5 November 2014

Open defecation: where's the Ad campaign to change attitudes?

Yesterday I had to commute 10kms for an errand. Decided to take the scooter. For a decent stretch of the way I took a road that doesn't have much use (due to a policy bungle, one end finishes unceremoniously at the campus wall!). The road is a pleasure: wide, asphalted, little traffic, bougainvilleas spilling with colour in the median, and few speed bumps. In this joy, ever so often my senses picked up a smell: that of freshly laid human poop. It came and went. Then, around a bend I spotted kids, squatting on the pedestrian path. Some single, some in groups. All outside with a can of water, in the act of contributing to the rich morning aroma.

This is Bangalore - IT capital of India. Urban India. Why are children openly defecating here? These children were not from migrant families. This road was lined with tin-roofed, brick structures. No tents that I could see!

The Prime Minister is often quoted for saying "Build toilets, not temples." Swach Bharat campaign is splashed in the media. Numerous schemes are announced for building toilets. Villages that have ended open defecation get an award. Yet, not one message tells you why open defecation is bad. That it is not just about cleanliness or women's security or making rural India more developed. It is about preventing the spread of diseases. It doesn't matter if you stop this habit, it also matters that your neighbourhood stops. That this is a community problem.

Taking a poop outside is a cultural habit. From one perspective, you could argue that it is actually hygienic, since it is away from the house. But no ads talk about the other end of the problem. That this faecal matter enters streams and rivers, and becomes the faeco-oral route of transmission that is responsible for spreading Polio, Dysentery etc., things that lead to children being the ultimate victims. And, importantly, that this disease affliction can impede them for life.

How can dysentery affect children for life? Consider that majority of the brain develops in the first two years of life. The hungry brain demands both macro and micronutrients. If you have dysentery then your intestines are not doing their job of absorbing nutrition from the food you consume. So, outwardly, besides some weight loss you don't notice a difference. But inside, as those neurons link up to form synapses, and various parts of brain learn to talk to each other there is a deficit, which later can manifest as poor cognitive skills and behavioural issues.

How can policy makers change attitudes simply by asking you to refrain from doing something, if you are not convinced about the value of making that attitude change? And we are talking adults here. Adults who have been doing this for years and believe that following your forefathers to the tee, is an "indian value". The campaign right now is: Take a dump in the hole, because of I love my desh. Is that really inspiring? If political parties can come up with jingles and story lines to capture our hearts with their mandate or leader, why can't the same advertising firms be used to come up a campaign to educate, rather than instruct?

7 September 2014

*Short Story* Does it always have to be this or that?

Rukmini's thoughts were far away from the food she was supposed to be researching. It was soon going to be time for the weekly meeting with Saravanan, to discuss the bar menu for next week. Only this time, she had to discuss something more than food. As an employer Rukmini tried to maintain a certain code, and one of them was to never pry into the personal life of her employees. This changed of course, with the years they were in service and how their relationship with her developed. But with a man of Saravanan's nature, despite him being her first employee, they had never crossed that border, the line of friendship.

Finding a cook for the bar had been an horrendous experience. Back then, working for a woman was uncommon and when the prospectives discovered they would be dishing out food for a bar, they never returned. Rukmini had spent futile months hiring people, for them to show up for a week, then leave or to not show up at all; she was the substitute cook too often. Saravanan had been sent by Swaminathan; he had left their village to find a job in the city and knew only Swaminathan as a reference. From Swaminathan's door to hers he had arrived: a petite frame supporting a sanguine face and thick head of hair. Swaminathan had only told Saravanan that a client of his was looking for a cook; he had omitted that the client was a woman and the job was in a bar. Both factors dismayed Saravanan, so despite her offer, he declined to join her. It was only after his second month in the city, compelled by fast dwindling savings and a family of four to feed, that Saravanan returned. She knew he wasn't happy, and kept wondering how many months it would be before he simply didn't turn up to work. But persist he did.

They had many arguments after he had settled into the job. Why didn't they serve non-veg? Who has heard of taking drinks without non-veg snacks? The day she suggested that he add some indo-chinese items to the menu, he had looked at her like she had asked him to serve raw rice as an appetizer. Scowls and grunts had followed for days. Finally when he saw her teaching his assistant to make the dish, his pride took over and he went out of his way to ensure that the Gobi Manchurian was the most ordered item on their menu. Rukmini learned that he was an obdurate, and sometimes caustic man, with a work ethic any employer could only dream of. So they managed, grudgingly accepting each other into their lives, like two siblings whose only commonality was blood. Their weekly meeting was a dance, a ballet of movements, choreographed with words, timed pauses, eye movements and set ups; who would get the better of whom?

Today's meeting was going to be even more difficult because Rukmini had to bring up a personal topic. Saravanan had been behaving oddly for the last couple of weeks. In addition to his usual grumpiness he was exhibiting an uncharacteristic disinterest in his job and barely talking to anyone, even to issue mundane instructions. He came to work, did his routine, but had no heart in it. Last week Rukmini had to order the discard of five trays of thayir vadas, because the curd in it had soured too much. The normal Saravanan would have never used a sour batch for making the dish, and even if he did, he would have tried to repair it. The abnormal Saravanan simply shrugged, adjusted the towel on his shoulder, kicked up his lungi into a knot and walked out as Rukmini was reprimanding the waste. It wasn't insubordination, he just didn't care. How do you talk to such a person?

Saravanan shuffled into her office, pulled a chair and then stared at the wall behind Rukmini, like she was an apparition. Rukmini breezily welcomed him, and got going with small chat about the weather. Saravanan continued to stare at a fixed point, somewhere to the left of her. She looked back at the wall, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. Change tactics, thought Rukmini. "Oh what would you like to put in the menu next week Saravanan, mangoes seem to be coming into season." She cheerfully outlined all the mango dishes they had previously tried. No response. Exasperated, Rukmini took the mouse of her computer and hit the table with it. Bang. Bang. Bang.

Saravanan said, without taking his eyes of the wall, "Amma, it is good you don't have children. Ungrateful and useless fellows. You feed them, clothe them, send them to the best school, make all sorts of sacrifices, you know Sudha hasn't bought a new saree for herself in ten years, and then, one day, they grow up and try to erase you from their lives. Why did we struggle so much, Sudha and I? I left my village for those children. I had land, but still I left that to work here, in this place, and make vadas. Why Amma?" He said this in a neutral tone, bereft of emotion. Like he was reciting the bus timings to go home.

Rukmini was unsure what to say or do. To a fellow female she would have touched her hand, or offered a hug. But Saravanan, sigh, now that he was talking about his personal life, should she assume that they were friends? She sat tight, putting on a kindly face, or what she thought was a kindly face.

"Your daughter is it? How old is she? Must be in college now, no?" She hoped she guessed right.

