Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Whogunnit?

Vikas Swarup follows his Slumdog success with a murder mystery that will make Bollywood proud

Book review: Six suspects
Author: Vikas Swarup
Publisher: Black Swan
Price: Rs 406
Pages: 574

Eisha Sarkar
Posted On Mumbai Mirror on Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 03:47:04 PM

After peddling 'millionaire' dreams with his international bestseller Q&A, diplomat-turned-author Vikas Swarup doles out a murder mystery that has all the trappings of a Bollywood potboiler. Little wonder, they're already talking about making a film based on this one.

The plot's simple. Vicky Rai, the son of a high-profile minister, is shot dead by one of the guests at his own party. The police find six people with a gun in their possession. They're an assorted lot - a film actress, a mobile thief, the deceased's dad, an American fork-lift operator, a tribal from the Andamans and an ex-bureaucrat-turned Gandhian - and each had a motive to see Rai dead. "The murder may be messy but the truth's messier," it's with these words an investigative journalist starts "combing the life histories of the six suspects" to find the real culprit.

Swarup's fertile imagination has helped cultivate the plot with the help of these six characters. He uses a different narrative style and tense for each character. Swarup borrows heavily from breaking news stories to create his characters. So Rai is Manu Sharma (convicted of Jessica Lal murder), Sanjeev Nanda (BMW hit-and-run case) and Salman Khan (killing blackbucks!), all rolled into one. The American (suitably named Larry Page, after the Google inventor) has come to India to marry his love, the Nietzsche-spouting film actress (only, she doesn't know about it). The bureaucrat lurches between debauchery and sainthood, while the mobile thief comes close to the 1970s' Angry Young Man. The most incredulous is the tribal, from the little-known Onge tribe in the Andamans (Swarup quotes Googled sources in the acknowledgements), who comes to the mainland in quest for an ancient Shivalinga. Of all the characters, it's that of the don-turned-minister of the likes of Shibu Soren and Mohammed Shahabuddin, that is the most credible of the lot, sadly.

In his attempt to make the book newsworthy, Swarup tries hard to weave front-page news stories into the plot. Through his characters, he desperately tries to find a way to link Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Osama Bin Laden and Jessica Lal together. The book also features Q&A's protagonist Ram Mohammed Thomas and Salim Ilyasi. The effort is obvious and at times it seems desperate. Thankfully, the writer manages to keep his pace and much like his previous book, he manages to keep the suspense till the end.

What works for this book is its plot. It's a classic whodunnit - with its twists and turns - and is a good pick for leisure reading. Where it fails is in the cliches. Like Q&A, it portrays a side of India every Westerner wants to see - dirt, grime, poverty, slums, corruption, bureaucracy, debauchery, ignorance, illiteracy, religion, glamour and Bollywood. But unlike Q&A's distinct 'this-is-how-it-is-here' tone, this one's exaggerated. Like a Hindi potboiler, Six Suspects has action, drama and emotion - a complete entertainment package. Where it lacks is a good storyline and editing. It's Bollywood in pages!



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Monday, June 29, 2009

10 monsoon maladies

After bearing the brunt of Sun God’s fury for the past three months, all you want now is a heavenly shower that can wash the earth clean. If only, the monsoon would do that!

Eisha Sarkar
Posted On Times Wellness on Sunday, June 28, 2009

After the layers of grime settle down and the revelry ends, the problems arise – drainage, flooding, disease and destruction. The monsoon brings with itself a season of sicknesses. Here are 10 maladies that can make you feel under the weather:

1. Malaria

Caused by the protozoan Plasmodium (P.vivax, P.falciparum, P.malariae or P.ovale), the disease is spread by the female Anopheles mosquito, that transfers the pathogen from an infected person to a healthy one.

Symptoms A fever occurs at regular intervals, usually every day at the same time. Headaches and nausea are common along with bouts of shivering. The patient experiences muscle pain and weakness.


Treatment
See a doctor immediately. The doctor will prescribe quinine-based anti-malarial drugs (such as chloroquine or primaquine). These drugs should be taken strictly as prescribed, as over-dosage can prove harmful.

