House of Love

Four decades past

The teen year

When I had spent

A few summer days

At the Torrentium Villa,

Puppu and Mesho

Are waving out to me

From the balcony

Of their new abode,

An  Artiste’s Residency

In the estate of the

Sanat Art Gallery.

I am in Village Hiun

Few miles down the path

From the famous

Summer Hill.

—–

We hug and cheer

In the hope

That the pandemic

Is finally gone;

Puppu dear

Having suffered a fall

Is now so much better;

And Mesho’s 90th year

Is just round the corner. 

—–

The tea is poured

Out of the spout

From the fat green pot

That has stayed conserved.

As the evening wears on,

We bite into the

Steamed momos

Stuffed with soya granules

And cottage cheese

In Puppu’s loving hands.

—–

Mesho recounts verses

That he spun

A long time ago

Threaded by the

Music of the sun.

The wine, red and warm

Kindle their memories

Of gazing mesmerized

At Picasso’s paintings

On the walls of a

Museum in Paris.

The lava and hot spring

They saw emerge

From beneath

A stunning landscape

In their Icelandic retreats.

Of women and men

Whose wishes turned real

Following a morsel of the

Fish that Puppu served

In her magical mustard sauce.

—–

A wide glass pane

Patterned with Origami,

Myriad forms of life

Painted in black

On curtains white.

A canvas across the wall

Showing the perspective of a

Table made of wood

Its folded legs

Looking up to its top.

I am in August company

Sleeping by the bay window

Through a night full of rain.

—–

The next morn unveils

A clear blue sky

Begonias in bloom,

The frothing waters

Of Chadwick falls

In the yonder

Across the vale.

—–

There is always

A first time

To behold

A mountain face,

A slope

To descend.

The journeys end

May not be the summit

It could be the

House of Love

Where we come to rest.

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Torrentium Villa

In a summer of my teens

I had perched on a stool

Reading the story

Of Scarlet O-Hara

In Gone with the Wind.

The tree by my side

Was dressed in

Floral pink,

Feathered friends

Had come for a dip

In the bird bath

Crafted with stone

Of gray and white,

Butterflies had

Fluttered around

The petunias, phlox

And Nasturtiums

That bloomed

In abound.

During that

Brief sojourn

At breakfast I ate

With toasted bread

Spoons full of jam

Made of plum

That had arrived

Fresh from a farm.

The fruit had transformed

In Puppu’s hand

Into a perfect jar of jelly.

It was in Torrentium Villa

In that summer of my teens

When a quote from Goethe

In Mesho’s cursive hand

Had nudged me

To reflect upon

The foppishness of speech.

Note: Putli or Putul (veritably a doll) called by family (I called her Puppu) is my aunt. Married to Baniprosonno (I call him Mesho), an artiste extraordinaire, they lived in Torrentium Villa at Chota Shimla for over five decades. It was in 1977 that I had found the following quote from Goethe on a paper stuck on the wall of Mesho’s studio.

“We talk far too much. We should talk less and draw more. I personally would like to renounce speech altogether and like organic nature, communicate everything I have to say in sketches. That fig tree, this little snake, the cocoon on my window sill quietly awaiting its future – all these are momentous signatures. A person able to decipher their meaning properly would soon be able to dispense with the written and the spoken word altogether, the more I think of it, there is something futile, mediocre, even (I am tempted to say) foppish about speech. By contrast, how the gravity of nature and the silence startle you, when you stand face to face with her, undistracted before a barren ridge or in the desolation of an ancient hill”

Remarkably relevant in today’s world besotted with sound-bites!

The feature image is extracted from a photograph shot inside Torrentium Villa in 1990. Mesho’s art work is visible on the wall and on the mantelpiece.

Uphill Downhill

T’was a long day

Of car rides

And airplane flights.

I moved up

The longitude

Circled around

The mountain loops

To climb to the altitude

Of what used to be the

Good ol’ Simla

When I first arrived.

***

By the time I was three

We would arrive from Delhi

By Kalka Mail

Followed by the toy train

That chugged along

The narrow gauge

That’s when we went up

To see my grandparents.

***

There used to be

A thrill

In the rhythm

Of the puffing

Steam engine,

In the plume that

Moved backward

While the carriage

Rolled forward.

I was yet to study

The theory of relativity,

Coal was still the king

In a planet that thrived on

Combusting the fuel

That we mined

From fossils.

***

The rail track

Nearly hugged

The hairpin bends,

So easy it was

To reach

Out of the window

And touch the

Mountain edge.

Then the pines

Would appear

First in ones and two’s,

Then soon enough

We would come upon

Denser clumps of conifers.

Their needles and cones

Pointed at the sky

While a carpet

Of ferns and wild blooms

Glistened down below.

Oh, those rail rides to Simla

Sweet memories

Of times long ago.

***

Now the roads are wider

And the Amaze moves faster,

The hills are all but

Naked mounds of stone

Over which arise

A vista of columns.

They point towards the sky

While the jagged

Rubble and the bricks

Grimace from below.

The plains have

Moved to slopes

Carrying along

Folks with riches

A resort or a house

SUV’s, dust and clout.

Half constructed bridges

Await the blow

Of explosives

To shatter the ribs

Of these young hills

To enable commerce to flow.

***

What if some day

The slopes slide

And crash into the plains?

The feature image is Courtesy

Didu Left her a Message

Nurjahan had rocked the baby to sleep. Her mother-in-law was taking an afternoon nap in the other room. Outside the monsoon rain poured steadily.

