Saturday, September 15, 2012

Fooooooooooooood Morning Delhi!!!!!

Rain-soaked, shivering, chilly Delhi. 
Tuesday morning, yawning lazily, rubbing its eyes as it slowly takes over from Monday night. The weather and the early morning making you crave for something unhealthily tasty. 

The ideal time for some Delhi-type gallivanting!

A trip to The Pracheen (ancient) Hanuman Mandir (Temple of the Hindu-God Hanuman) near Connaught Place or CP, is sure to get you food, both for the soul, and the tummy, all days of the week, but especially on such a wet, hungry, full of craving, Tuesday Morning.

Located on Baba Khadak Singh Road, the temple comes alive at about 4 in the morning (yes you read it right! 4 am), with a long queue forming for the Aarti or morning prayer. Tuesdays are particularly busy and full of excited energy. 

The temple complex, right opposite the long lane of State Handicraft Emporiums, has interesting flower and prasad shops, the typical offerings for the "Monkey-God". His favorite sweets 'Boondi' and 'Ladoos' are in ample supply, catering to the needs of the hungry souls and stomachs! 

In addition to the "sweet-tooth addict's dream come true" yummilicious Boondi (see picture above), the complex also offers some very interesting options like fresh and piping-hot bread pakoras, sinfully fried with besan (gram flour) on the outside and deliciously tender, with melt-in-the-mouth stuffing on the inside!

However, the star-attraction of the morning, in addition to Hanuman-ji, is not the bread-pakora but another deeply fried, oh-so-awesome, eagerly-awaited, snack, that has a long line of contenders waiting for it at the halwai-shop (sweet shop). 

While the batter gets literally battered, to get molded into these part-round, part-UFO  shaped delicacies, the crowd grows. People on cycles and in Audis, on foot and in Mercedes,  on Scooters and in rickshaws, stop and eagerly count the people standing in front of the shop, mentally estimating the time it will take for them to get their hands on some of the beautiful, golden-brown, fried awesumness. 

And then the wait ends. 
A huge basket of too-hot-to handle kachoris or fried flattened balls made of fine flour stuffed with a heavenly mixture of pulses and aromatic spices arrives. The excitement and eagerness is palpable, with all conversation ceasing, and everyone waiting to count how many are being bought by the people ahead in the queue. Hoping, and silently praying that all the hot ones wouldn't finish before their turn comes. 

The speed and efficiency in distribution is amazing. Out comes a small disposable bowl, in goes one kachori, on it goes a huge spoon of some spicy potato-gravy, and you are good to go. Oh, take-away is possible too. Some take 30 kachoris, with the potato-gravy packed separately, evidently to feed a waiting-in-anticipation family back home!

It is impossible to eat more than two! 

Heavily stuffed and smoking hot, the Kachoris are a perfect match for the rainy Delhi morning. Interesting, spicy, full of flavor and character, and perfect with a hot cuppa of tea, the snack is a reflection of everything Delhi is. 

So, while the homeless sleep on the footpath in the complex and ask for food as Tuesdays usually witness many people offering free food to those sitting around temples, people drive down in big cars to enjoy Kachoris and bread pakoras. 
The same contradiction that silently lives in all our cities.

But we overlook it. We are untouched by it. It is almost like a shadow, one that we can avoid.

We are happy to come for Aarti and bread pakoras, for tea and Kachoris, for peace for the soul and the stomach. We are happy to feel bad for "them", feel the correct amount of sadness while we devour the snacks and sip the tea. 

We go back, to come again another Tuesday morning, looking for God and food...for peace and satisfaction, and for the best Kachoris and tea in Delhi. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Of Finite Suffering and Infinite Ends...

"What is the most wondrous thing on earth?" asked the yaksha (a nature spirit), of Yudhishthir, the noble and wise, eldest Pandav brother, and thus he answered, "Each day countless humans enter the Temple of Death, yet the ones left behind continue to live as though they were immortal." 

That is truth of your life and mine, and of every soul in this world. 