Preventive measures
Protect yourself from mosquitoes by using mosquito repellents and nets. Do not allow water to stagnate as mosquito larvae thrive in stagnating water. Ask your municipal authorities to spray your area with a mosquito repellent and clear any stagnating pools. If there is a lake or pond near your house, then introduce gambusia fish in it. These fish feed on mosquito larvae and can help control the mosquito population.



2. Cholera

Vibrio cholerae causes this deadly disease by infecting the small intestine. With an incubation period of six to 48 hours, symptoms show quickly after infection. Generally caused by food and water contaminated by human faeces, cholera is highly contagious. Flies act as carriers of the disease, which is why the disease spreads faster in areas of poor sanitation.


Symptoms
The patient suffers from severe diarrhoea; stools are watery but painless. There might also be effortless vomiting without any nausea. There will be a lot of fluid loss in the first few hours, causing rapid weight loss and severe muscle cramps. Eyes may seem to be shrunken. Children infected with the disease may be prone to fever, convulsions and may even become comatose. Adults, on the other hand, experience mental apathy.

Treatment

In most cases cholera can be successfully treated with oral rehydration therapy. Prompt replacement of water and electrolytes is the principal treatment for cholera, as dehydration and electrolyte depletion occur rapidly. Tetracycline is typically used as the primary antibiotic, although some strains of V. cholerae exist that have shown resistance. Other antibiotics that have been proven effective against V cholerae include cotrimoxazole, erythromycin, doxycycline, chloramphenicol, and furazolidone.

Preventive measures
Immunisation to cholera lasts for about six months. A person vaccinated for the first time should be immunized again after 10 days. In areas prone to cholera, all water should be boiled and food should be well cooked. All eatables should be covered and flies should be kept at bay.
3. Typhoid


The disease, caused by the bacterium Salmonella typhi, is highly infectious. The bacteria are present in human faeces, and a healthy person may fall prey to the disease by consuming contaminated food and water (this is known as the faeco-oral route). Some patients carry the infection in theItalicir gall bladder even after the disease is cured. The pathogen is the excreted and flies then act as carriers/ vectors, contaminating food and water.

Symptoms
The first indication of the disease is a prolonged fever that begins to rise on the fifth day. Headache and confusion are common along with severe abdominal pain. By the second week, the patient could develop a rash. There might also be bouts of constipation followed by diarrhoea.

Treatment

Most doctors prescribe ciprofloxacin for non-pregnant adults. The patient should be isolated and will need to be nursed. The patient's fluid intake should be high to prevent dehydration causeddiarrhoea.

Preventive measures

If you live in areas prone to contagious diseases, getting yourself vaccinated against typhoid will keep you safe. Always consume boiled water and avoid egg yolks and raw vegetables in salad (unless thoroughly washed). Eat hygienically prepared foods.

4. Hepatitis A or Jaundice


The Hepatitis A virus causes this disease, which is spread by the faeco-oral route. Though there have been isolated cases of people contracting the disease by coming in direct contact with a patient, epidemics are caused by flies.

Symptoms

The patient shows symptoms similar to that of flu. High body temperature accompanied by headache and joint pains are experienced. The patient loses his/ her appetite and may suffer from nausea and vomiting. Patients might even have a rash. In three to 10 days after onset of disease, the urine tends to darken while stools are light coloured. A general yellow tinge appears on the patient's body.

Treatment
There is no specific treatment for hepatitis A. Patients are advised to rest, avoid fatty foods and alcohol, eat a well-balanced diet, and stay hydrated. Approximately 15 per cent of people diagnosed with hepatitis A may experience one or more symptomatic relapse(s) for up to 24 months after contracting this disease.

Preventive measures

The hepatitis virus vaccination is a must. If you are caring for the patient, make sure to wash your hands properly after coming in contact with the patient's bedpan, clothes and objects of everyday use.

5. Leptospirosis

This disease affects both animals and human beings and is caused by the bacterium Leptospira species. The disease is usually spread through the consumption of contaminated water and contaminated food or by wading in dirty water (as happens in floods) with open wounds.

