Friday, December 18, 2009

Tribal medicine in the 21st century

While the cities boast of hospitals with the latest technology and procedures from the west, rural India boasts of ancient tribal remedies which can cure just about anything that can afflict you

Eisha Sarkar

Posted on Times Wellness on Monday, December 14, 2009

"Medicine is medicine, there's no other name for it," Janu Bhai Thakrey responds as we watch him chop a piece of wood into two-centimetre-thick slices. He turns to his 'patient' from Surat and tells her, "Grind these, boil them in water for half an hour. Then filter the water and drink it twice a day. Your cancer will become better." The patient notes down the prescription on a yellow chit as others wait impatiently for their turn.

Thakrey is just one of the bhagats (tribal healers) that The Dangs, Gujarat boasts off. Sitting in his own 'clinic' (a shabby corner storage room at the back of a run-down chai joint in Ahwa) he doles out ancient tribal remedies - fruits, shoots and roots - to the throng of patients from all over Gujarat and even beyond.

Nature cure in its purest form
The Dangs is Gujarat's densest forest that extends into Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Besides Valsadi teak, the forest produces an array of medicinal trees such as:
1. Solanum indicum: Roots are diaphoretic, diuretic, expectorant, stimulant. The root is used against bronchites, itch and for bodyaches, for asthma and to cure wounds while the seeds are used to treat toothache.
2. Embelia ribes: The dried fruits are anti-bacterial, anti-inflammatory, anti-diuretic and anti-astringent.
3. Tylophora indica: The leaves and roots have emetic, cathartic, laxative, expectorant, diaphoretic and purgative properties. It has also been used for the treatment of allergies, cold, dysentery, hay fever and arthritis. It has reputation as an alterative and as a blood purifier, often used in rheumatism. Root or leaf powder is used in diarrhoea, dysentery and intermittent fever.
4. Nordostachys jatamansi: The roots or rhizomes are used for medicinal purpose. Jatamamsi can be used both, internally as well as externally. The paste prepared in cold water is beneficial to reduce the burning sensation. It also imparts fair complexion to the skin and alleviates the pain and swelling. It also effectively relieves the symptoms like vertigo, seizures, etc.
5. Coleus forskohlii: It is found to be effective in skin conditions as eczema and psoriasis. It can aid in weight loss due to its ability to breakdown stored fat as well as inhibit the synthesis of adipose tissue, additionally, it increases thyroid hormone production and release thereby increasing metabolism. Ophthalmic preparation of the chief alkaloid forskolin to the eyes lowers eye pressure thus reducing the risk of glaucoma.

Wave Theory and black magic
While naturopathy is the most important healing technique in all of The Dangs, the bhagats also use black magic to heal those who can't be cured by the herbs. During the annual food festival called Kurmari, thousands of tribal healers assemble during the full moon night to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. As tribal men sway to the beats of drums and pipes and chain dance around a pole, the bhagats compete with each other and exchange their knowledge of herbs and black magic. Tribals from all over The Dangs come to witness the competitions. Those looking for cures to serious ailments often come with goats, chickens and calves for sacrifice.

"The tribals believe in the Wave Theory. When you come in contact with another person there is an exchange of waves. This exchange could be positive or negative. When someone abuses you, the impact is different from when someone speaks to you with love and affection. Healing processes here too have two different roles. On one side, they can help make you feel better. On the other hand, they can weaken your immune system and make you ill," says Anil Patel, a filmmaker who has been documenting the lives of the tribals in The Dangs.

"Rather die than go to a hospital"
"The tribals are humanists and find all their cures in nature. In the whole district, there's only one civil hospital in Ahwa. Most people here are familiar with basic natural remedies. They know what to do in case of cuts, bruises and a mild case of fever. For more complex diseases such as malaria and typhoid they go to the bhagat. Only in very, very serious cases do they think of leaving the forest to go to the hospital. In many cases they'd rather die than get treated in a 'closed' hospital," says Patel.

Urban diseases such as diabetes, coronary artery disease and cancer are rare among the tribal population. The average life expectancy is around 80 (in Mumbai it is 56.8) and the most common diseases are malaria (only during the monsoon) and skin disorders such as acne and eczema.

Prevention may be cure in urban India, but here the cure is nature and the faith that tribals have in its power to tackle all human problems.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Mariam's World

This is the first of my new series called Mariam's World. It's inspired by the Iranian comic book, Persepolis. Check it out and lemme know your comments. There are more that will follow soon.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

The marathon

"Waaaat! Marathon?! U gone bonkers or wat?" See that's the problem with friends. Tell them you're ready to take on the world and do something extraordinary and they either have an expression on their face which reads, "You didn't just say that" or they smile indulgently secretly hoping that you'll come round soon and toe the line of sanity.

Somehow, my crazy self always gets the upper-hand in such situations. It shook me awake at 4.30 am today, coaxed me to get out of my pyjamas and put on my Nike trackpants and the white Vadodara marathon t-shirt and my badminton shoes (this was the first time I tried them outdoors because I don't have another pair of running shoes) and brought me to the Navlakha ground in next to the Laxmi Vilas Palace to 5.30 am.

It was cold and the wind did make it any better for marathon runners (the official count was 30,000). We were stamped on like convicts and ushered into our respective categories - Dream Run Men/Women 5 km, Dream Run U-19 3 km, Dream run 45-60 yrs 3 km, 15 km, 21 km. Yes, this was the marathon. Vadodara doesn't have 42 kms of road it can spare for a Sunday event like this. The route was circular, passing through the old walled city areas of Dandiabazar and Raopura. That, and only that, was my reason to run. I haven't had much opportunity to see the old city on foot. In Vadodara, people simply don't walk. And if you do, you'll find a bunch of autos queuing up behind you, hoping that you'll take a lift. Plus, I hadn't had the chance to see Vadodara at sunrise, except while stepping out of the station (you get the awesome view of the sun rising from behind the dome of the MS University).

When you wake up so early for a run, you just want to run. The cold was getting to me and I kept shifting on my feet as all marathon runners waited for the flag off. But before that, like most events in India, we had to stand through an hour-long speech-cum-cultural programme ritual. I had hoped for Queen, I got a prayer sung by one of our friends' schoolteachers. There was a flutter amongst the schoolkids as the Pathan brothers (they were the flagbearers) were introduced along with a chain of other celebs Kapil Dev (yawn!), Paresh Rawal, Manav Gohil and a few others. Then came the Chief Minister's speech, "Vadodara is about Gandhi, Gaekwad, Modi and Pathan". Modi had ditched his saffron robes for a black safari suit and had spiced his speech up with poetry on communal harmony and national integration. "Buck up," he said, when people were leaving the ground for the 15 km run.

