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Sunday, August 24, 2008

Who says we can’t be Olympians?

It is annoying when everyone laughs at India going delirious over the only individual gold medal won at the Olympics, while China was picking up gold medals at will. One cocky Chinese tabloid even carried a front page headline story of how India, a nation of more than a billion people finally won one gold medal. Big deal is what I say. China squandered US$9 billion on training their billion plus countrymen and women and what do they get? Maybe a maximum of a hundred gold medals? We spend nothing and get one gold medal. That’s a definite win-win situation. And when skeptics sneer, let me tell you that we are a very sports-oriented nation.

You want runners? We have people who run for office year after year. You want gymnasts? We have balancing acts done by the likes of Digambar Kamat and Manmohan Singh, which are more hair-raising and awe-inspiring than any of the gymnasts doing their thing. And Messrs Kamat and Singh don’t even wear stretch lycra outfits, though they have been known to stretch the truth when it comes to SEZs and doing a number on the Left high up in the sky.

We have people doing steeplechase events on our pavements which are dug up and broken, leaping over large muddy puddles, racing to get that last bus, and hanging on by their fingernails and teeth to get to their destinations.

We have small children doing weightlifting carrying numerous, notebooks, textbooks, homework books, test books, rough books, atlases, dictionaries, waterbottles, snack boxes, crayons, colour pencil boxes, and other assorted items meant for learning readin’ writin’ n’ arithmetic.

We have water sports with ferries crossing and re-crossing rivers, in a macabre race, where the occupants take their lives in their hands when they cross the water in these rusty old buckets. We have races between barges and obstacle courses, where when they bang into pillars of bridges, while everyone else loses.

Marathons are commonplace for those who miss the last bus and have to walk home. Boxing and judo is a regular feature at every bar and marketplace. Target practice also a done deal with many making their next purchase after a mobile phone and foreign car, a revolver or rifle. Why, we even have doping all over the beach belt. Gangs roaming the streets of cities and towns become our version of team sports, with the cops as the referees and the common man the spectator.

These observations are merely to point out that if we put our minds to it, we could easily qualify for the Olympics, but we excel in one vital area.

We, the people of India, play a very important part in sports; all one billion of us. If sports took place and no one watched, sports as an activity would dry up and die. Spectators are vital to spectator sports and that is the role we play. You have the sportspersons and the spectators. We are spectators and really good at what we do. We are experts in all sports. We can sit back in our armchairs and cheer on the athletes. We know when they are playing well and when they are off-colour. We know when they have made mistakes and we criticize them roundly and loudly. If it is their job to perform, it is our job to watch. Being spectators is a national pastime in everything we do.

And as in any occupation one excels at, one does so through dint of long practice. We are spectators for any and every happening around us, whether it is great deeds or injustice or crime or corruption. We sit back and watch with deep interest and after it is over, we worship the main players or criticize them. That’s what we do. As a nation we excel in it. And if there were Olympic medals for spectators, we’d bag the whole lot ¬––¬ gold, silver and bronze.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Things I do not understand

There are some who would think I am smarter than I look. They would be wrong. While there are those who make observations which are all their own work, and others who know what’s going to happen before it happens, there are things, many things, which leave me puzzled.

Like I was watching Monserrate being sworn in the other day and wondered why a minister has to take the “Oath of Office and Secrecy” in a government that pledges to be transparent?

Like if the move to give HIV positive people Below Poverty Line status, is it not a fine line between BPLs and OBCs? Will HIV positive people also agitate for reservations in government-run institutions and the private sector too?

Like when the blast victims of Bangalore and Ahmedabad were resting in pieces, the Union Home Minister said that security was a state problem. If that is so, why have a Union Home Department or a Union Home Minister?

Like if Georgia attacked South Ossetia first and Russia retaliated in a many-eyes-for-an-eye manner, why is Georgia asking for international help? And why did the USA whisk its military advisors from Georgia as soon as Russia retaliated?

Like who is responsible for destroying the life, yes life, of the weightlifter from Manipur framing her so that she was dropped from the Olympic squad. After such a terrible thing was done to her, would heads be seen to roll?