She tip-toed up to the steel almirah, gently turned the handle and opened its door. The hand bag was right there. Pink and pretentious – Ted Baker London, said the label. It was a relic she retained from a past that she had chosen not to pursue. She fingered the bag and remembered that night of the storm.

******

Borne of the millennium in a coastal district of Bengal,  she grew up watching with wonder the annual cycle of cyclonic showers.  By the time she turned twenty and left home in a huff the seasons had started to turn errant and intense. The elders of a prospective groom had come to see her. They chose her younger sister Jahanara instead. Petite, pious and patient Jahanara, everyone loved. her. Several shades darker and restless, Nurjahan carried with her a whiff of thunder clouds and uncertain crests. Worried parents, concerned elder brothers and scared younger siblings but, to her grandmother Didu, she was the “Nur”.  “Leave, if you must Nur. However, remember, the waves will never leave you”, she had said when Nurjahan told her that she was going to seek her future in a city far south and safe from the seas. Her father stoic, mother tearful, her Dada had paid up for her flight ticket and the one lakh rupees of deposit money to be paid to the agent to get her admission to a college of nursing.

A cool breeze had swept over her as she emerged out of the airplane. It had been a long ride to the PG [1] accommodation. She had furiously absorbed the sights of a city far glitzier than anything she had seen before. Satya was waiting with the papers when she arrived. He had seemed decent enough, her agent. At once the fixer and the facilitator who would assist in her navigating the untested waters, albeit for a price. An arrangement and a percent that would ensure that she is never quite free as long as she was under training. To start with she did not care. College started in right earnest. Liberation came in the form of the faded blue jeans and T-shirts that she picked up in a store that sold affordable Chinese rejects.

Few months later, the winds altered their course marking the onset of the novel corona virus pandemic. The college physically closed and classes turned on-line. Home-care and hospital assignments that normally started in the second year became mandatory to continue to have access to the PG and stay in the city.

Nurjahan had her first stint at a private hospital. Patients with Covid had thronged the hospital. During her night shifts in the ward she had to peer hard in the dimmed light lest she stepped on patients who lay on mats placed in the floor, watch some of those severely affected gasping for breath while the rasping cough of several more tore through the walls. She lasted there for forty-five days before she fled home as soon as it became possible to fly out of the city. The respite was short lived for home was a reminder of the salt from the seas. Besides, Jahanara had blossomed into a mother-to-be. Didu caught the flash in Nur’s eyes but Nur did not see. How could she, trapped as she was in the mist of envy?

*******

After several postponements, the final exams were scheduled to be held early next year. So, Nurjahan was back in the city that promised the chance of that independent agency she desired so desperately. Her next two stints were in home-care. Though they lasted longer, the experience left her wary. She felt alienated from the language and culture within the homes where she stayed to work. The ubiquitous sugared coffee, the smells that emanated from the spluttering of the mustard seeds and the black gram, sight of the curd rice made her yearn for the flavours of Bengali spices. In a job that required both empathy and skill, she felt indifferent towards the patient and disinterested in the tasks she had to perform. It slowly dawned on her that a career in nursing was not for her. But, she had fallen for the glamorous city and the money she earned. Although after the cascade of agents had taken their share, what came to her was meagre, it still allowed her the luxury of on-line shopping. The Ted Baker handbag had been one of those indulgences.

She failed to clear all her papers in the second-year examination. Hurt and dejected she went home to find her entire family getting ready for the fasting, prayers and rituals of Ramadan. The beautiful baby girl that had been born to Jahanara while Nurjahan was away held every one in sway by her sheer radiance and dimpled smile.

A day after the moon had been sighted, Grandmother fell ill. Holding the young hands of Nurjahan in her own wrinkled ones, this time she said “Nur, I see a hint of the sea in your eyes. They seem to be saying, stay please.” Nurjahan wept. Nonetheless she left. The supplementary examinations were coming up; her only possible passage to escape the ordinariness of village life.

******

Within a few days of her return to the PG, in what seemed like a stroke of luck, Satya found her a potential employer through one of his contacts. It is a Bengali family, he said. “They want to see and interview you in person”, he added. She wore the customary sober bottle green kurta with a deep mustard churidar [2] of stretched fabric. She specially saved it up for occasions like this in which she had to present herself to a prospective employer. She hired an Uber auto-rickshaw that drove her to the college campus where lived the family in the south side of the city.

The Security at the gate let her in after checking her ID and vaccination status. Once inside, she lost her bearings despite the directions she received at the entrance. She walked along the tree-lined avenue, hearing bird calls amidst the hushed silence, barely seeing any one except a guard in front of an immaculate looking building. Two frolicsome dogs played at the intersection of the cross roads. She turned at wrong corners and then finally called the agency in desperation. Within a few minutes, her phone rang. At the other end was a sweet young voice that redirected her to the correct destination. The woman who came out to meet her at the end of the road had short greying hair. In that first encounter, the voice and the woman struck a note of utter discordance in Nurjahan’s mind.

She had never been inside such a large house before. As she entered, her eyes roved over the tall ceiling  and rows of books in the front hall. Strange looking paintings and masks on the walls stared back at her as the woman led her through a passage to the room where her mother lay on her back on a hospital bed. . Fair and frail, the old lady gave her a keen look, not unkind but sharp enough to make Nurjahan feel self-conscious. In the meantime, the daughter spoke rapidly explaining that her mother had fractures that the orthopedist had said would heal only with a 4-6 weeks of bed rest. Could they count on Nurjahan to place the walker in position for her, assist her with her toilet and bath, massage her back, shoulders and feet, sleep in her room during the night while staying watchful? Rest of the time Nurjahan could stay in her own room behind the garage just outside of the main house. Her Bengali was too clear, a form and diction that was unfamiliar to Nurjahan. Daughter and mother conferred in both Bengali and English. The woman also called out and spoke to a man, presumably her husband, in English. Her auto ride fare had to be compensated for; the woman was particular about transacting it via Google Pay to Satya and not paying her directly by cash. Strange people, thought Nurjahan. But, they seemed to be in dire need of an attendant. Nurjahan did not really have a good enough reason to say no except for an intuition she could not as yet name.

