Friday, July 31, 2009

Singapore

Sipping the Singapore Sling (a cocktail of gin, Benedictine, cherry brandy and club soda) aboard the Singapore Airlines flight from Ahmedabad, I chalked out my Singapore plans. Rachit had promised that there was a lot that I had to see and experience. My mind conjured up images of high-rises at Raffles Place and Chinese men in business suits.

Would Singapore be any different from Mumbai? Perhaps. It would be much cleaner and devoid of slums, for sure. My grand-aunt had told me about the malls and Chinatown where I could buy cheap porcelain goods. I hate shopping. I wondered if there was anything else for me to do. As the plane landed at Changi International Airport (definitely the best I've seen thus far), I drew in my breath. This was the longest flight I had undertaken, the farthest I had gone.

At home, miles away
I had heard a lot about Changi - of what it has to offer to the millions of tourists who come here by way of shopping, entertainment and food courts. In fact, even before I had landed, I had been recommended that I set aside three hours on the day of my return for just Changi. But strangely, Changi didn't dazzle me. Yes, I was impressed by its malls, transporters (a first for me) and escalators and I did see several people with Caucasian and Mongoloid features. But somehow, it just didn't feel like a foreign country.


Incredible India!
We walked outside the airport and hauled a cab - one with Incredible India advertisements all over. As we pulled out, the city reminded me of Mumbai or Kolkata - or a bit of both. As we headed downtown, Rachit pointed to the Singapore Flyer and the towering high-rises near it. "That's the picture of Singapore you find everywhere," he said. Oh really!

No room for us

The cab drew upto the YMCA at One, Orchard Road, one of the poshest addresses in Singapore. We thanked the cabbie and entered the swanky YMCA lobby. The receptionist looked up our booking (S$90 per room per night) and calmly told us that we could check in only at 2pm. It was 8am. We begged him for a room, but he simply said they were all occupied.


Dismayed, we decided to leave our luggage there and went out looking for breakfast. I had thought that Singapore would be a lot like Mumbai. Sadly, I was mistaken. In Mumbai, you'll manage to find food anywhere at any time of the day. In Singapore, the day starts at 11am. It's difficult to find some place to eat before that. We found ourselves digging our teeth into a S$5.80 Subway sandwich. So much for the Singapore experience!

Singapore has a river?
I was supposed to meet Shreyasi after six years. It wasn't like we were the best of pals in college but when you go to a foreign land, you do get super-excited when you see familiar faces. We were to meet Shreyasi at 12 noon. I had told her how we had been greeted at the YMCA. She was worried. Luckily for us, the receptionist managed to find a vacant room at 10.30 am. We finally had a roof over our heads at 11 am. I then dialled Shreyasi's number (we had purchased a S$50 SIM card at the airport).

Shreyasi asked us to meet at Riccotti, an Italian restaurant at the Singapore River. "There's a river in Singapore that I didn't know of?" She said, "Well, it used to be a part of the sea that had breached in here. They've desalinated it and now the water's potable." Wow! And we in Mumbai have turned Mithi into the sea!

Travel easy
Since we were supposedly on a budget trip, we decided to purchase an Ezy-Link card from the MRT (short for Mass Rapid Transport). The swipe card (we bought one for S$10) allows you to travel by the metro rail and buses all over Singapore. It's a blessing for commuters as cab fares are ridiculously high. You simply swipe the card in at the station you board the train and swipe out at the station you alight. As simple as that! And if you wonder why Singaporeans are not fat, it's because of the amount of walking and climbing (yes, there are escalators) they have to do at the MRT everyday.

Shopping at Chinatown
I thought I would have problems bargaining and communicating with the storekeepers at Chinatown's Mosque Street and Pagoda Street. Instead, they had trouble following what we wanted.

Indians love to browse through goods at a marketplace. If we spend two hours shopping, it's more or less divided into 1.45 minutes of browsing and 15 minutes of actual time spent on purchases. We're used to being pampered by our shopkeepers who'll show us all their wares before getting down to the bargaining bit. They offer us tea or cold drinks, giving us time to decide on what we should buy. And when we walk off after a bargaining bid, they'll come running after us offering the piece at our price.