And yet we grieve, we mark death, celebrate it almost, with rituals, with complex systems of dealing with the body and the house where it is kept.....each relative vying with the other to point out more 'must-do' things; some people participating only because they were born to point out flaws or mistakes in everything that they see. 

We crave finite ends. We crave closure. We want to see the body being burnt to ash. Going back to nothingness from nothingness. Obliterated. We believe it saves us. From what, we are not sure, but we believe. We fear we'll be lost if the body does not reach a logical end. We want to be sure we did what was required of us. To be sure we and those we love will not be turned into ever restless souls with no conclusion. And so we follow. We comply. We complete.

But who made these rules? Who decided what should be done with the body? Defined after all as only 'clothes' for the soul, to be cast-off when the time comes. And how many have the courage to challenge what has been said for ages? Dare to create an infinite end from finite suffering? How many go forth from this world to another, knowing that their body will be used and studied upon, and not knowing what conclusion will befall it? Not sure, if there even will be a conclusion? 

Would you be able to give away the one thing you think you truly possess, so others could learn to heal? Would you be able to deny your close ones the satisfaction of seeing you return to nothingness? Could you even in your imagination emulate the sage Dadheechee and give up what is yours for others' benefit? For when called upon to give up his spine to make a weapon to kill demons, he said "The body will one day wear out one way or another. Better to let it wear out from use for the benefit of mankind, than to allow it to simply rust away", and thus gave up his body for the making of the weapon. 
Would you be that sage? The one who doesn't bother about finite endings? The one who lives on through those who learn, who heal, who save so many others? 

It is not an easy question, but one that you must ask yourself. 

As a painfully-close relative of one such sage, who donated his eyes and his whole body, my anxiety at the inability to carry out what I thought was 'critical' for his soul's peace, was overcome only by my feeling of being completely overwhelmed by his 'largeness' of heart. Having given sight to two, within 2 days of his moving on to the other world, he continues to live on and see the world, from within newer, younger, shells. He lit up the faces of many medical students, and continues to inspire so many others to be braver, more confident and secure in their knowledge of the present, rather than being anxious about their ignorance of the future.

A true gift to the world, this is the ultimate sacrifice, and the supreme act of selflessness. It is a brave step towards an infinite end that could also be an infinite beginning..a sure-footed approach to leaving behind more than what one takes away. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Rainy Afternoon and Lessons for a Lifetime

A few white pages with black letters, soft bound;
The lethargic pitter-patter of rain in the background;

A steaming cup of coffee, the aroma in the air;
Me and Eve Ensler, cosying up in a chair;

The first shy, excited look;
Into 'The Vagina Monologues', in my hands, as a book;

What, how, whys, filling my mind;
But she, always knowing, gentle, and kind;

Taking me through, a journey tortuous and wild;
Not for those whose hearts are too mild;

Everything in my heart, and between my legs, discussed;
No words minced, no expressions shushed;

Stories of horror, pain, abuse, and tears;
With a few bright spots of love, affection, and vaginas without fears;

Poems and prose, fact and fiction;
Blending together to create a perfect imperfection;

Stories of the plight of women, violence and gross neglect, and of the murder of choice;
Lessons of love, self-respect, and of respecting the vagina's voice;

Lessons not restricted by gender or color, caste or creed;
Lessons to create in the world, a whole new breed;

Not scared or ashamed, not silent or abused;
Instead, free, loud, and at any violation not the least amused;

So many lessons, from a book, that turned into a friend and a guide;
Took an afternoon of rain, and turned it into an emotional ride;

Read it you must, man or woman;
To know how to get the vagina to speak, while you still can...

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Show of Pride and a Symbol of Hope

They are not very different from each other.
Tall, handsome, broad-shouldered with pride and glory, shiny with their polished-to-perfection boots and medals, fervor, pride, or hatred setting their faces aglow, some real, some for the show. 