It was well past noon by the time she was back the next day, much later than she had promised. There had been a phone call from home in the morning. Her grandmother’s illness had taken a turn for the worse and she had been admitted to the hospital.

She dragged her bulky suitcase into the house, along with the loaded backpack while she clutched her handbag under her arm. A thin, dark man with a face mask scurried up to her offering to transfer them to her room. The daughter asked her to check out her quarters, wash up and come back. The room was small, the bed, a study table and chair occupied almost all of it. There was an attached bath and a sliver of a kitchenette. It was dark inside. A single window looked out into a patch completely shaded by a large tree. Likewise, the front door faced a square with overgrown grass and moss under the canopy of trees planted along the low side wall. There had been incessant rains for several weeks. She hated the damp. It reminded her of home.  She struggled in vain with the switches to have some light on.

Feeling frustrated she came back to the main house and complained there was no electricity in her room. The daughter and the masked man who she called Bee Gee came in to check, turned on a switch. The tube light came up after a few seconds making her feel foolish. After she freshened up, she went to meet the old lady. She was sitting up and eating the freshly cooked lunch her daughter had brought in. Sparse and neat. “Why are you standing?” she asked Nurjahan and motioned her to sit down on a low stool near the bed.

The doorbell rang. The daughter went out to answer it, came back after a few minutes and announced “Nurjahan, we have arranged for your meals to be served from the hostel pantry. Your lunch tray has arrived. You can take and eat it in your room whenever you are ready”. Nurjahan’s heart sank.

“I will call you Nur”, the old lady declared. She quizzed Nur about her family, what brought her so far away from home. Something stirred in the young woman as words tumbled out. The hurt and resentment was palpable. “What have you studied so far?” B.A. responded Nur. “Do you pray”? The interrogation seemed endless. “No” claimed Nur. “You were home during Ramzan. Didn’t you keep fast?” Nur had to admit that she had observed the customary fasting ritual; everyone at home did.

Nurjahan’s eyes had darted across the rooms and at the residents of the household.  She could not find any visual indication of their form of worship. Who are these people? Why is the old mother asking me whether I pray?

In the meantime, outside, the skies were getting a shade darker when she returned to her room. She ate her lunch with indifference discarding the paneer [3], the curd and the gulab jamun [4]. She had a distaste for milk and all forms of milk products. She sat on the bed and sulked. After a while she picked up her mobile and desultorily looked through her social media feed. She had dozed off when the phone rang again. It was her brother. Grandmother’s condition was worsening, he reported. A wave of helplessness swept over Nurjahan. That’s when she heard the first thunder.

Once she was back in the house, there was another call from home. This time from her mother. “Can you come back? Where are you? Who are you with”? She explained her situation. “I am with a family doing home-care. The patient is old like Didu. They seem to speak Bengali”. Even though she was bent down whispering into the phone to her mother, she knew that the sharp old lady  lying on her back knew the tenor of the exchange. Sensitive and observant like Didu, and yet, so different.

The rain got heavier as dusk set in. She dashed back to her room with the dinner tray. Streaks of lightening accompanied by the roar of thunder filled the air. The winds howled and cried. All of a sudden, she knew that what her mother was trying to tell her is that Didu had died.

She slept fitfully at night in the old lady’s room. In what may have settled into a pattern but was not destined to be, she heard a soft call “Nur? I need to use the toilet”. She assisted the Didu-like at 3 am, the first and the last time. Her brother had sent her the flight ticket to Kolkata.

She bathed in ice cold water in the morning. With a final fit of abandonment, she wore her blue jeans and a tight fitting full sleeved bright yellow T-shirt. The rain had finally stopped. There was slush everywhere. Branches that were lopped off by the gale were strewn around. She dragged out her bags and put them down outside the garage door. When she looked up, she found the daughter’s eyes upon the pink Ted Baker handbag. She cringed. She wished she could flee right then.

She said her Goodbye to the old lady while she waited for an Uber cab to arrive. The family had not tried to persuade her to stay once they knew she had to go. Maybe they were relieved?

Minutes were ticking. The cab did not come; the driver cancelled. She kept trying. She just could not find a cab. Would she make it to the airport in time for the flight? She had no other way but to rely on the family to contact their trusted private taxi agent. As they waited for the taxi  to show up, the daughter said to her “Families do have expectations, they do tend to control but often they are also the only ones who really care. If you wish to set yourself free from the family, and make a living in this city, you can certainly do it. But, for that you have to be strongly committed to your job and work hard at it. You did not appear to like what you came to do. Perhaps you should ask yourself, what is it you really want?” Nurjahan did not know how to respond to this uncanny feedback. Thankfully, the cab arrived before her silence could stretch. So, did her breakfast tray. She opened the car door hurriedly and got in.  “You don’t have to pay. We will take care of it. All the best”.  They waved her off.

Nurjahan returned to her family home that evening. She felt like calm after a storm. The torrential downpour of the previous night seemed like her Didu’s farewell message. She wanted to stay on where her grandmother was lain to rest. Close to the sea. Her Nikaah [5] ceremony was arranged soon after the mourning period was over.