"Vasanthi, she only Amma. She is sixteen. We paid so much for tuition in science subjects and you know what she wants to do, fashion". He spat out the last word like it was snake venom. "She doesn't want to give the engineering or medical exams. She wants to join some national fashion school. Fashion, what money is there in making a blouse and skirt? And who will marry her? Already I have to set aside a large dowry because she will be educated, but if she can't earn her own living, who will accept her? Is this what we sent her to school for? To become a tailor?"

There were several points in the narrative where Rukmini try to stammer in a but, or oh, its-not-like-that but Saravanan said it all and then looked at her, really looked at her, focusing his gaze from the wall to her face. "You have to talk to her Amma, tell her not to throw away her life like this. She is a talented girl and she will waste it all on fashion."

Rukmini thought, bar owner and now career counselor.

For workplace harmony Rukmini decided that it would be best to talk to the girl alone, so she invited Vasanthi to her office. What met her was a girl clad in skinny jeans, kajal-smudged eyes, long hair shining and swaying as in a shampoo advertisement, and a barely visible nose stud. She certainly looked like she belonged at NIFT. Unlike her father, Vasanthi wasn't grumpy, but like him, she was adamant.

"You have to explain to him Rukmini Aunty. He think fashion is for bad girls, girls with no interest in studies. When I told him about how much money I can make as a designer, he didn't believe me. He thinks that all those people had connections and rich parents. Besides, he is worried how I will get married. Why should I choose a career based on that choice? Marriage is so far away. Please Aunty, you have to make him see that it is a respectable career choice and I will be good at it." Rukmini had a long discussion with the girl and found that she had thought through her choice well, and had even cleared the entrance exam. She had gone so far as to find out how to get a study loan too, in case her father didn't agree to fund her studies.

Rukmini thought, bar owner, career counselor and now, family relationship manager.

Should she get father and daughter together in the same room? Ha, then she can celebrate Diwali early, with all the fireworks that are sure to happen. Or should she continue to go back and forth, till one of them relents? Meanwhile though, the thayir vadas would continue to be too sour and burnt food would get churned out from her kitchen. Too bad there was no insurance against employee personal distress. After ruminating on options, Rukmini began to formulate an approach, one that neither party was expecting. She called Rekha.

The following Tuesday, on the bar's day off, she told Saravanan to bring Sudha along and meet her at the bar. She wanted to them to meet a couple, and would drive them there herself. Luckily Saravanan was too emotionally drained to protest, which Rukmini had been fearful off. Instead he moved his neck a fraction, which Rukmini took as a nod. They arrived primly dressed and on time. Rukmini drove them to the Rao's house. They were parents of an old schoolfriend she had, and she wanted Saravanan and Sudha to hear the story of their daughter from their own mouths. Thirty years ago, when they were still teenagers, her friend, their daughter, Jyostna shyly announced that she wanted to sit for medical entrance exams. The Raos were an orthodox family and their only wish was for Jyostna to get a degree in Home Science while they looked for and finalized a husband for her. Jyotsna was adamant, so she sat for the entrance exams anyway. Rukmini and her family were the ones to celebrate with her when she got a medical seat. Jyotsna managed to convince them that she would start the course and once her marriage was fixed, withdraw from it. It was, she told them, just a way to pass time. Her parents were skeptical but rather than bear the tantrums of their only child, they relented. Towards the second year Jyotsna's parents found a boy for her, but she wasn't ready. There were threats of suicide, tears of rage, beatings and starvation, but nothing would move her. Finally, her father told her that he won't fund her education and locked her in her room. The next day Jyotsna was gone; climbed out the bathroom window. Her parents assumed that she would return once she had calmed down and be their sweet little daughter. Instead, a few weeks later they heard she had married a senior doctor. They never spoke. When a year later her father tried to approach her, she dismissed him as a stranger. Today, they hear about her, from relatives and friends. They know she has children and is happy. But they never hear her voice. After the meeting, Rukmini didn't want to spell out the point of the story; were Sudha and Saravanan prepared to lose their child over such a matter?

Organizing a meeting for Vasanthi turned out to be a bit harder. People of the background that Rukmini wanted didn't come to her bar. In fact they avoided it and probably shunned anybody who came there. But Rekha had finally tracked down a friend of a friend who was willing to talk. They met at a cafe. The girl wished to remain unnamed for the meeting. Vasanthi arrived, in an attire similar to when she met Rukmini. The contrast between the two girls couldn't be more striking. One in an unassuming salwar suit, with her dupatta pinned on either shoulder, well combed and oiled hair, held by numerous pins. The other the very definition of a light, flowing summer breeze. From first glances, Rukmini could tell that the girls didn't like each other. But Vasanthi had to hear this.

The girl worked in a software firm. She had been there for three years now and liked her company. She had been able to go abroad for a short while, France, for three months and they had liked her work enough to ask her to go back there for longer. Vasanthi sat with her arms folded across her chest, with a "So?" expression. The girl just looked at Rukmini thereafter.

My mother worked as a maid servant, while I went to school. Everyday we left home together, she to the big houses, I with my packed lunch to the local school. She never got a break. She worked seven days a week and always, even though she toiled for her salary, the Ammas in the big houses made it seem like they were doing her a big favor. My father was a good man, but he was unable to work for too long. Later, much later, they found out that he had cancer. No one in her neighborhood knew what that was. My mother's earnings went either towards his medicines or my school books. I cleared the medical and engineering entrance exams; what I wanted to do was to give the IAS exams, for which an arts degree would have been sufficient, but then I thought that it would be better if I do something that will guarantee a job. So, I went in for computers. In the last year of my college, my mother fell ill and I was really scared that cancer will take her away too. Luckily, I got a job on-campus and they gave health insurance for the whole family. My fears came true, my mother did really have cancer, but they caught it early. The medicines and hospital trips cost money; money that I hoped to have saved so I could study for IAS. But I am glad I had that money, for now I can spend it on the most important person in my life. Rukmini Aunty wanted me to tell you about me. This is the story.

Vasanthi was not unmoved. Her hands cupped her face now, and for some time, the three of them sat together, not saying anything. "Aunty, can I leave now?" Rukmini smiled and walked her out of the cafe. Vasanthi watched them. Rukmini Aunty said something, the girl smiled and then she left, walking briskly towards the bus stop.

Rukmini came back to the cafe. Vasanthi had regained her composure as well as her defiant stance by crossing her arms again. "Aunty, what is the meaning of all this?" Unlike her parents, Rukmini knew Vasanthi would need a post-script.

