Sunday, December 21, 2008


It seems to be happening for some time now; I am revisiting my favourite cities lately. First it was Dharan in Nepal, then Chandigarh, and now we recently visited Sariska. Sariska, as you know, is a wild life reserve in Rajasthan which has been lately making to the headlines for all wrong reasons. This forest could boast of a tiger population a few years ago; however, all the tigers have vanished, falling prey to the greedy poachers who supply tiger hides and bones to the weird taste of rich and famous who would adorn their drawing rooms with a dead tiger rather than see a handsome live specimen roaming and roaring freely in the wild. Rajiv Gandhi provided Sariska forest and Sariska Palace some moment of hype and glory when he organized an official meeting there soon after his assuming prime-ministership. However, I visited Sariska more than 30 years ago with Chitra, Chitra’s parents and Girish. That being my first ever visit to a wildlife sanctuary, I was excited and had an intense desire to spot a tiger. However, we could not see one; in fact, in many of my subsequent visit to this forest, I could never spot a tiger. Over the years I have realized (and now advise all who are visiting a sanctuary) that one should not visit a wild sanctuary with the sole aim of seeing a tiger. Each Indian wildlife park has so many other things and sights to offer that even if one does not spot a tiger, there is nothing to be disappointed. The tiger does not make appearance easily; after all, he/she is king of the jungle! But if you spot one, it is a bonus.

So this time around, when there was this opportunity to visit Sariska for a meeting, I almost jumped at it. Though I was to give invited lecture, the organizers were only providing local hospitality but no transport to and fro Sariska. It required some persuasion for Chitra to agree to this weekend trip, who took time off from a long list of her weekend errands. Sariska is 200 or 230 km from Delhi depending on which route you take; either way for most part you negotiate new Delhi-Jaipur toll road. This new highway is a world class road, smooth, wide and with good road signage. However, the driving habits of users are worse than any of the developing country that I have visited in Asia or Africa. The most horrible and dangerous are the drivers coming from opposite direction on your side of road. And these are not just occasional cyclists, bikes, or bullock cart or tractor, but all kinds of public and private vehicles. And the worst are these SUVs which are catering to the cyber cafes all over National Capital Territory. These SUVs, mostly Innova and Tavera, are the new road killers around NCT or beyond. Lately I have come to realize that truck drivers are unnecessarily the maligned lot. They are mostly underpaid, under-rested, and are always at the receiving end of public’s ire or police excesses. They still follow some of the rules of highway driving, or may give you way on request, but these SUVs would not ever budge. We left highway at Behror, and took a small road going to Sariska via Alwar for another 100 km passing through many small villages and village haat, and beautiful fields which were just glorious with yellow mustard fields at this time of the year. This road had very little traffic and almost no heavy duty vehicle, and driving would have been fun, only if the road was in good shape. It had not been maintained at all with potholes strewn all over. I am sure if it is maintained properly, it would be a popular route to reach Sariska or Alwar and would also take some pressure off the busy highway.

Next morning we headed for the park. The visitors are allowed to drive on a 21 km long stretch of metal road. I do not understand why the road was in such a state of neglect and disarray. One side of the forest was closed for public as it has been priviledged to receive and house Sultan and Rani, a pair of young tiger under a scheme to reintroduce tiger once again in Sariska. We were told that the pair has electronic collars and chips to monitor their movements. I wondered why collar these beasts; we should put collars and tags on to the poachers so that they do not approach even the vicinity of any forest. We could sight eagle, owls, herons, partridges, quail, wild boars, cheetal (spotted deer), sambhar, neel gai etc in plenty. And peacocks were in abundance. The males were not so handsome at this time of the year, after their annual shedding of plume and feathers around Deewali time. We saw one solitary mongoose who must be at least 4 times larger than the one we normally see. The road ends at Pandupole which has a Hanuman temple. No prize for guessing that Pandupole must be connected to 5 Pandav brothers. They are believed to have visited this forest and met Lord Hanuman here.