I looked around to find women in tight jeans sporting chandelier earrings. Some had worn floaters with socks, others had wrapped silk stoles around their necks. Vadodara Marathon isn't just about sport! The marathon was flagged off and a sea of humanity walked, yes walked, out of the ground. It took a photographer, perched atop a gate, to point his camera to actually get people to jog. People looked for company and chatted noisily as if they were out for their regular morning walk. In Mumbai, people train before the marathon. In Vadodara, the marathon is seen as the stepping stone to launch into a fitness regimen.

I jogged alone, pausing once to pick up a bottle of water from the stall. While the organisers had arranged for lots of water bottles, they hadn't thought much of dustbins to dispose the water bottles and sachets. We played hurdle race as we avoided heaps of used water bottles on the road. We were running for the city. But we had just ruined it.

The 5 km run ended in chaos. There were two boards labelled as Finishing Point. I did not know where to run. Like most people, I chose to run to the one closer to the car park (it makes sense to just go home straight after a run like that). The winners we'll know of in tomorrow's paper.

I am not a marathon person. In Mumbai I would always cheer (or even sneer at) those who would walk during the marathon. At least now I know how difficult it is. But I'm happy I got to see the old city. Will I run another next year? Maybe if I am in another city!

Friday, November 20, 2009

2 States - The story of my marriage

Author: Chetan Bhagat
Rs 95
Pages: 269

Eisha Sarkar

Posted on Thursday on Mumbai Mirror on November 19, 2009 at 06:06:47 PM

The IIM-Ahmedabad campus, a Punjabi IIT graduate, a Tamilian Economics major, a little bit of mush and sex, a lot of family drama and finally, a wedding - that's pop-fiction author Chetan Bhagat's latest offering for you. This is Bhagat at his best. In 2 States (note that all his titles have a number), he doles out the old Bollywood story of a North Indian boy and South Indian girl, sets it in the backdrop of India's elite business school, Citibank and HLL, adds a 'personal touch' (this is, after all, the story of his marriage) and finds fans responding, "Please upload your wife's photograph. I am eager to see her," on his website.

It's little wonder Bhagat is India's bestselling English writer. He writes in a language people can understand. He hits the jackpot with marriage as a theme. We take our marriages very seriously. As the book's back cover mentions, "Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Girl's family has to love boy. Boy's family has to love girl. Girl's family has to love the boy's family. Boy's family has to love the girl's family. Girl and boy still love each other. They get married."

So the story's not really about marriage but how Krish Malhotra from Delhi and Ananya Swaminathan from Chennai (the two protagonists) actually get there. It actually kicks-off when things turn sour at their IIM convocation ceremony. Their parents meet for the first time and disapprove of the relationship. The rest of the story is about how they try to win back their to-be in-laws after a series of futile attempts. Like all love stories do, this one also has a happy ending.

Though Bhagat's potrayal of paneer-eating, party-loving Punjabis and Carnatic connoiseur Tamilians is stereotyped, it works because it allows for visual imagery. The book itself is a good read. It's quick-paced and light thanks to a good dose of colloquial humour) and is perfect for a short train or bus ride.

What it lacks is an element of surprise. The book takes off from where Five Point Someone ended. Only it isn't as good. That 'geeks' too have a heart and can deeply fall in love with someone is not new anymore. So is the fact that the male protagonist comes from a dysfunctional family. The other characters seem like they have stepped out of one those 1990s Bollywood family dramas. After a point, even the humour isn’t funny. You keep reading the book hoping Bhagat will pull something out from his hat and you're left disappointed.
Read 2 States like you would watch a masala Hindi flick and you may actually like it. Don't look for anything cerebral; don't expect much and you'll have a smile on your face when it ends.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Nine lives, a nation's soul

Book: Nine Lives - In search of the sacred in modern India
Author: William Dalrymple
Publisher: Bloomsbury
Price: Rs 399
Pages: 284

Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 01:20:39 PM

"Before you drink from a skull, your must first find the right corpse," Manisha Ma Bhairavi says even as her dreadlocked partner, Tapan Sadhu sitting at the back of the hut with a radio clamped to his ear shouts excitedly, "England are 270 for four!" This is the India British author William Dalrymple writes about in his latest book, Nine Lives. This is the India where mysticism cohabits with modernity, where even the fallen are worshipped, the outcasts form communities and where even a sadhu can be a MBA!

In his 'first book after a decade' author-historian-journalist Dalrymple unravels the many paradoxes that make up the very fluid fabric of Indian society. With the help of nine lives, he taps into the soul of the nation.

Nine Lives is a collection of linked non-fiction short stories, with each life representing a different form of devotion, or a different religious path. A Buddhist monk takes up arms to resist the Chinese invasion of Tibet - then spends years trying to atone for the violence by hand-printing prayer flags in India. A Jain nun tests her powers of detachment as she watches her best friend starve to death. A middle-class woman leaves her family to live as a tantric in a remote cremation ground. A prison warden in Kerala becomes, for two months a year, a temple dancer and is worshipped as an incarnate deity. An idol-maker from Tamil Nadu, the twenty-third in a long hereditary chain stretching back to the great bronze casters of the Chola Empire, worries if the next generation will take on this art "in the age of computers". A triple refugee from Bihar finds her place as the Red Fairy in a Sufi shrine in Pakistan even as the threat from Islamic fundamentalism looms over. A devdasi initially resists her initiation into sex work, yet pushes her daughter into a trade she now regards as a sacred calling.

Dalrymple's journey takes him from Sravanabelagola in Karnataka to the deserts of Rajasthan to the temples of Tanjore and Kerala and madrassas of Sindh before culminating in the lakeside country villages of West Bengal. He documents the oral histories of not just these nine lives but even of the cults and religions to which they belong, some going back to the time of the Rig Veda.

Each life acts "as a keyhole into the way that specific religious vocation has been caught and transformed in the vortex of India's metamorphosis during this rapid period of transition, while revealing the extraordinary persistence of faith and ritual in a fast-changing landscape." Yet, in spite of all the development India boasts of, Dalrymple finds his holy men and women discussing and agonising "about the same eternal quandaries that absorbed the holy men of classical India thousands of years ago" - the quest for material wealth against the claims of the spirit, personal devotion against conventional religion, textual orthodoxy against the emotional appeal of mysticism and the age-old war of duty and desire.

That Dalrymple is an accomplished writer is a fact. But it's remarkable journalism that makes this book a must-read. He steps aside and let's the people be the focus of the story. He brings himself in as only the thread that holds the stories together. The author has done well to add a glossary and a very note on the origin of the font type (Linotype Stempel Garamond) used in the book.