Like what does one do about NGOs on multinational pharmaceutical companies’ payrolls, who conduct Phase III experiments on low income patients in Goa saying that of course it is through informed consent? How can it be informed consent when the patients cannot read or write and have no concept of short or long-term side effects?

Like if hockey is relegated to the dustbin of public indifference after winning gold eight times in the Olympics, how long will the euphoria over Golden Boy Bindra last? Especially when people in India are more interested in firearms for offence rather than sport?

And there’s so much I cannot understand about the Kashmir situation. Why do the Kashmiris, or the media, or the human rights activists, never talk of the thousands of Kashmiri Hindu Pandits ‘Kashmiris’ hounded from their homes and occupations in the valley? When pilgrims go on the Haj pilgrimage paid for by Indian taxpayers, why does the taxpayer also have to pay for their excess baggage when they return? With all the funding going into the Haj pilgrimage why do they object to a hundred acres of land being given to the Amarnath shrine for building shelters for Hindu pilgrims so that they can rest from their 40 km trek through impossible terrain and foul weather? And if the Kashmiris from the area itself are happy about it because they earn enough from the Amarnath yatra to feed their families for the entire year, why are the political parties objecting?

Like I thought that charity, like religion, was supposed to be very quiet, very personal and intensely private? But such a song and dance is made about charity, and religion too for that matter, clearly, it’s all about self-publicity rather than self-effacement?

And here’s one more for the road: they have detox centres to cure addictions of all kinds, alcoholics, drug-users; why don’t they have detox centres for those who are addicted to power and pelf or poishem?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Euthanasia before birth

The Seinfeld series is arguably one of the most comical comedies around with the characters living an almost cartoon world, where nothing is sacrosanct and they are all borderline insane. Euthanasia is no laughing matter but the series takes it up without fear, gives it a comical twist where the character George a hypochondriac, believes that an acidity attack is actually a terminal illness and dramatically commands his friend Jerry to kill him. Jerry briskly says okay, pulls out a pillow and happily proceeds to smother the terrified George with it.

It is a hilarious scene but one point is clear. When push comes to shove, does the victim of a terminal illness or someone heading for a lingering death really want to die before their time comes? Or is it the doctor, or aged relative, or other caregivers busy with their own lives fearful of not being able to handle the personal physical, mental and financial toll involved in prolonging the patient’s life? It is backbreaking work, highly stressful and very, very expensive.
A worn looking woman who looked to be in her fifties was actually 38 years old, had a son who was born with multiple disabilities. He was deaf, dumb, blind and suffered from a form of cerebral palsy where he could not sit upright or walk. The child was healthy and at 12 grew big and heavy. She blamed the doctors who she said could have warned her early enough. Would you have aborted the child, I asked her and she said emphatically, yes. She was too terrified to have another child. She was terrified about what would happen to her son after she and her husband died.

This leads naturally to the nightmare the Mehtas find themselves in with the Bombay High Court refusing to allow them to abort their 25-month old foetus. During a routine diagnosis in her 24th week her obstetrician found that the woman’s unborn child was suffering from a congenital heart block. The baby, who may not survive the womb, would have to be fitted with a pacemaker immediately after being born. It would have to be surgically replaced often. Even then, the prognosis was that continuous ailment would compromise the life of the child. The pregnant mother says she does not want to have a compromised quality of life for her child and cannot afford the expensive treatment, which may or may not give results. She wanted an abortion, but the doctors refused since abortions cannot be carried out on foetuses that are more than 20 weeks old. The Mehta couple approached the High Court which said a flat “no”.

So is the pregnant mother doing this out of selfishness? One doubts that because she is putting herself at great risk. A pregnancy termination procedure at 25 weeks is extremely dangerous for the mother. Extremely traumatic too because the method used is either induced labour where the foetus is delivered, or dilation and extraction which involves collapsing the head of the foetus and delivering the rest of the body. The pregnant mother feels the risk is worth the alternative of her child asking her later, “If you knew this would be my life, why did you give birth to me?”
The medical fraternity feels there are solutions to the problem and that there is no need for an abortion. There are those who say it is the parents’ decision and society has no right to pass judgement.