The vicinity of temple had a large population of monkeys and langurs. Their acrobatics and playful acts were a source of joy I could watch for hours. One female langur had just been blessed with a baby and was fondly grooming it. She was joined by three other females of the family who took turn in fondling and grooming the baby who was getting restless with each passing minute to get out of their clutches. It was a beautiful sight. The head of the family, a lone alpha male, showed on interest in the new arrival and was just lazing around in the sun. A large group of monkeys was active inside the temple compound. I was fascinated by their drinking water from the tap. I was wonder-struck when one monkey maneuvered the tap by revolving the knob anticlockwise to drink water, and then closed it after quenching his thrust. It was now turn for the next; however, before it could finish, the guard came with a big stick and chased it away. The monkey had to run away leaving the tap open. But this guard, the man, did not bother to close the tap. I am certain if the monkey had the chance to fill his quota, it would have closed the tap. We, the naked apes, have a lot to learn from our hairy ancestors in environment protection and resource preservation.

Friday, December 12, 2008


While the mental health professional bodies have shied away in taking up the issue of decriminalizing homosexuality, a team of Delhi’s bright young lawyers has committed its time and legal acumen to challenge the archaic provisions of Section 377 in the Delhi High Court. Indian Express profiled these lawyers in its print and electronic editions at:

Some excerpts:

It makes no sense. Corporate lawyers in India are paid upward of Rs 12 lakh a year. Why, then, should India’s brightest young lawyers - the world at their feet - be working at minimum wage, even free, arguing for the decriminalization of homosexuality in India? It just makes no sense.
Section 377 of the Indian Panel Code, drafted in Victorian India, criminalizes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”. This has been interpreted to include sodomy, effectively criminalizing homosexuality. A century and a half later, the law is being challenged in the Delhi High Court. The petitioner, Naz Foundation, has challenged it on medical grounds, arguing that it prevents India’s gays, many of whom are at high risk for AIDS, from receiving treatment. The other group challenging the law, ‘Voices against 377’, relies more on human rights, contending that Section 377 violates the constitutional rights guaranteed to homosexuals. The court’s judgement is expected anytime now.
A team of highly educated young lawyers has committed its time to this case. Chief Justice A P Shah of Delhi High Court told the petitioners, “You seem to have gathered much medical evidence that homosexuality is not a disease, unlike the other side’s lawyer, who argued in court that ‘homosexuality is a matter of fun’.”

While, Vasuman Khandelwal (27) is a hard-nosed Supreme Court lawyer, driven to the case by the Constitutional obviousness of the cause, the other three, Shivangi Rai (27), Shrimoyee Nandini Ghosh (29) and Mayur Suresh (28) are more activists.
Shivangi, (a graduate of Indian Law Society, Pune) lawyer of the petitioner Naz Foundation, is fighting Section 377 in the Delhi High Court on the grounds that Section 377 violates the fundamental right to privacy, right to dignity and right to health of homosexuals. Shivangi values her legal training. “We are not just activists; we are first and foremost lawyers, so we use our legal skills to make a persuasive case in the court, not just shrill rhetoric.
Shrimoyee (LL M from University of London) is associated with “Voices against 377” fighting for decriminalizing homosexuality. Why homosexuality? “I think that as a feminist, I understand the sheer wrongness of Section 377, and how it stigmatizes an entire community. Discrimination on the basis of identity is something that feminists can easily relate to.” She further says that Section 377 is just a violent, archaic, incoherent law that needs to go.
Mayur, (LL B from National Law School, Bangalore and LL M from Columbia University), is using his legal arsenal to work in Delhi as a litigator, and is currently combating what he terms one of India’s most unjust laws. As a gay lawyer, he feels lawyers play an important role in the wider movement in the country fighting for the rights of the lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgenders. He finds that his skills as a lawyer help him to take a bunch of facts, cut out the faff, and present a legal argument that will stand scrutiny in court. “We are able to make a medical argument and a human right argument, but what about love, why is it the state’s business to regulate love?”
Vasuman (a graduate of National Law School, Bangalore and LL M, SOAS, London) says that his interest in Indian Constitution and court room drama drove him to become a Supreme Court lawyer. “The Constitution protects homosexuals against discrimination; they deserve to live lives and build relationships - so essential to fulfilling life’s goals”. Vasuman is a very much mainstream lawyer, sharpening his legal skills working on corporate and tax matters in the Supreme Court as junior to the eminent lawyer Shyam Divan. Vasuman rejects the human rights lawyer tag, terming it as ‘bad slotting’. He contends, “But the argument for decriminalizing homosexuality is very much a mainstream argument.”