Nine Lives isn't just another travel book. It's a window to contemporary India - the one that remains forgotten or hidden, but is very much out there on the road, quite literally. As Dalrymple puts it, "The water moves on, a little faster than before, yet still the great river flows. It is as fluid and unpredictable in its moods as it has ever been, but it meanders within familiar banks."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Which is my city?

"Vadodara is not your city, Mumbai is," my friend told me. I could have shirked it off as just a casual remark. But I didn't. It set me thinking. "Which is my city?" I have been living in Vadodara for the past one year (a fortnight less) but there's a lot more I still have to discover in this city.

In Vadodara when someone asks me where I am from, I say I'm a Bengali from Mumbai. In my 11 years in Mumbai when I was asked the same question, I would say, "I'm a Bengali but I've done my schooling at Pune." In Pune, I would boast of my early years in New Delhi. In Delhi, I would called Patna my hometown. In Patna, I would say, "I'm Bengali."

Every city has contributed to my being in some way. In Patna, I was born. I learnt the aplhabet in New Delhi. In Pune, I dreamt of being a scientist. In Mumbai, I realised that dream and went on to do other things - writing, just one of them. It was in Mumbai, I found love and work. In Vadodara, I've found companionship. Now, which city do I call my own?

I am not a nomad but I have no roots. I have moved places but there are none I can call my own. If I had the privilege, I would have preferred just India. But, like other things in this country, sadly it's the specifics that matter more...

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Majestic Moscow

Untouched by colonialism, Russia’s capital city is culturally very different from its European counterparts

Rachit Mankad

Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Friday, November 06, 2009 at 05:14:34 PM

One’s experience in a new country starts on the arrival at the airport. But, like all things in Russia, that too was very different.

My co-passengers aboard the Turkish Airlines plane were made of mainly Turks and Russians. As the plane touched down at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, they all broke into a cheerful applause – for the captain’s flying skills. Just then, the passenger next to me jumped out of his seat and ran along the aisle to ensure that he would be the first to alight. I have seen impatient passengers everywhere, but this was extraordinary even by Indian standards.

Looking at him, I was certain about one thing, my stay in Russia would be full of surprises.

Traffic jams everywhere
It took me an hour to get out of the parking lot of the airport. Traffic jams are common in Moscow. Ask a Muscovite about the time it would take to reach a destination, you'll get a response that begins with, "without traffic jams...”

If there's one word to describe Moscow, it would be majestic! Russia's capital city is a symbol of its past, present and future.

It's different

What really struck me first about the city was that it is very different from most other European capitals. As the world shrinks into a global village, cities such as London, Paris, Berlin and Rome are becoming increasingly similar in appearance with their malls, shopping boulevards, fast food joints, cinemas and amusement parks. Moscow, somehow, has managed to remain insular to this change.

Most Muscovites do not speak English and all sign boards are in Russian. The Moscow Metro, the first of its kind in the world, opened in 1935. The stations have turned into monuments and are even listed in tourist guides. If only the trains could match up to their promise…

Gimme Red!

Moscow's most popular tourist attraction is The Red Square. The square separates the trio of Kremlin (the Russian Parliament-cum-President’s residence), the former royal citadel and the state museum, from a historic merchant quarter known as Kitay-gorod.

The name Red Square derives neither from the colour of the bricks around it nor from the link between the colour and communism. Rather, it’s named the name came about because the Russian word krasnaya can mean either "red" or "beautiful". This word, with the meaning "beautiful", was originally applied to Saint Basil's Cathedral and was subsequently transferred to the nearby square. It is believed that the square acquired its current name (replacing the older Pozhar, or "burnt-out place") in the 17th century.

Of Pushkin and Matryoshka

The state museum has a rich collection of historical relics, right from the ice age to modern-day Russia. I walked down one of the streets around the Red Square where I bumped into a statue of the great Russian poet, Alexander Pushkin. A few steps further were souvenir shops selling the nested matryoshka (a set of dolls of decreasing sizes placed one inside the other) for 200 Rubles (Rs 323) each and souvenir spoons for 2.5 Euros (Rs 174) each.

I browsed through the Kievskaya mall and the GUM department store (arguably Russia’s poshest mall) as people made their way into the super-expensive nightclubs at Tverskaya.

On my way to the hotel, I caught a glimpse of the imposing Foreign Ministry skyscraper. My guide Pavel noted, “Stalin believed that constructing tall, turreted buildings he would attain cosmic powers. He had constructed 11 such buildings during his time.”

Bread and board
There are two things Russia’s famous for – vodka and caviar. I headed to a Czech restaurant, Prazecka at Proletarskayafor a baked piece of chicken and some salmon kebabs that I washed down with some very good vodka. There were few options for hard-core vegetarians. As for the caviar, I picked it up a jar of red caviar for R260 (Rs 420) from the airport itself.

Accommodation is expensive in Moscow and can cost anything upwards of 150 Euros (Rs 10,457) a night. The closer you are to Red Square, the more expensive it gets.

Russia is different – very different and it gives you an experience that you may never get in any other country. On that note - Do Svidanya.

Also on

Monday, October 26, 2009

Book review: Go Kiss the World

Author: Subroto Bagchi
Publisher: Penguin Portfolio
Price: Rs 399
Pages: 239

With a title like this one, it would be hard to miss this book. Why should a book for your professionals be named, Go Kiss the World? Probably, because it glues your eyeballs to itscover, or maybe because it's not the run-of-the-mill kind of title for a management guide. Or, probably because they were last words spoken by author-entrepreneur Subroto Bagchi's blind mother.

Go Kiss the World describes Bagchi's journey from his early days in Patnagarh in Orissa to to eventually co-founding the multi-million dollar MindTree, one of India’s most admired software services companies. The book's largely autobiographical but it goes much beyond Bagchi's own story.

He talks about his family - of his father's job as a tehsildar in small-town Orissa, the role his brothers played in his life in shaping his personality, how he almost got into the armed forces, his setbacks while working as a trainee at the secretariat in Bhubaneshwar, his years at the Delhi Cloth Mills (DCM) and the men who ran the "business like a spiritual dictator".

He draws parallels between Jonathan Livingston Seagull and his early days as a salesman at HCL which were uncomfortable. He talks of his first stint as an entrepreneur with Project.21 way back in 1985, at a time when "the country's annual computer offtake would be counted in hundreds". But it was at Wipro where Bagchi found his feet and help turn Wipro around from a mini-computer manufacturer to a global software giant. He credits his experiences at Wipro that led him to start the global IT solutions company, MindTree.

In the last chapter of the book, he enlists “the important lessons I’ve learnt in my life”, where he stresses on believing in yourself and the need to connect with people however ‘marginal’ they may seem to be.