"Look Vasanthi, we all make choices. Some that have big consequences, some trivial and some none at all. That girl made choices putting her mother's need ahead of her own, and she was happy that she had done so. There is a possibility that one day when her mother is dead, she might regret this choice. But there is also the knowledge that she did whatever she could. She felt that her struggling mother deserved her monetary and physical support, and set aside her ambitions for that. Similarly, you have a choice. I know you can make good money as a designer, but you have to remember the insecurity that drove your father to seek a job in my bar; it had to do with money, and providing a good education to his children. Yes, you are not responsible for his choices, but you must respect them, understand them and make your own accordingly. I wanted to you to hear this story, just so that you don't look at only your perspective on this matter, but also you parents. Okay? I cannot tell you or your father what to do. I can only make you see consequences of some choices in other people's lives."

"Aunty, are you done? Can I leave?" Rukmini nodded, and Vasanthi left in a huff.

Something happened, because a week later, Saravanan seemed to have returned to earth. He was pulling on the ear of his assistant for not making the vada batter consistency up to his standards. Rukmini desperately wanted to know how she had helped, if at all, but their weekly meetings returned to their normal thrust and cut; her pride wouldn't let her bring up the topic herself. It was six months before she finally heard.

Saravanan had given Vasanthi one year to prove that she could make more money than their neighborhood tailor. He had got her a sewing machine and Sudha was helping her keep accounts. If she succeeded, she could go to NIFT. If not, she had to take the engineering entrance exams. So Vasanthi was a designer by day and student at night. Rukmini knew it would all work out.

25 August 2014

Having trouble cooking dal?

Change the water. High mineral content in water i.e., hard water doesn't seem to work, even with a pressure cooker.

It took me two months to figure this out. 

One of the first things I did at the start of my visit here was to pop over to the local Indian shop, and pick up Tur Dal and Moong Dal. Besides intestinal comfort, the mushy yellow dals would serve to warm and soothe the spirit. I even bought a chotu pressure cooker from India to speed up the cooking.

I have done it a countless times: wash dal, place in cooker with enough water, pinch of turmeric, some salt and then wait till 4-5 whistles blow. Open cooker, spoon tempering on to mushy yellow stuff and consume. Simple right? I got stuck at the mushy part here, because when I opened the cooker each dal bean looked like a mini fried egg; a translucent muddy yellow halo surrounding a bright yellow brittle center. Gah?! But normally simple solutions to simple problems work: put whistle back on and cook for longer. Only this time, there was no change in texture. 

Never mind, that was Tur dal. Switch to Moong. Fast cooking moong; cook with rice, put dollop of butter and ladle on some kadi. Tasty, yum. But eh, moong has same problem. Boil for 2 hours over 2 days. No change. Soak dal in water for 24 hours before cooking, no improvement.

So, may be dal was bad. That would be a first for me though. Bad dal. Never heard of it! Confounding this investigation was the beaming face of my Indian colleague who had no problem cooking dal from same store. 

Then, found dal in regular grocery store, which was Tur (pictured), but looked like it had been semi-cooked so that stove-top cooking would be faster. Tried this with various combinations too, didn't work. 

Then I took apart ingredients of this operation: dal (check, works for Indian colleague), salt (someone needs to do a PhD on this cause on the internet the addition or not of this is hotly debated), turmeric (harmless really) and then, cymbals and lightbulb, water. Buying it off the shelf just felt wrong, but I did it, buying something that said "Classic" which I assumed was classic water, but no it just had the classic amount of gas. Back to drawing board. You see, at work, we have 3 different kinds of water. I helped myself to the lowest grade, which is double distilled. 

Measured dal, added lab water, salt, tumeric and tossed into cooker. 3 whistles and 15 mins later, mushy yellow dal.  Announce as breaking news to all family.

There is one open question: why is Indian colleague able to cook same dal with tap water in his house? One explanation is that the water in that area is not as hard as mine. Hmm... now that I write this, I do recall that technically he lives in a different city, zip code, even though 5 minutes from lab...

17 July 2014

A mindful 35

So, the birthday post, albeit delayed. Having no internet at home can be a limitation! But traditions are useful, and this birthday memory is as important as the rest.

For the first time in my life, I was alone on my birthday. As in, no one to go out to town and celebrate with. Why? Because I am in a new country, new lab and new environment. Haven't been around long enough to make friends, and actually, didn't really feel enthused about gathering up a bunch of people to go celebrate. I felt quite at peace, assembling a dinner for myself, course by course and then, consuming it over 2 hours while watching "Breaking bad". 

The last time I was this way was during my first few months at Stony Brook, at the start of my PhD. But the big difference was I had family across the river and communication wasn't an issue. Back then though I really missed having company of friends. I had a lot of free time and didn't know how to spend it, except watching TV, cooking and eating. I had no other interests, and was far too careful because of my economic situation. I couldn't get around because I didn't have a car and it was a while before I discovered the wonderful opportunities of the public library system.

What's changed? I think in the intervening 14 years I have learned how to spend time alone. There's internet, yes, but there is also running, yoga, meditation; of walking, for no other reason but to walk. There is reading - reading for entertainment, and reading to think either professionally or personally. There is much stronger desire to keep learning. There is also a far greater ability to accept situations and know that there is a grand plan, only you never see it till much later, if at all, and not to think or worry about the grand plan; it is better to spend time living for the moment (with check-off lists and detailed plans!). Also, the economic situation is at a point where I think I have enough for my needs. Is this the wisdom that comes with growing older?

Mindful eating BTW is a spectacular failure. I can't seem to think long enough about how the cereal tastes, chewing, and then drinking tea or coffee. My mind wanders like crazy, with the most likely topic being what work I need to get done, and if I should stop at the grocery store. I don't read anything, yet the mind is far, far away. But, got to keep at it.

11 July 2014

Can you spend time alone, doing nothing?

I am in Germany for 3 months visiting another lab. So, after many years, I am living by myself, in a new culture and new work environment. After having the luxury of living 5 mins away from work, I now have to face a daily commute of 50 mins, providing plenty of time sitting on the bus, or sitting around waiting for the bus. This is also my first experience of living in a country where shops are closed on Sundays and most close by 8pm otherwise. Suddenly, activities like going to work or shopping has to work around timetables.

Consequently, a lot of alone time.

Last week there was a report in Science magazine, that if left alone for 6 -15 mins with nothing to do, human beings would rather give themselves electric shocks rather than sit around and think. Basically, we love a distraction!

I remember reading somewhere that it was a sign of deep happiness if you can be alone and not feel lonely. Which at least thus far, I do not. Yes, I do have time to ponder about where I am in life and all that, but it is hardly causing me heartburn. But I do feel that opportunities like these for self-discovery come rarely, so how best to make use of it?

One art which I want to practice is that of mindful eating. I came across this idea of "mindfulness" by Thich Nhat Hanh, where you are urged to live every moment fully conscious of how you are feeling. A state of complete awareness. And one area where I want to do this is eating. If I am eating alone, I don't just eat, I have to read something while eating. It's a deeply ingrained behavioural circuit for me: shovel something into my mouth, while completely submerged in a text of some sort.