When we were in San Francisco this summer, Pride Parade was organized on the last weekend of June. I wanted to go there more for curiosity than anything else. I was curious to know what these guys do in such parades. Do they make fun of themselves or of the world? Or it is a show of their camaraderie and bonhomie! Or is it show of revolt against the callous and non-understanding world, activism or politicking? Or it was a show of strength to fight for their rights and rightful place in the society.

We all went to the city centre where this parade was being organized. In fact it was a big ‘mela’ where people of all ages and all hue and colour had assembled. The parade with colourful floats had all assembled at the city centre. There were many stalls enrolling members to various organizations. You did not have to be LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) to get the membership. Many stalls were for health promotion regarding HIV and AIDS. And of course, there were numerous food stalls. People were in festive mood with colourful dresses. Of course, some were defying the evening chill and were in their birthday costumes, but only a few. Men and women in fancy dresses were in great demand for getting photographed with.

We also approached a few who gladly obliged us, and on knowing that we were visitors from India, very warmly welcomed us and wished us a pleasant stay at San Francisco. For sure, there was no obscenity or lewdness in the whole show. We stayed there for nearly two hours and never felt awkward.
On our return, we learnt that in India too coordinated pride events were organized on June 29, 2008 at Delhi, Bangalore, Pondicherry and Kolkata where about 2000 people turned up. The pride parades were successful, given that no right-wing group attacked or protested against the pride parade, although the conservative opposition party BJP expressed its disagreement with the concept of gay pride parade. The next day, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed for greater social tolerance towards homosexuals at an AIDS event. On August 16, 2008 (one day after the Independence Day of India), the gay community in Mumbai held its first ever formal pride parade (although informal pride parades had been held many times earlier), to demand that India's anti-gay laws be amended.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time

Let me be honest. I must confess: when I picked up this book, I wanted to read it to improve on my knowledge of topography and geography of Karakoram region and the people living there. I also wanted to know a little more about K2, the savage mountain, which has no other name. Though K2 is the second highest mountain (8611 meters or 28251 ft) after Mount Everest, I knew very little about it. Having lived in Nepal for some time, and with my fascination for Himalayas, I managed to read a little about Mt Everest, and like most people, I equated Himalayas with Mt Everest only. It is also a fact that much less is written about K2 since it is believed to be the world’s most treacherous and dangerous mountain, and technically most difficult climb. Far less number of mountaineers have attempted and succeeded on K2. I have personally heard Everesters who admit that Mt Everest is more about physical fitness and less about technicals (but you must still have sound technical abilities of rock climbing, snow and glacier walking, negotiating crevasses, rescuing etc), but K2 remains formidable as it tests a climber in all aspects of summit climbing. As of now, only 305 people have successfully ascended K2, compared with about 2600 who have summitted more popular Mt Everest. Mortality rates continue to remain high on K2.
I also wanted to read the book since it was about Pakistan and its relationship with Himalayas. Other than K2, I never associated Pakistan with Himalayas. But I was made aware of my ignorance in the opening pages of the book when I found out that in a comparatively small region of Karakoram, more than 60 peaks reside which are more than 20,000 ft high.

In 1993, a mountaineer named Greg Mortenson, drifted into an impoverished Pakistan village in the Karakoram mountains after a failed attempt to climb K2. He was rescued by a Balti. Moved by the inhabitants’ kindness he promised to return and build a school. Three Cups of Tea is the story of that promise and its extraordinary outcome. Over the next decade Mortenson built not just one but fifty five schools – especially for girls – in the forbidding terrain that gave birth to Taliban. His story is at once a riveting adventure and a testament to the power of the humanitarian spirit. Three Cups of Tea is co-authored by Greg Mortenson and David Relin and published by Penguin.

