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I had the opportunity last week, to attend the inauguration of TWAS 2010. TWAS is a science academy whose members comprise of 800 scientists from 40 countries. This year’s general meeting of TWAS was hosted in Hyderabad and inaugurated by Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh. My thatha (Grandfather’s brother), about whom I have written in this blog was awarded the Indian Science Prize, the highest  and most prestigious national recognition given to a scientist in India for a major contribution to any branch of science, engineering and medicine. It was a proud moment for all of us. At 90 he is still going strong and is helping establish the “CR Rao Advanced Institute of Mathematics, Statistics & Computer Science “in Hyderabad University

Thatha with Award from PM

 400 scientists from 40 countries participated in this conference. Prime minister gave a very insightful speech. He recounted his experience of working with the founder of TWAS, Abdus Salam, a Nobel Prize winning physicist from Pakistan. He quoted Sir Winston Churchill who said “Empires of the future would be the empires of the mind”. Since there is a limitation of infrastructure in the developing world, collaboration among all the countries is essential. Science has the capacity to solve most of the pressing problems of our times. We need to put science in a pedestal. Our pedagogical method of teaching emphasizes memory over enquiry and this is not good for scientific progress.

 What I found most interesting in his speech was his mention of open source research platform. He said that the main drawback with scientific research is that the intellectual property rights make it very difficult for sharing and using research findings. Our government is promoting a open source forum where scientists can share their research findings which can be freely reused by other scientists.

I did a quick search on the net and came across “Council of Scientific and Industrial Research” which is using this model to collaboratively develop low cost drugs for diseases. You can read more about their work at “Open Source Drug Discovery Foundation”. I am not sure if this was the forum that the Prime Minister was referring to in his speech.

Some other interesting tit bits from the conference

The chief minister of AP in his speech proudly proclaimed that Hyderabad is a major IT hub with big companies like Microsoft, Oracle, Cognizant having their presence here. I was gratified to hear Cognizant being uttered in the same breath as Microsoft and Oracle

I was sitting next to a Microbiologist from Tunesia. She wanted to know what the Indian nod signified. The way we nod our head to say “yes” is very different from how the rest of the world does it. She actually shook her head and asked me what this means.

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I spotted this book a couple of months back at a bookstore in Bangalore. It caught my eye because it dealt with many subjects that interest me –  Shiva, Indus Valley, river Saraswathi and real stories behind mythology. I read a couple of pages and found the style of writing very text bookish. I decided not to buy but instead borrow it from the library.

In the past couple of weeks many people wrote to me about this book. My friend Archana presented it for my birthday. On the same day my library delivered a copy. Another friend, Meenks wrote to me from the US recommending the book. He had read reviews of the book and thought I would like it. It was almost as if the entire universe was conspiring to make me read the book 🙂

All my friends were right, I loved the book. Although I was not mistaken in my initial assessment of the style of writing, I enjoyed it all the same.

 It is the story of Shiva, a Tibetan immigrant who comes to Meluha (mainland India) to escape from the incessant tribal wars in his countru. In Meluha he is given Somras which makes his throat turn blue. Thus he becomes Neelkanth, who the Meluhan legend says would be their savior. The story is about Shiva’s discovery of his true destiny. In the course of the story we are introduced to many mythological characters in their new Avatar. Brahma the Meluhan scientist who invents Somras, the drink of immortality. Saptharishis are selected students of Brahma to whom Somras was first administered. Lord Rama, an ancient king who broke the caste barrier to the access to Somras.  He laid down a social order which ensured that everyone got equal opportunities regardless of their birth.  Sati, the daughter of the current Meluhan king, Daksha. Manu, a Pandya kind from the land of Tamil sangam!!!!

I know, I know. I can hear many of you are screaming in protest at the blatant disregard for actual historical facts

Amish, the author the book has the imagination of a child. It is innocent, idealistic and without boundaries. And just like a child his story is very simplistic. It lacks the nuance and depth of an adult’s book.  Have you seen the cartoon network adaptation of Ramayan in English? This book gives you a similar feeling.  Shiva comes across as a cool dude of the new millennium who loves marijuana and has modern views of equality, justice and democracy.  Sati is the feminist of the last millennium, intelligent, well read and a warrior and yet willingly submissive to the rules of her tradition. She silently bears all the insults hurled at her and raises her voice only when someone insults Shiva. Towards the end Shiva resembles Ahoka, filled with grief for having fought a pointless war. There are also references to the ideological clash of communism and democracy.  The book is the first of a trilogy and the climax is cleverly crafted to make you long for the next one.

The Immortals of Meluha is very much a children’s book at heart. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Those of us who are closet comic book readers, who can still experience the magic of Astrix, Archie and Bhagavatam will understand its appeal.

