Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A reality check

This story that I came across on a friend's blog recently really got me thinking......... 

Back to School with Pauline Priorities
Mitali Perkins

My Type-A husband and I were both nerds in high school. In addition to getting good grades, the pages of our respective yearbooks feature dorky, 1970s versions of ourselves trying a wide range of activities ranging from the magic club (him) to tennis (me). 

We went on to attend one of those universities full of other Type-A folk, and as a result, most of our lifelong friends fit into the "high-achieving" category. "Yes, yes, that stuff's not important," we'd tell each other in Bible Study as the Apostle Paul denounced his secular resume in his letter to the Philippians: 'But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him'. "Paul's right, he's right, it's all rubbish compared to knowing Jesus," we said earnestly. But did we really believe it? 

Then God, in His wonderful grace, saw fit to make us parents of a pair of identical, introverted, extreme type-B-ish twins. When the boys finished sixth grade, they brought home their yearbook and we began flipping through it together. Oh, no, I thought. There's no sign of them ANYWHERE. It's like they were INVISIBLE all year. Aren't they feeling lousy about themselves? I glanced at their faces. No, they were cheerfully pointing out photos of friends trying and excelling at sports, theater, music, writing, honor society, chess. Meanwhile, I was feeling worse and worse. They would never know the ease of being a "shining star" in school, winning kudos from peers and teachers alike. Life isn't fair, I thought glumly. 

That's when we got to the very last page of the yearboook. Pictured there was one of the friends the boys had known for years - Brian Reddy. In the third grade, Brian had been diagnosed with leukemia. He'd fought it valiantly and hopefully, even when he had to come to school in a wheelchair. But by the time sixth grade started, Brian simply didn't have the strength to make it into school. He was so frail that all but essential visits were forbidden. A school aide brought his homework to him, and when the holidays rolled around, she asked what he wanted for Christmas. "I want to see my buddies," Brian said. "I think I can make that happen," she said. "Which ones?" Without hesitation, Brian named our boys. "Anyone else?" the aide asked. "Nope," he said. "Just them." The boys spent a wonderful day at the Reddy's place, eating pizza and watching a tape of Brian's beloved Red Sox play ball. It was good that they saw him when they did. Brian died three weeks later; his family, the school, and the community mourned; our boys were brokenhearted. 

Now it was June, six months later, and here was a picture of Brian smiling joyfully up at us. "Look, Mom," one of my sons said quietly, pointing to the bottom of the page. There, underneath Brian's photo, our sons had been asked to write paragraphs of tribute describing their buddy, his cheerfulness, his love of baseball, his sense of humour. And that's when the truth finally sunk into my type-A brain. Our so-called "underachieving" sons had managed to secure the most Pauline-esque title in the whole yearbook. They would go down in history as "Brian's Good Friends," and what could be a greater honor than that?

Monday, August 29, 2011

Lessons from the life of Kevin Carter

Photograph by Kevin Carter 1994
Fifteen years ago, this picture won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. The pathos of the scene remains a poignant reminder to all of us well-fed and comfortable people that the world many other people live in is a completely different place from ours. Taken by world-renowned photographer, Kevin Carter, in 1993, during the civil war in famine-stricken Sudan, it clearly tells the story of the terrible deprivation that men, women and children are faced with in different parts of our world. Mr. Carter, a free-lance photographer, who had flown in with a UN team to the rebel area, was waiting while the team distributed the food packages they had brought with them before moving on to their ultimate destination. He saw the child waiting a little distance from the distribution area, probably left there by the parents while they went to collect the food. As he was watching the child crawl towards the crowd, he noticed the vulture alight nearby. He said he waited about 20 minutes for the vulture to spread its wings, but finally shooed it away. Unfortunately, he could wait no longer and leaving the girl where she was, he continued onwards with the team. 

Mr. Carter will be long remembered for this heart-wrenching image. He had the world of journalism at his feet when he collected his Pulitzer. But merely 2 months later, he was dead at age 33. He had committed suicide by running the smoke from his exhaust back into his car. The world was shocked that a man who had so much before him had opted out of life in this manner. It is said that the grief of the many sordid scenes he had photographed, from the famines and civil wars of Africa to the apartheid repression of his native South Africa, as well as the death of a dear photo-journalist friend while on assignment, had been too much for him to bear. Kevin Carter, the man whose picture shocked the world and has continued to do so for 15 years, feeling that he did not and could not do anything, chose to end it all.

