An observational and exegetical look at eclectic topics of interest such as books, travel, entertainment, medicine, mental health, religion and spirituality.
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If I were to tell you that somebody bought a Tata Nano car... you are likely to react by saying,
Why!! Of all the things...
If I were to add that that somebody went on a round-trip of India in the Nano...
Whaaaat!! No way...!
And if I were to add that that somebody happens to be a woman...
And... this gets better... that somebody is a British woman; a foreigner who has no driving experience in India...
Aaaaargh!!! [while jumping up and down in disbelief and banging your head against the wall...]
That's just what this is about: a single white woman on a trek around India in a Tata Nano car, and somehow completing the journey to tell her tale.
In this engaging account, Vanessa Able combines statistics, politics, culture, lack of road etiquette/discipline/decorum/courtesy that is all too familiar an Indian trait, and of course, the experience of driving a Nano which is symbolic of India's economic rise.
Or at least it was, when it was first launched. It has since lost its place in the arch-lights in the wake of other brand innovations.
To be fair to Nano, this review is four years too late. In this period, the leading car maker, Maruti has come up with its own technological marvel that is holding sway currently: Maruti Celerio - the gearless wonder, which I happen to drive currently. And I can vouch for the ease of driving experience of the Celerio (but not the lofty fuel efficiency that the company claimed at the time of its launch).
The AMT gear technology of Celerio has caught on so well that Maruti has forced other companies to include this in their own models. Tata Nano recently has followed suit recently. Also, Nano is no longer available as the Rs-one-lakh car; all of its variants are now priced above two lakhs.
This book is also about driving, and the exasperating experience that driving is in India. In a reverse of Able's experience, I have driven for eight years in various parts of the UK during my days in the NHS - sometimes up to 100 miles in a day - and I can fully empathise with her predicament.
The difference in driving experience in between the two countries is the same that exists between chalk and cheese. Don't even try to understand the absence of any road-virtue in our culture, although I did make an attempt to address this issue in Angst.
Able's love for the Nano is evident throughout the book, whom she personifies by naming 'her'. This is essentially a road-book, akin to a road-movie; if that's the genre that appeals to you, then this is right up your street...!
I hate driving on our roads... but it is really awe-inspiring that somebody 'enterprising in a good way' such as Able has taken the bull by its horn and survived - if you leave out a few bumps and scratches.
Therefore, it gives me immense pleasure in saying that Vanessa was Able to fulfil her Abhilasha before saying Tata to India... Sorry, couldn't resist that one...!
I had written about how rare it is to
find a fellow doctor-writer, given the fact that doctors have to surrender
themselves to their demanding schedules and recalcitrant
patients. Not only have I, through the course of my diverse readings,
managed to unearth a gynaecologist-writer, but now I have
discovered a surgeon-writer!
And if the said writer happens to be a
relative of a doctor colleague/family friend, the curiosity level reaches a new
Fatal Margin, therefore, was a highly fascinating
prospect for me; more so because Dr Umanath Nayak attempts to do the
unthinkable: enter the realm of Robin Cook and churn out a medical
thriller. While this in itself is an admirable undertaking, Dr Nayak also
manages to add to the premise such ill-discussed issues as
medical-political-corporate intrigues, and nepotism and corruption in the
The result is a heady mixture of medical
protocols and statistics, political manoeuvring, and courtroom drama. Dr
Nayak utilises his considerable surgical oncology expertise to etch a character
called Veer Raghavan who is an ambitious surgeon looking to establish the
foremost cancer centre in the country. In the process, he circumvents a
few rules and rubs a few powerful people the wrong way, and courts
trouble. Rather, trouble takes him to the court!
How he manages to save face and emerge
victorious in the face of seemingly insurmountable evidence against him, is
what the story, leading up to the climax is all about.
More than the thriller and mystery
elements, to me, the standout feature of the story is the courtroom debate
about what constitutes truthful and untruthful, acceptable and unacceptable,
and ethical and unethical practice of medicine.
