A new year, new thoughts

Every new year is welcomed with great new expectations, new resolutions and new anticipations, and ends with “Oh, is the year over? There was not enough time to fulfill all those expectations or achieve the goals and targets”!! There was a time that I too went through these cycles – but have now reached an age when the external pressures have fallen away and the internal pressures are fading.

2017 was an eventful year, in which significant events were sandwiched between a quiet beginning and a quiet end, albeit in different parts of the country. The year was welcomed in Puducherry, with my sister-in-law Liduine. But soon after, we got back to Gurgaon, to find that my mother was not doing well. A hectic few days of medicines, doctors, hospital, ICU – and on 14th she left us. The following days were filled with the nitty-gritties that follow this final departure, made complex by the fact that my generation of the family has drifted away from the rituals and traditions that were so important to my mother. We tried our best to do what she would have liked!

Over the following weeks, I struggled to find a new rhythm to my routine, which in some ways had settled around Amma’s routine. The major change was around food, as she needed a typical rice-based kerala-brahmin meal at lunch time – and a non-chapatti dinner as her teeth had been growing shaky in the last few months. I am not a rice fan! So idli-dosa moved from dinner to breakfast and chapatis took center stage.  It took a while to sort out her things – and the final break came when the young Jharkandi maid who had helped to take care of her, left in mid April. Around this time I also dropped sugar from my diet – although I must admit it is not quiet 100%, I have managed to stay >90% off, with an occasional spoon of dessert from some one else’s plate!! This has been definitely my proudest achievement of the past year. Over the following months, my diet has grown more organic, less cereal based with larger share of uncooked vegetable and fruit!

In March I spent a few days in Goa, and as joined by Mukta and the kids for some of that time. We had 2 days by the beach at the Mahindra resort, which the kids really enjoyed.

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The sand, sun and ocean – the perfect holiday

During the summer, I spent 3 weeks in Paris with Mukta, Radha and the kids. This was made possible by an assignment Mukta had with the Diederot University. We rented an apartment, spent time at our own pace  and used the opportunity to see Paris at leisure. We started with great enthusiasm, setting sight seeing lists and gastronomic goals. Needless to say, we did not get to the end of either! However, the footsteps target of 15,000 was exceeded on most day, many a crepe was eaten and many a museums visited. While we were happy to escape the searing Delhi heat of June, the first week of our stay felt even hotter than home since neither the homes or public transport (except for some very recent additions) have AC. The weather then slipped to the usual European summer and rain actually bothered us only on a few days.  While Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Notre Dam, Musee Rodin, Musee d’Orsey et al were visited, day trips to Versailles, Disneypark and  Fontainbleau were the high points. Of course, we never did get to Pampidou Centre or the catacombs, by the middle of week 3 kids were happy chilling at home. So there is enough left for another visit….

The other high  point was the birthday week-end in August – I turned 70 and the family planned a week-end at the Nimrana property at Tijara. It is barely 2 hours away from our place in Gurgaon – the Chennai group turned up on a Friday afternoon and we drove over on Saturday morning. We had a leisurely day and a half, spending many hours at the pool – one of the loveliest I have used anywhere! The food was reasonable, the company excellent and we meandered home on Sunday afternoon, through some interesting old monument, the exact history of which we could not make out! The party continued on Sunday evening, with friends for dinner and cake cutting, and spilled over to Monday lunch, before the Chennai group flew home. I cannot thank all those involved enough for the lovely gesture and making a significant landmark,  so memorable.

For the rest, there were some minor travels in late October/early November to Lucknow (to catch up with old friends), Chennai (official), Dehradun (to spend time with a dear friend) and Pune for the release of the release of ‘Technology Vision 2015: Education’ – a venture on which I have spent considerable amount of time these last 2 years. And then, while waiting for the taxi to take me to the airport at Pune, I got a call from Chennai saying that my brother had been taken to the Emergency and was in the ICU with severe blood loss from a GI bleed. Many anxious hours later, I was in Chennai and spent more anxious hours outside the ICU, before he was out of the crisis. In the weeks since then, he has made a slow and steady recovery, and is re-orienting his life to take in the new realities. It has also brought a sense ‘the finite’ to all of us, his friends and family, something that continues to stay with me!