The Chinese are a little different. They don't like it if you browse through the goods without actually picking up stuff. They don't pamper you. If you bargain, they'll offer you a lower price ("Ok, you take three for S$10) that you won't reconsider. And if you go away, they simply will turn their backs to you and look out for the next customer. Turnover is all that counts. Who cares for customer service? What we bought were China-made bags, pouches, scarves, a Chinese jewellery box, a Chinese compass, chopsticks and tissue-box covers.


Caged orchids
My grand-aunt had suggested that I check out the Singapore Zoo and pose with the orangutans there. Rachit didn't like the idea of hairy primates getting anywwhere close to me. So he took me to the Singapore Botanic Gardens. The green patch was a welcome sight after the malls at Orchard Road. The idea of setting up a national garden started in 1822 when Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore, developed the first Botanical and Experimental Garden at Fort Canning (yes, they had one there too!) We checked out the Swan Lake where we saw two fidgety swans and something that hopefully resembled a swimming turtle.

Next stop: Orchid Garden. We bought S$5 tickets each to see orchids in cages! Surely, there was no chance of them running away. We took our pictures and then headed towards the 'rainforest' that came really close to the 'real thing' except that there was no so much as a caterpillar around! "A rainforests without insects!" Then I saw the pest-control van…

We moved quickly to the ginger garden where we discovered that turmeric belongs to the same family and then decided to go to the 'Coolhouse'. I half-expected winter plants in an airconditioned greenhouse. What I found were tropical ferns, epiphytes and pitcher plants. This certainly was the best part of the trip. Like the rest, this too was a controlled environment but the huge pitchers indicated signs of insect life. Finally!

"I eat anything that moves"
It was Rachit's idea. I would not have dreamed of munching on kebabs in Singapore but Rachit insisted we check out one of his favourite haunts - Arab Street near Sultan Mosque. And he managed to get Geo and Kedar to tag along after a round of drinks. The place: al-Majlis. We settled on the carpet and ordered a sheesha, mixed lamb and chicken kebabs, hummus and pitta bread. I was mulling over what to order when Geo turned to me and said, "Arre bindaas maar. Main hoon na. I eat anything that moves." "Pork and beef?" "Yes." Frog? "Have tried the frog leg soup which is a specialty in Singapore (as is the pig organ soup!) but wouldn't recommend as there's not much meat on it." Gulp!


Chilli crab
Singapore's favourite food is omnipresent. It jostles for space between pig organ soup and frog legs at most food courts and Chinese roadside stalls. Francis Ong, one of Rachit's friends told me, "We Singaporeans oscillate between pepper and chilli." It was on Francis's recommendation that the group of to-be MBA graduates from Nanyang Tech University (NTU) had gathered at Mellben Seafood, Ang Mo Kio. Kati and Francis had insisted "That's where we get the best chilli crab in Singapore."

Rachit and I had tried out a version of soft-shelled crab at Sentosa but Rachit had told me that we'd miss the real thing. But with Francis by our side, there was no way we could have gone wrong. The crab came - all red and dunked in chilli sauce - ready to be eaten. But Alis and Rosemary decided to capture its original state before it underwent mastication in our mouths.

We waited for the 'shoot' to end and then simply tore the crab apart - claw by claw. Nobody cared for the shell-cracker. We worked on it with our hands, incisors, molars and tongues. Francis scoffed at us when we put aside the remnants on a separate plate. "This is the way to do it," he said, pointing at a pile of shells on the table.

Other dishes on the turntable contained seaweed, cereal prawns (again a favourite), buns, pepper crab and something that resembled Chicken Manchurian. I was tempted to dig in but I decided to ask Francis what it was. "Frog." I could see the familiar shape. Kati egged me on to try it. "It tastes just like chicken." I looked at it again and imagined it with the skin. "No! I don't think I have the stomach for it." Cost of the dinner S$419 split up between 13 people. It makes sense to eat in large groups!