I am starting the mindful eating with breakfast sessions, because they are the shortest and it only helps if I finish faster, so I can catch the bus. Day 1 of mindful eating was interesting - after 5 minutes, I realized I was reading things on the milk and cereal carton, even though they are in German! So today, I had to clear the table of all reading material. I still haven't done any mindful eating though. I pretty much spent time thinking about experiments and "breaking bad", a show I am watching. But the intent is there - let's see if I can make mindful breakfast eating a routine.

4 June 2014

Travelogue - Dzongri-la Trek, Sikkim

We got to Yuksam, the first capital of Sikkim, the previous day. We were briefed about the trek and I got the heebie jeebies listening to the weather conditions at Dzongri. Being my first Himalayan trek, I wasn't sure what I should be mentally prepared for. We had been given a list of things that we should bring, but thought it was more a suggestion, than a necessity - this assumption worked for N, not for me. I guess my face gave away the terror the weather at Dzongri inspired in me, so the trek organiser loaned me a down jacket. As it happened, finally even that was not enough. Umm... I am a cold weather wuss.
A dog joined us on our walk out from Yuksam town. We met him on and off through our trek, and our final sighting of him was at Dzongri-top, catching the first rays of the sun lighting up the mountains.

Day 1 Yuksam-Sachen-Bakhim-Tsoka

It was going to be the longest stretch of walking: 13kms, 1000m elevation. Yuksam is at about 2000m, and Tsoka at 3050m. We began at 8. Half an hour earlier our bag for the trek, to be carried by the pack animals, had been picked up. We just carried backpacks with water, raincoat, fleece (me), personal kit, snacks and camera. This was after all, a five star trekking trip - all you had to do was haul your ass up the mountain.

Sachen was our lunch stop. There wasn't too much climbing to get here: gorgeous views of the gushing Rathong river, wild orchids and dense green forests. You cross three bridges, the first one welcoming you to Kanchendzonga National Park. It is downhill to the bridge, savour this, for here after, the ascent begins in earnest. I discovered that while climbing, I can use my breathing to set up a rhythm. So at each inhale-exhale cycle I took a step. It didn't matter how much I climbed, I simply made sure that I took one step at each breath. I didn't stop often, kept my pace steady and didn't look up to gauge what the climb was like. I just walked, step by step. The guide patiently walked with me, N having scampered quite ahead. This worked marvelously, for when I did stop, it turned out I had covered a major distance. The other way to do this is to stop, no matter where, but at regular intervals. The old run-walk technique I used for the marathon, but it didn't quite work for me here.

After a 2 hour climb, Bakhim was a sight. A small tea stall, umbrella roofed outside seating, with a grand view of what you have accomplished as a climber. I treated myself to a large packet of Parle G here. Did you know that Parle G is one our most popular export item to China, traded across the Nathu-la pass? From Bakhim to Tshoka is another climb, but of a shorter distance. An hour later I was at Tshoka.

Our tent had been pitched, the pack animals and porters having arrived way before us. We had 4 horses, 1 horseman, 1 cook, 1 cook's helper, 1 porter, 1 guide: quite the staff collection for just the two of us! We also saw Dzo, a cross between a cow and a yak. These are hardier animals, used for treks to goche-la, which is a 9 day trek to 5000m. Unlike Dzongri though at Goche-la, you don't see a panorama, but just Kanchendzonga much closer.

Surprisingly, toilets in Tshoka are ultra clean. There are also loggers huts and rooms, but we paid for, and got camping. We popped half a tablet of diamox, to fight altitude sickness.

Dinner that night was a wonderful hot meal of tomato soup, dal, rice, vegetable and dessert. We got warm water for our bottles, and with fleece lined sleeping bags, camping at Tsoka was ultra comfortable. The next morning we woke early. The sky had cleared a bit, and a few peaks were visible, but that didn't last.

Day 2 Tsokha-Phaedong-Dzongri

9kms; 3050 to 4000m. We were warned not to take altitude sickness lightly, and so there was concern when I felt nauseous that morning. I popped pills as advised by our guide. Going up though was uncomfortable. I could walk, but felt sick in the stomach; loud belches coming at frequent intervals. We toyed with the idea of setting camp in Phaedong, something that was not routine because the water source there was 1.5km away. The pack animals that were behind us needed this information too, or they would continue to Dzongri. I plodded though, deciding to make the call at lunch.

It was a nice steady climb to Phaedong (3500m), similar to the Bankhim to Tsokha stretch. A hot lunch awaited us, much to the envy and amusement of fellow trekkers. A table was set up, with a tablecloth! We were served hot lemon tea, then soup, pasta, veggies, and fruit. Black tea rounded off this meal, and I felt completely recovered. So, we decided to proceed to Dzongri.

Now, the stretch between Phaedong and Dzongri is supposed to be the toughest, with one stretch of ascent at a 70 degree incline. Personally, the climb was a joyride as compared to the descent. The stones help you find your footing as you step up, making it feel like you are taking the stairs. On the way down though, they pound right through your boots, and into your knees. Yuck. I was blissfully unaware of the torturous descent at this point though.

After the ascent comes a walk in the rhododendron forest. Wooden planks form the route, a nice break from the stones, and the pretty flowers do much to brighten your day. It was quite misty, visibility at about 100m, and the forest is pristine. We got to Dzongri at 3, the fastest the guide has ever got there. I was mightily pleased with myself. From Phaedong onwards I wore gloves and the fleece. While climbing the body is warm, sweating profusely, but that started to wear off an hour later at Dzongri.

There's a tea stall at Dzongri that kept me alive with wai wai (Maggi in the NE) and tea. At 7 we had dinner, and then curled into our sleeping bag. My nose, toes and fingers, despite being covered, were not pleased. They were numb and hurting. I have experienced the cold before, but always safe in the knowledge that a centrally heated home, car or room was available. Not here. The constant exposure was tough.

Toilets at Dzongri were stinky and a hole between wooden floorboards. So, we had a toilet tent for us. A 2 ft deep pit, which you covered up with mud after your job. Hot piss hitting wet earth- a new odour.

Day 3 Dzongri top-Kanchendzonga-Tsokha

We were awoken at 4 and off to climb the 150m to Dzongri top. Muscles were sore, so I laboured, but caught the first rays of sunrise hitting Kanchendzonga. It is a sight you memorise to replay again and again. In that cold, the majestic peaks, the isolation - it draws out your spirituality. You can try to understand why popping off to meditate in remote Himalayan locations helps reach enlightenment. Besides dwelling on the beauty of nature, there isn't much else to do!