Symptoms
The patient has a high fever accompanied by cold chills. Severe headaches or muscle ache is common. As the disease intensifies, the patient may suffer from nausea, vomiting and later abdominal pain with diarrhoea. A rash also develops. If the disease is not treated, the patient could develop liver failure, respiratory diseases, kidney damage or meningitis.

Treatment
Antibiotics (doxycycline or penicillin) should be administered in the early stages of the disease. If the patient exhibits severe symptoms, intra-venous antibiotics may need to be administered.

Preventive measures

Avoid contact with stagnant rainwater, it is likely to be contaminated by animal urine. Keep all wounds clean and covered; use antiseptics to clean the wound and prevent infection. Avoid swimming in possibly contaminated water (sea, lakes, etc).

6. Influenza

It's not just its swine flu and bird flu avatars that are dangerous. The most common of viral illnesses, influenza seems to take epidemic forms during the monsoon. Typically, influenza is transmitted through the air by coughs or sneezes, creating aerosols containing the virus. Influenza can also be transmitted by bird droppings, saliva, nasal secretions, faeces and blood. Infection can also occur through contact with these body fluids or through contact with contaminated surfaces.

Symptoms

Chills, fever, sore throat, muscle pains, severe headache, coughing, weakness and general discomfort.

Treatment

People with the flu are advised to get plenty of rest, drink plenty of liquids, avoid using alcohol and tobacco and, if necessary, take medications such as paracetamol (acetaminophen) to relieve the fever and muscle aches associated with the flu. Children and teenagers with flu symptoms (particularly fever) should avoid taking aspirin during an influenza infection (especially influenza type B), because doing so can lead to Reye's syndrome, a rare but potentially fatal disease of the liver.

Preventive measures

Vaccination against influenza with an influenza vaccine is often recommended for high-risk groups, such as children and the elderly, or in people who have asthma, diabetes, or heart disease. Avoid crowded places and do wash your hands thoroughly and regularly to avoid any kind of contamination.

7. Diarrhoea


It is one of the most common ailments during the monsoon months. It is usually a short-term condition caused by consuming new or different foods and beverages and by consuming contaminated food or water.

Symptoms

Diarrhoea can occur with symptoms like abdominal pain or cramping, bloating, urgent need to use the bathroom, nausea, dehydration and vomiting. Depending on the cause, it may be resolved within a few days without treatment but diarrhea caused by certain bacteria or viruses may require medical treatment.

Treatment
Fluid replenishment. Fruit juices, non-caffeinated soft drinks and salted crackers are suggested. For those who become very dehydrated, oral rehydration solution (ORS) is highly recommended.

Preventive measures
Eat only thoroughly cooked food or fruits and vegetables. Drink only boiled water and avoid drinks and salads at cafes and other crowded places. Opt for hot beverages like tea and coffee.

8. Dengue


Unlike malaria, dengue is an urban disease that is transmitted to humans by the Aedes aegypti or more rarely the Aedes albopictus mosquito, which feed during the day.

Symptoms
The disease manifests as a sudden onset of severe headache, muscle and joint pains (myalgias and arthralgias—severe pain that gives it the nick-name break-bone fever or bonecrusher disease), fever, and rash. The dengue rash is characteristically bright red and usually appears first on the lower limbs and the chest; in some patients, it spreads to cover most of the body.

Treatment

Increased intake of fluids orally or intravenously to prevent excessive bleeding. The mainstay of treatment is timely supportive therapy to tackle shock due to haemoconcentration and bleeding. Aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs should be avoided as these drugs may worsen the bleeding tendency associated with some of these infections.

Preventive measures
There is no commercially available vaccine for the dengue flavivirus. Primary prevention of dengue mainly resides in mosquito control. There are two primary methods: larval control and adult mosquito control. In urban areas, Aedes mosquitos breed on water collections in artificial containers such as plastic cups, used tires, broken bottles, flower pots, etc. Periodic draining or removal of artificial containers is the most effective way of reducing the breeding grounds for mosquitoes.