The book makes for an interesting and inspiring read. That someone from the backlands of Orissa could go on to found one of India's global IT firms is indeed remarkable. Bagchi's done well to not just highlight his successes but also his failures. That's the mark of a good leader. The book's high on technology so it may be a little difficult for lay readers to grasp. Yet, its human element - Bagchi's childhood of little material means but great contentment, his brothers mentoring him and him trying to quieten his children as he worked from a home office for Wipro in California - touch a chord.

Thoughtfully, the author has drawn up a list of books - some of which have been quoted in the text - for his readers. Few writers think of giving something more than a story. For Bagchi, the book's not a PR device; it's more of a sign of contentment and fulfillment. Cheers to that!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Alternatives to soap

Soap isn’t the only substance that can wash those germs off your hands. Here are some other alternatives

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Times Wellness on Thursday, October 15, 2009

Remember when you were a child and mom yelled out, "Go wash your hands before you put anything in your mouth." You would run to the sink, turn on the tap, lather the soap slowly waiting for mom to calm down before you could head back to the dining table. No matter what mom and the doctor told you, soap isn't the only thing that can keep your hands clean.

Here are a few others people from around the world have used time and again to ensure your hands are free of dirt and germs

Hand antiseptic or hand sanitizer
These non-water-based hand hygiene agents starting becoming popular in the late 1990s. Most are based on isopropyl alcohol or ethanol-formulated together with a thickening agent such as Carbomer into a gel, or glycerin into a liquid, or foam for ease of use and to decrease the drying effect of the alcohol.

Hand sanitizers containing a minimum of 60 to 95 per cent alcohol are efficient germ-killers. Alcohol rub sanitizers kill bacteria (including multi-drug resistant bacteria and Mycobacterium tuberculosis, and viruses (including HIV, herpes, RSV, rhinovirus, vaccinia, influenza, and hepatitis) and fungus. Alcohol rub sanitizers can prevent the transfer of health-care associated pathogens (Gram-negative bacteria) better than soap and water.


For centuries, people in India and Nepal have been doing their laundry and cleaning with soap-nuts. The 'nut' is actually the dried fruit of the reetha tree (Sapindus mukorossi and Sapindus trifaliatus). Also referred to as washing nuts or reetha (in Hindi), soap-nuts contain ‘saponins’, which have the ability to clean and wash. On coming into contact with water, soap-nuts release mild suds, which is similar to soap lather.

Soap-nuts are safe for babies and people who suffer from eczema and sensitive skin.

Hand wipes
They are easier to use when you are travelling or have to remain outdoors for work or for any other purpose. You may easily carry your own antibacterial hand wipes in your purse or in your car for instant cleaning. There are different types of hand wipes available in the stores such as dry wipes, alcohol-free wipes, water-free hand wipes, sanitizing hand wipes, pre-moistened hand wipes and antibacterial hand wipes. Most wipes boast of killing 99 per cent of the germs. Perfumed hand wipes can also keep your hands smelling great throughout the day.

Iodine wash
It is used mainly in operation theatres of hospitals during surgeries. To 'scrub' one's hands for a surgical operation, a tap that can be turned on and off without touching with the hands, some chlorhexidine or iodine wash, sterile towels for drying the hands after washing, and a sterile brush for scrubbing and another sterile instrument for cleaning under the fingernails are required. All jewellery should be removed. This procedure requires washing the hands and forearms up to the elbow for usually two to six minutes.

Mud or ash
In rural Bangladesh, soap is not commonly used for handwashing. It is expensive and is used more for cosmetic purposes. Hands are usually washed with water only. After anal cleansing following defecation most rural people rub their left hand on the ground and rinse it with water. Ash is not widely used, although it is often promoted in health education programmes. A 1993 study of 20 women from a low-income community in Dhaka found that soap, mud or ash are equally effective in reducing contamination. Indeed, dirt can help you wash off dirt!

The evolution of soap

When Elton asked me to do a story on soaps for a special feature on the occasion of the first Global Handwashing Day, I was surprised that such a thing would call for a celebration. But then, with swine flu fears raging all around, it wouldn't be a bad idea to tell people to wash their hands properly, I thought. While reading online, I stumbled upon a little piece on how the Babylonians washed their hands. I read more on other civilisations and found interesting nuggests of information (even Persian manuscripts) about how soap came into being what we know of it today. Read on for more...

Keeping hands clean is not a modern affair. On Global Handwashing Day, we trace the origin and evolution of the quest for clean hands

Eisha Sarkar Posted on Times Wellness on Thursday, October 15, 2009

There’s nothing as selfless as a bar of soap. It loses itself to make you pure. From its humble beginnings in ancient Babylon to becoming a multi-billion dollar industry in itself, the soap has come a long way. The evolution of soap parallels the growth of civilisations of this planet.

Ash for shiny hair!
It is believed that prehistoric man used only water as a cleanser. In ancient Babylon (2800 BC), wood ashes were burned with animal and vegetable fats and this substance was used to cleanse and treat skin disease. It was also used ‘make hair shiny’.

'Washing' with sand
The Greeks were known to wash themselves with clay pumice and sand which stimulated the blood circulation in the body as well as removed dirt.

Oily baths
In the Greco-Roman era, perfumed oils were used for bathing and were combined with the use of the strigil, a metal implement used to scrape the skin free of oil and dirt.

From Mount Sapo
Soap got its name when the Romans discovered it at Mount Sapo, a popular location for animal sacrifices. Rain mixed the animal tallow with burned wood on the clay and a chemical reaction occurred. Women living near River Tiber found that clothes they washed using this substance were much cleaner.

While soap was in use during the Roman period its adoption may have been slow, despite the popularity of public and private baths throughout the empire. Possibly early soaps were not particularly attractive in appearance or smell, and were deemed more suitable for cleaning and laundering.

Manuscripts on soaps
Since 6AD, soap was produced in Nablus (West Bank), Kufa (Iraq) and Basra (Iraq). The A recently discovered manuscript from the 13th century spells out a recipe for making soap: Take some sesame oil, a sprinkle of potash, alkali and some lime, mix them all together and boil. When cooked, pour the mixture into molds and leave them to set.

The cold process
The early Americans made soap using the Cold Process, which yielded soap comprised of animal fat and lye extracted from wood ashes (potassium hydroxide). The substances were mixed and animal fat would be added along with steady stirring. Because of the time it took the soap to cure, soap makers would repeat this process twice a year.

William Colgate started a candle and soap making company in New York City in 1806. By 1906, the company was making over 3,000 different soaps, perfumes and other products.

The palm-and-olive oil soap
In 1898, Caleb Johnson's company in Milwaukee introduced a soap made of palm and olive oils, called Palmolive. It was so successful that that company changed their name to Palmolive in 1917.