******

Her baby suddenly woke up and wailed. “Nurjahan?” her mother-in-law called out. Nur turned her face towards the window and saw that the sun had emerged through the clouds. It was lighting up the top of the tall palms that swayed in the breeze from the seas.

[1] Paying Guest

[2] A type of trousers worn in the India

[3] Cottage cheese

[4] A ball of fried cottage cheese in a sugary syrup

[5] A Muslim marriage

A Lesson in Restrain

My first performance review in GE happened to be with my one-over-one manager because our lab manager had quit. Jack Welch’s term as the CEO had just ended. Right from the time of induction, the significance of adhering to GE values and delivering on project goals was drilled into us repeatedly. The chance of landing in the bottom 10% of the vitality curve in that highly competitive environment with scores of smart and hard- working engineers and scientists always seemed finite.

The rating came in prior to the EMS discussion, so, by the time I was face-to-face with my Global Technology Leader, a GE veteran, my trepidation was gone.  At once firm and gentle, he looked straight into my eyes and said “You are very emotional”. I nodded in agreement and explained to him that I was very passionate about things I took on and that could easily be construed as being emotional. He responded saying it wasn’t that. “Do you know I decided to stop the publication of the planned ESL [1] Diversity Magazine because of your article?” he added and left me dumbstruck.

Globalisation had been one of GE’s key initiatives during that period. Extending that to setting up the John F Welch Technology Centre in Bangalore, India was a big, bold step. Hiring local talent to work together with colleagues in the hallowed hundred year old Corporate Research headquarters at Niskayuna, customers in Milwaukee in the United States and Buc in France required a common understanding of English language and appreciation of cultural differences in an effort to minimise bias and maximise efficiency. An ESL wide magazine had been mooted as one way of engaging and reaching out that transcended lab, geography and project boundaries. When a call for the first issue was announced, my senior colleagues at Bangalore coaxed and nudged me to write the representative piece from our lab.

I fell for it because I loved writing. My first draft was mostly drawn from the books I read. The editorial team in Niskayuna asked for examples, suggested that I seek inputs from my lab mates. I tried my best to do both of those and ended up with a revised version that I thought was a mix of wit and pedagogy. I sent it back to the Niskayuna acknowledging inputs from specific individuals in my lab; Charles Handy in “Tocqueville Revisited – The Meaning of American Prosperity” in Harvard Business Review, January 2001; Samuel Huntington in “A Clash of Civilisation and the Remaking of World Order” and taking full responsibility for the ‘intent’ expressed in the essay.

I never heard back about it again. I had wondered why …

Now he was telling me that my article was powerful and indicated that I was “emotional”. It had upset folks back there. His sobering message to me was – everything need not be explicitly stated even if it were true.

For me the core lesson in restrain was being aware, and write appropriate to the context and forum. In this age of social media, conflicts over news, views, half-truths, post-truths, I find it interesting to revisit and share this essay that I wrote 21 years back. I was naive enough to write what must have seemed audacious in a Corporate setting. I will be curious to know what readers outside the original context think of it.

1 = 1 + 1 Psyche

“Sounds Great!” – a quintessential American response that comes across as unadulterated portent of appreciation to the uninitiated. It takes a while to discern that the phrase is more often than not, little else than an exuberant and polite acknowledgement of a thought conveyed. Yet, in a way, the expression represents the microcosm of an entire civilisation: a culture that motivates, a culture that rewards and celebrates, a culture that makes the impossible possible and a culture that loves to win.

Six-Sigma at ESL-B was waiting for ESL-N. However, when the smart red translucent pens and calculators followed as carrots, they left the folks at ESL-B blue even as they initiated their GB projects. They had been tardy, may be they deserved berating, they certainly needed help, they just did not see adequate cause for a celebration.

America was created by the vision of a new and free world. The dream continues to charm and beckon diverse people from all over the world. The giant melting pot continues to be fueled by their zeal to innovate, excel and succeed. Much of the American ethos is derived from values that are considered to be representative of Western thought. Significant amongst these is the classical legacy of Greek philosophy and rationality, respect for the rule of law, secularism and a passionate belief in individual freedom. Historically, individualism invariably led to erosion of collectives based on family and marriage that often characterise non-western societies. However, individualism also paved way for the development of pluralistic social institutions such as worker’s guilds and professional associations that further nurtured individual growth and spirit in western societies.

Wealth stands out as the promise of good life, the creator of more wealth, a vehicle of philanthropy, a harbinger of a better future for many more and a cause of celebration in American life. In many oriental societies where wealth is worshipped and yet despised, ostentation is shunned, the American extravagance and appetite for material goods comes across as profane and crude. Yet, much of American belief in the continuous creation and accumulation of wealth through hard work originated from the spirit of the early Puritans. The all-pervasive American work ethic is also a gift of the Puritans.

Each one owns one. A four-wheeled vehicle probably represents the perfect American dream – an expression of hard work, wealth and individualism all rolled into one. A colleague recently discovered that folks out there assumed that everyone drove. Just like they assumed that everyone knew that Bob Oppenheimer was in fact Robert Oppenheimer.

Recently a rather uncharitable joke that circulated in the cyber space went something like this:

UN Survey: A world survey recently conducted by the UN posed the following question. “Could you please give us your opinion about the food shortage in the rest of the world?”

This was a huge failure for the following reasons:

In Africa, no one knows what “food” is.

In Western Europe, no one knows what “shortage” is.

In Eastern Europe, no one knows what “opinion” is.

