. In a normal light bulb , 10% of its energy is light, with 90% being wasted as heat ....

Turns out , that all this flashing around of light by the fireflies, has a purpose. Firefly larvae use this light to tell predators that they have defensive chemicals, bad taste, and they better stay away. When worried, the larvae also increase the frequency and intensity of glow. Male fireflies,  flying around ,send flashing glow signals in specific patterns at certain times at night, to stationary female fireflies, who fittingly respond only after a  fixed time delay.  There is much flashy communication between the two, before the male finally decides to  come down and meet.

This bioluminescence , as the glowing is termed, serves various purposes like camouflage, attraction, repulsion, communication and illumination.

 Scientists at Syracuse University found a new way to harness the natural light produced by fireflies using nanoscience. Their breakthrough produces a system that is 20 to 30 times more efficient than those produced during previous experiments. Using different lengths of what they call nanorods, they are able to produce  different colors in the visible spectrum, as well as in the invisible spectrum.  And it is all about converting chemical energies to light .

   Scientists can now identify the gene that causes the glowing in the firefly, and this DNA structure  can be cloned into a host using what is called Recombinant Gene technology,(  joining together of DNA molecules from two different species that are inserted into a host organism to produce new genetic combinations that are of value to science, medicine, agriculture, and industry.)

Which opens up a world of possibilities.

-You can have trees that light up at night , without having to be electrically wired . Think of a onetime cost, and no maintenance.Think of kids in unelectrified areas , or areas with electric load shedding , being able to study when they want, not decided by official fellows who did bad resources planning.

- You can have plants that glow a certain color when they are in need of watering. Think of less wastage of water and optimum irrigation based on types of plants.

-- You can have certain cells in your body organs light up whenever certain conditions are true. (There are some cancer treatments currently being experimented  using the glow factor to highlight the cancerous cells to the medication being injected)

- We have several hormones in our body, the dynamic balance of which greatly affects our physical and mental well being. When the values go haywire, we do not realize it till we see some physical symptoms like hypoglycemia(low sugar),  hypo and hyperthyroidism (many symptoms), anxiety/depression/panic (serotonin levels), kinases (muscle breakup enzyme found in liver)....  

 What would be nice if some kind of light could alert us to any immediate sustained  change in these levels or an imbalance.  In an age when pacemakers are installed in chests and insulin is released through skin patches, some kind of standard nano chip in the human body should not be difficult.
Like something that senses blockages/inflammations in  key areas , and alerts us, and we don't end up waiting till we actually get a stroke or a heart attack. (It is well known that medical intervention in the first 90 minutes of an episode, leads to a better prognosis).

I wonder if this glowing light firefly technology, can be used to monitor early dangerous changes in brain activity. 

 Like fear, violence, anger, sorrow and so on.   Scientists are today able to pinpoint parts of the brain that deal with these emotions. I wonder if something can alert us , by lighting up to indicate abnormal situations.  Even for situations like a beginning of schizophrenia, depression, and so on.

I wonder if at some point we will be able to save lives by preempting some one's violent behaviour, and stop someone from behaving irrationally in the face of fear.  I wonder if we can personalize education across a set of children with a spectrum of various abilities, by being aware of changes before they physically manifest themselves in a person .

A kind of real time monitoring of folks before things get serious in anatomical terms.

Of course it is impossible to have an Utopian life , where there are no problems, or easy solutions exist for all problems. If life was all about Utopia, there wouldn't have been any reason for research, and effort at learning.

So, it is very interesting to note, that the fireflies, who we try to applaud and emulate for their glowing abilities and technology,   are not such saints themselves. 

And they have possibly learned something from other species.

Turns out that Female Photuris fireflies are known for mimicking the mating flashes of other "lightning bugs" for the sole purpose of predation. Target males are attracted to what appears to be a suitable mate, and are then eaten.

 For this reason the Photuris species are sometimes referred to as "femme fatale fireflies."

Ah ! A bit of reverse engineering and adulation,  that ...... 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Onco Society

I have often thought of the similarities between our human body processes and our country/society as it exists today.  It very uncanny, but you may mentally superimpose one on the other and see.

We have  an entire set of rivers flowing from the mountains into the oceans. Some big, others small. Most of them being subject to, as they say in medical parlance, environmental insult.  The Ganga, of my younger days, is now  a troubled flow, replete with the silts of progress, industrial  effluents, and sewage of a shameless humanity.