"Soap that floats"
In 1897, a soap maker had gone off for lunch one day without turning off the soap mixer. More than the usual amount of air was shipped into the batch of pure white soap. Fearing he would get into trouble, he kept the mistake a secret and packaged and shipped the air-filled soap to customers around the country. Soon customers were asking for more "soap that floats".

Soap in a bottle
William Shepphard first patented liquid soap on August 22, 1865. In 1980, the Minnetonka Corporation introduced the first modern liquid soap and they cornered the market by buying up the entire supply of the plastic pumps needed for the liquid soap dispensers.

The germ-killer
In 1895, Lever Brothers created an antiseptic soap and coined the term "BO" for bad odour for its marketing campaign.

The modern soap
Today, soap is made using the cold process method where lye is added to palm oil, coconut oil, or olive oil, which causes the chemical reaction called saponification. The mixture is poured into a mold. The bars are then removed after setting and are restacked, covered and left to cure. The curing can can take anywhere from three to eight weeks.

Going soap-free
In order to prevent their skin from becoming dry, many people look for soap-free options. Once used only in hospitals, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are becoming increasingly popular. The alcohol ensures that your skin stays germ-free while the glycerine present prevents it from drying up.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dam it!

India's most controversial hydel power project, the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat, is slowly turning into an eco-tourism hotspot

We see a log floating in the middle of the Panchmuli pond in Kevadia, Gujarat. A closer look reveals it's a crocodile, the vehicle of Goddess Narmada who shares her name with Gujarat's most important river. They say, "Still waters run deep." None so much as the one that's contained in this pond, one of the many that have formed near the Sardar Sarovar Dam. A village died the day it was born. "But millions of people in Kutch and Saurashtra have benefited from the dam. This was barren land. It has now become fertile," notes Rajivbhai, our guide, pointing to the banana plantations nearby.

India's most controversial dam
We dwell on his comment as we take in the beauty of the surrounding Satpura hills. The Sardar Sarovar Dam has been in the news for over 40 years since Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru placed the foundation stone in 1961. The project only took form in 1979 as part of a development scheme to increase irrigation and produce hydroelectricity. With every new proposal to increase its height by a few metres (the initial proposed height was 49 metres while the current proposed height is 138 metres), the dam courts a fresh round of controversy.
The discord between the planners and Narmada Bachao Andolan, who are echoing the concerns of villagers and tribals who have been dislocated because of the project, is high. Little in the news speaks of the dam’s beauty, its reservoirs and canals teeming with carps and crocodiles and the dense forests that have replaced the once-barren hillocks.

Power house!
We take a ride in a bus through the 1.2 kilometre long tunnel that takes us deep into the riverbed. The bus stops at the river bed power house that resembles Mogambo's island in Mr India, with all its gizmos, forklifts, cable carts and engineers. We find six giant turbines before us (two each for Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh), which make 135 revolutions per minute to generate 200 MW of electricity. Poor rains this year haven’t given the turbines a chance to generate to their full capacity though.

Cable cars for concrete!
The 212-kilometre-long reservoir amidst the Satpura hills is simply breathtaking. The trickle of the Narmada downstream makes way for a huge water body on this side of the dam. This thing of beauty has come at a very high cost. It has washed away 103 villages in Madhya Pradesh, 19 in Gujarat and 36 in Maharashtra.

Our eyes catch the cables above the dam moving very slowly carrying bags. "What are those bags carrying?" "Concrete. There's a lot of construction going on," our guide says adding that the cost of transporting these cables from the Jawaharlal Nehru Port Trust in Mumbai to the dam site cost 30 times more than the cable itself.

Tourist attraction
The Sardar Sarovar Nigam Limited has tried hard to make reservoir and the main canal an environment-friendly zone to attract tourists by providing for a tarmac road, potable water, fountains, refreshment and food counters, civic amenities, street-lights, benches, parks, information centres, temples (Shoolpaneshwar Mahadev Temple and Aditeshwar Mahadev Temple) and picnic spots. The place also offers many opportunities for trekking and jungle walks.

At the bridge over the main canal, we watch a bunch schoolkids cheering on as a heron ducks into the water to grab a fish. A vendor haplessly looks on as cows stick their noses into the pile of bhutta (boiled) she's just cooked. We spot an odd crow picking on a piece of cucumber lying on the street. This is the dirtiest tourist spot in the dam’s vicinity. It's a fine line between commercialisation and conservation, we note. In India, the former has always come at the cost of the latter.

Where to stay
While there are a couple of hotels in Kevadia, the officer hostel blocks, Reva Bhavan and Community Hall are much closer to the dam site and much cheaper too. A room at the Circuit House comes for as little as Rs 55 for a night inclusive of breakfast and tea but the booking has to be done from Gandhinagar.

Getting there
It's a good 82 km drive along pothole-free roads from Bharuch via Ankleshwar, Rajpardi and Rajpipla. Bharuch is well connected to Mumbai by both road and rail.

Get in touch with

Public relation officer
Reception Centre
SSNNL Kevadia Colony
District Narmada
Pin: 393151
Tel: 02640-232533

Executive Director (Tourism)
Tourism Cell
SSNNL block No. 12
First floor
New Sachivalaya
Gandhinagar, Gujarat
Tel: 079-23252345
Fax: 079-23223056

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Don't miss a good story

Great Short Stories by Sufi Saints

Author: Manish Khatri
Publisher: The Book Paradise
Pages: 191
Price: Rs 60

By Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Monday, October 05, 2009 at 05:21:18 PM

The title suggests that this little-known book is a collection of stories of Sufi saints from round the world. Why should you read them? One, these are among the oldest stories in human history. Two, Sufism offers profound insights into human nature. Three, they're fun. And you certainly wouldn't want to miss a good story.

The 101 stories in the book, like mystical Sufi dervishes, help you transcend the barriers of time and space. Baghdad, Damascus, Herat, Kabul and Lahore may now be associated with conflict, war, pain and apathy, but the stories give you a picture of these places centuries ago.

Through the book, you enter the world of dervishes, djinns, magical jars, talking parrots, monks, deaf frogs, muezzins, caliphs, figurines, tyrannical kings and their harems, village simpletons and wise Sufi saints. You meet popular Persian, Afghan and Arabian characters such as Mullah Nasruddin, Bulla Shah, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (Ghazni), Maulana Rumi, Sadi and Imam Junayd. And after every story you learn a moral lesson.

Take the story, "The Branch and the root" for example. A certain caliph hosted a huge festival in Baghdad where thousands of beautiful artefacts, pieces of jewellery and precious stones were displayed. The invitation said that anyone could take anything they wished. One of the caliph's slave-girls did not pick up anything. When the caliph asked her to pick up something, she simply placed her hand on his and said, "Why should I hold a branch when I can reach for the root?" And with that, she became the ruler of his kingdom.