Are you Indian? You sure?
I was surprised when I was asked this question at the Singapore checkpoint on our way back from Tioman in Malaysia. I had been asked the same question at Starbucks and even at Little India (where I found Singtel pamphlets in Bangla). Later, Kedar told me, "Here, because of the large Tamil population, people in general think that Indians are dark-skinned with curly hair. They've been asking me the same. I'm sure they've never heard of Maharashtrians, much less Kokanastha Brahmins." Some comfort!

Shorts and high-heels
I remember Almas telling me on Facebook of how women in Singapore always wear high-heels. Not only did I not believe her, but I also chose to take my kitten heels along. On my first MRT trip to Clarke Quay (pronounced Clar-key), I noticed women in black shorts, formal shirts and jackets balancing themselves on stilletoes and high pumps. Ouch! Shorts to work? Rachit said, "That's how it is here. The more you show the better!"

The hat and the cloak!
We had to buy Rachit's convocation garb from Serangoon Broadway. Since NTU had an exclusive tie-up with the store, the storeowner decided to capitalise on it and provided for packages. "You buy the dress, it cost you S$42. You buy package with 2 photographs for S$100, you get dress free. There were people willing to shell out S$2,000 for a large photograph and a free dress!

No history, no culture
When I looked up tourist places in Singapore, I didn't find many that would appeal to me. The reserves are so well-maintained (devoid of creepy-crawlies) that they almost look artificial. The malls are swanky and clean, but we've seen enough of those brands in India too. There's the National Museum at Orchard Road where you can learn about the struggle to have an independent Singapore and there is the St Andrews Church and thee Town Hall near the Esplanade that were constructed by the British.

But that's about it. In their bid to become modern, Singapore has had to give up its history. It's more about commerce than culture, about technology than humanity. When I mentioned to Francis that I found Malaysians more cheerful, he said that Singaporeans may be grouchy because of the hectic pace of life in a very controlled environment. The media is controlled so expression and formation of opinions and ideas are limited, Rachit told me. There's a ban on chewing gum and houses of foreign journalists are often bugged.

The 60km x 40km island offers you limited scope for freedom but limitless possibilities of attaining wealth, with which you can buy yourself that freedom by going to USA or Canada like more rich Singaporeans. It's the choice the locals have. As for tourists, they should be happy shopping.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Titillating Tioman

Eisha Sarkar

Posted On Mumbai Mirror on Monday, August 03, 2009 at 03:42:10 PM

Nine hours, six different vehicles of transport, immigration procedures and tremendous patience is all you need to savour a bit of the world that hasn’t seen the worst of civilisation. Few Indian travellers go to Tioman. It's a far cry from Kuala Lumpur's snazzy malls and Singapore's dazzling heights. But for adventure junkies and backpackers, this is as good as it can get. Armed with Lonely Planet guides, Dutch, British, German and Australian travellers make their way to the remote Tioman Island, 40 kilometres off the Malaysian coast not just to explore the dense rainforests, but to also experience one of the world's cheapest diving hotspots.

A long way to go
It's the journey that makes Tioman a great destination. You take a bus from Queen Street in Singapore, a ride that can cost you S$ 2.40 (1 S$ = Rs 33). There are few buses that run from Singapore into Johor Bahru, Malaysia. It’s a half-hour journey to the Singapore checkpoint, one of the busiest in the world (the train of cars waiting here can be comparable to Mumbai's peak-hour traffic). You clear the immigration and board another bus to cross the bridge that joins Singapore with the Malaysian mainland. You 'disembark' at the Malaysian checkpoint, a building that’s as big as the domestic wing of the Mumbai airport. Another stamp on your passport and then you’re all set to go to Johor Bahru.

At Johor Bahru, you board another bus that takes you to Larkin. The Larkin bus station has plenty of facilities for travellers. There’s a canteen where you can order a Malaysian ‘breakfast’ of roast chicken, rice while you listen to Bollywood hits (don't they love them!) You can also change some money (they accept Indian currency) here. Buses to Mersing on Malaysia's east coast leave every hour. Cost of the ticket? RM 18 (1 RM = Rs 16) per head.