What can you expect of a people, who gave up sensible seasonal organic eating, a daily high-movement lifetsyle and avidly pursued food studded with trans fats, additives, banned chemicals , heavy sugar, heavy salt and phosphoric acid, and messed up their own Ganga , the Aorta , the main artery in the body; with blobs of sticky plaque all over, and sometimes, even stretching encroachment outside its 3 layered banks, in the form of blooming aneurysms.

Of course there are rivers like the Brahmaputra , that are cursed for changing courses, and creating new channels of flow. Maybe, like collateral flows (compensating alternative blood flow  paths ) that happen in our body when faced with blocks in the normal flow, the river too, took corrective action

A sense of intense greed makes us reclaim land from what is normally a free wavy sea, and  we show off smooth and posh constructions unconcerned about the fact, that somewhere else,  the sea will have to make up for being driven out. And so you watch, ladies traumatised by age , using Botox fillers to reclaim youth and beauty, unaware that this is going to show up at some point , problematically somewhere in the body, which has a fixed capacity to throw out junk.  In various places , we artificially try and flatten, raise, and sculpt the body parts, just like we flatten entire forests and hillocks in the interests of landgrabbing and progress.

And then there is the business of the genes.

These are in the nucleus of the cells, millions of which make us what we are. These genes, basically contain the operative instructions for the growth, maintenance and running our body systems. Some of these genes we inherit from our parents/ancestors and we call them traits/predispositions. Others we are born with. 

While we need to be aware and knowledgeable on what genes we have inherited, turns out that some of the other genes get affected by things like environmental insult (smoking, unnecessary scans, UV radiation), and the coded operative instructions inside them get smudged

The understanding between the cells and the genes is lost and the cells go wild replicating themselves, and the gene is said to have mutated. Of course, there are also other genes which specialize in various repairs, and they try to right the situation.   When it's a lost battle, we realize that we have an unnecessary proliferation of rogue cells, thanks to some terribly messed up , misguided genes, and we say that it is cancer.

Can anything be more different in the country ? 

There was a time when the entire country was united; education was still taken seriously, and educators were greatly respected. Money had quality, and not just  quantity. There was an  ethos, a predictability and sense of balance about society, a graceful seamless taking over by the young of the old. 

But at some point, there were disruptions , of standards. How you got money became unimportant, how much you got made you great. Lying and indulging was considered OK, so long as you achieved your ambition.  The killing gene in society was rampant. Someone didn't respond to your overtures, throw acid on her; someone blocked your path from thieving, push them out of a train; don't like your election opponent, bump him off.

So many rogue genes in society, forcing some many other hesitant genes to change for the worse. Cheating in exams, in diagnosis, in following rules, and even in living, became rampant. Even those who were supposed  to save society from the bad folks, became evil themselves, as in the recent news about the Haryana Women's Homes, and ruthless female infanticide by doctors and ill educated husbands in Beed, Maharashtra.

It is as if a cancer is growing wild and rampant all around us.

While our bodies get subject to extremely invasive treatments for the management of detected cancers, with outrageously expensive treatments and medications being the norm, all this at a huge other cost to the human body, I often wonder what we do to eradicate or even fight these mutating  goonda genes in our society.  For some, it is simpler to turn Goonda themselves.....

Like in actual cancer, there are , in society, some repair-gene like folks, who work towards trying the stop the wild multiplication of the societal cancer cells.

That is where the similarity between the cancer in our body and that in society ends. 

Current cancer research focuses on identifying the defiant gene(s) in the cell, that are responsible for a particular cancer, and creating medication to straighten out the undisciplined tendencies of that gene, so that orderly cell activities can take place.

A simple look at a newspaper on any given day,  shows more and more innovative wild proliferation of society cancers. With so many genes  in society giving in and  mutating to take the easy way out, i shudder to think of the world that lies in store for the Generation Next.

Welcome to the Mutating Onco Society......

Friday, June 08, 2012

The YBIMB Gene

Think about the creation of the universe/humans whichever way you want. Big bang, whimper, design, evolving from the amoeba . or what have you. But whenever, whatever, or whoever dealt out the various genes and chromosomes, I am convinced , that , all the YBIMB genes , came to us . To those of you who are acronymically disabled, that is the "Your Business Is My Business "  gene.