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Last week I watched a talk show on TV. The discussion was about the poor sex ration in India. As per one of the participants about a million female fetuses are aborted every year. This, in spite of the fact that sex determination is illegal in India.  In some regions like Punjab the ratio is as low as 725 females for every 1000 males. The sex ratio in India is 933(the world average in 1025). There were many interesting opinions expressed during the discussion.

One doctor was strongly in favor of sex determination. He asked “What is the purpose of bringing an unwanted child into this world. If the parents don’t want a girl child, wouldn’t the child have to face rejection though out her life?” There was another lady who had gone to the court stating, she had two girl children and she wanted a boy, so she should be allowed to determine the sex of her baby. She claimed that it would be the same if she had two boys and wanted a girl. To that someone replied, ”You cannot have designer families”

An expecting mother said that she would like to know the sex of her child, not because she wanted to select the sex but more because she would be able to bond better with her unborn child. A doctor, who was the creator of the first test tube baby in India said, “Banning sex determination without examining and correcting the larger social context which results in people not wanting a girl child, would be of no use. That is why this law is such a failure in India”.

That is an interesting point of view. I tried to examine this bias from my own social context. Having been born in family of generations of educated women, I never ever felt disadvantaged because of my gender. My mother and my grandma are both post graduates.  I always assumed that this kind of bias toward  boys, happens in a different class of society. I later discovered this is not true at all.

I was discussing this with my grandma. She has three girls, my mother being the eldest. She said that when her third daughter was born after a gap of 10 years, people refused to break the news to her. They thought she might die of shock and disappointment. My grandma told, “ I could not understand what all the fuss was about. But I understand now”. She is 80 years old and although she is financially independent she cannot live alone. She lives with my mom. She feels it is her son-in-law’s house. Whereas if she had a son, she could rightfully live with him. The second reason she gave was very interesting, “As a mother you are very emotionally invested in your daughters. Till you die their problems are yours, their children’s problems are yours. You always feel the need to protect them. Whereas with sons, after they are married you do not have that level of involvement in their life. You don’t feel so much pain”. I am not sure I agree with this argument. I have a son myself and I can’t think of any time when I would not feel the need to protect him or feel less emotionally invested in him.

My dad has two daughters and now I recall several instances when people used to express regret that he does not have a son. I just cannot understand this attitude. If people who are poor, are dependent on their sons for financial support, who do not have the means to get their daughters married what to have boys, it is understandable.  I wonder why this bias among people who have practically nothing loose by having a daughter.

Long ago I read an article written by an American journalist about female infanticide prevalent in several villages in South India. Most of these people live in appalling poverty and just cannot afford a female child. Whereas she found many women in Mumbai, who were rich and educated and hence had access to illegal sex determination clinics and routinely got their female fetuses aborted.  She says she had less sympathy for these women then those poverty stricken women in villages who killed their female children in desperation.

Do let me know what you think what you think about this issue. Why is there are predominant preference for a male child in our society? Do you think banning sex determination is the solution to the problem?

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I love Chennai. Most people cannot understand why. It is not a fun and happening place. It is very conservative.  I have heard it said many times that it is not very welcoming of outsiders. As for me, there is no place else were I would rather live. One of the most enduring symbols of Chennai is the Marina beach.  It is the second longest beach in the world. It is my favorite haunt and I feel it truly reflects the spirit of Chennai.

If you take an early morning walk on a Sunday (by early morning I mean 5:30 AM), it will be buzzing with energy.  You will find all sorts of people in the long stretch. You will find actors and athletes, ordinary people, police men and women doing their early morning jogging, several laughter clubs bringing a smile to every passer by, children playing cricket and football and boxing. Vendors selling tender coconut water, papaya and arugam pul juice (it is made from a variety of grass and is believed to control diabetes). I can’t think of any other city where people rise so early on a Sunday morning.

Evenings are even more colorful. The Marina beach is the greatest leveler. The richest and the poorest can find a place to relax. It also affords an odd sense of privacy. Although there are thousands of people all around you, you feel quite alone, as if no one is really see you. Here are some pictures I took of the Marina at dusk.

 

The statue of Mahathma Gandhi just outside the Marina Beach

The statue of Mahathma Gandhi just outside the Marina Beach

 

 
 
 
 
Children Shooting Baloons. This is a major attraction which was absent during my childhood days

Children Shooting Baloons. This is a major attraction which was absent during my childhood daysMerry-go-round, wind mills and baloons

Boats used by fisher men

Boats used by fisher men

Many of these boats were destroyed during the Tsunami and were replaced by the government and NGOs from the donations they received. Even today, many chennaites come to the beach on Sunday to buy fresh fish directly from these fishermen.
Another major attraction of the Marina Beach is all the different eatables you get. My favorite is roasted corn.
Lady selling roasted corn. You can see the light house in the back ground.