9. Fungal infections


Two of the most common fungal infections that occur during this time of the year are athlete's foot and ringworm.

Symptoms
Athlete's foot is fungal infection that affect the usually the front part of the foot. Mostly it is between the toes and the underside of the front part of the foot. It is usually marked by red itchy patches and white flaky skin. This disease is more common in hot and moist weather and is more frequently seen in people who keep their feet enclosed in shoes or socks most of the time. It is caused by a group of fungi called as dermatophytes. They live on protein (keratin) found in our skin hair nails. It is slightly contagious and can spread through direct contact, towels, shoes socks etc. Ringworm is characterised by a raised brownish red patch which can occur anywhere around the body. they are usually marked with ring around it.

Treatment

Antifungal treatments include topical agents such as miconazole or terbinafine applied twice daily until symptoms resolve (usually within two weeks citation needed), however if constantly touched it can leave a dark patch of skin where it had been. In more severe cases or where there is scalp ringworm, systemic treatment with oral medications may be given.

Preventive measures

Avoid contact with water. Wear open sandals so that your feet dry easily.

10. Conjunctivitis

The pinkeye could occur because of allergy or infection, the latter being more common during the rains.

Symptoms
Redness (hyperaemia), irritation (chemosis) and watering (epiphora) of the eyes are symptoms common to all forms of conjunctivitis. Acute allergic conjunctivitis is typically itchy, sometimes distressingly so, and often involves some lid swelling. Chronic allergy often causes just itch or irritation.

Viral conjunctivitis is often associated with an infection of the upper respiratory tract, a common cold, and/or a sore throat. Its symptoms include watery discharge and variable itch. The infection usually begins with one eye, but may spread easily to the other.

Treatment

Warm compresses and artificial tears provide some relief. For the worst cases, topical corticosteroid drops may be prescribed to reduce the discomfort from inflammation.

Preventive measures

Keep your hands clean and don't touch or rub your eyes. Clean your contact lenses well before wearing them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Paul, Gem

The news of Gem's death has shaken me a lot. When Elton keyed on the words "Gem drowned" on Google Talk on Monday morning, I thought that he'd probably been saved while drowning. Elton put it straight: drowned = died. I think that's the worst equation I've seen in my life. To be honest, it's not even an equation, for 'drowned' offers just a glimmer of hope that 'died' doesn't. Gem was my colleague and friend - actually more of a colleague and less of a friend.

Still, I had grown accustomed to seeing him in his chair and researching stuff on Wikipedia while others commented on pictures they'd posted on Facebook. Gem had joined when I was still with Downtown Plus. He'd been hired specifically for Mumbaimirror.com but he was keen that his byline should appear in print. "Nothing can beat a byline in a newspaper," he'd said. We were taken in by his enthusiasm, as much as we hated his arrogance and unwillingness to pay heed to advice. He would come up with the weirdest of story ideas, trying to look for news even among the most mundane, routine occurences. I remember once I'd ticked him off when he presented the idea of doing a survey of unusual trees in Mumbai. Later, when the story did get published, I found it lacked news but was packed with so much information that it would put a botanist to shame. Gem had managed to turn something so ordinary into a very interesting read.

What made him different from the rest was that he was always willing to push himself to do his best. He had the desire to look beyond what met his eye. Some called it raw guts, others labelled it as the foolishness of an arrogant reporter, but he never faltered in his belief. He essayed the various roles of a thinker, an explorer, a reporter, a colleague, a guide, a comedian and a friend, with ease and that made him very popular among those who knew him.

How Gem drowned and why didn't anyone save him are questions that will always play up in my mind. The fishermen in Kolad had told him not to go into the river, but he insisted he was a good swimmer. Gem always wanted to explore,to look for what he couldn't see, to reach out even if he couldn't grasp, even if was going to a dangerous. He'd done some remarkable stories that way... till he became one.