We decided to descend today, as I was super uncomfortable with the cold. Instead of stopping at Phaedong for lunch, we walked down right to Tsoka. Our trek team, had reached already and had co-opted one of the abandoned homes as kitchen area. As soon as we sat down to eat, it started pouring. This continued all through the night, leaving us not much else to do but listen as the water poured off the tent. We were dry and warm inside.

Day 4 Tshoka-Sachen

Walk down to Sachen
Most trek teams leaves bright and early in the morning, but with our itinerary that wasn't required. We could have covered Tshoka to Yuksam in one day, but since we had paid for 5 days of camping, we decided to stretch out the descent. Eventually this worked out, cause the descent was any day harder than the ascent. A trekking pole was sorely required and luckily present.

Sachen is not the nicest place for a camp, presumably because many people don't stop over here. Thanks to the relentless rain, there was stagnant water at camp. The horses and humans are further discomfited by flies, which buzz all around your face, occasionally with one of them going kamikaze in your eye. While the forest is pretty and probably for bird lovers, a fantastic point, we didn't enjoy this as much a Tshoka. That night though, our cook's team assembled a cake. Yes, cake, made in the pressure cooker. Complete with icing!

Day 5 Sachen-Yuksam

We did a lazy walk back, stopping for lunch at the last bridge. Our intrepid trek team had set up a fully functionally cooking set-up right by the river. It was my most memorable meal - waterfall background, trees and birds all around and two dozen flies waiting to commit suicide right into my eyes. This was the only time I needed my glasses, to keep the damn flies out.

20 April 2014

The perversity of routine

I wake each morning, open the front door, and collect the milk and newspaper. With coffee on the side, I crackle open the newspaper and spread it wide on the table. Then I scan it page by page. If I am ever late for work and eat breakfast at the canteen, I carry the newspaper with me. Yes, I am old or at least, have a habit mostly associated with the older generation.

So, imagine my shock, when I don't get the newspaper. On Day 1, I assumed the chap was on holiday. On Day 2, I get the TOI, which is only fit in my opinion, to line my kitchen shelves. I didn't even open the rag. On Day 3, no newspaper. I call the agent.

"What flat number?"
"I thought you had moved out."
"Huh? Who told you that? Did you not see a milk packet out each day, then, how did you assume I moved out?"
"Ah, what flat number madam?"
"Oh, you have a different subscription for The Hindu, for which we haven't been getting the copies."
"Umm.. so why can't you just deliver a copy from your usual supply? I'll pay extra."
"Ok, Madam."

Day 4. No newspaper.

"Hello, no newspaper today."
"I told the boy Madam. I'll send it in two minutes. No, wait, in five minutes"
I stood on the balcony, scanning the entrance of the apartment. Nothing happened for ten minutes. I went in to shower.
Ting Tong.
Dress and emerge at front door. Find newspaper rolled and inserted into door handle. Smile, open newspaper. 

Dammit, TOI again!

Long tirade to N follows. Some loony came to our door when I was traveling out of town. This loony convinced N to take a subscription to the newspaper, for which we already had a subscription (!!!), only at a cheaper rate. N, applying his massive intellect, decided to take him up on it. This is what happens when a spouse takes a decision on your behalf. N doesn't need or read the newspaper to the same extent as me, so why did he even bother? Probably thought he was saving us a lot of dough. But at what cost to my peace of mind? Hrrumph. Sore Topic.

Phone call to Newspaper man, and assurances follow.

Day 5. The Hindu delivered. Shanti is restored to marital relations. Mornings are now, once again, hostage to routine.

2 April 2014

An open letter to candidates standing for the Lok Sabha elections

Dear Politician,

I am an urban, working woman. I don't fall in any reservation category. You may think that people like me don't like to vote. Probably that's why no one comes around to pander to my interests.

Here's another perspective: I believe strongly in using my mandate wisely. I try to make sure I know all the candidates in my constituency before I go to vote, if you have won before I find out what you did in your constituency, I read your party's manifesto online (if you have one) and even look up the application you submitted to the EC, who so kindly upload scanned copies of your particulars. So, I am informed. Based on the general situation in the country and my own personal interests, here are my thoughts on candidates:
  1. If you won previously and held an attendance record lower than 80% at parliament, you are out.
  2. If you have been even implicated in a scam, you are tainted. I am not waiting for a court to exonerate you.
  3. If you are or you support a misogynist, you are out.
  4. If your party's idea of political strategy is to invite anyone with the right caste credentials, never mind the mile long corruption charges, you are out.
  5. If your economic vision is simply to state that what the governing party (note the choice of word; I hate it when you say you will 'rule' a state) did was wrong, then I understand that you have no vision.
  6. Please go ahead, promise that Rs 2/ kilo rice and other freebies for BPL families. Show me the data that this has really helped them. Explain to me why they can't be given other nutritious food that is indigenous to our country, like ragi, bajra at subsidized prices in addition to the worm-infested rice and wheat. I fully support MNREGA, RTE, Food Security Act, but show me that it is working and if it is not, have the balls to come up with a plan that might. Basically, show me that you aren't flushing my tax money down your toilet, or worse, stuffing it under your mattress.
  7. I would care more for you if you are self-made, rather than the son, wife, nephew etc of another politician. Get an identity that is your own, like the majority of us.  
I don't want live in a country where every adjective appears to have been crafted out of the advertiser's manual. I want to live in a country, where there is a rule of law that applies to every individual equally, where freedom of speech and freedom of religion is guaranteed, and where tackling economic inequality is a greater priority than addressing pre-colonial notions of social inequality.

Good luck with your campaign. I hope the best person wins.


7 March 2014

*Short Story* The show must go on

Rukmini smilingly watched as the girls giggled and screamed. Maybe it was a bad idea to have agreed to let them have a mike; the cacophony was reaching higher octaves as more drinks were consumed. For the first time, the entire bar had been commandeered for a party: they called it a bachelorette party. What was to her generation the application of turmeric and singing of folk songs, to these girls was dressing up in pink, sipping vodka martinis and dancing to Honey Singh. Rekha, the organizer had carefully planned everything: the menu, games, the music and even the after-party taxi rides back home. The only point of disagreement was on the food - Rukmini would not allow serving non-vegetarian food on the premises, even if it was catered from outside. After watching how much the girls enjoyed the arrangements, Rukmini wondered if she shouldn't offer Rekha a consultant's position for planning future events like these at the bar; it could be a new source of revenue. Although for future events she might have to use her discretion about the use of the sound system!

Rekha was a special person in Rukmini's bar. She had started to come when she was in her early twenties, fresh out of engineering college and newly inducted in a software company. She ended up a Shantam Pappum because she was hosting a foreign client, who had wanted to visit the place after seeing the signboard during her travel from hotel to the office. It was clear that Rekha was there reluctantly; back then though Rukmini paid a lot of attention to customers and soon charmed Rekha which resulted in her bringing other clients and then slowly, her friends. Rukmini had been delighted when she announced her engagement to a software colleague and even attended her wedding.

