Sunday, April 24, 2011

Death of The Baba

Sathya Sai Baba was at last allowed to die. He was the most famous of all spiritual Gurus that India has produced in recent times. Millions of his devotees will mourn his death all over the world. He was in addition to being a spiritual teacher, a performer of weird acts of bringing out objects from nowhere [like wrist watches made in Switzerland], of producing copious quantities of ash from his hands. Many rationalists were able to repeat these acts and thus debunk the Baba’s so called miracles. But for the devotee, he was the reincarnation of God. He did do many good deeds. He founded many hospitals and educational institutions, provided drinking water to many districts in the state of Andhra Pradesh. All his services were provided free. Therefore his death at the ripe old age of 85 is a loss from this point of view that he was an extraordinary social worker.

Did he reform the society? The answer is no. Corruption, inefficiency, class and caste distinctions have all increased during his life time and he did not actively campaign against these evils of society. He may have been a spiritual guru to the believer but by no stretch of imagination he was a social reformer.

He was seriously ill and was on life support for the past twenty odd days. His devotees [including the doctors who were attending on him] could not or did not believe that their Guru is going to die. Even god men must leave this body, did not occur to them. The last twenty odd days of torture that he went through was due to this blind faith! Poor man,[Godman] he had to suffer his followers who would not allow him to go in peace!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Unusual Family

Many, many years ago, Mr Zafer Fateally, nephew of the famous ornithologist, Salim Ali decided to make Bangalore his home. Zafer, in his own right, is quite well known as a conservationalist, naturalist and despite his advanced age, still writes on his pet subjects. Then, I was a fledging young doctor trying to make both ends meet. Zafer took for rent a portion of a house owned by Mr and Mrs Henry Pais. This was only a temporary arrangement till such time his own house was ready for use which was under construction on the outskirts of the city. After Zafer moved out his son Murad became the tenant. Henry and his wife and the son Prem [then a medical student and now dean of St John’s medical college] were well known to me and for a time, when Prem was abroad I had the privilege to being their doctor. Old man Henry was a very meticulous man and an avid reader and he used to lend me books. He kept track of everything he did and this included maintaining records of all the bills paid and when.

In those days, getting a phone connection was a major issue. The beurocratic strangle hold on the ordinary citizen was much worse than it is now. Therefore or for other reasons, Zafer entered into a sort of unwritten agreement with Henry that any bill in excess of the usual that was normally received before his tenancy will be paid by him. As Henry kept records of all calls he made there was no problem. All was well for a few months. Then came the trouble. The monthly phone rentals shot up. Henry was quite sure as his records did not reveal any additional calls. So was Zafer. In those days it was not unusual for errant lines men to cross connect and favor someone at your cost. Thinking of some such outside mischief, Henry went to the phone department and met the concerned engineer. They agreed to monitor his phone and catch the culprit.

It was soon found out that the reason why the phone bill shot up was due to Zai [daughter of Zafer] who had recently come from Mumbai [them Bombay] making trunk calls to Madras. The matter was thus solved as far as Henry and Zafer were concerned.
But who was she calling so frequently? Now arrives on the scene, the chief character of the unusual family, Romulus Whittaker, popularly called Ron. The calls were made to Ron who was courting her. How did these two meet and who is Ron?

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, a south Indian, Konkani speaking Saraswath Brahmin woman married to a Bengali, was a renowned freedom fighter and a close associate of the first prime minister of the country Jawaharlal Nehru. Kamaladevi is also known for her bravery, good looks and for the work she did with refugee rehabilitation post partition. Later she held important positions and was primarily responsible for the survival and revival of many art forms in the country. When she finally retired she came and settled in my practice area. When I first met her she was past 85 and was pretty unwell. She died of natural causes soon after.

Kamala Devi had one son called Ram [I don’t know much about him except that he married Doris and the marriage was not successful]. Doris Chattopadhyaya became my friend and patient and I was privileged to be her doctor till her death few years back at a ripe old age. She had one son and one daughter [or two?] by her first marriage and a son by the second marriage. The male product of the first marriage is Ron.