They came, they saw, they destroyed

The first documentation of the 26/11 Mumbai attack is a step-by-step account of how India’s financial capital became hostage to terror

Book: 26/11 Mumbai Attacked

Authors: Ashish Khetan, Bachi Karkaria, Chris Khetan, George Koshy, Harinder Baweja, Harsh Joshi, Julio Rebeiro and Rahul Shivshankar

Publisher: Roli Books

Price: Rs 295

Pages: 214

By Eisha Sarkar

Posted On Mumbai Mirror on Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 12:44:48 PM

The monstrosity of the attacks now known numerically as 26/11 unravels through the pages of the book, 26/11 Mumbai Attacked. You know the facts well, having had to go through them repeatedly for months in newspapers and on 24x7 news channels. But there's a lot that happened that was left unreported because of lack of precious newsprint space and bulletin time. The book provides a step-by-step account of how a 10-member fidayeen squad sneaked into India via the sea and killed innocents at CST, Leopold Cafe, Taj Mahal Hotel, Trident-Oberoi Hotel and Nariman House aka Chabad House.

It starts with a tribute to four brave men - Joint Commissioner (ATS) Hemant Karkare, Additional Commissioner Ashok Kamte, Assistant Sub-Inspector Tukaram Omble and Constable Jaywant Patil - who died that night fighting the enemies of the State. Through accounts of their wives, compiled by Chris Khetan, you get a glimpse of them without their uniforms - loving fathers and husbands who strived to fulfill all their duties, to their families and to the nation.

It then goes on to describe the fight for Nariman House, the carnage at CST, the dark hours at Hotel Taj and Hotel Oberoi and eyewitness accounts from CST, Leopold Cafe, Taj and Oberoi Hotels. The transcript of Ajmal Amir Kasab's (the lone surviving terrorist) interrogation outlines how the terrorists sailed from Karachi to Mumbai. These were just a handful of youngsters picked up from a madrassa and given AK-47s and grenades. These were trained personnel, who knew the use of GPS, satellite phones, marine navigation and military combat. They communicated with unidentified handlers, who would give them details of positions of military and police personnel and the line of attack or defense they should undertake, of how they could use hostages as human shields in encounters.

The transcripts of the phone conversations show that the terrorists depended a lot on their handlers. In one transcript, the handler tells a terrorist to, "Now you push out the gun barrel and fire once or twice in the lane outside. Don't expose your body, only the barrel; there's an open lane below - fire there." They even had to 'write down' information that the handlers wanted to convey to the Indian government via the media.

One of the most interesting chapters in the book is Inside the Headquarters of Lashkar-e-Toiba by Harinder Baweja. Baweja is the only Indian journalist to have been allowed to visit Jamaat-ud-Dawa in Muridke, Pakistan, where Kasab received training for the attack. It looks like any other charitable institution with hospitals, administrative buildings, madrassas and schools, but Lashkar-e-Toiba’s representative Abdullah Muntazir doesn't delve into education. Instead he talks about how "Kashmir is the battlefield for Jehad and how the Indian occupation of Kashmir is similar to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan".

The post-mortem analysis by retired IPS officer and activist Julio Rebeiro abstains from pointing fingers at just the police force’s lack of preparedness. Instead, he says it's the lack of coordination between various security agencies (IB, RAW, Armed Forces, State Police, NSG, etc) that makes India a soft target for terrorist attacks. Information gathering and sharing is the most crucial step to prevent such attacks. Unfortunately, it was found lacking in November 2008.

The book is the first documentation of the 26/11 attacks. It's significant because it paves the way for more such analytical and research works that can build a repository of information for future reference, much the way books on the 9/11 attacks on the US are. "The idea is not to be morose but to tell people to be more vigilant, more protective and sensitive to each other," Chris Khetan is quoted in a newspaper report.