Lady selling roasted corn. You can see the light house in the back ground.

The corn is roasted over burning coal and seasoned with salt, lime and chilly powder. This is how the process looks when the night sets in.
Roasting Corn

Roasting Corn

Crow pecking the cord discarded by people

Crow pecking the cord discarded by people

 Another major attraction are the hot bajjis, made from powdered Bengal Gram and onions, potato, chilly and raw bananna.

Bajji Stall

Bajji Stall

 

Sundal and Muruakku Seller

Sundal and Muruakku Seller

Sundal and Murukku is generally prepared by the fishermen who live near the beach and sold to the visitors. A majority of these vendors are small children who do this work after school, like the boy in the picture below
A little boy selling Sundal and Murukku

A little boy selling Sundal and Murukku

-)

An Indian fast food stall. Very spicy, very oily. Try at your own risk 🙂

 

A vendor selling cotton candy

A vendor selling cotton candy

Son Papdi - A sweet made with maida and suger. It is the indian version of the cotton candy

Son Papdi - A sweet made with maida and suger. It is the indian version of the cotton candy

A vendor selling fresh Sugar Cane juice

A vendor selling fresh Sugar Cane juice

  

Woman selling jasmine garlends. These are normally worn by South India women on their hair

Woman selling jasmine garlends. These are normally worn by South India women on their hair

 

Mounted police who patrol the beach

Mounted police who patrol the beach

 

A view of the ocean

A view of the ocean

Sunset from the Marina

Sunset from the Marina

Since Marina is on the east, the sun appears in the morning from the ocean and disappars from the other end. Do you notice the white building in the picture. It is the office of the Director General of Police. It was built during the days of the British empire. It was due to be demonished. Then someone filed a public interest litigation against the demolition. It was then renovated and being used by the police. The building is almost half a kilometer in length and looks beautiful in the night.

I carry so many wonderful memories of the Marina beach. Flying kites, playing with my cousins in the water and emerging soaking wet, building sand castles and tunnels in the sand, taking a ride on the merry-go-round. I can never forget the day when my husband and my son went for a walk to the Marina and left just 5 minutes before the Tsunami stuck. My dad used to tell us stories of his childhood in the beach. The entire extended family of nearly 40 people visiting the beach on full moon nights and having a moonlight dinner.  I am sure my son too will have many stories to tell his children. Marina to me is one place where continuity and change co-exist in perfect harmony.

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My husband’s brother died of Cancer 6 years back. Ever since then, my mother-in-law visits an institute called Udavum Karangal on his death anniversary and sponsors food for the children of the orphanage run by this NGO.  This year she was unable to make it during the anniversary. She was very upset and we promised to take her next time she comes to the city. We visited Udavum Karangal yesterday.

This was my first visit to the institute and I was stuck by its serenity and beauty. Udavum Karangal meaning helping hands in Tamil was founded by Mr.Vidyaakar. He himself was an abandoned child. He was bought up by a philanthropist, Mr. Ramakrishnan who provided him with shelter and education.  His mentor told him “you should also help another person like I helped you”. That served as the inspiration for Udavum Karangal. Today Udavum Karangal is home for more than 2000 abandoned children, infants, mentally challenged destitutes and HIV patients.

I want to share with you a few of my experiences at Udavum Karangal. We were distributing biscuits and chocolates to the children. These were 4-10 year old children, very happy to receive the gifts. Yet, they sat down in a disciplined manner and took the gifts only when they were given and acknowledged it with a ‘thank you’. No one pushed or shoved or tried to grab. Infact, when I offered them an extra gift they refused to take it saying they have already received their share. I am not sure if we can expect that kind of grace even among children who get to eat exotic chocolates every day.

When we were stepping out of the orphanage we met Mr.Vidyaakar, the founder of Udavum Karangal. He offered to take us on tour of his facility. We met infants who were abandoned in the hospitals and in dust-bins. Then we went to the facility for mentally challenged adults and spastic children. They were so excited to see Mr.Vidyakaar, they came running and held his hand and called him papa (meaning daddy). These women are not confined to a room. They are allowed to move freely within the premises. He introduced us to a lady whom he found 20 years back, roaming naked on the high way. They located her family recently. They are not willing to take her back. There was another lady whom he found on the road with a girl child. Although the mother is mentally challenged her daughter is normal. She received her education at Udavum Karangal and she is now studying to be a nurse.