Ron is now just past 60 and the story really begins when he was around 10 or 12 when Doris put him for schooling in International school at Kodaikanal in Tamilnadu [then state of Madras]. Young Ron even in those days had an interest in animal life and his lifelong love affair and his later profession of herpetologist began in that young age. He would befriend the wandering snake charmers and would move around with them even spending his holidays wandering all over. These snake charmers belonged to a tribal community called Irulas. These people dwelled in the forests and caught snakes for a living. They also lived a life well adapted to nature. They ate ants and honey along with some live bees and lived on what is naturally available [ there is an excellent picture of an Irula enjoying his meal of ants sitting near an anthill in the book Snakeman, a biography of Ron by his wife Zai]. Ron soon became an expert snake catcher among other things learned in this association. After school he had to do two years of compulsory military service as per the US regulations and once that was done he was back to his old ways and the city of Madras became the centre of his activity and till recently it was so. He established the famous Madras snake park in Guindy which soon became a major tourist attraction. If I remember right he even lived in the premises. A well known wild life organization [? world wild life fund] invited two representatives from the state of Madras to visit Mumbai and young Ron was asked come with another colleague.

Ron took an experienced Irula tribesman to the meeting. This natures man well versed in the ways of forest did not know the basic courtesies of urban life. He was comfortable sitting on the floor rather than on a chair. When asked the propriety of bringing this person as a delegate, Ron is reported to have said.’ He knows more about wild life than all of us put together! The organizer of the meet was Zafer and that is how Ron met Zai which eventually resulted in their marriage. This was about the time Zafer moved to Bangalore and the above mentioned encounter took place at Henry’s home.

Ron ran his Madras snake park for many years and then moved over to a place close to Mahabalipuram and established a crocodile conservation project along with establishing a very successful Irula cooperative society. Once I went there to see his work. The Irula tribals would catch the snakes and bring them over to the society. Here men trained by Ron would remove the venom [a fascinating process] and clip one of the scales [like making a mark] and get the Irula to take it back and release the snake in the wild. There have been instances where the snake is caught again and again by the same of different Irula and brought back to the cooperative. The venom is in demand for making vaccine and for other medicinal purposes and the society is run on financially sound lines. When I was there I found crocodiles everywhere and from all over the world being reared. There were so many which were surplus and the central government under the minister Maneka Gandhi had forbidden export of animals and Ron was stuck with hundreds of Crocks. He even told me that he was fed up with eating crock meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner!

Gharial is a crocodile in the rivers of north India and in particular Ganga. It had a long flat snout very different from the usual crocodile one sees. It plays an important role in cleaning up the river by eating up all the rubbish that is thrown including the half burnt dead bodies. This species was on the verge of extinction and Ron was asked to help revive them. I think his attachment to this magnificent animal began then. I think his love for the Gharial is only next to his love for the King Cobra. He camped on the shores of Ganga and managed to repopulate the reptile in its natural habitat. Gharial can be seen in numbers in his crock park at Mahabalipuram. If you rarely see the floating half burnt bodies in the river Ganga these days, the credit to some extent should go to Ron for having saved the Gharial becoming extinct.

Now coming to his fascination with that magnificent reptile The King Cobra. King Cobra needs a particular environment to survive and ideal environment is in the evergreen forests of Western Ghats and in particular the forests surrounding the town of Agumbe. Incidentally Agumbe gets an average of over 300 inches of rainfall annually. Those of you who have seen the serial Malgudi days [based on R.K Narayan’s novel Swami and his friends] may know that the film was shot in this town. Ron has now made Agumbe his home. People around don’t harm snakes and even worship them but Ron’s presence is welcome as an errant king sometimes gets into their houses and tries to stay there! Hand rearing King Cobra is not easy, not just because of its venom [enough to kill a big size elephant] but because of its staple diet is other snakes. Ron is constantly is in search of this special food for his pets. All this well brought about in his now famous documentary shot for the National Geographic on King Cobra. Having been bitten occasionally in performing his professional duty, Ron has often taken anti snake venom. Now he has become sensitive to this and cannot take it. He carries with him shots of adrenaline and steroids and when I asked him what happens if he is bitten he answered with a rueful smile,’ let us wait and see ’. For his sake and for the King Cobra’s, I pray that doesn’t happen.

What about Doris? She lived a full life studying and writing on Indian art. Ever a gracious host she divided her time between upstate New York and Bangalore and died some years ago here following a brief illness. She too was in her mid eighties when she died.

What about the Son from her Indian Husband? Neil Chattopadhyaya married Arundhaati, a well known Bharatnatyam dancer from Mumbai and has now settled here in Bangalore. Neil provides the back ground music to Ron’s documentaries.