The ferry-ride
No sooner than you alight from a bus at Mersing than you'll find a travel agent by your side peddle RM 35 tickets for the next ferry to Tioman Island. "There's only one ferry service - Bluewater. There used to be another one but the boat caught fire," he will say holding up a laminated copy of a Malay newspaper article with the morbid picture of the ill-fated vessel. He'll then offer you rooms at Panuba beach and Berjaya Resort on the island's west coast. When you say you want to go to Juara on the east coast, he'll dissuade you. If you persist, he'll offer to book you a cottage at Juara Beach Resort, Juara Mutiara or Rainbow Resort. If you agree to pay him the RM 120 per night, he'll even go further and book a 4x4 for picking you up from Tekek, the main town on the island for RM 30 one way. Is there an option? No!

The wait for the ferry can seem endless. The 3pm ferry often does not leave till 3.45pm. The air-conditioned ferries are cramped with tourists and locals - so many of them that you wonder if the place is really as remote as it's made out to be. The ferry-ride should ideally take you two hours, but it’s all at the mercy of the wind and the wave. Often, the ferries stop at Genting, at the south-eastern coast of Tioman and then head to Salang, up north and then again move down south to Tekek.

Tioman, finally
Known locally as Gunung Daik Bercabang Tiga, Tioman is 39 km long and 12 km wide. You disembark at Tekek and take a 4x4 to cross the hill to Juara beach on the other side of the island. The hill's steep and ‘threatened’ by overgrowth. The multiple canopies of trees prevent light from reaching below. The leaves of trees closer to the ground are sometimes as large as an open umbrella. You may also find flying squirrels doing a Mission Impossible and monkeys playing cat-and-mouse. The forests are host to protected species such as Binturong, Long-tailed Macaque, Slow Loris, Black Giant Squirrel, Red Giant Flying Squirrel, Mouse deer, Brush-tailed Porcupine, Frigatebird, Tioman walking catfish and Common Palm Civet.


Lots to do
Juara offers the winning combination of the blue-green sea, white sand beach, a sandbar, small backwater ponds and thick rainforest. Typically, tourists come to Juara opt for either scuba diving or snorkelling around the well-preserved coral reef or exploring the rainforest. Remi, a diving instructor says, "You can complete the scuba diving course in three days and then you are free to go diving anywhere in the world," he said. You can hire snorkelling gear for just RM 20 per head. There's also a soft-shell turtle sanctuary on the island.

Fresh catch
There are few options for food at Juara beach as there are fewer resorts here. The catch from the sea and the cargo boat from the mainland come just once a day so you may not get everything that's there on the menu. Opt for local delicacies such as Sambal prawns (spicy!) with rice and fried squid rings (a little chewy but it's delicious).

Fly to Tioman

There’s a daily propeller plane service by Berjaya Air from the Seletar Airport in Singapore and Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport in Kuala Lumpur.

Friday, July 17, 2009

My new blog

I've created a new blog for my reviews of health books. It will also have information about authors, journals and health literature. Do visit the site and let me give me your feedback. The blog's still under development.

Here's the url: http://healthinbooks.wordpress.com/

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Logic with Lola

I like Lola Kutty. She has a presence and a sense of humour that most VJs, MJs and RJs lack nowadays. And I like her more now that I've met her. It happened earlier this week.

Where? Phoenix Mills, Lower Parel.

How? Karan and I simply had nothing better to do after browsing through a range of cellphones (this was before I got my new Sony Ericsson Cybershot K810i) and laptops (especially the Sony Vaio P15 notepad) at Chroma. Karan suggested I accompany him to Marks and Spencers'. I didn't think it was a good idea. What did I care if Karan managed to find a pair of jeans he'd fit into. But Karan persisted and I agreed. As we climbed down the stairs I spotted Lola in a sari and wearing a gajra. I told Karan, "Wonder what Lola Kutty's doing here."

Karan, as enthusiastic as he always is to grab his piece of attention, decided to stop right next to the cameraman to have a closer look. I asked him, "Why don't you chat Lola up?" "Aah, let's see." "You'll be on national TV," I said.