In South America no one knows what ”please” means.

In the US no one knows what “rest of the world” means.

Who then is an American? Is it an individual, a people, a culture, a state, a geographical entity? I would argue that America is a representative of a set of values. Values are easier to imbibe where they are a way of life. Adapting values that are distinct from one’s own cultural moorings and settings is often challenging.

Is it a coincidence that many of the GE values have a strong underpinning of American values? Is GE way then really the American way? Does it not mean that even as we draw on our synergies and build bridges across diverse global teams to innovate and execute, the cultural divides disappear and our shared GE values give us tremendous potential to bring good things to life?

[1] Electronic Systems Laboratory

Are we what we wear?

There was no uniform in my school. The awareness of how odd that was, dawned on me after I turned eleven. Coincidentally, it was around the same time that I started writing my diary. I was on the verge of adolescence. Perhaps the notion of identity had started to sprout?

I don’t recall my parents complaining about the absence of uniform. My classmates and I mostly wore frocks, skirt and blouse or a pinafore. The white of the Delhi Public, blue of the Modern, the maroon  winter wear of Springdale or Holy Child Auxilium where my mother taught caught my attention. Unlike them, we were ‘the butterflies” that our Principal Kamala Sengupta liked to “see fluttering around” her. Amongst our family and neighborhood circles, we were identified as students of Lady Irwin School that had no uniform though it was serious about studies and an institution where Bengali girls had the chance to learn their mother tongue.

I did not observe what exactly my classmates wore until I was about fifteen because that’s when I was besotted by a light pink chikankari kurta that Nafisa Ali wore in Junoon, a film directed by Shashi Kapoor. Some of my friends wore salwar kameez and dupatta. I thought they looked really nice. I loved the expanse and the folds of the colorful fabrics. My mother’s view was one had to be old enough to wear one. Finally, I got my first trio in Class 12 just when I was getting ready for college.  Few of the girls may have worn clothes that earned the ire of Basanti Nag, our Principal then. I still remember her thundering “You don’t wear red to a funeral”. It was never prescriptive but there was an underlying assumption that we would dress appropriately.

I may have implicitly imbibed that spirit from my school days for what I have worn over the years do reflect certain aspects of my preferences and persona. I think, for those of us who have the freedom or the privilege to choose our wardrobes, in our sartorial embodiment we both reveal and hide something about ourselves. “Ethnic” was not a term in vogue in the early 80’s when I studied in Delhi University. However, many of us wore handloom outfits that were stitched by tailors, likewise cotton sarees and the red dot on our foreheads. The hues and the looms had an aesthetic appeal which I loved. I wore blue jeans too – they were “cool”. As if to offset the cool quotient, I paired them with bright khadi kurta that were shapeless and loose fitting. That did not bother me one bit. I was a prude, I knew it and did not try to appear otherwise. I must be seen and understood the way I am was so important. So, when Ranjan, my good old friend and classmate in college asked me if I was a Marxist on a  day I was wearing a red khadi kurta with my blue jeans, I felt deeply embarrassed not only because someone had noticed and commented on my kurta but also because despite my left sympathies, I did not think I was a Marxist.

All through the 80’s while I pursued what would extend to decades of science, I was surrounded by people who wore what they pleased. Even at our wedding, I managed to steer clear of dressing up as a conventional bride. The first time I encountered what I perceived as conformity in clothing is in the women that I came across in social and cultural events in Madras. Each one would be wearing a south Indian silk saree. In 1989, I had found it both odd and stifling.

In the twenty five years that I lived in Bangalore, I have sensed a similar monotonous streak in the ubiquitous pants and tops and wondered why so many women dress in black. Ease of maintenance, flexibility, affordability and style of the times influence clothing norms. Is there also an unstated need to blend in? In the great melting pot that is the United States, I once walked into a restaurant in Albany in a blue silk kurta and churidar with my colleague, the tall and scholastic optical scientist Pavel Fomitchov, a first generation American from St. Petersburg. Several pairs of eyes turned to look at me. Tom Foo, the MRI stalwart was pleasantly surprised to see me in “traditional Indian dress” in office during a visit to Bangalore from Schenectady. The Chinese have almost entirely adopted the western mode of dressing, said he. I do not see any Chinese American wearing traditional attire any more, he rued.

Clothing therefore does reflect a certain mooring – both individual and social. It is indeed an aspect of identity. In a super stratified world, this form of identity can be loved or vilified and yet be exploited for commerce. We would need an explanation, a way to defend ourselves to demonstrate our allegiance to the fold of an identity that we know that has wider acceptance and approval. A classic depiction of this angst is in Raj Kapoor ambling along singing “Mera joota hein japani” in the 1955 Hindi film Shree 420.  The score sung by Mukesh, at once peppy and patriotic has stood the test of time.

Each time a controversy erupts over dress codes in India – marks of class, caste, age, gender, geography, religion or institution, I think it’s much ado about nothing. Then, I pause … For a sixteen-line verse, unforgettable and poignant I read as a part of my school text comes back to me. “Prarthanateeta Daan” (an offering beyond what is requested) by Robi Thakur is the story of Taru Singh. In a battle between the Pathans and the Sikhs, Taru Singh, a Sikh is imprisoned and presented before the King, the Nawab. The Nawab wishes to grant mercy and set him free so impressed he is by Taru Singh’s valor but under the condition that Taru Singh remove his braided hair as a gift to the Nawab. In a response that is quiet and gracious, Taru Singh thanks the Nawab for his compassion and offers the Nawab the gift of his head along with the braid. Kesh (keeping long hair) is one of core tenets of Sikh religion.