What about Ron’s sister?. I have forgotten her name. Here is small but interesting incident. My US based daughters while on a trip to distant Seattle, on their shopping trip, saw this store selling eastern art. Naturally interested in art, they went inside and got talking to the lady owner. She was [is] Ron’s sister and knew me and was very pleased to meet up with her doctor’s daughters!

The property in which such illustrious persons as Kamaladevi and Doris lived was ultimately sold some years ago and now is a shopping mall on the 100 ft road! Often when I pass by the place, I recollect the unusual people who lived there and how fortunate I was [am still] to have come to know them.

It is two years since I met either Neil or Ron and therefore couldn’t get many more details and get whatever I have written, edited. If there are any discrepancies I own the fault. I had to write about them so that my readers get to know about this remarkable family.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


We as a people seem adverse to criticism even when there is an element of altered truth in it. President Obama is a patriot and is trying his best to save US economy and at the same time provide a semblance of welfare state which will look after the poor and uninsured population. His comment that Americans should seek quality medical aid in the US and not go to India or Mexico where quality is not assured was not well received. Naresh Trehan came on the national media and declared that his results are better than the ones from Cleveland clinic. No one disputes men like Naresh Trehan or Devi Shetty who have built institutions of excellence where
American medical tourists are looked after at one tenth of the cost.

My simple question is, are all our private sector hospitals maintaining the same standards of quality? How many of them have mortuary facilities, do clinico pathological meetings where unexplained deaths are discussed, how many hospitals have facility for direct transcription of case notes as they are being made to the patient’s designated relative? How many hospitals can say with confidence that their case records are never fudged? My experience with corporate hospitals varies from utter mediocrity to excellence. It is also important to realize that the American/foreign patients who come to india are those who compete with the upper crust of Indians who can afford these hospitals and willy nilly are responsible for driving the costs of the care up.

What about the rest of us Indians? Where do they go? There are NGO/ religion run hospitals which provide excellent care at reasonable cost but these too cannot cope with the demand. The poor have no other option but to seek help at our sate run health services. That is another sordid story. So when Obama says quality is suspect he spoke in general terms and was not meaning one or two odd good quality hospitals.

Return of the super bug

I had on earlier occasion written on the emergence of super bug on the Indian scene and how it has rapidly spread to the community and now comes the news that the bug was found in the municipal water supply of New Delhi. The reaction from the health authority was on expected lines and typically Ostrich like behavior. It is only a matter of time that the organism, E-Coli which is lives in the colon where it rarely causes problem and urinary tract where it causes many problems, gets into the water supply. Fecal contamination of drinking water in India is a rule rather than an exception.

In India the best way to tackle the problem is to behave as though the problem does not exist or try and discredit the authenticity of the source. This time it once again the Lancet, one of the most reputed medical journals is being discredited by being partisan. Why don’t we accept and try and tackle the menace before millions die of resistant infections? Remember, E coli is very friendly to other organisms. It will, sooner or later will make our ordinary staphylococcus [causes furuncles and boils] a super bug by donating the resistance factor. Imagine the situation when a patient with a simple abscess dies because there is no cure?

Those who want to, live like ostriches are doing the same to Shanthi and Prashanth Bhushan. They want to kill or defang the Jan Lok Pal bill. The corrupt in this country never have had it this good. Let the am janata go to hell. I am happy in the present state of affairs. I don’t want o topple this excellent apple cart. Who are these fools Anna Hazare and his team to disturb us?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Tears of joy

I don’t remember to have shed tears of pleasure. This I did today watching Anna Hazare, a 73 year old Gandhian, breaking his five day old fast after having brought the corrupt [or which tolerates one] government to its knees. The Government agreed to his demands for constituting a committee to draft a Jan Lokpal [kind of Ombudsman] bill. The government also agreed that 50% of the committee members will be from the general public. After the draft, the bill will go to the parliament to be passed. That will be the first hurdle. Why it is a hurdle and any sane MP should welcome this, you would think. I will pardon you for your ignorance if you are not an Indian. Most of our MPs and many of our ruling beurocrats are corrupt. At present it is said that it is even difficult to remain in office if you are non corrupt. We have sunk to such a pathetically low moral state. These vested MPs will fight tooth and nail to see that the bill is stalled. Anna has anticipated this and that is what he has warned the multitudes who have rallied behind him, that this victory to get the government to agree to introduce the Lokpal bill is only the beginning of a long drawn out struggle.