Seeing Karan and me debating over his TV debut, the show's producer asked us if we would be interested in participating in a quiz. "I want him (Karan) to participate." The producer said, "If he's there, we'll need you too. It's a boy versus a girl kind of a thing." "No way, not me," I said, suggesting that I'd procure a girl to compete with Karan. I love quizzes but I hate the camera. The producer persisted, encouraged by Karan's pleas to me to participate.

The wait: We were asked to wait for 'five minutes' that lasted half an hour. The first 15 minutes, I looked for ways to run away, but with Karan in tow, I couldn't find a way to scoot. Then, as we kept waiting, I realised my hands were trembling. I decided to go to the washroom to get away from it all, hoping that those guys would be gone. But when I returned, I saw the grin on Karan's face that told me that we were ready to roll camera.

Meet Lola: A small chat with Lola aka Anuradha Menon put me at ease. I asked her how long it took her to get ready. She said, "Now, it's only 1.5 hours." Ouch! "I don't like this wig anymore. I feel like throwing it away and getting a new one." It's only then I noticed the gajra was made of artificial flowers.

As Lola and the producer got talking, I heard the word 'love'. "I'm not doing a love quiz with Karan, for god's sake," I said. Lola tried to calm me down by saying that the quiz was on Bollywood. I turned to look at Karan who was already making a mental note of all the movies he'd seen in his life. I said, "I don't even remember the name of the director of Sholay!" He said, "It's ok, Eish. It's Ramesh Sippy." Christ! How could I have forgotten him. He used to live a few blocks away from my house in Mumbai.

Then comes the quiz: "Action," the producer said, and I looked at two cameras zooming in on Karan, Lola and me. A shiver ran down my spine. If I could, I would have made a 100 metre dash. But I had told the producer that I am a journo and journos can't be cowards, right? So I stayed put as Lola fiddled with her faulty lapel mike and held onto her boomer like a child holds a candy stick.

The five-question quiz was easy. For one, neither of us had the presence of mind to spot the trick questions. We answered that a hole in the ground would have one cubic metre of mud, that there would be eight birds left in a field if two were shot, that February is the only month with 28 days, etc. At least Karan got one right. My one right answer wasn't accounted for because it had got lost in the lengthy explanation that followed. That was our strategy: Since we weren't getting any answers right, we thought of confusing Lola with our lengthy explanations. When Lola came to the last question, she looked at me and said, "This is the do-or-die situation for you. If you get this wrong Karan will win." "I don't want to die," I said. "Even we don't want you to die. It's not 'that' kind of a show," said Lola, implying Jade Goody. "But you have to raise the flag of womanhood." I looked at her, "I can't see the flag." She waved her hand and said, "Imagine this as a flag." "Sheesh! They can't even afford flags at Channel [V], now. Cost-cutting I must say." "Don't even get me started on the pay," Lola responded.

Lola asked me the question, one that I have answered right in several dozen quizzes. I was about to open my mouth when I looked into the camera. It was closing in on me. I looked at Lola again and muttered something I knew was not correct. The error wasn't intentional. Something about the camera made me go blank.

The prize: Karan won the quiz by getting just one question right. I was glad that the ordeal was over. My hands finally stopped shaking and I was myself again. And then I asked Lola about the prize. Lola asked the assistant producers for the Lola rulers but they'd left it at office. Karan won the quiz and got nothing. When Lola asked him what he wanted for prize, he pointed towards me and said, "I'd rather take her than anything else." As we thanked Lola and moved away I put my arm around Karan... to strangle him!

Wise words later: Karan said, "Relax Eish, we managed to entertain with our stupidity and had fun too! I don't live in India, you don't live in Mumbai and anyways, who watches Channel [V]?" Finally, some wise words...

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Thursday, July 9, 2009

‘City of Virtue’

For all the vices IT and consumerism has brought about, Pune still holds on to its history, culture and the meaning of its name

Eisha Sarkar

There's a slight chill in the air as we alight from the Neeta Travels bus near Aundh bus stop in Pune. The smell of damp mud brings back memories from school, in Pune's cantonment (aka Camp) area. We look around for familiar landmarks like Swar Gate, but are disappointed to find towering malls instead. Pune has changed...