Is it alright to overlook a few medical
errors for the sake of the larger good of society? Is evidence-based
medicine superior to and preferable to value-based medicine? Dr Nayak
tackles these issues, which fall within the medicolegal grey area, admirably.
Lay readers can look forward to an
introduction to medical jargon and standard medical practice. Fatal
Margin is a valuable addition to the cause of Indian
So the dust from the recent doctors' strike has settled, and the diluted KPME Act has been enacted quietly.
But Karnataka has got to be the worst place for a medical practitioner. And the KPME Act has nothing to do with this.
The KPMEA is only the latest in a long list of insults that have been meted out towards the practitioners of the 'noble profession.'
As though the tough-as-nails medical course were not enough, each of us doctors has been through hell and high water to try and eke out a living.
Find that hard to believe? I don't blame you; especially in these times when news channels proclaim striking doctors to be 'Yama's agents.'
Consider the odds stacked against us: difficult course that one manages to scrape through; even more difficult PG entrance exams; bottle-neck in the form of dime-a-dozen medical UG colleges, but not enough PG seats; capitation fees to get into UG and PG courses; sleepless on-call nights; dog's work in the wards/OTs/OPDs; climbing mountains to establish oneself as a sought-out doctor, assaults on doctors, non-recognition of foreign PG degrees, etc, etc.
During all this, family/social life goes for a toss and you can pretty much forget about hobbies, alternative interests, and life outside the daily medical grind. By the time you get round to your hobbies and interests again, you are well past your prime.
One can't even change jobs like those in technical professions can. Once a doctor, always a doctor. You got to struggle on endlessly, even if you earn a pittance in comparison to the IT-BT lot who easily earn twice or thrice as much.
It is a strange dilemma that a doctor finds him/herself in: deficiency in the midst of plenty. Indian economy is up and running, but the healthcare professional strangely finds him/herself left out of the Indian success story.
Setting up a private practice is a case of hit or miss. You may or may not click with the patients, who can be rather fickle when it comes to following up with you, and loath to pay consultation charges. It takes years in any case to make a name for yourself.
In the hospital set up, you need to tow the line of the management, and accept a pre-set salary or 'cuts' from the consultation charges, which are rather like seedless peanuts!
So you are left with a job that you do not enjoy, and that does not provide you with anything substantial to set up home and raise a family. This is especially true if you happen to live in a high-cost city, such as Bengaluru.
The effect of all this? Disillusionment; burn out and drop outs. I have seen many doctor friends leaving the country in search of a better deal. Some have altogether dropped out of the profession and started business ventures. Some have contemplated suicide.
Yes, we have encountered and are still putting up with many 'KPMEA's in our lives as doctors.
Basically, the recent fiasco from the state government has highlighted three issues, as I see it:
the general public wants first-class service at the lowest cost, preferably free of cost
the doctors want a fulfilling career that provides them with financial security on par with other vocations
the government (in the ideal world) would want a seamless primary and secondary care service that satisfies both stakeholders; public and healthcare professionals
At the moment, none of these three issues are being addressed, even with the implementation of the KPMEA. How can one put a cap on healthcare services without capping other non-essential services that are being allowed to jack up prices wantonly. Go, for example, to a multiplex and see for yourself how much you have to shell out for the ticket and food.
What is the solution? There is none that is perfect, but we are looking at a scenario where the medical service is free to the public, but at the same time, the hospital and the healthcare providers are compensated suitably.
The state owned NHS of UK (even though many in that country find faults with it) comes to mind as a service that achieves just this. Free healthcare funded for by the taxpayers' money that is deducted at source.
On the other side of the pond, the US healthcare is largely privately provided, with insurance system covering the cost for the patient.
We need to look at these and other models to decide the best suitable healthcare delivery system that can be adapted to our conditions. Mindlessly capping fees and charges in an increasingly capitalized and corporatized society is not going to cut it.