Not that we don’t have upright men and women in this country. There are but they were feeling helpless under the corrupt machinery of governance. The massive eruption of support to Anna showed how fed up the people are. The suggested names of Kiran Bedi, Sahnti and Prashanth Bhushan, Swami Agnivesh, Justices Santosh Hegde and Verma are persons of impeccable character and if they were to head the machinery against corruption and the young people of this country who came out in such large numbers to support and who will hopefully be the beneficiaries of an efficient, non corrupt governance in the future.

A small aside. Wife and I decided to fast as long as possible. We did not last even 24 hours. I became hypoglycemic and irritable and wife became weak. We broke the fast. Anna Hazare, even after 100 hours was up and about and looked and acted fresh. There were 100 others who fasted with him. I wonder where the strength came from.
When he broke his fast unto death, he saw to it that his followers first brake the fast and then a little girl [future of this country] gave him the glass of fruit juice to end his fast.

I have rarely been so happy. There is yet some hope for this nation.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Genteel poverty

When the call came for a house visit I was very surprised. Normally one doenot get a call from a patient who last saw you 20 odd years ago. My initial reaction was to refuse, but on second thoughts I felt obliged to see him. This is because these were the persons who had helped me to build up my practice and I felt duty bound to see him despite the fact that for his own reasons, he had chosen some other physician.
So I went.

I had some difficulty in locating the house. The area had changed so much with multi storied buildings all over the place. The house was the same with no additions and located in the centre of a fairly big piece of land. I made a mental calculation and came up with a figure of 8 to ten crores! Mr S is sitting on a gold mine. When opened the gate and went inside, there was evidence of decay everywhere. There was over grown shrubbery with trees gone wild and leaves all over the ground heaped up. The house must have seen a coat of paint decades ago. The house and the surrounding garden I had seen 20 years back was immaculately maintained and what I was witnessing was pathetic to say the least. I pressed the bell and after few minutes an old maid opened the door and on finding who I am made me take a seat and went in to inform Mr S. I had a look around, inside of the house was no better.

Mr S came in and profusely greeted me and talked for a few minutes about old times. He had grown old like I have, but then he is much older than I am. Must be in his eighties I thought. Then he told me about hi s complaints. They were the usual one of old age. I examined him and asked him the treatment details. He gave me a list of medications. Some were needed and some not so. I told him what to do and then wanted to take leave of him. He would not let me go. He said,’ after so many years you have come to see this old man, I cannot send you without giving you a cup of tea’. He called out a name and the same old maid appeared. He asked her to get some tea for us.

I asked him about his wife. I remembered a gracious woman whom I used to see. ‘I lost her, he said. I did not want to ask the details. After some silence, I asked him why he called me instead of his usual doctor. He said the world that he is living in is very different from the one he lived 20 years ago when I was his doctor. This explanation did not satisfy my curiosity. As he was not forthcoming with the details I felt it prudent not to press the issue. By this time the tea arrived, the two cups were neatly arranged on a floral tray with tea pot covered in a tea cozy [all of them had seen some service]. Old man proceeded to pour and make the tea. I could see he was enjoying himself playing the host.

There apparently was no one else in the old home. I could not help remarking. I remembered he had a teen aged son. What was he doing? ‘Oh, him? What will you expect from him? He was no good then and he is no good now. That ended another conversational vein. I finished my tea and took his leave. He came with me up to the gate and thanked me for coming over to see me.

He did not bring up the subject of my visiting fee and neither did I.

Few days later, a young woman in her mid thirties came to see me. She introduced herself as the daughter in law of Mr S. She had come to clear the money that he old man owed me. She said she was sorry that it was not paid that day. I said it often happened to old persons. ‘Nothing of that sort. His memory is better than mine. He had no money to pay you. Yesterday was my pay day and today I have come to pay you’. ‘What about your husband? I could not help asking. ‘My husband, his only son, did not train to do any work and is now holding a job of a sales man in a used car show room. The only subject he knows’, she said with some contempt in her voice. Then why don’t you sell that valuable property? I asked her.’ You know my father in law, he comes from a royal family, in fact I too come from one, but my parents trained us to live with common people but the old man still lives fifty years behind times and refuses to give up the old property. Even his car is 50 years old. He spends more money on maintaining that blessed car than on food’. Her use of the word common people made me think even this lady thinks she is royalty but has learnt suffer common people [like me for e.g.]. Obviously the husband too is not very keen on selling but she feels that he will be forced to do when the time comes.

'When will it be?, I asked.