It's the spirit of Mumbai that Bachi Karkaria writes about that saw the city through this disaster, but how many more attacks and onslaughts will Mumbaikars have to take before they fall and the government wakes up, is still to be seen.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Don't lose your mind, lose your weight

Eisha Sarkar
Posted On Times Wellness on Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Author:
Rujuta Diwekar
Publisher: Random House India
Price: Rs 199
Pages: 279

If Kareena Kapoor's Size Zero frame hadn't whipped the media into a frenzy, Rujuta Diwekar would have remained an acclaimed star dietician and nutritionist. But that wasn't meant to be. Tashan bombed, but Kareena's popularity increased and so did the number of calls her dietician got. So what did Diwekar do? She chose to write a book that will make every woman believe that she can turn into a size zero too. Any guesses why it's a bestseller?

She eats every two hours and sizzles in a bikini!
Well, to start with the obvious, the book is foreworded by Kapoor herself. She talks of how as a Kapoor she can't do without parathas, paneer and cheese and she liked Diwekar's diet formula was that she was allowed all of it. She says that she eats every two hours and still manages to fit into bikinis. Diwekar, in turn, gushes about her celebrity client's determination and dedication to good diet, exercise and a healthy living.

Diet is not starvation
Diwekar notes that we know much more about our car than our own bodies. That's we pride ourselves in taking good care of our car but not our bodies is the reason why most of us are overweight and lead a unhealthy lifestyle. Her formula is simple: Eat what you want to eat. "Diet has become a four-letter word that it isn't," she says.

She stresses that diet is not just about starvation and weight loss. "Where is the bravery in losing weight? People with diarrhoea lose weight. So do people with jaundice, malaria, TB, not to mention cancer and AIDS. In fact, the bigger the disease, the faster the weight loss. Because we think that weight loss will make us happy, but we feel only frustrated and older (not wiser) at the end of yet another extreme diet, it comes with a heightened sense of victimisation and betrayal. The minute we are 'off' the diet all our weight is back."

Diwekar's tips for a healthy living

While eating right is the best way to lose weight, it's important to get your act together to lead a healthier life. Here are her tips:

1. Wake up closer to sunrise or at least two hours earlier than your regular time.
2. Eat within 10 minutes of waking up and please don't drink tea, coffee or smoke a cigarette the first thing in the morning. Try fruits instead.
3. Eat nice, home-cooked breakfast. Idli, dosa, uttapam, upma, parathas (cooked on the tawa but not fried), porridge, eggs are good options. Organic muesli and cereal can work if you don't have the time to cook a meal.
4. Eat every two hours. That way, you won't have long gaps between the meals and your chances of overloading your stomach during the next main meal are less. Eating itself is an energy-consuming process and it can help you lose weight. Keep peanuts, roasted chana, dry fruits, cheese, fruits, sandwiches and soy milk with you for this purpose.
5. Eat your dinner within two hours of sunset and keep the meats and fish for this meal so that the stomach has enough time to break down all the proteins. Avoid carbohydrates with high glycemic index such as pasta, noodles, white rice, biscuits, pancakes, crepes, etc.
6. Sleep at a fixed time, for, that's the secret of a clear and ageless skin.

The verdict

The book makes for a good read, not only because of its content but because of the language. Diwekar's usage of Mumbai slang - 'dabaoing', 'enthu', 'ya', 'yeah', 'driving the car like makhan' - is sure to make any literature critic worth his name in salt cringe. But the colloquialism works here, for it makes her connect with readers who more or less are either too well-informed but uneducated about diets or too ignorant that they will try out everything that comes their way.

The best way to get the point across to them is by speaking in a language they know and can understand. Thankfully, she doesn't make it read like one of those step-by-step guides to make yourself thin that line up on the bookshelf. She makes you understand that your body is like a machine - like your car - and you need to maintain it well for it to make it work efficiently. She manages to steer away from diet tips by interspersing the narrative with her experiences during her treks to the Himalayas. She gives you a chance to learn more than just about how to keep yourself healthy and fit.

But what really make the book very interesting are not the diet formulae but the boxes that the author's used to describe anecdotes, bust myths, share information from the Internet and tabulate health tips. They make for easy and interesting reading.

If you aspire for a size zero like Kareena's you may want to ask Rujuta to chart out a diet for you. But if you are just content with shedding some flab and eating healthy, reading the book may be a good start.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

My green classroom

It was The Play Dough Story on Giovanni's blog that made me write this post. Something in Megan's (Giovanni's niece) story made me charge down the memory lane to the time when I taught a class. The classroom was my balcony and the students were, well, plants.