Somehow, I cannot see the present government of Karnataka making any thoughtful, pragmatic changes in this regard, given the fact that it has its eyes set on the upcoming state elections.
So, dreadful, populist measures such as Indira Canteen and KPME Act will continue to be inflicted on the unsuspecting populace, as this government attempts to revive the dynasty that has clearly done its time.
Governments will come and go. The doctor in Karnataka will continue to suffer.
Between the Serpent and the Rope Mukunda Rao Harper Element, 2014
For those of us who are spiritual aspirants, it is common practice to familiarize ourselves with the various spiritual folds and tenets, especially in the early exploratory phase.
This, in essence, is the subject matter of this book. Mukunda Rao records his own experiences from his peregrinations of famous spiritually important places of South India.
Rao moves from Kalady (birthplace of Adi Shankaracharya), to Arunachalam (Ramana Maharshi's place), to Auroville in Pondicherry (home of the Aurobindo movement), to Puttaparthi (the Satya Sai Baba stronghold), to Mata Amritanandamayi's ashram, to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar's Art of Living campus, to Adyar (Jiddu Krishnumurti's main place of work in India), to finally finish with U G Krishnamurti's timeless, dogma-less, disciple-less and ashram-less concept of spirituality.
In so doing, Rao combines the details of his stay at and encounter with the people of these places, the rise and fall of the prominent religious/spiritual figureheads of some of these places, and his own take on the philosophies expounded by each of these gurus. The result is a book that is at once a travelogue, a series of biographies, and an elucidation of the different spiritual theories of South India.
Intriguingly, Rao comments on the failure/modification/misinterpretation/inadequacy of some of these philosophies, and the blind hero-worship that persists even after the founder-philosopher is no more. Thus the idea behind the movement assumes gigantic proportions, and subsumes and supersedes even the founder-philosopher (for example - and this is my own take - the two Abrahamic religions; Christianity and Islam).
In many ways, the preceding chapters are a build up to U G Krishnamurti's simple yet radical and difficult-to-grasp take on enlightenment; or Natural State, as he called it. The added advantage Rao has is that he has met and interacted with the great man himself.
For the sake of completion, Rao (though I understand that he did not visit these places) could have included the accounts of Swami Nityananda's palaver and Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev's simple yet profound spiritual messages.
To me, this work also goes to show the richness and variety of spiritual thoughts and practices that exist in this great land of ours for a spiritual aspirant explore and select from - and we are only talking South India here.
Nepotism: The practice among those with power or influence of favouring relatives or friends, especially by giving them jobs.
This is how the Oxford Dictionary defines the term that has been in the news lately. I have already raised this prickly issue in Angst.
In Hindi we have a more colourful description of the term: Allah meherban to gadha pehelwan!
Politics and Bollywood (I prefer Hindi Film Industry, but this term fits in here) abound in instances of shameless use of power and influence in getting one's own kith and kin plum posts/roles.
There are countless examples.
Very recently, before they were ousted, two sons of a 'foddersome' politician had occupied prominent posts in a northeastern state. One of them, if news reports are to be believed, was the health minister even though he had flunked his school exams. His elder brother had tried his hand at cricket, found it too much hard work, and went... 'hey, never mind! there is always politics..!'
The grand-old-but-irrelevant-in-the-present-context party continues to hold on to the family that has usurped the Mahatma's surname. That the 'young scion' is not only young anymore, but is also completely unfit to remain in public life, leave alone lead a party, doesn't seem to matter.
No prizes for guessing who I am referring to.
Cut to the land of dreams and glamour: Bollywood, or any of the umpteen 'woods' that have sprung up across the country. The story is the same in each of these regional editions.
Recently, a star-kid - a failed actor - had written that she barely survived Bollywood and the bad things it did to her. Sorry, what? Who asked her to be a part of it? Is Bollywood some kind of family jagir that needs to be thrust upon the heirs against their will?