Though nearly all the stories are set in west Asia (there's one on Emperor Shah Jehan in Hindustan), some of the stories are very popular in India. 'Cooking by candle' featuring Mullah Nasruddin is actually a version of the popular tale of Birbal cooking khichdi by hanging the pot five feet above the fire.

There's also the story, 'Monkeys and Hats' featuring a young hatseller in Baghdad whose hats were stolen by monkeys when he was napping under an olive tree on one of his journeys. Sounds familiar? Well, it's the same hatseller story we've all learnt as kids. The young man got his hats back when the monkeys copied him after he threw his own onto the ground. Only, the story doesn't end there. Years later, the hatseller's grandson encounters a similar situation and does what his grandfather had done. Only, this time, the monkeys aren't willing to copy.

Great Short Stories by Sufi Saints makes for an interesting read. Kudos to the author, photographer-journalist Manish Khatri for that. Thankfully, the essence and the tone of the stories have been maintained through the translation. Since most of these stories have been attributed to Sufi saints, the author would have done well to mention where he sourced the stories from. Also, the numerous grammatical errors in the text could have been avoided. Still, they don't take much away from these delightful stories that speak of love, hate, betrayal and magic. Acknowledge their beauty and they'll bring you joy.

A journey through a forgotten world

Book review: From the Holy Mountain - A journey in the shadow of Byzantium
Author: William Dalrymple

Publisher: Penguin Books
Price: Rs 399
Pages: 483

By Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Thursday, October 08, 2009 at 04:19:40 PM

In this hard-hitting book, British author-journalist William Dalrymple embarks on a journey through the Middle East following the footsteps of a sixth century Byzantine traveller-monk, only to find that Islamic Fundamentalism is not the only enemy Eastern Christians have to combat with everyday.

As he retraces the route of the journey John Moschos and his pupil Sophronius the Sophist had set off on in 587 AD, Dalrymple finds that despite centuries of isolation, a surprising number of the monasteries and churches visited by the two monks still survive today, surrounded by often hostile populations. Dalrymple’s pilgrimage takes him through a bloody civil war in eastern Turkey, the ruins of Beirut, the vicious tensions of the West Bank and a fundamentalist uprising in southern Egypt.

More than a millenia back, Moschos and his pupil Sophronius the Sophist had stayed in caves, monasteries and remote hermitages, collecting the wisdom of the stylites and the desert fathers before their world shattered under the great eruption of Islam.

Like in The Spiritual Meadow of John Moschos, Dalrymple starts his journey at the Monastery of Iviron, Mount Athos in Greece where he finds the original mauscript of Moschos's travelogue. He then moves eastwards to Constantinople (Istanbul) and Anatolia in Turkey, then through Syria, Lebanon, Israel and the West Bank southwards towards the Nile, Cairo and the Great Kharga Oasis in Egypt, which was once the southern frontier of the ancient Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.

Through his journey Dalrymple exposes the plight of downtrodden Christians in the Middle East. In south-east Turkey, he finds Syrian Christians "trodden underfoot in the scrummage between two rival nationalisms , one Kurdish, the other Turkish". In Lebanon, the Maronite Christians' failure to compromise with the country's Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians. In Israel, Palestinian Christians were Arabs in a Jewish state and hence regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters. The educated lot preferred to emigrate en masse and very few are now left in the land they've inhabited for thousands of years. In Egypt, Christians were threatened by a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism. Only in Syria, did he find happy Christians but even their future looked decidedly uncertain.

"Christianity is an Eastern religion which grew firmly rooted in the intellectual ferment of the Middle East. John Moschos saw that plant begin to wither in the hot winds of change that scoured the Levant of his day. On my journey in his footsteps I have seen the very last stalks in the process of being uprooted. It has been a continuous process, lasting nearly one and a half millenia. Moschos saw the beginnings. I have seen the beginning of its end," the author writes.

From the Holy Mountain is more hard-hitting than Dalrymple's other books. But who would go church-hunting in the conflict-stricken Islamic Middle East and come up with a light-hearted travelogue? Like his other books, this too is very well-researched and has academic value. Dalrymple's done well to present a list of bibliographical sources at the end of the book along with a glossary.

This book speaks of the author's courage, his endurance, his passion for discovery and most importantly, his service to a long-forgotten people who may soon lose their history and their future.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My graphics


Desert sunset

Quack Xpress!


Saturday, September 5, 2009

Move on

It has been a week of events. A friend's wedding in Cochin, another's wedding announcement, the third's pursuit of 'someone special' and yet another quitting her job to move abroad. From where I stand, I see all of them moving on - in search of something better to make their lives more fulfilling.

From where I stand, I see them all smiling back at me, waving at me. I smile back, egging them to go and wish them luck. I am supposed to be happy for all of them. Yet, a thought creeps into my mind. "Why am I standing?" It's a thought I initially dismiss as "just another one of those things". But they linger and begin to grow on me.

I try to conceal them with my smile, laugh them off till I can't ignore the tingling sensation of pain or anxiety - I am not too sure. Of being left behind, or of being simply silly and not understanding enough, I don't know.

"I have moved on, why shouldn't everybody else?" It's not easy to let go of all those memories we've built up together. They're not castles of sand but of love, effort, compassion, companionship and time. They're difficult to erase. You will ask me, "Why should you?" I'll tell you there's no need to actually wipe the slate clean. But deep down I know, those are but memories. They are going to stay and they are going to remind me of what we all have had and what we may no longer have. It's not the end of the world. But the world's going to be different from now.

A friend had once told me, "Move on is my favourite word. It presents itself like a solution to most of the problems you encounter in life. It's not exactly 'the running away' that is associated with escapism. It's just casually letting go of something you've always wanted to keep." It is like stepping onto a transporter, where you move while everybody else is on the move.

Another had told me about how nothing in life is constant. "Not even people who love you," he had said. "You shouldn't be standing, when they go. You should be moving with them too," he had told me. Maybe it's my time to move on. I just have to find a direction.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Culture Cauldron: Cochin

Born of the sea, amidst rivalries, Kerala’s commercial capital nurtures all faiths but has a distinct identity of its own

Eisha Sarkar

Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Friday, September 04, 2009 at 05:35:33 PM

"Aap logon ko Hindi nahin aati hai kya?" Zahir's comment catches us off-guard. We feel stupid. Zahir, a seaman-turned-shop errand boy-cum-rickshaw driver, tries to put us at ease as we ride from Fort Cochin to Willingdon Island. In fluent Hindi, he tells us of his trips to Lakshadweep, his early days at sea, how the once-busy Willingdon Island hardly sees any visitors now and why Onam means ‘big business’.

