Thursday, May 26, 2011

Book review: Last Rites – Unforgettable people, unforgettable memories

Author: Kaushik K Ghosh
Publisher: CinnamonTeal Publishing
Pages: 179
Price: Rs 375

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Mumbai Mirror on Thursday, May 26, 2011 at 03:37:42 PM

There are writers and then are those who also want to write. Since the success of Chetan Bhagat's Five Point Someone, a new generation of writers in India, comprising bankers, doctors, engineers and students, have started serving your soul soups, memories, anecdotes and stories packed into books with glossy jackets and attractive fonts. Kaushik K Ghosh’s debut novel, Last Rites, is one such.

In the author’s note, Ghosh describes Last Rites as "a story weaved around an imbroglio encompassing a Muslim deaf and dumb man who lives with and dies in a Hindu family." Never one to take his religion too seriously, Bouka aka Asgar Ali aka Arun Kumar's death puts the family in dilemma – whether he should get a proper burial, in line with the customs of the religion of his birth, Islam, or whether he should be cremated for he grew up in a Hindu household. With such a storyline, you expect a tale of loyalty, love, rife, bondage and sacrifice. The story is real, or as Ghosh says, "Very close to my life." You think it will be packed with drama and emotion. But what you get is a dry, excessively descriptive, essay-like narrative that leaves little room for imagination.

The story disappoints because Bouka doesn’t have much of a part. The tale revolves around the narrator and his friends. In his attempt to create a flashback, Ghosh, jumps from one anecdote to another, without giving much thought to characterisation. Bouka could be just anybody. He remains in the background till his funeral rites take centre-stage. Ghosh offers too little, a little too late. By then, you want the book to end.

Ghosh isn't a writer. He's an IT professional, who wanted to put forth his bizarre but interesting story before a mass audience. He may have taken three years to write it, but it seems like he was in a hurry. And that's where the editors are to blame. They could have given him some direction and helped him with the storytelling. They could have re-checked those spelling errors and numerous repetitions that make the text tedious and at times, plain boring.

In the absence of a strong human protagonist, Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, where the story is set, develops a character of its own. Last Rites may not be of much literary value but it offers a slice of small-town India, its people, their beliefs, traditions and customs. The author has done well to describe the roads, the cinemas and hangout joints, the temples, the graveyards, the educational institutions and the beauty of the Chhota Nagpur plateau, which rarely feature in the mainstream media, let alone films. Ghosh also has the flair for digging up trivia and information. Perhaps, he should try non-fiction.

Cell phone radiation: How bad can it get?

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Hello Wellness on May 17, 2011
We live in world where we love to be busy. And the cell phone has become the ultimate symbol of having an occupation, something to kill time with! We depend on our mobiles for connectivity, comfort, communication and entertainment. But are we bargaining for these with our health? Will the radiation emitted by our cell phones ultimately get to us? We find out…

Cancer? No
Mobiles emit radiofrequency (RF) energy or radio waves, a type of non-ionizing electromagnetic radiation. While ionizing radiation such as X-rays, have been linked to cancer, there is currently no conclusive evidence to show that the low non-ionizing radiation emitted by a cell phone can cause cancer. An Interphone study across 13 countries, published in 2010, reported that moderate users have no increased risk of two of the most common types of brain tumour - glioma and meningioma.

Alzheimer's? Maybe
A mobile phone's main source of RF energy is produced through its antenna in the handset, which is typically held against the side of the head when the phone is in use. The closer the antenna is to your head, the greater is your expected exposure to RF energy. The intensity of RF energy emitted by a cell phone depends on the signal. Swedish researchers have found that two minutes of exposure to emissions from mobile phones can disable a safety-barrier in blood causing proteins and toxins to leak into the brain, increasing chances of developing Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson's.

Insomnia? Yes
A 2008 study carried out by scientists from Karolinska Institute and Uppsala University in Sweden and from Wayne State University in Michigan, USA found that using handsets before bedtime causes people to take longer to reach the deeper stages of sleep and to spend less time in them, interfering with the body's ability to repair damage suffered during the day. In children and teenagers, who mostly use their phones late at night, the failure to get enough sleep can lead to mood and personality changes, depression, lack of concentration and poor academic performance.

Keeping a distance from your cell phone will not only help you lower your radiation exposure, but also help you concentrate on the task at hand and people you are with. Just give the phone a break!

Some exercise fun-facts !

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Hello Wellness on May 21, 2011

A friend's Facebook status message reads, "I do ten sit ups every morning. It might not sound like much, but there are only so many times you can hit the snooze button." What is it about exercise that turns us into the staunchest of couch potatoes? Why do we love the gym jokes as much as we hate treadmills? And why do we prefer dumb belles over dumbbells? Exercise is not all about sweat, muscle and packs. Here are some interesting fun-facts on exercise:

Gyms for the naked!
The much-hated word gymnasium aka gym comes from the Greek word gymnos meaning naked. In ancient Greece, athletes competed in the nude to encourage aesthetic appreciation of the male body and as a tribute to the gods. Today, gyms stand for the same  - appreciation of the body, both male and female. So, if you need to know why you should exercise, go to one. Watching all those sculpted figures weight-training will motivate you too. And no, gyms are no longer for nudes.

When working out is play!
Playing chor-police, hide-and-seek or Cowboys and Red Indians with your kids and in just one hour helps burn as many calories (if not more) as you would walking briskly for the same time. Indulge in weenend matches of gully cricket with friends, a rowdy game of football or dive into a swimming pool just for fun’s sake!