She didn't see Rekha for a while after that. When she tried to trace her through her friends, she got shoulder shrugs and heads swaying negatively, no one seemed to know what was going on and they were mildly irritated at her for retreating away from them. When Rukmini tried to reach Rekha at the number she was given, she got a male voice who said Rekha was unwell and will return her call when she got better. She never got a call. Rukmini had tried to catch her at work; but it turned out that she had quit. It had all added up to being peculiar, but Rukmini didn't pursue it anymore. Sometimes it was best to let people be. 

Rekha reappeared at Shantam Pappum, seven years after her wedding. Rukmini gasped loudly when she saw who it was and rushed to give her a hug. Rekha had come to organize a party for her friend. But first Rukmini wanted to hear what was going on in her life. The story she heard made her shudder. 

Upon marriage, Rekha had started life with her husband. Her in-laws were deeply religious and orthodox. She had known this before she got married and had mentally prepared herself to make some adjustments. Luckily, they wouldn't be living together so she had assumed that these adjustments would be required only when they met. In small ways she noticed how her husband too was held hostage to superstition. Since he rarely asked her to submit herself to it, she didn't feel it was a huge problem. A few months later her father-in-law fell sick and his malaise couldn't be diagnosed. Since her in-laws refused to come to the city for treatment, they spent time and resources trying to get him medical help at home. On weekdays there was work, on weekends trip to the native village; she soon lost contact with all her friends. Six months later, her father-in-law passed away, still undiagnosed. All through his illness various astrologers and local doctors were consulted. One of them put the idea in her mother-in-law's head that she, Rekha, the daughter-in-law was a bad omen and had brought evil spirits with her that eventually destroyed her father-in-law.

Rekha could understand why her mother-in-law would believe this: a man she was married to for three decades lay dying without a cause, the astrologer had provided her a person to pin the blame on, however irrational it may have been. What she didn't understand was her husband's reaction. Although he initially dismissed it, his actions spoke otherwise. If something happened to him at office, she would be blamed; if the car had a flat, she would be blamed. It was all said as a joke, but the frequency began to be distressing. She tried talking to him about it and he felt she was just blowing it all out of proportion. Her husband has been close to his father and she didn't want to emotionally upset him further while he was grieving.

Soon after, Rekha discovered she was pregnant. What was a joyful event, turned into hell. When her mother-in-law was informed, she immediately solicited the astrologer's opinion. He had deduced based on the stars, that if Rekha were to give birth to this child, her husband would die. Rekha's mother-in-law was so perturbed that she immediately rushed to the city to tell her son. When Rekha had got home from work, both mother and son had worked themselves up with the news, and asked her to get an abortion. Rekha refused. She implored her husband to see reason, but he was blinded either by the love he had for his mother, or the fear that he felt at the prospect of losing his life. For a week they tormented her, despite her parents stepping in to confront the mother-son duo; but nothing worked. Finally, she moved back with her parents. Her mother-in-law and husband had then suggested an alternate plan: she could keep the baby, but get a divorce. A brilliant strategy suggested by the astrologer. Rekha had tried meeting her husband without his mother, to understand if he felt similarly - unfortunately, he did. He said he loved her, so how did it matter if they aborted this one child? Surely, they will have more?

Abortion? Rekha cried at the very mention of the word. She had never considered this as a possibility in any situation. During the heated discussions of her student days, she was labelled pro-life, an anti-feminist, for voicing her opinion that she was against abortion. It was further sickening when the reason for the abortion was to her a silly superstition peddled by a charlatan. Rekha decided to go through the pregnancy, in the hope that the birth of her child, and subsequent non-death of her husband, believing strongly that the astrologer was a fake, would help her get back with her husband. She was wrong. Within a few weeks of her moving back with her parents, her husband filed for divorce. The husband re-married soon after the divorce, to a woman with the right stars, who also happened to be his first cousin. She later learned that as a consequence of consanguinity, the woman was unable to carry a baby to term; so her ex-husband would never die, because he would never become a father!

Thanks to the support of her parents, she had rebuilt her life. Her daughter was now 5 years old and cautiously discovering the world as a child of a single parent.

Rukmini watched Rekha as she embraced life fully, laughing as she spun around with her girlfriends, swaying her hips to the music: it takes courage to come out of a situation not of your making, and she was a shining example of that courage.

1 March 2014

*Short Story* The time between tiffin and dinner - II

This story is a continuation. Click to read PART -I

Rukmini went quiet. She didn't realize that she hadn't said anything, till Vikas cleared his throat and said,"Er, Em, I'm sorry if I offended you…" and before he had a chance to complete his sentence Rukmini replied in what she thought was a measured tone, "Sure. When?" By the time they reached the park, a date had been fixed.

When you are in your fourth decade, how do you dress up for a date? Your best kanjeevaram and flowers may be too traditional? Pants and cotton top might be too informal? A salwar suit, oh but she didn't have any of those! What she wore everyday were handloom cotton sarees, but they felt too much like work clothes. And who pays for dinner - was it expected or acceptable or appropriate to split the bill? These thoughts worked in her mind while the date neared. Rukmini was nervous; not outwardly, but inside her stomach was doing cartwheels and when she tried to imagine herself on the date, her heart rate accelerated. What will they talk about? What if he asks about the bar? And where was she going with this? In all the years since Murugan died, Rukmini had never imagined that she would be in a personal relationship with another man. Was she ready for it and importantly, did she want it? Her life was fulfilling already, so like any practical person she wondered what the point was in trying to meet a need that didn't exist. Yet, if she allowed herself to blush and seek out a corner of her mind that wasn't ruled by pragmatism, she had to admit that she found it all quite exhilarating.

Rukmini finally decided to wear a mangalgiri cotton saree with a zari border - the cloth felt soft and comforted her, while the zari added a dash of dressiness. Vikas picked her up outside the bar and they easily chatted away about where to eat. He had come prepared with options, he wanted to merely confirm that she enjoyed a particular cuisine. He was vegetarian too, and with a smile he added, "I also like to drink!" Rukmini was curious to know what conclusions he had drawn about her entrance and exit from the bar so she didn't rush in to disclose her profession.