For the final week of the year, it was back to Goa  bringing in the New Year quietly at home with family.  There was a virus floating around, and everyone took ill in turns, which is why this post, which should have gone out in late 2017, is delayed

2017 was my first year of total retirement and I have had no regrets regarding that decision. The full year also passed without a full time driver, enabled by the wonderful new facility – the app-based taxi service. Academic commitments are gradually decreasing and I attended only a couple of conferences in 2017. The days fill up –  some cooking (which I really enjoy), some exercise and a lot of reading ….. I had set a target of 52, and finished 72 books. And in August/Sep/Oct I became obsessed, as I took a challenge to complete all 13 Booker nominated books (announced in mid-August) before the winner was declared on October 17th. So 2018 is to be a year with no book challenge – and a greater effort to do non-reading activities! Lets see how that goes!

One of the positives of the year has been regular yoga sessions at home, thanks to the excellent teacher we have been lucky to find. This with the change in diet, has left me, maybe not much lighter in weight, but energetic enough to look forward to an active and healthy 2018. It is going to be transitional year, as some changes are being planned and also a year of travel – as I want to make the most of the time of health and well being that are left to me!! And I also hope to write more (unlike 2017). So here is wishing all of you a great and healthy 2018, and that you achieve whatever are the goals you are looking for. As for me, the time for goals is over and as I start the eighth decade, I will try to take things as they come and live for the moment, to the extent that is possible.

 

 

 

 

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Mukti Bhavan – a movie everyone must watch.

 

I am not a movie buff, but have always enjoyed good cinema. While I can appreciate many of the finer points, I don’t understand enough about the process or the final product to comment on the finer points of a particular movie. But I do believe that cinema has a larger role beyond entertainment – as a recorder of contemporary society and for its influence on the society it portrays. And in this context,  the recently released  ‘Mukti Bhawan” is a movie that fulfills both roles, ably and responsibly.

As the name suggests, the action or the lack of it, takes place in a run down Varanasi guest house for the elderly, waiting for mukti – from what else but LIFE? How can you watch 100 minutes of such a morbid subject as death, you my ask? And that is what is so right about the movie – while it maybe  slow at times and even funny at others, it is not morbid. It deals with death, just as it we all should – as the the inevitable end to life itself, another event in the passage of time, that is final for the concerned individual, personal for the immediate family and friends and of variable consequence to the larger society.

The movie  deals gently and deftly with the strained communication between the  father (who insists on going to Varanasi to await his turn) and  the son, whose sense of filial  responsibility makes him accompany the father, albeit unenthusiastically. The son is restless  being away from his work yet tied to it through the umbilical cord of the cell phone. The slow thaw that comes through close and constant association is warm and touching. The host of characters that fill the small gaps, such as the pragmatic manager of the guest house (ably played by an old friend, Dr Anil Rastogi), the fellow guests etc. are etched with affection and authenticity. The bond with the grand daughter is warm and spontaneous. Overall, it could be any of our families out there…..and it is not so much the preparedness of the protagonist for his own end, but how the experience prepares the family for that end.

This is not, however, the way we are currently dealing with death. Almost every passing is not a gentle fading away, but the end of a harrowing experience in the corridors of an Intensive Care Unit. Recent statistics from the US (which may not be very different for urban middle class India) shows that >50% of the elderly die in  the ICU.  Of course, every premature death, is a tragedy and every attempt should be made to save young lives. But, for the elderly the same norms should not hold and everyone concerned needs to accept and come to terms with that.

“Threescore and ten I can remember well:
Within the volume of which time I have seen
Hours dreadful and things strange; but this sore night
Hath trifled former knowings.”   from Hamlet

Shakespeare probably borrowed this time frame  from the Bible (Psalms 90)  – “The days of our years are threescore years and ten”. Our own scriptures, while not prescribing a time frame, urge us to renounce worldly matters and embrace destiny.

As I reach the end of the time allotted to me, and ponder on a balance sheet of the life gone by, I do feel that it is in the positive (in my own estimate, of course). I trust that  whatever more is given to me as the bonus years, I will face with equanimity. And I would urge everyone, both young and old, to see this delightful piece of cinema.