While this is called Fine Industrial Espionage in say, management circles,  for those of us living humdrum ordinary lives, this takes the form, of bare acquaintances, and sometimes even total unknowns,  pretending to be suddenly casual and making it their business as to ask questions, which are really none of their business.

38 years ago,  standing at a suburban rationing office window , for adding one's name to the ration card post marriage, we submitted the documents. In those days, the legal marriage certificate was not mandatory, but was part of the sheaf of documents we submitted anyway, since it was logical.

The guy inside, normally not  having encountered one  so far,  thought this was really glamorous, that maybe we had to get a certificate because standard modes of marriage (priest, parents, hordes of relatives, hall, 500 guests, massive lunches, receptions, decorations) were not available to us;  he  perused the documents, looked up at us through the window grill, and with a snide smile, said "Runaway marriage ?"   After an initial shock , he was told in no uncertain terms about  how he shouldn't worry about whether we walked , ran or leaped,  and where was his boss's desk anyway?  Several pairs of idle eyes looking at us from inside, wondering how runaway types could look so boring.  By and by the work was done.

Eight years ago,  I voluntarily retired from my job  because I had to take up some family responsibilities regarding my parents. The spouse worked in the same organization, and had several years of fruitful service left.  Walking out of the campus hospital after some test, a sometime aquaintance, walks up to me in great urgency and asks " So, he is going to America ?"

Nonplussed, for a moment, I thought it was someone behind me being addressed. Then I realized that folks who had no clue about  my parents, assumed that I had resigned so I could accompany the husband abroad. This "abroad"  stuff was news to me. I asked where he heard this amazing America news. To which I was told that it was a natural conclusion because I had resigned. I told the guy I would ask my husband if he was going to America and let him know. The fellow sheepishly walked away. 

A few months ago, we were seated in the waiting area of the OPD in a large leading  hospital, as we had an appointment with the doctor. Being a specialised OPD, consultations were often time consuming and there was a TV , kept soundlessly on, for the entertainment  of the waiting folks. Cricket was on, and the spouse  was intently watching it. I normally carry a book to read whenever one has to wait, and I sat a couple of seats away where the fancy lighting was a bit more conducive to reading.

A one time acquaintance walked in. Highly educated. Brimming with confidence.  Or possibly bravado. I don't know. He too had an appointment, and  sat down amidst us, talking about the old days, other folks, heart problems, costs, advances in technology today, the hospital etc etc. Each other's children were enquired after, the state of the nation was commented on, and the spouse got up to go out and attend to a phone call.

Suddenly this man turns and  asks, "Why are you sitting there, so far away ? "

" Oh . I don't care for TV and I have this book I am reading. The light is better here."  Me.

He looks at me as if I am lying. The book is lying by my side, as it is impolite to read when someone you know is having a conversation with you.

" No. But why there ? He (the spouse) is sitting here. "  Insistent. Digging. And honestly, none of his business.

" Ah .  It's OK."  I spy the spouse returning. " Why don't you ask him ? "

The man gets embarassed. Of course he doesn't ask the spouse.  They sit.

He casually  bends. " What is this book you are reading ?"    

I hold up the tome. With both hands. It's heavy. In weight and in the amazing content.

"The Emperor of Maladies", by Dr Siddharth Mukherjea.   A wonderful book. "

The conversation ends. Small talk on this book is not possible. I let him stew in his puzzled thoughts.  Maybe he thinks I am hiding something, maybe he thinks I am a supporter of Monarchy.  

I don't really care what he thinks.

 I open my page and continue reading, in the same seat, as the spouse enjoys some soundless exciting cricket , a  few feet away, till we are called in by the doctor.

I wish someone would come out with a tome on Social Maladies. They will find several Emperors .

And you know what ? More the education, more the Emperors..... 

Monday, June 04, 2012

The Best Gift of All....

Like Winston Churchill said . "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”....

Sometimes I need to say that too. 

Tears, toil and sweat are almost mandatory in Mumbai, whether one likes it or not. Given the messed up infrastructure, crowds, and the weather.  And when it comes to blood, whether in wartime or peacetime, one way for ordinary folks like us to give blood , is to "donate blood"....

I was initiated into this 42 years ago as a young adult in Pune. My parents recommended such things.  The late 60's  was wartime in the country, our college, one of Pune's finest, had organized a blood donation, and we went in droves.  The experience was interesting to say the least, and some of us  learned that we could withstand the sight of 350 cc's of blood, without falling into a dead faint.  I followed that up    off and on , and today, my children do the same.  It helps if you stay in an institutional area where proper camps are arranged with safeguards, instrumentation, attending doctors, and  adequate patient care and excellent documentation and checking of individuals. 