See also: https://www.indoindians.com/prarthanatit-dan/

The tug of longing

The most charming of all places I visited for meetings with our collaborators when I worked for GE’s Research Centre was a village in Austria called Zipf. In 1947, this is where Paul Kretz had founded a company called Kretztechnic to make wire mesh products like baskets and containers for milk bottles. Kretz made a foray into non-destructive testing with ultrasound in the early 1950’s, adapted it for ophthalmic diagnosis, thereafter pioneered continuous improvement in the  design, development, manufacture and applications of medical ultrasound. GE acquired Kretz in 2001 and the business is now called Women’s Health Ultrasound (WHUS) for its focus on maternal reproductive health and fetal development. We worked on some interesting clinical problems with our colleagues in WHUS. Our discussions during the work-day invariably led to new ideas for future projects. Since we travelled there during summer, the days were long and allowed for a spell that I spent in my room at the Bokhiasl in Neukirchen listening to waltzes composed by Johannes Strauss on my i-pod as I worked on my laptop. After a while, we would walk past the May Pole and the ringing Church bells for dinner to the local restaurant. Salads, freshly baked bread, pasta or pizza that we washed down with the Zipfer brew as the sun dipped down the horizon leaving a strange glow over the rolling hills and cottages. I felt at peace.

I travelled to the United States more often, in particular upstate New York to the headquarters of the Research Centre in Niskayuna, Albany. The familiar hallways, faces, shared joy of applying principles of physics to engineering problems provided a validation for why I worked in the Company despite being a bit of an outlier in my lab back in Bangalore. And, yet, it seemed illusive and ephemeral. A sense of this is not my country, I happen to be here for work stayed at the back of my mind.  By the time I boarded the flight back  home, I was desperate for the cool Bangalore breeze, my bed back at home, my pillow under my head.

The pandemic forced us into abstinence from travel, reconsider our notion of space, home, the familiar and safe. My closest friends suddenly seemed really far away. Jyoti walked by the shoreline park near her home in the Bay Area of California every evening in synchrony with the water, air, skies and the geese. Rita and Radhika sent me photographs of trees painted in fall colors from New York State last autumn on the same day. I was struck by how their intensity seemed to carry the signature of their latitudes. In the meantime, Kevin, who gives me a hair cut once every few months has made a living and home in Bangalore, more than two thousand miles away from his origins in Manipur state located in north-eastern India. He says he loves this city and its people.

I have found my mind wandering back to one of the earliest poems that I read in school. Singular in its simplicity and penned by Robi Thakur (Rabindranath Tagore) it was called Talgachh (Palm Tree) [1]. This is how I would summarize the essence of the poem in English. The tall and lanky palm peeps into the open skies, watches the clouds waft past, her leaves quiver – restless like the breeze during the day, she yearns to grow wings and fly to the stars. As the lights dim and the winds quieten down, she remembers her roots, the soil that has nurtured her and finds contentment once again in the corner of the Earth.

I used to think that the verse implied her realization of home and happiness in belonging to her corner of the Earth. It is only in the recent times, it has occurred to me that Tagore may be chuckling at me. For the Earth is a spheroid and in a continuous mathematical representation it does not harbor corners! It is very likely that the poet who embodied the spirit of humanism and celebrated this amazing universe must have meant Earth as representing a corner of the mighty infinite that we still do not fully comprehend.

 The tug of longing may be for our hearth, and yet, belonging is tethered to our Earth.  

[1] There are possibly several translations of this poem into English. I located one on a wordpress site on Bangla literature. https://jyotirjagat.wordpress.com/tag/talgachh-ek-paye-dariye/

 

The Gollapalli Coreopsis

August 29 was that rare day we spent away from home in 2021. Under the open skies, amidst the green fields, free of the mask, I breathed hard the fresh air of the countryside and watched a blog come alive. We were at the farm of my friend Harini in Gollapalli. It was a picturesque rolling land, located in Krishnagiri district of the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, a couple of hours drive from our campus on Bannerghatta Road in Bangalore.

That evening I returned home with a fistful of seeds that I picked off one of my favorite flowers thronging the paths that meandered through the gently sloping farmland. In Bangalore they call these brilliantly hued, swaying-in-the-breeze yellow and saffron blooms Cosmos. My mother who grew up with an abundance of flora in Shimla insists they are Coreopsis. We scattered the seeds over several patches in our side-yard. As they started sprouting in early September, I dared to dream.

But, the first flower to appear on December 1 was not on the side-yard but in a small green ceramic pot placed on the steps leading to the back garden in which I had planted a few seeds too. After the ceaseless rains that had drenched the city for months, when the sun rose from behind the thicket of the teak, it warmed the pot and the soil inside caressing the green shoots until the buds sprung forth. The sun started steering towards the side-yard only after the winter solstice. By then, the foliage that had grown tall and thick through the monsoon was beginning to get weary of water and the gray weather. Much of their center, the seat of flowering was starting to turn brown as they yearned for the sun. So, twenty weeks since those little shoots had inspired my imagination, my dream is only partly realized. While flowers have graced the edges of the peripheral patch, the rest remain a clutter of leafy stems.

Dispersion is a way of life. Much of humanity moves. From village to town, to a different city or state, migrate to another country.  Our trajectories may be crafted by search for jobs, new opportunities, a more exciting and comfortable life, a desire to be free. But we blossom pretty much like the Coreopsis from Gollapalli in my side-yard, in the patch that is infused with warmth.