Four years ago, on our last visit, we'd discovered that the erstwhile leafy suburb of Koregaon Park had turned into a place with malls, multiplexes and multicuisine restaurants – the three M’s that spell ‘cool’. This time, we noticed the paddy fields at Hinjewadi had given way to an IT park. With its high realty prices and rampant consumerism, Pune's no longer the pensioner's paradise. The old buildings and landmarks have been torn down to make for broader roads, flyovers and malls. Yet, in some parts it still latches on to its past - its rich Peshwa heritage and British legacy.

The name game
One of the first lessons in Geography we learnt at our boarding school in Pune, was how the city got its name. It was originally known as Punawadi meaning city of virtue (Punya Nagari in Sanskrit). Through the ages, Punawadi was corrupted to Punewadi.

When the British decided to use the cantonment town as the 'monsoon capital' for Bombay Presidency, they changed its name to Poona. It still exists on the plaques of some of the colonial-style buildings in town, including the famed Poona Club. For a long time, both Poona and Pune co-existed. The locals preferred 'Pune' in Marathi while the 'outsiders' liked the Anglicised Poona. Like Bombay-Mumbai, this duality too came to an end officially in the mid-1990s.

Grand heritage
If Mumbai is the commercial capital of India and Maharashtra, Pune is its cultural centre. In 1625, Peshwa king Shahaji Bhosale appointed Rango Bapuji Dhadphale as the administrator of Pune. He was one of the first major developers of the town, overseeing the construction of the Kasba, Somwar, Ravivar and Shaniwar Peths that exist till this day. Later, the Lal Mahal was constructed as Shahaji's son, Shivaji Bhosale (later Chhatrapati Shivaji) was to move there with his mother Jijabai.

The British took over the city after the Peshwas lost the third Anglo-Maratha War in 1817. Nanasaheb Peshwa, the adopted son of the last Peshwa Bajirao II, rose against British East India Company rule in 1856, as part of the Indian Mutiny. After the mutiny failed, the remnants of the Maratha empire were annexed to British India.

Pune was an important centre for the social and religious reform movements in the late 19th century instituted by the likes of freedom fighters such as Lokmanya Tilak, Maharshi Vitthal Ramji Shinde and Jyotirao Phule. It was here that Tilak started the Ganpati festival in order to bring together the masses for initiating political reforms.

Tourist spots
There's a lot to see in Pune. For Mumbaikars like us, the malls and IT parks aren't charming enough. So we settle on:
1. Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum: A private museum, this 15,000-strong collection comprises household items, ornaments, door frames and musical instruments (most notable is a blue peacock-shaped sitar). The Mastani Mahal (named after Peshwa Baji Rao's mistress) and a carving of Lord Ganesha on a seed are very remarkable too.
2. Bund Garden: This brought back memories of horse rides and merry-go-rounds. The view of the Mula Mutha rivers and the Parvati Temple on the other bank is simply awesome at sunset.
3. India Meterological Department:
This is the season, when everyone is on the lookout for the weather bulletin and there's no better place than the weather office. The digital board outside the colonial-style building marks every shift in decimal readings of rainfall, maximum and minimum temperatures. However, you need permission to go in there.
4. Sinhagad Fort: An ideal trekking destination, the historical fort located 30 kilometres from Pune, is also a birdwatcher's delight with a possibility of sighting Crested Hawk-Eagle, White-Bellied Drongo, Yellow-Throated Sparrow, Paradise Flycatcher and Tree-Pie among others.

Getting there
There's nothing like a three-hour drive through the Mumbai-Pune Expressway. You may also opt for a bus or a train.

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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Suckers!

Book review: Suckers - How alternative medicine makes fools of us all

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Times Wellness on Thursday, July 02, 2009

Author: Rose Shapiro
Publisher: Vintage Books London
Price: Rs 445
Pages: 296

Do you know that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) originated in the 1950s? That the oft-prescribed 6c dilution of homeopathic medicine is equivalent to one drop of the remedy in four Olympic-sized swimming pools? Do you know Ayurvedic medicines contain high concentrations of lead, mercury and arsenic? If you do know the answers to these questions, then, in all probability, you do not care for crystal balls and shamans. But if these disclosures are making you angry or uncomfortable, then journalist Rose Shapiro's book, Suckers will help you learn more.