'When the old ----- [unprintable]dies', she said and took my leave.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Black tape

I am sure you have heard of red tape but not black tape. Black tape is the word [coined by me] to describe a combination of red tape and black mail. Much publicized incident of black tape occurred recently at the Bombay [Mumbai] customs. The international cricket council [ICC] is head quartered in Dubai. The world cup made up of precious metal and stones was taken from Dubai for the inauguration ceremony at Dakha [Bangladesh were the co hosts] after the ceremony it went back to the ICC HQ. Now for the final it was brought by an ICC official who was told that he can bring it into the country or so he presumed. He did not know our customs [read my earlier post on them]. They would not let the cup in unless a hefty duty of 22 lakhs is paid. The ICC version is that the customs official demanded 200 free tickets to release the trophy! So the trophy that the winning team went about kissing was a replica which had made the rounds all over the three countries prior to the events!

Whom to believe? I believe the ICC because I know my Indians. It is said that an Indian custom official demanded a bribe from his own mother!

Here was thus a combination of red tape and black mail. Black tape is the apt description and I hope it will go and enrich English language as yet another unsavory contribution from us, Indians.

India wins the world cup

Indians won the world cup by defeating Sri Lanka in a closely contested match. The country was gripped in mass hysteria which is not possible to imagine for a non Indian. We, only we are privy to the secret of going into a frenzy of jubilation and also the opposite, to the depths of severe depression. The frenzy was for all to see, thanks to the electronic media and the whole country erupted in one great burst of joy.

I have on earlier occasion written about a small town youngster called M.S.Dhoni. He is the Indian team’s captain. This one man was primarily responsible for the win. The fearless exhibition of leadership is worth emulating by our politicians and beurocrats. After hitting the, where did he go when his teammates were celebrating? He went to get his head shaved to keep a vow he had taken!

Of course it was a team effort, there were many heroes, but much hyped Tendulkar was not one of them. It did not matter, the country and the team love him and they all dedicated the trophy to the veteran cricketer. Our politicians are very free with the tax payers’ money. I read and saw that each player will be richer, by rough estimates, by ten crores of rupees. This is for a team that is already rich beyond ones imagination. I don’t say effort should not be rewarded but this kind of largesse is vulgar in a country where most people are poor and other sports are severely hampered for want of resources. Who would want to be a basket ball player when there is no money or prestige? So is with Hockey which was once considered as our national game. We were once unbeatable in this game. Today we don’t even make the qualifying rounds. Is there dearth of talent? Far from it, we are ideally suited to play this game. what is lacking is the support base and the talent pool which is drifting towards cricket.

Having said this, what did I do? I watched the game. It was a great pleasure watching batsmanship of highest standards by two. One from SriLanka. Mahela Jayawardhana’s chanceless century almost took the game away from us. It was an innings of rare class. Next to it was from our own Gautham Gambhir. He fell short of his century by three runs. It was another innings of class and character. Small built men go unnoticed. Both Jaywardhane and Gambhir are short men. Why is it that it is so much pleasure to watch them? Most of cricket history’s great batsmen in terms of correct batsmanship have been short. They rely on technique and timing and not on brute force and that is the reason why it is such a pleasure to watch. In my younger days there was this great batsman called Gundappa Viswanath. He faced the fearsome fast bowlers of that era without wearing a helmet. One would not even see the ball which sped and crossed the boundary when he hit it. Then there was Gavaskar, then came Tendulkar [who is s till there after 21 years of international cricket!]. Now we have Sehwag, Gambhir and Virat Kohli. The all time great, Don Bradman too was short.

But the man who took the award of man of the match was none other than the captain, Dhoni. He came to bat at a crucial time when the game was tilting towards SriLanka. India were three wickets down and the captain chose that moment to promote himself and did not send Yuvraj Singh who normally came in to bat in that position. Dhoni was not in the best of batting form and to come in at that juncture was pure madness or so some thought. But he had his own reasons. May be he thought he could stand the intense pressure better than others. How right he was. In the next hour he had taken the game away from SriLanka and in the end remained unbeaten. His innings did not have the class of Jayawardhane or Gambhir but it had great character. Only when it became certain that India will win, that he went for his strokes and the last fifteen minutes we saw his power hitting.

The winning stroke was a massive six with the ball disappearing into the stands. I can never forget the expression on his face when he followed that ball. It was one of pure pleasure.

Now comes the serious job of living up to the reputation of world champions. Let us watch and see how they do it.