 

Culture, tradition, modernism, exploitation

 

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http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-features/tp-sundaymagazine/the-gods-must-be-crazy/article17761172.ece

Each one of us has so many memories stored deep within us.  And this article (please read the article) set some bells ringing in my head.

I spent a year  in my nanihaal, a village in the heartland of Kuttanad, the area known as the Kerala backwaters. The area has exploded as a favored tourist destination and is now bustling with resorts, fancy cruise boats etc.  But I am talking of a time when I was all of 7-8 years of age. Childhood memories are a strange bag of tricks – somethings which are so innocuous stand out so vividly, while the important things seem to be hazy! What decides how and what the brain retains is something that we have yet to understand.

I remember my the family house in vivid detail (and quite accurately, as I saw on a recent visit to the house in  2010), the arrangement of the houses in the village, the temple and much more. I also remember many details of the every day life – carrying thairu- shatham (curd-rice) in a stainless steel (new at the time) container for school lunch, dinner by petromax (as electricity was yet to reach), the various temple festivals etc.

And among these, I remember going with my Mama (who had to put up a fight at home to take me along) to a festival, where the highlight was the men dancing frantically like ‘people possessed’ with iron hooks through the small of their backs!! I remember the bright lights provided by large flaming torches (made of cloth dipped in oil, in the pre-kerosene days), the long shadows it threw, the loud noise of the temple drums and all round frenzy – all hazy but clear. I can also feel, even now, part of  the sense of awe and fear I must have felt as a young child!

But then life moved on, I moved to the nations’s capital – and life unfolded in what would be considered a routine manner. But how compartmentalized and sheltered this middle class life is! I was probably too young to see the occasion as anything beyond the spectacle it was. But this article awakened me to the many layers under the spectacle, and little seems to have changed in the six decades since my childhood! What is tradition? And does ‘tradition’ justify exploitation? Can there be no middle path?

If we cannot shake of the prejudices that seem to be so much a part of so many of us, can we really claim to have progressed. There has been a shift in the global language of progress, from pure economic indicators (GDP, growth rate and the like) to the human development index or HDI, which incorporates life expectancy (as an indicator of the health status), education (expected years schooling for school-age children and average years of schooling in the adult population) and  income  (measured by Gross National Income (GNI) per capita). And while India boasts of its robust growth rate, it performs poorly in the  HDI (130 in 2016) . And would fare even poorer I think if an index of the state of prejudices (I am not sure how it can be measured) within the society is also added!!

So near and yet so far…..#mymorningwalk

A few weeks ago (mid-December, 2016)  a group of us (35-40) senior citizens, got together for an unstructured get together at a resort close to the NCR. It was 50 years since we first met as entrants to the medical college and  traditionally, the college which celebrates its alumni meet every year on 20th of December,  honours the Silver and Golden Jubilee batches. And the batchmates themselves plan to spend time together and catch up – in other words a total nostalgia trip!

The resort was about an 8-10Km off the Delhi-Jaipur highway, not more than an and half by road from the heart of the Capital. It was a reasonably furbished and run place (how many stars, I’m not sure), and although the food was not really great, the group was so excited about meeting after so many years that the minor faults/inconveniences did not seem to matter.

Mid-December was cold, but I a morning walk addict. So the first morning, I ventured out to walk around the resort. To one side of the hotel was a golf course around which were holiday villas and the whole place was green and picturesque – but the short distance around them was not very interesting.

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The second morning I decided to venture out of the resort and a short walk of less than a Kilometer, through the dense morning fog,  took me into the local village, Sarai. And it was a typical Haryanvi village – with a pleasant surprise thrown in.

The village road meandered inwards, and as I rounded the first corner, I cam across this wonderful old fort. I could not locate any specific history of this area – but in all probability it dates back to the 17th century  when the Jat Kingdoms were ruling many parts of present day Haryana.

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Of course, I could not gather any information from the local people with whom I interacted. For them these were some old ‘kandhars’ and a convenient location for the biggest local industry – cow dung cakes.

Conversing with these women,  I learnt that for them life revolves around cattle.  All the women, young and old, spent large amounts of time collecting the dung and making the cakes. Of course, many Government schemes had reached them, and all the houses had gas connections – but the gas was saved for making chai (which was made many times a day) and other emergency needs. Cow dung cakes continued to be the major fuel for their cooking, supplemented by collected wood, which was segregated and stored systematically. The importance of their cattle was evident, as every house had a large water tank at the front of the house and in temperature around 10 degrees C, the buffaloes were being washed down. The children looked less washed….