Nothing much has changed today. Poverty, famine, homelessness, disease. These and many other scourges are part of the daily life of many citizens of our world. I just need to walk out on the road with my eyes open, to see the little boy ferreting in the dustbin, the lady with a child at the traffic signal, begging for money from people who do not even bother (or are too ashamed) to look at her face, the elderly cycle-rickshaw driver, who is not really fit to even walk, let alone transport people on his rickshaw, but knows that the money he brings in every day is what keeps 4 people alive, the many, many people for whom the medical care I provide is far too expensive to ever avail of, the hundreds and thousands who die because doctors are unwilling to treat them. I can chose to opt out of my responsibility to these people and to my world. There are many excuses that pop into my mind before I even start thinking about them. But therein lies the danger. I may not take the extreme step like Kevin Carter. But I am doing the same thing that he did, in my own way. By choosing to hide behind my excuses. And my life will be the poorer for it.....

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Why I am not at Ramlila Maidan with Anna Hazare

Anna Hazare as pictured 2 days ago (a week into the 'fast')

I was in Delhi recently after Anna Hazare's latest round of fasting began. There was a charged feeling in the air with young people in Nehru caps, headbands and armbands congregating in corners on the streets and in the Delhi Metro and shouting slogans. I seriously considered going to Ramlila Maidan, the ground where Anna is fasting against corruption. He is protesting the bill the government has proposed to set up an ombudsman organisation to monitor and deter corruption. He feels the bill is not strong enough and has put forward his own version - the Jan Lokpal bill. (Those of you who would like a little more info on the issue can check here. A video on the issue is here). On a side note, I am not very sure of what this 'fast' means since apparently, liquids are allowed. I know patients who go on happily for many months on a purely liquid diet..... But I digress. (Update: I have since clarified that he has been taking only water and no calories)

As some of the long-term readers of this blog will be aware, corruption is an issue I return to often. (You can read some of those posts by clicking here). So when I witnessed all the activity and excitement, you can be sure that my pulse too began to race, as I saw first-hand the mass-movement that was being awakened against the demon of corruption that rules over our lives with such an iron hand. But time and circumstance prevented me from going to Ramlila myself to witness first-hand the 'revolution' that had begun. But as I returned to Ludhiana in the comfort of the Shatabdi express, I did not really feel too bad that I did not make it after all. And here is why.

I was interested to see that the vast majority of the protesters whom I saw were obviously from a middle or upper-middle class background. Since I come from this background myself, I can speak freely about the contradictions that are our birthright without really being judgemental. You see, we are the ones who keep corruption running in society. I recently travelled in the second AC compartment of a train where I was the only one of 4 passengers who had obtained my ticket legally. All the other three had paid from 1000 to 3000 Rupees extra for the berth! In the general compartment the going rate is 300-1000. It's the same thing everywhere - the ration card office, the public distribution system, the passport office, the land office, the birth and registry office. Everywhere you go, things get done faster if a little money is slipped under the table. And the culprits are you and me. The middle class. Who cannot be bothered to wait for the due course of events to roll out. Who want everything now. We would all be ready to stand up and rant against corruption from any and every platform. But when it comes to our own lives and the things that affect us and our family, we quietly pay up and try to forget about it. I only wish every one of the people gathered there at Ramlila would take an oath never to pay a bribe again. Then we would actually have made some headway against corruption. But as long as there is a burgeoning middle class, for whom time is often more precious than a few thousand rupees, corruption is likely to remain part of our everyday lives, however many people decide to fast against it. And the losers are not the middle-class youth who are raising their voices at Ramlila and who will probably bribe their way to a berth in the train on the way back home. The real losers are the 830 million people in our country living on Rs.20 a day or less. The people for whom every little sop that the government provides comes at a huge price in the form of a bribe. 

Of course, the big fish like Raja, Kalmadi, the Anbanis and others are involved in the huge rackets. But those scams don't really affect the common man except that there is less money in the exchequer to plan more paper schemes that are unlikely to reach him anyway. Corruption in India has its slimy tentacles in every area of life in our country thanks to you and me. So that is why I am not too disappointed that I did not make it to Ramlila. For I would only have joined many other hypocritical people who feel very strongly against corruption but cannot take a stand against it in our personal lives. I hope Anna Hazare and his team succeed in bringing in concrete safeguard measures. I hope our government which seems to be working really hard to make every wrong move possible, begins to address the issues that the country is facing with some resolve and passion. I hope the individuals who make up the government and the bureaucracy will supernaturally become aware of their responsibilities and turn from their wicked ways. I hope that all the people there at Ramlila and throughout the country who are raising their voices in support of Anna will make this protest more practical in their own lives when they are faced with corruption. And most of all, I pray that if the occasion comes where I or my family are caught in this web, I will be given the grace and strength to make the right choice....  