They decided to eat Thai food. Right after their drinks arrived and each had taken a sip, Vikas abruptly said, "Look Rukmini I want to be honest about my intentions." Rukmini inwardly giggled at this. Intentions? They were two adults in a public place - she wasn't worried about intentions! "I want you to know where I am coming from. I was married and things didn't go as we planned. I was in a difficult place emotionally, and then I moved to this city to start afresh. I love my work, actually I own the company. Although I am not actively looking to get married, I saw you in the park and wanted to get to know you better. I don't know if this is romance or not, but at least I would like to see if we can try friendship first?" The speech was rehearsed; the words carefully picked so he didn't sound desperate. That's what Rukmini felt anyway. Vikas paused and Rukmini raised an eyebrow, "Let's get another drink, so you can get to know me better."

For the first time in her life, Rukmini told another adult, who wasn't professionally linked to her, what she did for a living. "I run a bar - it's for women only. I was married. My husband died in an accident and I had to do something to make ends meet. I had nothing to lose so I decided to take a big risk and start the bar." Vikas whistled out loud. Other people turned to look at them, but Vikas wasn't perturbed, "So the Smt Rukmini on the board is really you? You run Shantam Pappum? So that's why you wanted to eat dinner on a Tuesday, because the bar is closed, huh?" Rukmini nodded, bewildered about his response. Was he taking this positively or negatively?

"I have heard so much about you. From Sneha, my niece. She visits your bar frequently, as do her entire circle of friends. Now, I need a drink because I really want to get to know you better." He rubbed his hands with glee and signaled for the waiter's attention.

Vikas was inquisitive. He asked her a lot of questions about how it was to set up her business , sharing bits and pieces where his experiences intersected with hers. Dinner was consumed in the interim of Q & A. Rukmini felt she was being interviewed for a business magazine! But she had to admit that speaking about her journey with a fellow entrepreneur was quite enjoyable. Besides, Vikas was witty and by the end of the evening, her cheeks were aching from smiling. They decided that they would meet again. This time, it would at Vikas's house and he would cook.

27 February 2014

*Short Story* The time between tiffin and dinner - I

She had a choice. Either she diets or she embarks on some sort of exercise regimen. Rukmini went for a physical to discover that her cholesterol was high and although she considered her lifestyle sufficiently active, the doctor did not. Grudgingly, Rukmini had to admit that she could make the time to exercise, no mean mental victory.

So she bought a pair of walking shoes, dismayed that from the last time she went to buy shoes, the choice had exploded and the salesman kept asking her how she walked. One just did! When did people start having the time to analyze their gait, figure out if they put their feet heel down first, or if they pronated? A whole science seemed to have passed her by. After a few minutes Rukmini had got her bearings and snapped the salesman to attention. She gave him a budget and told him she didn't care about colour, just comfort. These turned out to be a pink nightmare with a garish blue band, but how comfortable they felt.

Rukmini had not ventured out in the evening at this time before. Her focus having been the 7pm bar opening time, the evening was spent making sure all the snacks were prepared and glasses cleaned. Now, her staff having discovered her achilles heel had ganged up to make sure that she left at 5pm for a walk. It was an irony to Rukmini that she had to drive to take a walk, the closest park being a few kilometers from the bar.

At first she felt stiff; she was walking without an immediate end, not to get anywhere, or to meet anyone, but for herself. She began her perambulation of the park crossing old men sitting like birds in a row wearing identical white kurta pajamas heatedly discussing politics, two memsahibs bemoaning the antics of their maid and young mothers with strollers. An urban evening tapestry. A man flashed past. The first runner she saw. A nice light, yet muscled body, the legs spanning long regular strides and arms moving in sync, lycra shorts outlining his posterior. It was on her second round that she noticed he was balding, a shiny spot radiating like a galaxy on his head. 

There were many fixed items during her evening walk and he became one of them. After a few weeks people started to casually acknowledge her with a nod or a smile. Rukmini used the runner to monitor the pace of her walking, counting the times he crossed her and where she had reached. At least he kept her distracted. Their first conversation happened in the parking lot; his car had a flat, which she helped fix.

He called her, "Ma'am". They smiled when they saw each other from then on. A juice shop catered to the visitors of the park by offering healthy juices, their only unnamed vice being that sugar constituted about a third of calorie content. Nevermind, it was fresh and healthy. Rukmini gave into temptation once and stopped by. So did the runner. They smiled at one another. 

"Those are the hottest pink shoes in this park ma'am" he grinned. Was he flirting with her? Rukmini returned the smiled indulgently and decided not to make a repartee although she did say to herself, "Not as hot as your lycra shorts!"

He brought his juice and sat next to her. "Vikas" he introduced himself and then went on to describe who he was and what he did: a consultant for a software firm. There was no mention of family or children. Odd, thought Rukmini. Vikas was sensitive enough not to ask her questions in return. This was good, because as usual Rukmini would have to make a call about her profession, having to choose between caterer and interior decorator. 

On this occasion though, she didn't have the opportunity to elaborate a fantasy career. As she was walking out of the bar one evening heading out for her walk, she heard a car horn toot and it was Vikas. The pink shoes had given her away. He offered her a ride and something propelled Rukmini to accept. Their conversation was natural, about nothing in general, besides Vikas was a witty man who liked laughing and making other people laugh. After many years, Rukmini felt a faint trickle of attraction. She was surprised and flattered by his candor when a few minutes into the general chit chat he said, "I am single, and if you are too, would you like to have a bite to eat with me?"

Part II

17 February 2014

Bees in the compost

Day 0
I empty my kitchen waste into the compost every 2-3 days. Last week, when I went to dump out one lot, I saw a few bees buzzing around, in and out from the lid. I noticed them, thought it was a good sign because they would help pollination.

Day 3 
I saw this.

Luckily, I am not allergic to bees. I was just stunned - what could they possibly like in the compost? Encyclopaedic google was my first stop. Suggestions ranged from smoking them out, basically killing them, or waiting it out for them to complete their residency. Killing was out of the question; they haven't harmed me, why should I harm them? Waiting it out too seemed difficult. Where will I put the compost in the meantime? These chaps can hang around there for months.

I emailed a bee expert who works at my institute. Meanwhile I thought I would leave the lid of the compost open. May be that would make them uncomfortable?

Day 4
They decamped! Leaving an unfurnished hive. A beautiful net like mosaic. Isn't nature beautiful?

31 January 2014

Phew - Blogathon - Last day. Thoughts

Lessons-learned time. I like doing these exercises: do something, and then try and distill what I learned from it. Besides, it nicely provides a topic for the last post of this Blogathon. 

What did I learn from this exercise?

- I am not as opinionated as I thought. When I took up this challenge, I thought finding topics would be easy because I can complain about just anything. Perhaps, I have matured enough to not have that many things to complain about? Isn't that backwards though? I thought the older you get, the more you crib. 

- There is only so much I can write about myself. After a while it got nauseating. I mean, really - my life is not that interesting. Although I can't help but share that I saw a snake on the road today. I had to swerve hard right to avoid running it over with the scooter.