To Zahir, we are just ignorant tourists who believe Kerala's only about blackwaters, spices and dark-skinned people who can't speak the national language. We’ll learn soon, he hopes. And we do.

Island city
Like Mumbai, Cochin too is made of small islands - Willingdon Island, Fort Cochin , Vypeen, Vallarpadam and Bolghatty Island that are connected to the mainland Ernakulam. The airport is 30 kilometres away from the city. The ride in a prepaid taxi can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on the traffic.

Born in a storm
"Cochin was born in a storm, nurtured in rivalry, and established as the crossroads of the Battling Empires of Europe: Portuguese, Dutch and British," we read in a tourist guide. "In the 1340's, torrential rains filled the Periyar River which broke through to the Arabian Sea and formed Cochin's protected harbour. Trading ships soon sailed in and out," the guide says. We look at the tall coconut palms bent over like old woman over the crisscrossing canals formed by the backwaters. This is almost Alleppy, we think.

Harbour front
Willingdon Island is where Cochin harbour is located. The magnificent Port Trust building with its rotating helicopter-like blades stands tall among other structures. Willingdon is like a ghost-town. It doesn't have markets, shops and business centres. The old airport is now operated by the Navy and Harbour Station sees only goods trains. The commute to Fort Cochin via the 79-year-old Harbour Bridge takes about 30 minutes and costs Rs 50. But, auto drivers quote Rs 150, the tourist rate. Take it or leave it, they say. We leave it and opt for the boat. At Rs 4 a ticket, the 10-minute ferry ride through the backwaters seems like a good idea. But it takes us an hour to find the jetty to embark from as there are no signboards for help.

Since the 14th century Cochin has witness a stream of traders from Arabia and China. Chinese fishing nets are used till this day at Fort Cochin and make for a tourist attraction at sunset. European Jews fleeing persecution were among the first settlers at the Jew Town near the Mattanchery Palace. The Paradesi Synagogue, built in 1568, holds a unique record of Jewish presence in India. Every tile that makes up the synagogue’s floor bears a different pattern in blue. Though most Jews have left, the ones who remain still trade in spices and oil like their ancestors did with the Chinese centuries ago.

We search for traditional handicrafts in Jewtown’s shops only to find Kashmiri carpets, Rajasthani kathputlis and Kutchi embroidery.

In 1502, Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama came here seeking spices and converts. He found his spices, launched Europe’s great Age of Exploration and prayed in the first European church in Asia though his Roman Catholic Faith conflicted with Cochin’s ancient Syrian Christian religion (there are numerous churches dedicated to this faith).

The Portuguese were ousted by the Dutch who then surrendered to the British who still continued trading in spices, coir, rubber and tea.

Spice, spice, baby
Looking for spices, we reach Mattanchery, the largest spice market in the city. We haggle with the storeowner of Kendu Spice Dealers to give us a fair price on cardomoms (Rs 1200/kg), black pepper (Rs 320/kg) and cloves (Rs 600/kg) ignoring the anises, cinnamon bark and saffron. We bargain hard, tell him we’re not foreign tourists. He gives us a discount, “Only Rs 25. Take it or leave it.” We take it this time.

Payasam, pappadam and pink water!
We are lucky to have been invited to a wedding feast. As we settle down in our seats, a man comes along with a steel bucket to serve us pickles and crunchy pappadam on our banana-leaf plates. He then brings to us avial, veggies, dal and chutneys. Next is rice and piping hot sambhar. A man pours pink liquid into our glasses. "Water. It's pink because of cumin," a co-diner tells us. Dessert comes in the form of lip-smacking jaggery-sweetened payasam (south Indian kheer).

The reception menu is simpler, a much informal affair. We eat rice, chicken roast, raita, sambhar and vegetables out of thermacol plates.

Oh fish!
Hotel Casino’s Fort Cochin restaurant is the best bet for seafood. The restaurant offers no menu. They bring us the catch of the day in a tray and ask us to pick the fish and the spices. We opt for the local delicacy karimeen (black fish from the backwaters), delicious squid masala and prawns (all without the overpowering taste of coconut) with appam. The cost: Rs 1,480, but who’s complaining? In a place born of the sea, where its people live by it, it’s only fair if we eat off it too.

Friday, August 28, 2009

My graphics

I've joined a graphics course here where I let my imagination run wild. I managed to steal some of my creations on a pen-drive. Check them out and let me know what you think...

The intsructor had asked me to design a movie poster. I thought of creating my own movie first. I found a pic of Liz Hurley with a gun, a burning car and I had the movie storyline ready. Any buyers?






Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The Obama Odyssey

Book: Dreams from my father - A story of race and inheritance
Author: Barack Obama
Publisher: Canongate
Pages: 442
Price: Rs 722

Reviewed by Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Thursday, August 27, 2009 at 03:05:11 PM

A picture of America's first coloured President makes for the cover of Dreams From My Father. Look closer and there's a tag that says, "His remarkable story in his own words". But this book is not about the Barack Obama, we all know. It’s about the other Barack Obama, the President’s father.

The author's 'story of race and inheritance' is an autobiographical narrative was first published in 1995 after Obama was elected the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, but before his political career began. It traces his days back to Honolulu where he was born to Barack Obama Sr of Kenya, and Ann Dunham of Kansas. The book starts with a telephone call that Barack Obama Jr received on his 21st birthday. The call from an unknown aunt in Kenya announced that the he'd just lost his father. "At the time of his death, my father remained a myth to me, both more and less than a man," the author writes.

It is from this point, Obama starts telling the story backwards. He talks of his early days in Hawai, where being 'mulatto' (of mixed race) didn't really matter. He talks about the stories his maternal grandparents told about his father - how he loved to dance and win people over. He follows it up with his memories of Indonesia - statues of Hanuman, boxing with his mother's Indonesian husband, battling chicken pox, the beggars and kite-flying with children of farmers, servants and low-level bureaucrats.

It was his return to the US for schooling in Hawaii and college in Los Angeles that changed his outlook. H realised he wasn't black and he certainly wasn't white. Torn between two worlds, he sought refuge in alcohol and smoke, reading books on black history. After a brief stint at Columbia, New York, he decided to work as an organiser and moved to Chicago to work among the black community there. Obama recounts the difficulty of the experience, as his programme faced resistance from entrenched community leaders and apathy on the part of the established bureaucracy. After three years, he decided he needed an education that would enable him to serve better those in need. He followed his father's footsteps to Harvard Law School and went on to become the first black president of the Harvard Law Review.