When I started reading the book, first I was captivated by the beauty and desolateness of formidable and merciless Karakoram region. However, soon I was flowing with Greg in his mission to build his first school in Baltistan and was periodically filled with thoughts of doubts, apprehension, fear and hope. It was a Herculean effort to raise money for his school in US even before the days of 9/11. He had begun his mission in 1993. He had no idea of how to raise money. People were generally not interested in the Islamic world; Tibet had remained a favourite cause for charity. He begins by writing letters. He had returned from his K2 mission not just as a failure, but completely broke. He sends 580 letters of plea for his cause. After an agonizing wait and some lobbying, he finally gets a single cheque, but it was worth twelve thousand dollars, enough to build one school in Baltistan. Even then, it was not easy; many people in the village thought their village had different priorities. Many suspected his motives. However, with time, persuasion, and patience he manages to win their trust and support. Like one village chief told him “Here, in Pakistan and Afghanistan, we drink three cups of tea to do business; the first you are a stranger, the second you become a friend, and the third, you join our family and for our family we are prepared to do anything…even die.”
Illiterate high-altitude porters of the region put down their packs (and giving up decent salary and benefits from expeditions) to make paltry wages wit him so their children can have education they were forced to do without. A taxi driver who chanced to pick Greg up at the Islamabad airport sold his cab and became his fiercely dedicated ‘fixer’. Former Taliban fighters renounced violence and the oppression of women after meeting Greg and went to work with him peacefully building schools for girls. Though he managed to build 55 schools in 10 years in the most formidable region of Pakistan and Afghanistan, he did not have a smooth ride. He was termed a CIA agent, was threatened to wind up his mission; clergy of a village issued a fatwa against him; and he was even kidnapped. Like a true missionary, he did not give up and persisted with his goal. His logic in those regions as well as in his own country, US, was simple: though the US was fighting terrorism, it was doing nothing to rehabilitate families or empower them. Very soon he had discovered in his mission that education of girls was key to health, peace and prosperity. Aren’t we in India familiar with the slogan ‘you teach a woman, you teach a family.’

Some reviews of the book:

“As the US confronts Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Greg Mortenson is quietly waging his own campaign against Islamic fundamentalists, who often recruit members through religious schools called madrassas. Mortenson’s approach hinges on a simple idea: that by building secular schools and helping to promote education - particularly for – in the world’s most volatile war zone, support the Taliban and other extremist sects eventually will dry up.” (Kevin Fedarko, Parade cover story, April 6, 2003)
“In an age when every politician and talking head has little but rhetoric to offer for the seemingly irreconcilable mess of warfare and cultural conflicts wash in the Middle East and Islamic territories in Central Asia, Mortenson’s book is a stunningly simple story of how to make peace in one of the most beautiful places in the world: build schools for girls… his mission is a relentlessly positive one, and his ability to reveal the beauty and refuse to accept the brutal reality around him is an inspiring, heroic and at times even crazy pursuit.” The Bloomsbury Review

Three Cups of Tea is a beautifully written book about one man’s crusade against poverty, illiteracy and terrorism. Though sometimes it gets repetitive, but is still unputdownable. I shall recommend it to everyone who feels his/her life has been affected by terrorism