Chance, Dreams, Portents

The disaster in Uttarakhand struck on February 7, the same day I had posted Union and Flow hinting at the ecological implication of the Ken-Betwa river link project. A week later while reading Haruki Murakami’s Underground, I recalled my own adventures in the Tokyo Metro. When my cousin Mantu called, I suddenly realized it was February 15, the day her mother in law had passed away six years ago. I was in the Passage to Haneda once more. These and what follow offer sufficient alibi to merit a special celebration to end a year In the Magical World of Telepathy ….

Shahid Khan was one of my early Human Resource Managers at GE. I was 38 and in my first corporate job. One day, I saw shining silver gray laptops emerging from their boxes and being given to a few of my colleagues in the lab. Needless to say they were all men. When I had asked why I was not given one, I was told I would get one from the next lot that came. I was surprised that I did not even know that laptops were going to be distributed; the lack of transparency had seemed unfair. I had walked up to Shahid to understand why there was a difference between stated organizational values and behavior. “Out here nothing comes free, you have to ask for it “ was his pithy advice, one that endured.

We met after many years in early January of 2020 and chatted over lunch at Toscano. I had taken for him a copy of Mindfulness – Connecting with the Real You. Before we parted, he pulled out a copy of The Little Book of Ikigai from his bag and gifted it to me. 

******

“In some ways, it is a small world. I have never been to England but a good friend of mine who recently moved to Chicago from Bangalore gifted me a book called The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane that I am reading now. It is a fascinating tale of walking on foot. I wondered whether you had any experience with these paths in your years of growing up in England.”

I wrote this to Jinny, Rishi’s cousin who lives in Washington DC. Arunabha Roy was the good friend, a fellow Physicist who works for Siemens.

Jinny wrote back a with vivid description of her own journeys on these paths. Her standard childhood outings from Cambridge where she lived with her mother was to Wandlebury Ring, an Iron Age fort alongside a Roman road that was built on top of one of the dykes that drained the Fenlands. She also recounted a summer holiday that Sudha Bharadwaj spent with her when she was around 10 when “Krishna was in Cambridge for research”. They had poured over Ordnance Survey maps and planned a day’s walk around the neighbouring villages. They had set out around 8 a.m. walked and walked through wheat fields, inevitably got lost and limped back home around 5 p.m. To this day she remains amazed that the mothers had allowed them to go!

As I read her email, I felt I was re-reading Macfarlane. The only time I have walked in a similar spirit was with Rishi and a bunch of tourists in an exploration of Tel Aviv where we were introduced to buildings and architecture, their evolution over time, trees that grew around and a bit of social history. Half way into Macfarlane, I discovered that he is friends with Raja Shehadeh. They had walked together on the old paths in England and in Palestine. I had read “When the line is drawn”, his stirring memoir of growing up and living in a fractured land in 2019.

******

In my dream on the night of January 11, I had just stepped out of the Central Bank of India and was standing by the sidewalks of the chaotic BTM Layout Ring Road in Bangalore. Rita, my dear friend for close to forty years was coming to pick me up. The car was going to come down the other side of the road. And there she was waving out to me as she drove a car colored deep blue.  By the time the car came around and picked me up, she, her mom, me and my mom were in the car, she was in the third row with her mom, me and my mom were in the second row and the car was moving driverless! I was exclaiming ooh it’s a Tesla, Rita and terrified that it may not be trained for this road full of obstacles in the throes of the metro construction but the car drove on snaking in and out ..

Two days later, a press report announced that Tesla had made its debut in India. When I narrated my dream to Rita, she chuckled and told me that they were in the process of acquiring a blue hued Tesla. Rita lives in New Jersey. She came to spend a while with her mom who lived in Jaipur during April. Auntie had been slowing down physically and irreversibly. The last time I had met her was about fifteen years back. She passed away in May.

*****

I had not met him since May 2019. Earlier this month, I dreamt my uncle, Murari Mesho on the night of December 5. We were sitting with my cousin Mini, his daughter in their home in Gurugram. He was in Bermuda shorts and a shirt, looked younger than how I had seen him the last time. He was walking around, talking and laughing the punctuated and slightly shy laughter that had been so characteristic of him.

Uncle had aged considerably in the last few years and had been ailing. He passed away in his sleep five days later on December 12.

*****

On November 30th, Satyajit Banerjee, my friend and a good old senior in Chemistry from college days sent me a delightful video titled Cooking with Abhijit Banerjee. Turns out that a former student of his who owns a YouTube site called Bong Eats was part of this Episode 2 of Rannaghore Ke (trn from Bangla: Who is in the Kitchen?)

Lo and behold, on the night of December 1, the Nobel Laureate appeared in my dream. He was in our apartment somewhat similar to where I lived in HSR Layout during 2014-2020. Both my parents were present and Rishi was there too. Bappa, my Dad makes a rare visit in my dreams. This one was one of those. The central theme of the dream was that Abhijit Banerjee was cooking and I was his assistant. Once the food was done, we laid out the table. Then I got totally absorbed in devouring the delectable dishes. In my dream I asked myself why I was behaving like a glutton and decided It was because someone else had cooked for me after what seemed like a very long time! The dream folded up with spectacular neatness as the door of the descending elevator closed on our Nobel visitor.

Our mutual friend Shampa Banerjee with whom I shared this hilarious dream said to me “what a pleasant dream … perhaps he will visit IIM-B and your dream will come true?”

******

What are the chances that Sudha Bharadwaj will be free to walk the old paths again?

 

Chronicle of an Observer

What follows are my observations from An Encounter with Early Detection. As much about me as what I saw and heard; they are not dispassionate.