These gadhas have a simple choice of saying 'no'. Instead what most of them seem to do is to take the plunge - after all, when the apple is dangled in front of you, why not savour it? If it works out, fine; if not - 'hey, it is such a bad field..! I barely survived it!'
Another star-kid - a successful one - was reported to have said, 'it's a free world, there's opportunity for anybody to make it big.' Sorry, lady; beg to differ! A rank outsider who has no prior connections with Industry insiders, who has no godfather/mother to guide him/her, who has no chance of getting a well coordinated grand launchpad, has NO opportunity to make it big - not as much as a star-kid who is blessed with all these criteria (minus looks and talent), anyway.
What does this tell us about ourselves? Nepotism that is so rife in our public life implies that when it comes to handing over the 'family heirloom', we would like to keep it in the family. We like to pass on the baton to our own ilk as we feel insecure about somebody else gaining an upper hand in our chosen professions. When there is an easy route available to instant fame, recognition, loads of moolah and power, how can one say no?
So, it's my family, my son, my daughter, my nephew, my niece, my jagir, my fiefdom, my constituency, my money, my fame, my big fat EGO... that's all that matters in the end. Fairness be damned. Merit be damned. 'Strugglers' - that hapless breed of wannabe actors who have to jump through hoops to land a bit-role - can take a walk!
Reservations, newer castes and religions, demands for new states and secession from the mainland... as if these were not enough, you can add a couple of other exclusivist, divisionist, selfish phenomena to this list: nepolitics and nepollywood.
Afternoon Girl: My Khushwant Memoir Amrinder Bajaj HarperCollins 2013
I must honestly admit right at the beginning, I bought this one on a whim - a) because I am a big Khushwant Singh fan, and b) because it was available at a discount on Flipkart.
There, off my chest...
Now for the content. There is something about books that you do not expect much out of that pleasantly surprise you in the end. Afternoon Girl is one such neat little gem.
The invitation to be a fly-on-the-wall witness of Bajaj's somewhat clandestine, sometimes disharmonious, but always engaging association with the grand old man of Indian literature grips you as soon as you start reading it. I found myself going back to it with eagerness as soon as I could find some reading time.
Besides, there was an additional serendipitous allure for me in this book. The peculiar trait that I share with the author: doctor who harbours literary ambitions. Bajaj's candid admission of her struggle as a doctor who wants to be an established writer, her dismay at being rejected by several publishers, and her outpouring of literary woes in front of Khushwant Singh kept me riveted.
These revelations also reassured me, as I have experienced similar woes myself after I decided to take up writing in addition to doing medical work. At last I have found somebody who has gone through the pain of trying to appease the selfish mistress that is medical career, while (vainly) attempting to put pen on paper.
As for the revelations, the graphic details of her personal life and the ribald jokes she shares with the grand old man may not suit everybody's sensibilities. But as Bajaj explains, they sell. And I am not judgmental, so that's fine.
The grand old man certainly did not mind. If anything, he always relished the earthier side of life. I have always been in awe of Khushwant Singh's ability to boldly disclose the details of his lurid affairs with, and the profligate lifestyles of the rich and famous.
The famous Khushwant Singh penchant for wine, women, sex and death is underscored once again in this work. It is amusing to read of his interest in Bajaj's 'solitaire collection' even as she pampers him with gallons of Chivas Regal!
Nitpicks: samples from the handwritten letters, and a few pictures of the author's meeting with Khushwant Singh and the several book release events she attended would have enhanced the appeal of the book.
Also, since Bajaj repeatedly wished for Khushwant Singh to live for a 100 years, a postscript describing the master writer's last moments, and Bajaj's reaction to his passing away agonizingly short of 100 years would have been the icing on the cake.
As it is, Girl is a naughty, humorous, heart-warming account of a writer's encounters with her muse.
I am mildly envious of Bajaj as she got to savour the grand old man's company: a dream come true for any writer.
But at the same time, I am massively chuffed for her - a fellow doctor-writer!