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


The terror strike in Mumbai has not only been painful but shameful too. With immediate loss of life of innocent civilians, the forces too lost their valiant officers. Watching it live on the television was tragic; one felt so vulnerable and impotent at the same time. Ten people had held the whole country to ransom where life had gone still. The Taj, the pride of India, Oberai Trident, the place to enjoy and relax, Nariman House, the place of peace and safe abode had all become war zones and fields of destruction. While the whole drama was unfolding on TV channels right in the drawing room, one did not think of past or future. But after it is all over for rest of the country, the pain and grief continue for the bereaved families. Drama unfolding in the newspapers now is getting more shameful everyday. Within 24 hours, all agencies have put together the route, mode of conveyance used, terrorists’ training etc for our consumption. All this did not come from the captured survivor; intelligence, though in piecemeal, was available to most of the intelligence agencies much before the terror strike. Blame game has started within our most prestigious defense and security organizations. Heads of the ministers are rolling. But the politicians at ministerial levels could be so callous is unimaginable, Kerala CM takes the cake and would not even send his dog to a martyr’s home; Maharashtra CM finds his visit to war raven Taj as opportunity to promote the career of his son and takes a well known producer-director on a guided tour who may soon launch his next production on Mumbai’s terror strike with the son in a leading role; deputy CM wonders why people are so agitated over a small incident when the death toll is only 200. Union cabinet minister lost his seat so early in the game that he did not get a chance to display his latest wardrobe or shoe collection.
We have heard the phrase ‘Mumbai’s spirit’ so often it sounds like a cliché. Mumbaikar’s never-say-die spirit has given power that be the right to let it be assaulted repeatedly with floods, bomb blasts and terror strikes.
How long will we in India continue to suffer this terror and humiliation?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

CHANDRAYAAN 1 - India on Moon

The MIP crashed at a place called the Shackleton crater in the south polar region of the Moon and put the Tricolour on the Moon. The crater also is possible site for future human missions to the moon.

The Shackleton crater has an undulating terrain with hills and valleys. Since the valleys are in the moon’s permanently shadowed regions, it could harbour water and ice.

What was extraordinary about the historic event of Chandrayaan -1’s probe landing on the moon on Friday night was that the spacecraft was built in India, it was put into orbit by the Indian rocket, PSLV-C11, and the launch took place from Indian soil.

When I was in school in late sixties, one of the favourite topics for English essay writing and science project was ‘visit to the Moon’. I remember making visits with my friends to USIS (United States Information Service, earlier version of American Centre) and the Russian Centre to collect printed material on these countries’ space programmes. We were so enamoured with those glossy magazines and what a thrill we got in collecting them for free.
Then on July 20, 1969, US won the race when it succeeded first in landing a manned flight onto the surface of moon. The newspapers next morning (Television had made its token appearance in Delhi only, was in its very early days of infancy, and we did not have it) were full of pictures and story of man’s first steps on the Moon. Neil Armstrong had become a hero and a role model immediately. The same day I happen to go to my father’s business premises where I also met our octogenarian Munimji. Munimji was a very respectable member of our family who not only handled the accounts of our business firm but also the affairs our joint family as well. He was part of all family decisions, and was consulted for all matrimonial alliances of my father’s generations. When my father reached his marriageable age, my grandmother had sent Munimji first to my Nanaji’s house to approve the family and the prospective bride. At the shop that day in July, 1969, there was more number of newspapers. All were discussing the moon-landing, about the site, possibilities of living on moon etc. Our Munimji listened to all this for a while, and then thundered – ‘it is all bakwaas (bulls..t); no one has landed on the moon; it is all amrikan propaganda’. No body opposed him! Little did he realize that he would later find support for his disbelief not from Russians who were beaten in their race to Moon, but from the Americans only.
On February 15, 2001 the FOX television network aired a program titled Conspiracy Theory: Did We Land On The Moon? This program showed alleged evidence that NASA faked the moon landings. This hoax theory has been around for several years, but this is the first time it has been presented to such a wide audience. This programme is freely available on CD and I watched it during my Antarctica days. What it says basically is that NASA was in such a hurry to beat Russians in their landing on Moon that it hatched a major conspiracy to fool its own people as well as of the world (If you can not make it, fake it). There are now websites on this topic and NASA as well as many independent experts and scientists have strongly and scientifically refuted the claims of advocates of hoax theory.

The lunar probe of Chandrayaan 1 has landed on the south polar region of Moon. The area where it landed is Shackleton crater. South Pole and Shackleton are so intimately linked with Antarctica! But Shackleton, being a great hero of early Antarctic exploration, has been honoured at Moon too.