It was not the first time I watched nurses struggling to find a vein. I would have donated blood about a dozen times between 1983 and 2008. I noticed that they would start with my right forearm, feel around the area, peer at it, clean it with cotton wool, practically ready themselves to insert the needle and then figure that the vein is not easily visible. Next they would repeat the process on the left forearm, find the vein much quicker. In order to  make it simpler for me and them, after the first few times, I started to tell them at the outset that veins are more easily accessible on my left arm.

The immersive hours I spent in clinical environments and with doctors during my years in medical imaging research at GE [1] came after 2008. Watching two nurses, one junior followed by a senior poking Rishi at multiple locations in both his hands, patching up each spot with a gauze and continuing the search for a vein appropriate for the IV [2] line provided me with a fresh perspective on what I experienced and how I responded during the blood donations. Each time I offered my left arm to find the vein to stick the needle into, it would have saved the phlebotomist a few minutes of process time. The 1-2 extra minutes may not matter so much during a blood donation drive but in a large hospital setting where thousands of patients undergo some form of intravenous needle puncture each day, the search for vein possibly leads to a loss of a day or two? That would be a big deal if it were a cardiologist’s time. Perhaps it matters less for a nurse or a technician or even the patient? Nurses cost less, the gauze is mostly reliable as a patch over a tiny jab and not expensive, few minutes is possibly less than 1% of the time that the patient will spend in the hospital.

And, yet, thought I, may be guided by a few millimetres wide infrared laser tip it could possibly be so much quicker and simpler to locate a vein reliably? Perhaps the ubiquitous AI [3] algorithm with a binary output would have added benefits? May be such aids have already been developed and in use somewhere in the world? I have not searched …

Puncturing the artery is much more tricky. Arteries are embedded deeper than the relatively superficial veins. And because arterial pressure is higher, blood tends to ooze out in larger quantity and for longer time before the wound from the injected needle heals. Angiogram involves sending a catheter through the femoral artery in the pelvic region or the radial artery in the wrist. I was not inside the Cath Lab to witness this but Rishi reported to me later that Dr. Mehrotra was keen on performing the procedure through the radial artery. So, Rishi got the first arterial puncture in the wrist. It turned out to be difficult to thread the stent through this artery and they had to fall back to the traditional site in the groin. Rishi got a second puncture in the femoral artery which is bigger in diameter and easier to send the catheter through. Since only a local anaesthesia was applied, he was sufficiently aware to watch the drama of the interventionist showing off his knowledge of the latest innovations in cardiac intervention and acumen to his boss Dr. Shetty who had come to check in on the progress so that the team could decide on the therapeutic option. After the procedure was over, Rishi was wheeled into the CCU [4], placed on the bed and asked to lie still on his back for several hours so that the punctures could heal. Since there is higher volume of blood in the femoral artery and its location is more susceptible to movement, healing the puncture there is harder and longer than in the wrist. It is little wonder then that Dr. Mehrotra tried the radial artery first.

Rishi was stable and recovering well. Dr. Mehrotra came on his round when I was away to see my mother. He was apparently so delighted to see Rishi looking good, he got the nurses to “mobilise” him much to their discomfiture said Rishi to me after I had got back. The nurses were afraid that healing was not complete and they turned out to be correct. Because it did bleed a bit,  enough to have everyone alarmed; they had to rapidly re-dress the area and order Rishi back to lie on his back. “Cowboy” as Rishi christened him was more sober the following morning. Chance of a hematoma worry the nurses. Dr. Shetty later told us that in the days before some wonder gauzes, thanks to new material technologies, came to be, nurses had to hold down and apply pressure on the site where the tiny hole is made in the femoral artery anywhere up to ten hours so that it would stop bleeding and heal.  

Earlier in the day, glimpse of the angiogram on the monitor had brought back memories of a project that my lab-mates  were working on almost twenty years back at a time when I was completely new to medical imaging. But this was not the sonographic view of the fetal head on which I can identify the midline falx and the butterfly structure. That level of familiarity comes from having intimately stared at more than five hundred such images over a period of about five years. I peered at the arteries branching out with no idea of their positions relative to the aorta or the viewing angle of the frame for I am not conversant for the coronary tree. I had the temerity to ask Dr. Shetty “where is the aorta on this frame”? It is not visible here, he said – “it is to the left of the image”.

It was strange that Rishi was on the table inside the Cath Lab and my brain was at once attempting to read the image and recollecting the slew of early detection projects that crossed my path at GRC [5] including the CVD (cardiovascular disease) project during the heydays of Healthymagination. I had witnessed risk assessment with Framingham scores, cardiac ultrasound, automated analysis of vital monitoring and ECG [6]. I had even visited the ICU [7] of NH [8] with a bunch of GE colleagues about ten years back and prepared a note on open clinical problems for our then new lab.

Does that deep abiding interest help in the clarity and ownership of decision making in real life when a loved one is undergoing an intervention?

The night I spent in the CCU as Rishi’s attendant I found the echographer who had run a series of scans to check Rishi’s cardiac function catching a nap on a chair outside our room. These were the people, thought I, who breathed life into critical care.

This too was an immersion for me. But it was different. In the past it was the idea of discovering new science and inventing methods based on it for medicine that had motivated me. This time I drew inspiration from the capacity of science and engineering to help the medical community.

[1] General Electric Company

[2] Intravenous

[3] Artificial intelligence

[4] Critical Care Unit

[5] GE Global Research

[6] Electrocardiogram

[7] Intensive Care Unit

[8] Narayana Hrudayalaya

(Concluded)