Strange as it may seem, I didn't find too many human options that would fit the age and package. The brother was too busy with He-Man and his cronies while I didn't take to Barbie too well because I couldn't make her stand on her feet with or without shoes.

When you are four, all you want to do is look down upon someone and prove that you are a much superior being. Since I had no human companions of my age, the plants in the balcony made for good subjects.

I'd assigned them their characters. The rose was the class monitor. She was strong, mentor-like and was very, very attractive. The ferns were group of friends who would always come to school together, sit together, eat together, play together and probably would have stayed together if they didn't have to go back home. They didn't like the money plant much for it didn't look like the rest and would stay on its own. The talkative ferns feared the moneyplant would evesdrop on them and tell the teacher (that's me) about their secrets. The moneyplant, however, was too shy to mingle with the rest. Tulsi behaved like she knew when the world would come to an end and would threaten everyone with her doomsday theory when they all would finish and only she would survive. Hibiscus was the opposite. She'd break into peals of laughter at the drop of a hat. She didn't even need a reason to laugh. It was as if she was born to laugh.

Every morning, I would play out the classroom scene. I'd make Hibiscus laugh and Rose shout, "Quiet!" I would punish the talkative ferns for not doing their homework and would award Moneyplant a star for getting her math sums right.

The play-acting had stopped once I managed to secure friends at school and got busy with the homework. Over the years, I learned to look at the plants in the balcony as... plants. I would dissect the hibiscus flower to expose the pistil and I would study the spores on the underside of fern leaves.

Some plants withered, others multiplied (the ferns especially), new ones replaced the old but their characters of my green classroom are still alive in memory.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The sign of me

I think choosing a signature was one of the toughest decisions in life. It happened when I was around ten, when I had to sign my friend's autograph book. I leafed through the other pages in the book to see thee signatures of the rest of my classmates. Most had just written their full names. Some, had tried to dress them up with curls and curves. I tried to be different - in my own way. I simply wrote my first name the way my mom did. Till the age of 15, that was my signature - in autograph books, slam books, on posters and photographs - and my classmates loved it.

But then I moved cities, changed schools and had to sit for the board exam. The sign on my admit card was to be my stamp for the rest of my life. Dad said that I should add a last name there. And so I did. The sign became my sealed consent on receipts, letters, applications, bank documents, etc.

The sign stayed the same - just getting bigger over the years. I didn't realise how big it was till it didn't fit well enough on the revenue stamps attached to the marriage registration form. The husband managed to fit his in really well. I had to squeeze mine up but was still left with little breathing space.

It was for the sake of my signature that I decided to go against the idea of adding the husband's last name to it. (I had tried it out on the voter's ID form and it almost looked like a sentence! I got an ID that dropped my maiden surname and misspelt my husband's too.) When Vishwas told me he liked my sign, I had said, "That's the first thing you see when I give you a sample. It's so big that you can't miss it." It's the bigness he liked, he told me, much to my surprise. Since then, I've tried to appreciate it for what it is. And after reading this piece, I'm certainly not inclined to make it smaller!

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Captivating Kanheri

From His perch, Buddha looks over the lush green Sanjay Gandhi National Park at Borivli amidst the concrete jungle of residential towers

By Eisha Sarkar
Posted On Mumbai Mirror on Monday, June 15, 2009 at 04:56:34 PM

For most Mumbaikars, a visit to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park at Borivli is not the best Sunday outing. The reason's obvious. It's not the wild animals they fear, but the prospect jostling for space in a packed local on our day off. But then that's just a little bit of discomfort that comes your way of chance to explore the only bit of wilderness that's there in Mumbai, isn't it?