But before Harvard, Kenya beckoned him. Here begins the most interesting part of the book - Kenya. He travels to his grandfather's house in Alego and traces the history of the Obama clan with the help of his father's other wife and his half-siblings. It was in Kenya, he found the freedom he couldn't have in America. "For a span of weeks or months, you could experience that comes from not feeling watched, the freedom of believing that your hair grows as it's supposed to grow... Here the world was black, and you were just you; you could discover all those things that were unique to your life without living a lie and committing betrayal," he writes. It was in Kenya, he rediscovered his father.

Obama says, "I saw that my life in America - the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I had witnessed in Chicago - all of it connected to a small plot of earth an ocean away, connected more by the accident of a name or the colour of my skin. The pain I felt was my father's pain. My questions were my brothers' questions. Their struggle, my birthright."

Like his speeches, Obama's narrative too is lyrical. The book's not about racism or about the atrocities on African Americans. It exposes the dilemmas African Americans face in their day-to-day lives. Nearly all are born Americans and haven't been to Africa. Still, they fail to connect with the nation that has treated their ancestors worse than animals. There lives are governed by both history and destiny.

Obama's account is refreshingly honest. What makes the book really interesting is Obama's description of life in various places - Hawaii, Indonesia, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and of course, Kenya. It's an amazing story, beautifully told.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009


I've always wondered why 'loner' is akin to being anti-social. What others look at as "Pity, he/she doesn't have any friends", he or she may look at as solitude. Being alone is not so much of a bad thing at all.

Much as we would like to believe otherwise, we're recluses in our own worlds. We try to cover up for our inadequacies by looking for those in others. If we make four friends, we try to find someone who has just two so that we can claim to be more 'social' than them.

We hide behind walls from where we shoot our arrows at others and float bubbles of hope and love to the other side. Rarely do we care to open the door to peek out to see how the world receives us. It's human nature. We were formed in a womb - in an environment that protected us from all the ills of the world. The placenta may have been discarded the day we were born, but we still live in a womb of our own. It's our private universe, where even our most dearest ones are forbidden to enter. It's built of dreams, hopes, ambitions, grudges, phobias, anger and grief. Most of us might not even know of its existence.

Not until, someone tries to jump over the wall or persistently knock it down. It's not easy to let the wall fall. It's not a curtain that will fall at a tug or a mask you can remove. It's a wall and it takes time to break down - brick by brick... revealing more of what lies on the other side. Not everyone has the patience to wait. Most leave and the wall rebuilds, almost on its own, - with concrete in place of bricks this time.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

When I asked for it!

It wasn't hard for me to single Rachit out from the others at the CAT class. The motley included pseudo-intelligent engineers (at least that's what their degrees said) and smartass BCom graduates who believed that they already had a foothold in IIM.

Rachit came across as shy, though he tried hard to mix with the rest. By the end of the first class we attended together, I'd discovered that he was from Vadodara, Gujarat and was looking for some 'cool pals to hang out with' in Mumbai while he attended the CAT class. "That's me," I told myself. The next day, he asked me for my number. I was taken aback. Too much too soon, I thought. But then, maybe he just trying to make friends. I didn't oblige. At least, I didn't want to seem desperate.

Later, after the class, I watched him standing with a couple of classmates. I edged closer to him, waiting for him to look at me so that I could ask him out for a burger. He saw me coming, nodded and continued chatting with his pals. I thought the friends would take a hint and move over. But they didn't budge. I waited 10 minutes, then one friend left, thankfully. I turned to ask Rachit what he would be doing for dinner. "Well, I'll go with Gaurav to MacDonalds at Mumbai Central and then go home," Rachit said. He then climbed onto Gaurav's bike and said a polite goodbye. I was mortified. How the hell could he prefer a dinner with Gaurav instead of me?

In the next class, I chose to sit at the desk next to him, so that I could look at him from the corner of my eye, as he solved integration sums. Class dispersed, and the two of us started chatting. He told me he was going to Vadodara that night. He had to take a train from Mumbai Central at 11.30 pm. It was only 8 pm. He asked me if he could kill time somewhere. I pounced on the opportunity. "Well, there's a MacDonald's at Crossroads, just across the road. So you can go there. And if you don't mind, I'll come along with you. I'd like to kill some time too. And I might as well do it with you."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Book: Solve Your Problems - The Birbal Way

Authors: Anita S R Vas, Luis S R Vas
Publisher: Pustak Mahal
Price: Rs 110
Pages: 200

Five centuries down the line, the Mughal minister’s wisdom and problem-solving abilities can still put managers to shame

Eisha Sarkar Posted on Mumbai Mirror on August 13

Wonder why management books are so ‘popular’? It’s because every MBA worth his or her name in salt would want to be seen carrying one, if not reading it. That also explains why most management books read the same or seem like they’re taking off from Philip Kotler, Eliyahu Goldratt, Osho and Edward de Bono. They tell you how to manage two things you believe you simply can’t handle – time and people. They tell you stories of successful people who’ve managed to shape their lives the way they’ve wanted to. But this is where Anita and Luis Vas differ… in the examples.

Instead of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, the authors bring to life two men of great power and wit – Akbar, the Mughal Emperor and his minister Birbal who was known far and wide for his intelligence and problem-solving abilities.

"At a time when it is fashionable to identify various management and leadership styles with historical ad mythical personalities like Attila the Hun, Winnie the Pooh, Mulla Nasruddin, Confucius and Jesus Christ... we thought it would be appropriate to underscore the managerial wisdom and problem-solving principles, which Birbal's stories illustrate," the authors write in the book’s introduction.

Through the pages, the writers bring to life the emperor and his minister. With his wit and sense of humour, Birbal tackles all problems, conquering many hearts at once, including the emperor's and the reader's. He cooks khichri by hanging a pot five feet above a fire, adds Akbar's name to a list of fools the emperor asked him to draw up, suffers one half of 100 lashes so that a corrupt guard gets the other 'half of the prize', slaps another courtier when Akbar slaps him and answers some of Akbar's most stupid questions with astonishing reason.

The stories are interesting and seem completely fictional. In the book's introduction, the authors write, "The character of Akbar in these stories is rather far-fetched. But historically, Birbal is hardly talked about. It is not clear how many of the Birbal stories can really be attributed to Birbal. Many of these tales were probably invented by village storytellers over the ages and simply attributed to Birbal and Akbar because their characters seemed appropriate.... The tales served to boost the morale of the subjects of the Mughal Empire."

The stories are divided into two parts - a problem and Birbal's solution to the problem. You're expected to pause to think of a solution. The authors suggest it may help you to think creatively. At the end of each story, the authors have listed management morals that you learn from the story (in case you haven't figured them already!) At the end of the book, the authors have dutifully devised a technique, BIRBAL, which can help readers solve their problems. But don’t task yourself too much. Enjoy the book leisurely – piece by piece. Birbal’s humour is like vodka chocolate – it hits you only when you think it’s all over.