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Pregnancy reduction

I recently read a New York Times article on the whole subject of 'Pregnancy Reduction'. In layman's terms, it means that a woman with multiple pregnancies can chose to terminate some of her future children when they are growing in her uterus. While keeping one or more of the others alive.....

The practice began as a spin-off of in-vitro fertilisation. There are many, many couples who have been blessed with wonderful children thanks to this modern scientific advancement and I am sure it will be a blessing to many more. Yet, it is a little known fact that in many centres, embryos that are not implanted in the uterus are disposed off or used to produce embryonic stem cells. Also, in most cases, more than 4 or 5 embryos are placed in the uterus in order to increase the chance of a successful implantation. This sometimes leads to multiple pregnancies which could theoretically increase the risk for the mother. Hence, pregnancy reduction was introduced as a means of reducing the risk of an already precious pregnancy.

But just as abortion now happens mainly for social reasons, the same situation has occurred with pregnancy reduction. As the age of pregnancy slowly goes up, with women conceiving well into their 40s and even early 50s, these women don’t want to be in their 60s worrying about two tempestuous teenagers or two college-tuition bills. Many of the women were in second marriages, and while they wanted to create a child with their new spouse, they did not want two, especially if they had children from a previous marriage. Others had deferred child rearing for careers or education, or were single women tired of waiting for the right partner. Whatever the particulars, these patients concluded that they lacked the resources to deal with the chaos, stereophonic screaming and exhaustion of raising twins. 

And so, even women with twin pregnancies, which most doctors agree, carry negligible increased risk, are now reducing their pregnancies to singletons not for medical reasons anymore, but for social reasons. And while in the past it was not acceptable to reduce a pregnancy from a twin to a singleton, now it is becoming more and more common. As on of the pioneers of the procedure succinctly put it “Ethics evolve with technology.” Another doctor traced the evolution of the procedure of Pregnancy reduction. “It didn’t start with people who conceived twins and said, ‘I only want one’; it ended up with that.”

It is difficult and possibly even dangerous to be dogmatic and legalistic on issues like this. But I think it is sensible to think about these things and make up our own minds about where we stand. And as I think of pregnancy reduction, the one question that comes to my mind is this - Would I be able to look at my child and not wonder about the little brother or sister that was terminated in utero? I think that would be difficult......

Monday, August 15, 2011

Happy Independence Day!

Have been reading a number of editorials, blogs and status updates today about the state of our nation. Well, somehow I refused to be discouraged. Like I have said before, there is much to celebrate. Much to be grateful for. And much to look forward to. I only hope there will be enough good men and women who will step up in their own small way to selflessly make a difference. And I hope and pray I will be one of them....

This video has been waiting to be posted for a long time. Jai Hind!

Lest we forget

I just wanted to share a few facts that I was beginning to forget in the relatively comfortable academic setting of Ludhiana. These have been gleaned mainly from data published by the UN, World Bank and WHO.
  • 30,000 people die of hunger or hunger-related causes every day. About 16,000 children die of starvation each day. That's one child every 5 seconds.
  • More than 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day and more than 2 billion live on less than $2 a day.
  • According to the U.N., the majority of people in poverty are women, who globally earn roughly half as much as men.
  • Food prices have risen 83 percent since 2005, disproportionately affecting those in poverty who spend a higher percentage of their income on food.
  • Approximately 9.2 million children under the age of 5 die each year, mostly from preventable diseases. That's approximately 25,000 children each day.
  • 2.5 billion people around the world do not have access to adequate sanitation and about 885 million people do not have access to clean water.
  • Every day, 4100 children die each day from severe diarrhea - as a result of poor sanitation and hygiene.
  • Women in developing countries travel an average of almost four miles each day to collect water.
  • People living in the poorest slums can pay as much as ten times more for water than those in high-income areas of their own cities.
  • In 2005, a conservative estimate stated that 72 million children around the world of elementary school age were not enrolled in school a figure equivalent to the entire primary school-aged population in Europe and North America.
  • There are about 13 million orphans worldwide
  • Nearly 11,500 people die every day from HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Nearly two-thirds of these people are living in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the past hour
  • 1625 children were forced to live on the streets
  • 115 children became prostitutes
  • 257 children were orphaned because of HIV/AIDS
And to conclude - the richest 20 percent of the world's population receives 75 percent of the world's income, while the poorest 40 percent receive only 5 percent of the world's income. Basically there seems to be a lot of unshared wealth around..... Something to think about......