Wild, wild, north
The trip to the national park is almost as much of an experience as a walk through it. The park dates back to the 4th century BC. Sopara and Kalyan were two ports in the vicinity that traded with ancient lands such as Greece and Mesopotamia. The routes between these two ports cut through this forest. We actually surfed Google Earth and Wikimapia to study the park's topography. As much as our untrained eyes could tell, we figured that there's one gate and one road that leads from there, but we still wanted to look for diversions. While maps served our purpose well (at least of giving us the idea that there are lakes - Tulsi and Vihar - and caves in the forest), they of course, missed out on a few points - like the thick scrub of deciduous trees that overrun the forest make it actually difficult to 'cut across' or that the makeshift bridge on the way up to the Kanheri caves is just that and you 'cross it' not by walking through it but by actually going under it to the other side.


Women of the woods
The first bus was supposed to leave for the Kanheri caves from the park gate at 9 am sharp. When we boarded it, the conductor told us it would take Rs 20 per head one way but he needed at least 10 people to start. We had no choice but to wait. We counted 10 heads and were ready to go, but the conductor wouldn't budge. "The driver's gone for chai," he said. We waited. Soon, we found a group of women with huge bags boarding the bus. We peered in to see what they may contain and to our surprise found cucumbers, jamun and raw mangoes. The women alighted near the Kanheri caves and proudly displayed their wares - sliced cucumbers and mangoes priced at Rs 5 a plate. The sight of them, allayed our own fears - of tourists!

Buddha smiles...
The caves are named Kanheri probably because of the black colour of the rock (Krishnagiri, the original name of the park, literally means black mountain in Sanskrit). Located approximately six kilometres away from the park's entrance, these caves date from 1st century BC to 9th century AD. The earliest are 109 tiny rock-cut cells, carved into the side of a hill. These are spartan and unadorned. Each cave has a stone plinth for a bed. A congregation hall with huge stone pillars contains the stupa, a Buddhist shrine. Farther up the hill are the remains of an ancient water system, canals and cisterns that collected and channelled the rainwater into huge tanks. Once the caves became permanent monasteries, they began to be carved out of the rock with intricate reliefs of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas carved into the walls. Kanheri had become an important Buddhist settlement on the Konkan coast by the 3rd century AD. The entry to the caves costs Rs 5 for Indians and Rs 100 for foreigners. There were no guides - written or human - to tell us about the caves, so we decided to explore them on our own.

... as tourists plunder
Why Kanheri is a favourite among picnickers is anybody's guess. It offers a spectacular view of the national park - the green in the midst of a concrete jungle. Why picnickers can't appreciate this beauty without littering the caves with packets of chips, plastic bottles and paper napkins (all bought from the canteen store at the base of the caves), is something we can't really fathom. The sight was pitiful - middle-aged women in jeans working their way up the rock-face wearing Kolkhapuris instead of sneakers amidst kids who decided to play badminton with Buddha's giant statues as spectators. It seemed like someone had poured thick oil paint into one of the underground water tanks while in the other tiny fish chewed onto a piece of wafer. And then there were men who tore shirts off their backs and raced each other through the forest crying out like Tarzan!

Monkeys and murgis
An estimated 800 types of flowering plants; 284 kinds of birds; 5,000 species of insects; 36 types of mammals; 50 reptiles and 150 species of butterfly call the forest their home.
We knew that getting anywhere close to the park's famed inhabitants - leopards and deer - wouldn't be an easy task, more so because we needed special permissions from the forest officer to go to the two lakes in the middle of densely forested areas. Instead, we focussed on species of monkeys - Rhesus, macaques and langurs virtually inhabit the caves - and insects and birds. The national park has a good variety of birds such as hornbills, woodpeckers, golden oriole, bulbul, robins, owlets etc. We even saw chickens and roosters running amok around huts decorated with Warli art.
The prospect of seeing lions and leopards in the safari enclosure didn't seem too interesting and we decided to trek back from Kanheri to the main gate - feat that took us about two and a half hours in the afternoon sun.

Getting there
The national park is one kilometre from Borivli station.
Entry fee to the park is Rs 20 per head.
Park timings: 7.30 am to 7.30 pm (the earlier you go, the better it will be)
The first Kanheri bus service starts at 9 am.