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As I talked to the women and children, an offer of tea was made, accepted, the charpai put out, a fire lit and we had a little chat session going.

It was school going time and I commented on the number of private school buses plying. I was told that the local Government school was upto class 8, and had good teacher attendance. But everyone preferred the private schools, and these were in  the nearby towns. 10-12 buses came to pick up children, and the fees could be anything upto Rs25,000/month for KG. But all girls and boys went to school, the Government high school was some distance away. The young men sitting and drinking tea with me rued the lack of  any job opportunities – the only local jobs were as cleaners, waiters, gardeners etc. at the resorts (like the one I was at) that have come up. The access to health was limited, the closest Government dispensary was 6 KM away and as in most of India, there is limited faith in the Government system. The private clinics were also in the nearby towns and so not very close by. Everyone was aware though, of the various schemes of the Government, like the ambulance system, payment for hospital delivery etc. Their biggest lament was the poor electricity supply  – they are happy if they have 6-8 hours a day.

By this time, the tea drunk , I  said my goodbyes and walked back to the resort,wondering how  so much has changed – like the ubiquitous TV dishes and TVs in every home, cell phones with so many, no one tills the field with a plough, threshers have replaced hand threshing and so on… yet so much remains unchanged. How near and yet so far…

A brief encounter of the cashless kind! #demonetisation

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This is the tacky notice stuck with glue on the walls of room No2, of the local office of the Municipal Corporation of Gurugram (MCG). a couple of days ago, I had to visit this office to apply for the death certificate of my mother who passed away a week ago. I had confirmed from the hospital that the the papers had been despatched, and had been told that I would have to wait for 2-3 weeks after I paid the money and submitted an application at the MCG office. The application form was simple (simpler than the online one), and another tacky print out glued to the wall said that it would cost Rs35/ with Rs 25/ per additional copy.

Having filled the form I joined a short line of 5-6 people in front of desk 2. And the line moved ever so slowly! Most of those in the line were applicants for birth certificate, for home births and for addition of names to birth certificates issued by government hospitals. Many of the former group were applying years after the birth, pushed by the fact that Aadhaar card has become mandatory for school admissions and for the Aadar application,  birth certificate is required. Hospitals issue birth certificates for s/o, d/o, since few of us Indians name the child at birth. So a fresh application has to be made to add the name. In any case, the increase in registration of  births is a welcome trend, and for this at least the mandatory Aadhaar requirement is a welcome step. There was an occasional death certificate application too.

But the line was moving slowly, because the computer system was slow. In case of the death certificate and hospital issued birth certificate, the name had to be found in the database, and the server responded even slower. And then the payment……..Each applicant had to pay a sum that was usually less than Rs 100/ and thanks to the ‘cashless’ order, the card machine had to be used. And here too the connectivity was slow and took its time. And then there were those who had no card of any sort, and had to be told to go to the cash counter which was elsewhere – there to stand in another line! The young man ahead of me in the line  did not have a card – but the counter clerk puled out a card of his own, deducted Rs 35/- and collected cash from him! I could not make out why he was so rewarded, as the elderly rural woman who did not even know what a card was, was sent off to the cash counter!! And then when my turn came, after almost an hour, the server failed to respond. I hung around for more than half an hour, before the sever came up and my transaction could be completed! The whole process which should have taken 15-20′ (for the 5- 6 persons) ended up taking an hour and a half.

While ‘cashless’ is an ideal goal to strive for, are we ready for it? And if we want cashless, why not hassle less too? Cant the form be filled  and payment made online- then all that is needed is a message sent when the certificate is ready, so that it can be collected. But, the computers in the MCG office looked old, the server speeds were below par and the fthere is no facilitation for the large number of people who live outside the world of ‘banks, plastic…..’. The logic that we can achieve the ‘ideal goal’ only by bulldozing the change seems to lack empathy at all levels. At every visit to the bank, I am helping people to fill in forms of one kind or another! I am wondering, if there is not a more logical and painless way to bring about change!