The name game

Shapiro's rant against anything that seems 'complementary' or 'alternative' comes from deep-rooted bias towards science and orthodox medicine. "The same set of practices that was called quackery or fringe medicine in the mid-twentieth century was renamed 'alternative medicine' in the 1960s and 70s. The term 'complementary medicine' was coined in the 1990s and now, inspired by the idea that 'alternative' medicine 'can work alongside' and therefore 'complement' orthodox scientific medicine, all these therapies are bundled together as Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM).

Holistic blunder

Most people are taken in by the 'holistic treatment' that alternative practitioners offer. If you go to the doctor, he'll write down a prescription based on the symptoms of the disease. But if you go to a chiropractor, acupuncturist, naturopath, homeopath, etc, you'll be told that it's not just the symptom you should cure but also eliminate the possibility of such a symptom from arising again. That means that even if after your symptom is cured, you will have to keep coming back for further treatment. While orthodox medicine treats the condition of disease, alternative therapists believe that the absence of disease doesn't mean good health.

It is this underlying theory that makes CAM a billion-dollar industry, with gullible patients going for any kind of 'therapy' to cure themselves of ill-health even if there's nothing wrong with them.

Spot the quack

Shapiro writes, "The task of spotting quackery is made much easier once you know that there are large areas of medicine in which they are never found. …There's no homeopathic contraceptive, for example. Nor will reflexology be used following a stabbing, or Chinese herbs in the treatment of acute conditions like a broken leg, appendicitis or heart attack." Alternative practitioners treat chronic conditions such as back pain, arthritis, food intolerances and cancer.

Why you should be wary of alternative therapy?

1. Language: CAM practitioners use words such as natural, balance, energy, paradigm, quantum, vibrations, healing and wellness with flourish, which are both abstract and subjective.
2. Disclaimer: The only truthful statement on the medicine pack, will absolve its makers of all charges if the medicine is ineffective or harmful.
3. Universal diagnosis: From acne to varicose veins, you'll be provided a single therapy or remedy. It'll take care of your body and soul and even your wallet.
4. Ancient wisdom in 21st century: Ayurveda and ancient Chinese medicine are deemed to have been born in a world that was around 3,000 years old when people had a different lifestyle and environment. Their effectiveness in this day and age is yet to be proved.
5. The Emperor's New Clothes: Just as religions involve suffering in order to reach a higher spiritual state, alternative medicine often requires consumers to feel a good deal worse in the quest for Optimum Health.
6. The fight against traditional medicine: Many CAM practitioners advise their clients to stop taking prescription drugs altogether - even if they have cancer - claiming that the drug industry does not want people to get healthy. Instead, they offer ‘herbal’ remedies.
7. 80 per cent success: Most CAM therapists peg their success rates at or above 80 per cent, without any research to justify that. Patient testimonials are substituted for evidence instead of conclusions drawn from clinical trials.
8. Food factor: Several herbal remedies with high concentrations of prescription drugs are passed off as food supplements.
9. Too good to be true: Height-enhancing nutritional supplements, no-touch chiropractic, foot reflexology to improve digestion are promises that will remain just that. In most cases of CAM, you'll find a revolutionary scientific discovery made by a lone genius. Try it, at your own risk.
10. Placebo effect: Most CAM remedies have the same effect as placebos in clinical trials - if they do have an effect, it's nearly negligible.

The verdict

The book is entertaining, compelling and packed with research data that exposes the mad and bad world of alternative therapy. Shapiro scathingly attacks alternative practitioners such as life guru Deepak Chopra, Samuel Hahnemann (the founder of Homeopathy), B J Palmer (the founder of chiropractic). The book's conversational style makes it accessible to non-science readers; its rich bibliography is fodder for science enthusiasts.

Since Shapiro lives in UK, most of the therapies she discusses are those that are available there so Indian readers may not be aware of some of them. Nevertheless, it can help readers understand why belief in traditional medicine is as important as being aware of the hazards of alternative medicine. The choice is yours. If you get hit by a truck would you go to a doctor or a naturopath?


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