- I can't pop out Rukmini stories to a deadline. In spite of my friend Shoots giving me some brilliant ideas for context, I couldn't get the flow going. It wasn't writer's block - I would write a couple of paras, and then when I re-read them it would appear more boring than the guarantee section of the washing machine user manual. I am working on the Rukmini pieces and hopefully, will publish them in Feb.

30 January 2014

Preparing for Grandma

Amma (My grandmother) and I go way back - I think to the time I was born. She has the restless syndrome - cannot stop doing something useful with her time, all the time! We don't have cable, so that frees up TV watching time as well. Last time she visited, I came home and opened my kitchen cupboards to see - look at the photo - all the spices were neatly organized and labelled. Now I don't have to open four boxes before I find what I am looking for, or worse not find what I am looking for (all this typically happens while the stuff cooking on the stove is slowly burning to a crisp). So we have Amma for a week again and this time, N and I have made a list of things we would like her to do. It starts with making butter from all the cream we accumulate. Hurrah for kind, loving and restless Amma.

29 January 2014

Colour up cauliflower with red pepper

This is a quick, low-resource requiring sabji.

  • Cauliflower - Chopped into florets. The faster you want it cooked the smaller it has to be
  • Red pepper - Chopped into two cm bits. Same rules as above.
  • Jeera/ Cumin seeds
  • Dried Red Chillies (Optional)
  • Coriander leaves (Optional)
  • Salt
  • Oil 

- Put oil in pan, heat. Half a tsp suffices if you are watching your oil consumption.
- When hot, toss in jeera and red chillies. Do not burn it. As soon as roasted aroma hits the nostrils, throw in the cauliflower.
- Sprinkle couple tblsps of water
-  Cover the pan; when cauliflower is tender, toss in the red pepper.
- Few tsps of water, put the cover, allow it to steam for a couple of secs.
- Done. Salt it up. Garnish with coriander if you want more colours in the dish.

I haven't mentioned ratios or proportions because you can pretty much put in any combination and it will be fine. Tadka/ tempering quantities for jeera and red chillies apply. For tadka/tempering ideas for dal, click here.

28 January 2014

How far ahead do you plan?

I am going for 5 years!

Yes, like Indian State Planning. BTW I love planning and being organized so this isn't a chore. It is just a time horizon.

Got this advice from a professional I deeply admired. Have been thinking a lot about how my career is somewhere between the toilet and the sewer. Today, an honest discussion changed that. How about I don't think about where my career is, and instead enjoy the moment?

N actually had the same advice. But if I listened to him, then where would be the fun in our marriage?

27 January 2014

Reading list

This stack of books is what is on my bedside table. 

I typically have two books that I read simultaneously. One fiction, the other non-fiction. A pile of 5 books is unusual. It all started with Albert Camus' novel - A happy death. It has been difficult getting through it, and to give myself a break from it I kept adding books to the pile. The Vonnegut is classic, and though easy to read (Short sentences, simple words), is a brilliant caustic observation of human behaviour which eventually leaves me cynical. The Gita, is a filler. I am in Chapter 2 where sissy-boy Arjun is getting a dressing down by Krishna. Of course, one can't read the Gita as a novel, but this version is a transliteration of the original lectures given by Swami Ranganathananda of the Ramakrishna Mission. Swamiji liberally uses examples from politics, day to day living to convey the message of a sloka. Indira Gandhi was still alive when it was published and her "Roti, Kapada, Makaan" motto features. We have an extensive collection of books, two libraries that we combined when we started to live together. Alice in Wonderland is from N's collection - a tangential comment, I think no matter how old we get, we will always know which is "his" book and "my" book. Every time a reference is made to Alice's adventures I think I should read her story. I got started, but it has not me so engrossed that I feel compelled to finish it. The short stories by Gulzar was a Christmas gift. The perfect way to spend 10mins between chores.

26 January 2014

Where are the toilets?

There are massive infrastructure projects underway in Bangalore - the metro, flyovers, underpasses, multi-storey apartment complexes. People put these things together. They use machine and implements, but finally it is a person who lines up the stainless steel bars, climbs atop a scaffold and breathes dust the entire time. What do we offer these people? A salary? A place to live? But let's really look this closely. These projects are workplaces. Can you imagine working in a big project, and not having access to a flush toilet? Where is the doctor? What about health insurance? "Wear your helmet" is the only safety sign I see at these sites. A file of yellow-helmet men walk past. Look at their feet. Flimsy chappals caked with limestone or cement. Do they get a place to shower and clean up? Oh yes, a bucket of dirty water at a corner of the site. They work day, and night, with little protection against the elements. Don't you think that a nutritious meal should be provided on site? What do they eat? What sort of water do they drink? When they want a break, where do they go? Looks to me that their only outlet is a corner tea stall where they continue to breathe in the dust and grime they were working in. Every time we go out into the city and I watch these projects, I think about the people building them.

Why is it acceptable that we treat people this way?

25 January 2014

Bark, but don't bite?

I had a run in with a crazy taxi driver.

Here's the plot. I live about half a km from my workplace. I ride a scooter. There's one single road from my home to the workplace. It's broad, hardly has traffic and paved. It's part of a network of roads for a layout where there are very few homes. Newbie learners use this road to practice/ learn how to ride a bike or drive a car. 

While returning this afternoon, I am out of the campus gate and trundling down this road. I see a giant SUV in the oncoming lane. Behind it is a white Indica. As I approach the SUV, the taxi driver appears to make a quick mental calculation, after seeing me, because he suddenly swerves out of his lane, on to mine, and bears down on me. Caramba, I have to go off the road or get hit. I drive off the road. I yell.

I get really mad. I turn around and follow the taxi. I want to know if he realized he did something wrong. He gives chase. So I am following him around on top speed on a scooter I rarely push over 30km/hr. I am going so fast that my helmet is flying off my head and slipping backwards. The driver realizes this and keeps speeding. Luckily he decides to go towards our local market. There are enough speed bumps, cows, cars, cycles etc to slow him down. I catch up and corner him. I park in such a way that he can't get out without reversing. I can't stop screaming. I wish I hadn't though. I wish I had the presence of mind to park my scooter in front of his car, and ask him to get out and apologize. He yells, I yell. I memorize the license plate number. He reverses and drives off.

I get home and call the Traffic Police. I complain about rash driving and give them the licence plate number. The cop tells me that if only there was an accident he can do something. 

All this aggravation for what? It was a generic white Indica taxi, with two men, whom, given the briefness of our interaction I would not be able to identify. Also, what did I really achieve by giving chase and yelling at them? Was my being a woman riding a scooter one of the elements that figured in the taxi-drivers decision-making when he decided to swerve into me? I wish I had a James Bond style gizmo appended to my phone which would have allowed me to accurately deflate all four tyres! Bah. Humbug.