This reminds me of another couple I knew. More than 20 years ago the pregnant mother was laid low with either malaria or jaundice, which involved taking heavy drugs. Her doctors advised her to abort since her child would be born disabled. Both parents refused and said it did not matter. Their child would be born and they would handle whatever happened. Their child was born, a lovely bouncing baby girl, who grew up to be a bright and beautiful young woman.

I am a great believer in playing the cards you are dealt. I hope the “No” from the Bombay High Court turns out to be the best thing that happened to the Mehtas.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Picking targets at will

This is the first year we have flies in the house. I was trying to swat three different types of flies this morning. A blue bottle, a house fly and a massive horse fly. Nothing worked. Plastic swat, electric swat, nothing. The flies just flew lazily around and made their sorties picking targets at will. Eerily similar to those faceless people who walk among the innocent and bomb them at will.

India is walking on eggs. Last weekend has been a grisly one with serial bomb blasts in two of the most successful state capitals in the country. Yet we all seem to have got pretty blas̩ over bomb blasts Рin fact sometimes it gets difficult to remember the sequence of blasts in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, the one that blew up Rajiv Gandhi, or the Akshadhan temple. In the marvelous adaptability of the human psyche, we have become inured to terror strikes.

And we have to be seriously grateful to our great leaders for it. There’s security in routine and they follow a standard routine. First shock is expressed; next urgent pleas to stay calm, then they dip their hands into the public exchequer and dole out largesse to those who died, while those who survived living with scars, pain and impediments for life wonder why Death cheated them. Soon after our great leaders fade into the sunset, striking a defiant pose, saying we will not bow down to terrorists.

The police rush to the site, cart the dead off to morgues and the wounded to hospitals, they gather samples for forensics and hope they will not stumble over any unexploded devices. If they do, a bomb disposal squad man comes in, defuses it, focusing only on the job he has to do and trying not to think of the loved ones waiting for him to return home healthy and whole. The bomb disposal squad members do not even have accident insurance, yet they lay their lives on the line to save others. They move aside for leaders of all religions to condemn the terrorists as having no god and no religion. Muslims form their own little procession on cue condemning the incident. And the army is brought out.

Then the media takes over, headed by Barkha Dutt who has begun to show a regrettable Oprah Winfrey-type tendency to get her interviewees to weep into the camera. What follows is boring in the extreme, endless panel discussions on the state of security, absence of any plan, poor intelligence and poor communication. Newspapers are full of human interest stories of those who died and worse, those who survived. We watch the news while having our meals, and read the morning papers with growing boredom.

All this is good because it becomes so fake, it helps us build a powerful shield of indifference to the horrors that are planned by a group of freaks. Indifference is our armour against fear. You cannot be fearful if you are indifferent. So hoping for the best, you go about your daily work, traveling in buses and trains, visit crowded markets and malls, not because you are resilient, but because you have to. If you cower in your home, you and your family will starve and you might as well be dead.

One hopes the terrorists will finally satiate their hunger for the blood of innocents. That is the only time they will stop, because like the flies in my house, they strike at will. You can kill a few, but they keep coming. In a cluttered country like ours there is no way we can stop them, they use cycles, scooters, dustbins, cars, motorcycles loaded with explosives, outside temples, markets, mosques, now hospitals. They blow up trains and buses. Our borders both interstate and national are so porous it is child’s play for the killers and their aides to disappear. This is terrorism without borders. We just don’t have the awareness to foil them, or catch them. Their network is wide and strong with locals helping them attain the Will of the God they invoke before setting out to blow us to smithereens. And even if by some miracle they are caught, human rights activists come swarming in to protect them from harsh police treatment. Their trials carry on for decades; they become martyrs and a brand new set of believers step into their shoes.
In Goa we can take heart though, we have more chance of getting killed or maimed by a vehicle on our roads than being blown up by a cycle bomb.