I have known folks, fairly well educated,  who avoid talking about this. They alarm their kids, albeit unknowingly, with misinformation. Mobilizing blood donors to  contribute for a friends  major surgery, and trying to do the transport arrangements, some folks I knew well, even started crossing the road away from me, seeing me come by.  

A few young folks , curious about all the noise and rushing around, came to ask details . Can you get up and walk afterwards ? Do people faint ? How long does it take ? Does it hurt ?  Will I miss classes the next day ?   What about getting infections through the syringe needles ?  Can I go to work straight from there ?

Yes. Anyone above 18yrs who weighs 45+ kgs and has a hemoglobin count of more than 12.5 can donate. Remember, there is no factory to produce blood except the human body.  Every unit of 350ml blood collected saves 3 lives, the 350ml is buffer blood in our body and is re-generated within 24 hours.  Today, a fresh disposable syringe/needle is used for every person, who is deemed fit to be a blood donor. 

You are queried about your medical history, medications, etc. Your weight, blood pressure and haemoglobin is checked and recorded , your blood group is ascertained, and those satisfying the set criteria are allotted a specialized blood collection bag. You then lie down as instructed, quietly squeezing a rubber ball in the donating hand, and your blood pressure is constantly monitored. I have seen folks nonchalantly messaging away on their phones and playing games with the free hand while the blood donation is in progress.  Nothing dramatic happens, your 350 cc is collected in no time, and they disconnect all the paraphernalia and ask you to lie down for sometime.  Ointments/tiny tapes are put where you were poked by the needle.  

You then relax in an area where they serve you  tea, coffee. fruit juice and biscuits.  You are ready to go.  To work, to school, home , anywhere. I know someone who even went swimming after 2 hours.  The personnel at these places are almost always gracious,polite and grateful to you.   You get a card as a blood donor with details.  Should anyone ever need blood, your card will entitle them to a bag of blood, no questions asked.  Those who have had to mobilize blood for  major surgery at one of the lesser hospitals will know what I mean. 

This time , it was at one of the most upmarket areas near us. A very posh supermarket near  fancy shopping areas and coffee shops, alphonso mangoes cascading on show outside, cars driving up to a hotel , with valet parking happening, and folks in their casual Sunday best ambling in to shop. 

 Those like us who knew about this event and came specifically for it, went ahead with the process. As usual , I was rejected because of age , but the daughter sailed through and donated her blood. 

This was an event specifically to help people who had Thalassemia.  This is a disorder of the blood, where the patient has problems with the haemoglobin in the blood. This affects carrying of oxygen all over the body, and the thalassemia patient needs to have blood transfusions every 15 days. Which causes its own problems with iron stores in the body.   There are 1 lakh thalassemic chidren in the country and a thousand of them are receiving regular transfusions in Mumbai alone.  To know more about this please see this.  

There was a steady stream of folks coming in, mostly young, many of them ladies,  but many in their 50's and 40's too.  And there was a wait for beds. Which was great......

Outside, in the sun, a  midsize car swathed in a huge banner announcing the blood donation event was parked at a vantage point.  There were these young folks standing outside holding placards saying "Donate Blood" in glorious red and white.  Almost marketing the event. 

I've never seen this before.  Real time marketing of the event.  Yes, there are normally welcome arches, and folks volunteering services, but inside the venue, with the documentation, refreshments, assisting the desk people etc etc. I have never seen anyone standing outside  and urging folks to go in.

But this was like advertising the event, looking so much a part of the supermarket ads announcing deals and stuff.  

It can be insensitively abused. 

Visions of "Donate blood and get 1 dozen mangoes free" or what is worse, some unscrupulous educational institution coming up with  "Show cards for 2 blood donations and get 10 marks added to your total" .......  (I've known of people who showed up 5 times for some  social service class in Dharavi as part of NSS, in the late 90's,  and added 5 marks (or was it 5 percent?) to their already outrageous totals , now exceeding 100 as a result. Happens only in India....)

There are no deals in blood.

Donating has to be completely voluntary. 
But we are a country where folks are blind to blood when its a matter of their life, death or surgery, but very much aware of it when they query the biological background of an adopted child of marriageable age. 

So much of  educating of the public still required .....