There are two schools run by the institute, one for boys and one for girls. They also run vocational training schools for nursing and driving. As I was walking around the premises I was stuck by the beauty of the garden. There were all kinds of beautiful trees and plants and creepers and not a speck of litter. I asked Mr.Vidyaakar who maintains the garden. He said it is maintained by the mentally challenged women residents.

Udavum Karangal is entirely run by contributions from donors and volunteers. These are people from all walks of life. There is a barber who comes there regularly and gives free haircuts to the children. It is people like these who make me wonder what it really takes to be able to serve. I don’t think it is money or time. The secret lies in our attitude.

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I have been lax in my writing and I owe all my regular readers an apology. Inspite of my prolonged absence you have been commenting on my blog. Thank you very much. I am very grateful.

I am back again to share with you a story that really moved me. Last week, my husband returned from a business trip to Italy. He told me about a person named Alessandro whom he met at his client’s office.  My husband said that he was a service engineer in his early twenties. Alessandro told my husband that he has visited India several times. He along with a group of friends run a program to help street children in Andhra Pradesh.  It is not a typical orphanage he claims. They have appointed a mother and father to take care of a group of 20 children. They have named their program Manchi Kalalu meaning ‘sweet dreams’ in Telugu. This group of young people regularly take time off and come all the way from Italy to spend time with these children. Most of the funds to support the project come from them and their friends.

My husband was simply amazed. He never expected to encounter such a person in Italy. Incidentally, our family has roots in Andhra Pradesh and many of our extended family lives there. How many times we would have walked those streets and not noticed the hungry children. No one ever discussed them. It was as if they did not exist.  Here were a group of people, so far away from India , who have the heart and the will to make a difference to these children who are no way connected to them.

If you want to know more about Manchi Kalalu and how you can help, visit their website

 

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Rig Veda is an ancient religious text of India, comprising of a collection of Sanskrit Hymns. It is dated as far back as 1500–1000 BCE. One of the most popular hymn and my favorite is commonly known as the hymn of creation

In the beginning there was neither existence nor non-existance.

There was no atmosphere, no sky and no realm beyond the sky

What power was there? Where was that power?

Who was that power? Was it finite or infinite?

 

There was neither death nor immortality.

There was nothing to distinguish night from day.

There was no wind or breath, god alone breathed by his own energy.

 

In the beginning darkness was swathed in darkness, god was clothed in emptiness

 

Then fire arose within god; and in the fire arose love.

This was the seed of the soul.

Sages have found this seed within their hearts;

They have discovered that it is the bond between existence and non-existence.

 

Who really knows what happened? Who can describe it?

How were things produced? Where was creation born?

When the universe was created, the one became many.

Who knows how this occurred?

Did creation happen at God’s command, or did it happen without his command.

He looks down upon the creation from the highest heaven.

Only he knows the answer – or perhaps he does not know.

 

It is perhaps the oldest recorded questioning of mankind on the nature of creation. As you read the verse you can still experience the wonder they must have felt. What I find most fascinating about the verse is its humility. Unlike most later religious texts which claim to know all the answers, here is a poem which is humble enough to acknowledge its ignorance. Vedic age is considered by many one of the golden ages of science in India. I feel, maybe it is this ability to acknowledge the fact that we do not have all the answers and search for them led to such great scientific progress. Isn’t it the true spirit of science?

 

Here are a few more of my favorite verses from the Rig Veda

 

The Dawn

 

Look at how the dawn has set up her banner on the  eastern horizon.

She has adorned herself with sunlight

She is throwing lights of red and gold into the sky

……

……

Her brilliant flame becomes visible once more.

She pushes forward driving back the formless darkness of the night.

She gazes out at all creatures of the world and sends her light straight into every eye.

She awakens all that lives -and gives words to every poet

The divine being is born again and again each morning, always dressed in the same colors.

She causes men and women to grow older, pulling them across their span of life.

She is a cunning gambler whom no one can outwit.

She pushes aside her sister, the night, beyond the very edges of the sky

And draws to herself her lover, the sun.

 

The Power of Speech

 

I am speech –and I am queen of the world.

I am the point at which all riches meet.

I am the point at which all skills come together

I am the one who gives meaning to what is seen.

I am the one who lives in every breath.

I am the one who gives understanding to what is heard.

Though they do not realize it, people eat, see, breathe and hear through me.

 

Those who are famous for their wisdom are wise through me;

I taught them what they know – and they heeded me.

I am the one who conveys joy from one person to another.

Those whom I love I make them clever and sharp.

I incite people to compete for knowledge

I have pervaded the earth and the sky.

 

Ref: 366 Readings from Hinduism

 

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