Stand up and lose more
You can actually burn 12 calories by standing for just 10 minutes. So if you've got to wait for your turn at the doctors', dentists', outside the boss' office or at the bus stop or train station, you'd rather kill time by standing up staight.

Get your memory back
American researchers have suggested that older adults brisk walking can increase the size of the hippocampus, a brain region involved in memory formation. So if you've been forgetting too many things recently, taking a walk might be a good start!

Exercise will give you the physique that you will be proud of and the mental strength to keep you going. Work on yourself for a healthier future.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A biographical masterpiece!

Book: The Emperor of All Maladies - A Biography of Cancer
Author: Siddhartha Mukherjee
Publisher: Fourth Estate / Harper Collins Publishers
Pages: 571
Price: Rs 499

Eisha Sarkar
Posted on Times Wellness on Friday, May 06, 2011

Had cancer been a man, he would have travelled the world in disguise. He would have killed his gracious hosts, ambushed his enemies, laughed at their feeble attempts to resist him. His conquests - men, women and children - would plead for their lives, but to no avail. He would go on to colonise new territories, subjugate new people. Had cancer been a man, he would have been both loathed and held in awe by the same people he had tried to eliminate.

In many ways, cancer physician Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies is a celebration of its existence – much like in the case of the biography of a human being. Its polymorphism, its immortality even after it kills its patients and its unchanging ability to grow threatens humanity in a way that no other disease has ever. It has perplexed some of the greatest minds. It has broken its sufferers’ spirits and has forced doctors to think out-of-the-box for therapies. Mukherjee depicts cancer not only as an illness but as a character that grows on you (literally!) He digs into medical journals, library archives, Susan Sontag's books and works by literary greats to come up with a Pulitzer-winning masterpiece - a historical novel, a popular science book and a beautiful piece of literature, all rolled into one. 

Mukherjee writes, "We tend to think of cancer as a "modern" illness because its metaphors are so modern. It is a disease of overproduction, of fulminant growth - growth unstoppable, growth tipped into the abyss of no control. Modern biology encourages us to imagine the cell as a molecular machine. Cancer is that machine unable to quench its initial command (to grow) and thus transformed into an indestructible, self-propelled automation."

But cancer certainly wasn't "born" in the twentieth century. Mukherjee finds the first medical description of cancer by Imhotep, a great Egyptian physician, on a papyrus text dating back to 2500 BC. He discovers that Atossa, the ancient Persian queen, "who swaddled her cancer affected breast in cloth to hide it and then, in a fit of nihilistic and prescient fury, had a slave cut it off with a knife." The sixteenth-century anatomist Andreas Vesalius tried to discover the source of black bile, the fluid thought to be responsible for cancer. Unable to find it, he launched a new search for cancer's real cause and cure. Then there was the nineteenth-century surgeon William Halsted, who chiselled away at cancer with larger and more disfiguring surgeries, “all in the hopes that cutting more would mean curing more." Cancer is not a new disease. It is as old as humanity is. Only, it wasn’t noticed before because people died younger of other causes - plague, tuberculosis, small pox, and cholera killed them faster and before cancer could. But in this modern world, the longer you live the greater are your chances of having cancer. “The question then will not be if we will encounter this immortal illness in our lives, but when.”

Cancer research gained momentum after World War II, primarily because of the contribution and the dogged perseverance of two people - the socialite Mary Lasker and researcher Sidney Farber, the 'father of chemotherapy'. As cancer became the focal point of medical research, scientists in the US and Europe left no stone unturned to find its "universal cure". They tried highly toxic drugs on patients who were left with little choice but to agree. They blasted tumours with X-rays. Later, they opted for a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and non-radical surgery. In the 70s and 80s, scientists started looking beyond the 'cure' to fight off the disease. While it was initially scoffed at by the powerful tobacco lobby, the anti-tobacco campaign finally gained momentum, with an increasing number of reports suggesting a correlation between lung cancer and smoking. After managing to get legislation to force cigarette companies to print warnings on packets, researchers then turned inward, to find out how some cells turn cancerous and others don't. In many ways, the War on Cancer was a battle of ideologies and a riddance of bad habits.

In spite of years of trials, research and documentation, there is no single cure for cancer and the probability of finding one is, well, improbable. The author writes, "Cancer is a flaw in our growth, but this flaw is deeply entrenched within ourselves. We can rid ourselves of cancer, then, only as much as we can rid ourselves of the processes in our physiology that depend on growth - aging, regeneration, healing, reproduction." The War on Cancer did not find a cure, but it did help understand cancer better!

Stringing reports, narratives, anecdotes and case studies, Mukherjee weaves the story of medicine, - of its marvels, its failures, its people, its cultures and its ethos - of life and of death. "Medicine, I said, begins with storytelling. Patients tell stories to describe illness; doctors tell stories to understand it. Science tells its own story to explain diseases. The story of one cancer's genesis - of carcinogens causing mutations in internal genes, unleashing cascading pathways in cells that cycle through mutation, selection and survival - represents the most cogent outline we have of cancer's birth," he writes. 

Brilliantly researched and exquisitely written, The Emperor of All Maladies is a must-read. There are thousands of books on cancers and there will be many more in the future. But there few that relate to students, patients, doctors, researchers, health officials and laypersons to the extent this one does. Mukherjee juxtaposes scientific data with poetry, medical jargon with commonplace vocabulary and slips in bits of conversations and anecdotes to keep the prose interesting. The Emperor of All Maladies is a story not of human suffering but of cancer’s greatness. It is a story not of failures but of trials and smaller triumphs. It is a story not of decay but of growth. It is a story not of despair but of hope.