They know they can whip the crowd in to a frenzy, and their drill becomes sharper with each clap and whistle, each smile and hoot. They stamp harder, march swifter, make angrier faces at the enemy, as the crowd's pulse quickens. They give the people what they want. What they need. They are trustworthy, in a time when nothing much else is. 

People throng to see them, to see a rare display of belonging and pride that lasts all of thirty minutes. Clap for them. Get photographs with them. Almost worship them. For doing something that they want the country's leadership to do. Stand up for itself and for it's people. Stand up and have a spine. Stand up for the country's flag and its pride. Wake up from their stinking slumber that reeks of indifference and of shamelessness, and of selfishness and unlimited greed. 

Men, women, and children, shout and sing patriotic songs while seeing their brilliant faces, because it is a hope, a slight hope that maybe all is not lost. That maybe somewhere, the two countries' hearts and spirits, and their very souls, are still alive. 

So while they march and stamp, show anger and arrogance, to the screams of their countrymen, they become a symbol of all that is unsaid and un-vented, and that finds no other channel to be expressed. As people shout out expletives to the other country and its people, much is said about 26/11 and Kasab, about Guru and LeT, while much is also screamed out about Kashmir and Jihad. As Vande Mataram and Pakistan Pakistan fill the air, the gestures become angrier and the crowd more expressive. 

You just cannot sit there without screaming your lungs out. Something in you doesn't let you. Neither can you stop saying, again and again, that we are so much better than them. It does not matter in what. You just believe there, in that moment, that you are the best. You wipe away that tear of pride when the flag is brought home, and squeal with delight when your country's flag reaches home before the other's.

You shamelessly join the crowd in the chanting, and, whistle and clap, thinking that you are showing your neighbor how strong you really are, how you would have shot Kasab if you could have. How they have never actually won a military conflict or war, how you have not forgotten Kargil or Ahmedabad, or Pune, or Mumbai, or Delhi for that matter. You feel strangely elated. 

It takes 6 men to do that, to keep the promise of bringing the flag home, every evening, and to show people what we can be.

Another evening approaches, another show is awaited. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Whose Breaking News is it Anyway?

Breakfast time 'Breaking News' and Sunday afternoon 'Shocking Statistics'. 
Children dying of completely preventable causes; women being ill-treated and traumatized; horrendous health; poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, out-of-control crime and corruption, and overall abysmal levels of human existence, let alone development. 
Do any of these constitute a 'breaking news' or a 'shocking story' anymore? Is surprise even the right word for the 'we've seen it all' feeling which emerges when you hear of many children dying to the ineffectiveness of the health system, or when a new mega crore scam emerges? 

Isn't it all very much a part of your and my day, to have the morning cuppa tea with the so called eminent leaders fighting like wild animals (who may be a tad better!) to select a ceremonial head who in all probability would only increase the tax-payers' burden by taking his/her extended family on many 'foren' trips, without adding anything substantial to people's lives? 

Doesn't this then give way to the headlines of the afternoon which are dominated by rape, murder, child abuse, political mud-slinging, preventable-deaths due to health facilities being over-burdened and thus inaccessible, and the same routine of probes, commissions, inquiries, and investigations? In fact one sometimes wonders where the results of ALL these efforts vanish! I in my mind imagine a huge warehouse. Dark, stinky, with that musty smell associated with storing files and folders for a long time. A tap dripping in an unknown corner, and something scurrying in the darkness, trying to nibble and 'make disappear', the result of one more investigation, the testimony of one more witness. 

Of course the evening and the night bring nothing new. More news, more undercover stories. Stories of 'human interest'. BUT who said anything about being human? We are a nation of walking, talking, zombies. Immune and insensitive to anything happening around us. 