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

MacDs anyone?

One of the first things I realised about life in Ludhiana, is that food is a very important part of it!! Having spent the greater part of my life in the hinterlands of Vellore, where a dark, dingy and diarrhoeagenic restaurant called Chinatown was the be-all and end-all of haute cuisine, and then spending time in the beautiful climes of Shillong, where our ultimate dining experience was a hastily rustled up Sausage Maggi Fry, it has been a welcome surprise to find that every kind of food is available here, although of course, at a price. Since we are still reeling from the financial implications of shifting a whole house over 3000 kms, we have refrained from the high-wining and dining that is possible given the wide scope of choices available. But once a week for the last 3 weeks, we make a pilgrimage to the nearest McDonalds (weep all you country bumpkins, there is more than one of them here!!), or MacDs as it is called in this neck of the woods where we sample the sinful delights that make a beeline from our mouth to our arteries! Its actually strange how a thin piece of fried meat between two pieces of bread and surrounded by a few (often stale) bits of lettuce can have spawned one of the biggest food industries of the world. It's even more strange how millions of people pay 5 or 6 times the cost of the ingredients just to sample the whole package. But there you have it - that's modern life!! And when you walk out with your Coke in your hand, there are always a few children who run up to you and ask you for a little money. That's modern life too. Where some of us are so blessed that we can enjoy many things that are totally out of the question for others....

I suspect I will have a lot more to say in the future about the food in Ludhiana (fear not, Aman Chicken fans!), but for now I raise my hat to Ronald McDonald and his team - they do bring a smile to my face!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

One year of blogging

A year has passed since I first entered the blogosphere. Well, more than a year, in fact. My first post was in March of last year, but there were only 6 posts till the end of July, which was when I started blogging more regularly. It has been a great experience and one I would highly recommend! The last 3 months have seen huge upheaval, what with the shifting and the adjustment to the new place and all, and I nearly decided that the blog had run its course and it was time to quit. In fact, I had quite a nice farewell post planned out! But then a few things happened which have made me rethink that decision. You may still see the farewell post up sometime but as for now, mental well-being and time permitting, this blog is still open for business! So here is a recap of the year.

For nearly two years I had regularly been following the family blogs of two of my friends - Andi Eicher and Pradeep Ninan. Thanks to Pradeep's links, I had found a number of interesting Christian (and a few secular) blogs on the net which I regularly accessed via Google Reader. But I never really considered starting up one of my own, thinking I would never find the time or ideas required to keep it going. Then one day, there was a hailstorm in Shillong and I really wanted to share the beautiful sights that I saw (once it was over) with my family. And on an impulse, this blog began! I was doing a lot of travelling at that time, visiting medical colleges and different remote hospitals in the North East and hence I did not really get enough internet time to keep it going. But once I had started it, I felt obliged to continue, for some (probably egotistical!) reason and barring times of extreme mental stress, kept churning out the posts - more than 200 of them at last count! A few were decent, some were passable, many were just random thoughts with little, if any value, but the exercise was a great blessing to me in many ways.

The best thing about the year has been the clarity that writing has brought to my own thoughts. Many things I had a very hazy idea about, especially about my faith, became more clear as I put down my thoughts on paper. And even better was the heated discussions I had with some of my friends about these ideas. The questions you asked me forced me to think more deeply than I had done before to reason out my faith with fear and trembling. Thank you for feeling free to discuss these things with me and I look forward to more of these discussions in the future. Special mention here of The Black Mamba and 2 other Anonymous friends.

And a word of thanks to all of you who read regularly. Some of you visit nearly every day and have been doing so for the whole year. Inspite of my frequent, long absences, you continue to keep faith in me! With 20-30 of you checking in every day even now after more than a month without a post, I knew I had to continue. Apologies, but many thanks too! Special thanks to my 35 encouragers. It means a lot to me that you have agreed to join me on the journey. Also to the many friends who have commented both here and on facebook. And the friends I have made on the blogosphere especially Scatterbrain, NRIgirl and Irfaan.

Before this degenerates into a corny thank you speech, let me wind up! Before I go, I must mention my dear wife, whose encouragement has kept this blog going all this time. Inspite of the many rude awakenings I have given her, she still loves me unconditionally - that is the greatest blessing of my life.

So here goes Part 2 of the blogging experiement - the Ludhiana Diaries. May God bless us all and use us in His service.