A  nation, did I say? Oh sorry! We are a collection of 'regional groups', who care only if the occasional bomb blast is in our city (or state, depending upon allegiance). Otherwise we tweet about it and put it as our facebook status on the 'anniversary' of the blast. We also religiously watch the 'shocking' show that shows us 'shocking' stories of women's abuse, just as the women of our family get berated, everyday, around us. We shed tears when a woman speaks of how she is rejected by society due to her caste which is expected to carry out manual scavenging and yet, when we hate somebody, we say, "Oh, he is such a Bhangi, Choora, Chamar!". We want the health services to improve and be equitable, however, we only want the attention of the BEST super-specialist in town, that too without any wait, when somebody in our family is sick. We abhor female foeticide and the ill-treatment meted out to girls, but still think that our family should have a son to take the family name forward or to light our funeral pyre when we are gone. We are absolutely against regionalism, but still say, 'Chinki' and think loose, or easy. 

We are actually amazing, aren't we. 

We agree that the environment needs to be saved, urgently, but pride ourselves on never having stepped into public transport, and how it is only meant for the mazdoors (laborers) now. We also think it is our right to throw rubbish anywhere, and mark all our travel routes with our piss and our spit. We crib that the law and order situation in the country is rotten, but never turn up to vote, or even dream of taking the administration of this country in our own hands, be it the bureaucracy or politics. In fact, most of us, take immense pride in saying that, 'I maintain my distance from politics'. Well then, you have no right to crib. Because those who do participate in the game, are obviously setting its rules. Just too bad. 

Sitting in our comfortable air-conditioned room, in front of our direct-to-home service connected LCD, we practice, 'the gloved-hand, armchair concern'. An evolved form of social concern, it causes neither dirty-hands, nor worn-out shoes, and is very effective in today's time where stepping out might involve considerable danger. Is it any wonder that we have reached the place where we are today? We deserve to be here, because society is what we make of it. You and me. Together. 

It is an emergency. We need to get our hands dirty. Practice what we preach. NO we do not need to become 'social workers', and NO social concern is not about traveling to rural India and working in the so called, 'God-forsaken' places. Start where you are. Our cities and towns need help too. They need your time and your talent. Your passion and your genuine interest. Your ability to care, and to 'give a damn', even about things that might not affect you directly.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Droplets of Happiness or Tears of Sorrow?

It started off with a loud prologue. 
Like the drums that precede the 'Baraat' or the procession accompanying the groom in an Indian wedding. Almost like a light and sound show as well, with lightning and thunder setting the stage perfectly, for the first few hesitant drops. 
The barrage followed. And just like that, it was the first rain. 
The Earth responded eagerly with that heady aroma of its quenched thirst, and the birds sang with joy. Trees and leaves, heads and tails, all enjoying and dancing in the drops of happiness pouring forth from the skies. 

And yet, there are many, dreading the onset of the monsoon in this arid part of Central India. 
The reason, when explored, links up to the lack of proper sanitation facilities in the area. Disorganized or rather, 'confused' semi-urbanized settlements like the town of Babina, and other, small, more-village, less-town, settlements in the area, combine the disadvantages of both villages and cities; and lacking the facility of clean, wet toilets (toilets which have a provision for the flushing of the excreta), they still continue with the ancient tradition of 'dry-toilets' which need manual scavenging to clean them. 

This perpetuates discrimination against certain castes, who are the only ones carrying out the 'refuse' of humanity in this part of the world. 

The impact is particularly critical on women. 

They are 'unemployable' in any other role, even as domestic help, in their own words, as the first thing people ask them is their caste, and knowing their so-called 'identity', refuse to let them enter their house for anything other than, 'cleaning their toilets'. 
Meet any woman of the 'Valmiki' caste and she will tell you how her family is called 'Bhangi', a term used to address people of the castes which are expected to carry out manual scavenging including cleaning latrines and handling dead bod es (both human and animal). 

Discriminated against, and abused for literally cleaning our, 'shit', these women silently go about their work to earn the mere, two-rotis (flatbread) a day, or the fifty rupees they are paid for an entire month of insanely difficult work. 

Made illegal in 1993, employing of manual scavengers, and construction of dry latrines, still continue across the country, and can be witnessed easily enough if one wishes to do so.

The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UN-HRC), at a 2002 meeting of the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, said, “Public latrines – some with as many as 400 seats – are cleaned on a daily basis by female workers using a broom and a tin plate. The excrement is piled into baskets which are carried on the head to a location which can be up to four kilometers away from the latrine. At all times, and especially during the rainy season, the contents of the basket will drip onto a scavenger’s hair, clothes and body.......they are thus exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections which affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. TB (tuberculosis) is rife among the community."

Thus the pitter-patter of happiness for some of us, might be the sound of sorrow for many. 

While you enjoy that cup of steaming tea in the rain-soaked balcony, cribbing that your prayers to the rain-Gods for this heavenly nectar were not answered earlier, you might want to ponder on the thought that, the delay might just have been caused by the millions, praying harder than you, for the latrines and their contents to be dry so they could easily, 'scoop them up'.

**For those wishing to read more, WaterAid's insightful report, Burden of Inheritance ( in a hard-hitting tone, analyzes and deconstructs the social conventions that allows this inhuman practice to continue, and pleads for strong action against it. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Go Travel!

Woke up with this Henry Rollins (The Punk Rock World Traveler) thought today and wanted to share it with everybody! Go Travel!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

6 States, 1000 Kilometers, and an Amazing 3 Day Journey

Ferozepur, Punjab, to Babina, Uttar Pradesh. 
A long line on the map....and a longer journey across (the unpredictable) Indian roads!

Starting from Ferozepur, a small city in Punjab, known mostly for its strategic location due to the border that it shares with Pakistan, and ending at Babina, a small city right on the border between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh; the journey took us across diverse landscapes, temperatures, and road qualities!

So while the countryside of Punjab offered lush fields and green streams, and roadside eateries with yum food (also called 'dhabas') aplenty; our drive through Delhi and the region surrounding it took us over some of the best roads the country has to offer. 

Agra, and the wondrous Taj Mahal, and hundreds of temples, Gurudwaras, and Masjids, also, luckily, charted themselves on to our course.

However, the thrill of the ride went up a notch, only after we entered the 'not so famous' Chambal region, beyond Gwalior, towards Jhansi. Once the abode of Phoolan Devi and her gang of dacoits, the terrain of this area as seen in the picture below, offers an almost perfect breeding ground for the dacoits to quickly escape and hide from anyone. 

These shallow valley like formations flanked the dusty roads all the way between Gwalior and Jhansi and the driver's constant narration of dacoity stories on these roads did nothing to help us feel more secure!! The windows were securely wound up and nobody asked for a drink or pee break as we negotiated the broken down and in some places made completely of sand, roads, till Jhansi.

The countryside between Jhansi and Babina, where the border between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh lazes along like a snake on a hot summer day, has a striking feature. Though mostly barren and with small shrubs as the main vegetation, each hillock in the region has a small temple or sacred rock formation, right on its summit. Whether meant to plead for protection from the dacoits or to please the Gods to ask for rain and less harsh weather, these temples or formations are usually small but stand out due to the barrenness of the area surrounding them, and give the region a surreal feel, especially as the sun sets.

The traveler, having made this intriguing and interesting journey, however, did not lose her focus on health :) The first learning from the journey was that across the 1000 kilometeres traveled, we did not come across a SINGLE trauma center or a medical facility capable of handling road accident victims, or even people with basic medical needs, except within the cities of New Delhi, Agra, and Gwalior. It is scary and surprising that one might be expected to travel 10o-odd kilometers to access even basic health services. 

Another observation is the complete lack of facilities for clean washrooms for women, across the entire distance traveled! So while men attend to nature's calls right at the side of the road even within the cities, women are expected to use only the toilets in restaurants (if any!). A huge problem, especially in the completely barren terrain that offers no huge plants or trees to squat behind safely!!

One striking observation is that the more I travel on, the more I realize that the basic problems plaguing health in our country remain the same, whether it is a Gadchandur, an Ahmednagar, or a Babina. While the public health system of the State is defunct, and completely impotent, the medical practitioners of the government hospitals practice privately offering services inaccessible to almost everybody for whom the State's health system is meant. In addition, quackery, as well as uncontrolled private sector health facilities with almost ZERO quality control are rampant. 

The lack of awareness among people, and an almost God-like respect for anybody with a stethoscope, are exploited beyond imagination to lead to a situation where people reject even the few services which are infact offered by the State's health system, and instead opt for private nursing homes which poison the health of the community while maintaining a vice-like grip on the minds of people through their disinformation, and administration of 'injections' which is considered to be the only effective treatment by many. 

I am sure these issues bring back memories of my stories from Gadchandur. They also apply to the area you live in, and if you ponder a little, they apply to the entire country!! But here, I digress :) 

We are currently writing from Babina, and exploring public health in this part of the country. The stories, hopefully, shall continue. Amen.

Friday, June 1, 2012

We Now Have a Facebook Page

Yes we do! 
We are now also available at

Let us use this facebook page to connect; and to discuss, argue, agree, disagree, oppose, support, and collectively brainstorm about public health issues. 
Hope to see you there!!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Good News from Ahmednagar!

Good news is usually understood as news of a particular kind; that of adding another unit of humanity to the earth, however, the news from Ahmednagar this week is different. 

A battle of sorts has been won...not the war maybe, but a battle definitely, and the triumphant foot soldiers are none other than the dedicated team members of Snehalaya, along with their two shining stars.

One is called Madhuri and she is no less than the diva we all know and love. Being raised at Snehalaya, without her parents, and fighting the deadly infection we all know has no cure, she has secured 62% marks in her class 12th examination and wants to be a nurse someday. 
The other, Parshuram, a member of the Snehalaya family since he was a baby, has secured 47% marks in his class 12th examination and wants to be an officer in the Indian Army. :)

Congratulations to both Madhuri and Parshuram and hats off to their resilience and hard work! May all their dreams come true!

Congratulations also to the entire team at Snehalaya and we hope that their movement for change will only gain more momentum in the times to come. 
For the whole story, please visit,

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Another Road, Another Journey

Looks like we haven't spoken in a while. 
The adventures however; have continued, on a variety of, smooth and potholed, narrow and six-laned, dusty and freshly-tarred roads; and the diary has only got richer with the stories becoming more vibrant and intriguing along the way.  

Also, while the Gadchandur Chapter continues to offer new knowledge and insights through the rich data collected across the span of the last year, a new Chapter, that of Snehalaya and Ahmednagar, has written itself into this maverick's diary!

Context first. Snehalaya happened almost entirely as a miracle. The block was a requirement, Ahmednagar was just right, and they were happy to have an intern. Thus we traveled, to what is also known as, 'the spiritual center of India', and is the largest district of Maharashtra. 

Most people know it because of its proximity to Shirdi (home of the guru Shirdi Sai Baba), and because it is the hub of sugar factories in the State. Geographically, this map shows where Ahmednagar district is, in the State and in India. 

With a population of about 5 lakhs, Ahmednagar is a developing industrial center, facing many of the problems associated with rapid economic and social change; a huge slum-based population, and aggressive trafficking issues being prominent among them. In other words,  Ahmednagar is another opportunity, for me, you, and for public health and policy. 

This opportunity has been seized by a phenomenal organization called SNEHALAYA (now made famous by the association with the Amir Khan show Satyameva Jayate, read more at ), and it is with Snehalaya that this leg of the journey was experienced and lived. 

The call was for more visibility and more public awareness of the substantial work SNEHALAYA carries out, in the district, and we understood what unwavering commitment is, through observation and silent participation in this organization's drive for real social change minus any 'showbaazi' (theatrics). 

I must confess the organization and its people are about as obsessed with their work and its results as I believe myself to be!! In our following series of conversations, I'll tell you stories of how this group of people have brought real change, one step at a time, and how hope for a better world rekindles itself in your heart when you see them at work. 

Till then, keep obsessing over something that you think is important for the world and for you, and thanks for reading!!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Respectful Maternity Care: A Universal Right in Theory...a distant reality in practice

Please click here to view as a high resolution file, and download