After joining many prestigious clubs (nuclear club, satellite club, Antarctica club, Arctic club), we are over the moon now. Many people ask what India is achieving in establishing bases at such formidable and inhospitable places like Antarctica and Arctic. And now why Moon? There are many scientific as well as geo-political answers to such doubts. I shall not go into that. But it is a great feeling that we are over the Moon!

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Ship Pirates

Having spent two months on the ship this year, and passing through some risky area of the Indian Ocean while sailing from the Antarctic Ocean via Cape Town and Indian Ocean, news such as ship piracy in such area of course attracts my attention. While on the ship, I was quite surprised to learn that ship piracy is a regular risk with the ships and its crew especially cruising in the Gulf of Aden. During my daily visits to the Radio Room at M.V. Emerald Sea for making/receiving phone calls from home, or collecting/delivering emails, I would see printer regularly printing alerts from the maritime bureau. If you ever thought that the ship pirates in current times existed only in the Hollywood, then improve on your information and general knowledge. They are every where in different oceans with high speed boats and modern weaponry. Fortunately, we were safe in Antarctic Ocean; so far no incident of ship piracy has ever been reported from this continent. In fact the menace of the ship piracy is so rampant that many maritime bureaus have dedicated and specialized crime services to collect and disseminate information to alert the ships about the risky areas. There are many famous books and movies on sea pirates, the latest being Pirates of Carribean. There are now dedicated websites on this subject.

It is a big relief now to the families of all the sailors on board the ship, MT Stolt Valor. It was hijacked by pirates 38 nautical miles off the coast of Yemen in the Gulf of Aden more than two months ago while it was on its way from the Suez to Mumbai. The Hong Kong-registered ship was carrying a cargo of oil and chemicals. Apart from 18 Indians, the crew members also included two Filipinos, a Bangladeshi and a Russian.
At any given point there are one lakh Indian sailors on foreign seas; India is the largest suppliers of sailors and yet there is no system in place to ensure their safety. There have been so many such incidents in the Gulf of Aden, this was the 54th incident this year.
Surprisinghly, despite such high numbers, India is neither a part of the UN Coalition Force that patrols the area nor is there any set protocol for dealing with such incidents.
Last week only, the Indian Navy was able to prevent the hijacking of m.v. Jag Arnav in the Gulf of Aden because it was an Indian ship. The Stolt Valor was, interestingly, Japanese vessel registered in Hong Kong. Owning and registering of ships is also a complicated process. M.V. Emerald Sea, for example, a Greek ship, was registered in Liberia to save the taxes. Liberia and Panama remain very attractive cities for registration of such huge vessels as they do it at very cheap rates.

Some of alerts received on M.V. Emerald Sea
Warning Warning Warning: piracy prone areas
Somalia: heavily armed pirates are now attacking ships further away from the coast. Ships not making scheduled calls at Somali ports are advised to keep at least 200 nm from the coast.
Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania: 19 incidents have been reported in 18 months. Pirates are targeting ships preparing to anchor. Ships are advised to take extra precautions.
Chittagong, Bangladesh: 62 incidents have reported in 2 years. Pirates are targeting ships preparing to anchor. Ships are advised to take extra precautions.
Other risky areas:
South and Central America and the Caribbean waters
Brazil – Santos
Peru – Callao
West Africa – Lagos

Some actual and attempted incidents:

December, 2007, Dar Es Salaam: Pirates boarded a container ship drifting. They broke padlocks, removed container lashings bars and stole ship stores and cargo.
November, 2007, Belawan, Indonesia: duty quarter master onboard a product tanker at anchor noticed two robbers hiding under windlass. Crew alerted, robbers jumped overboard and escaped in a boat waiting below.
November, 2007, Arabian Sea: A reefer underway detected a small boat on radar at a range of 4 nm approaching from the starboard side; alarm raised, lights switched on. The boat moved away.
November, 2007: In the Gulf, a suspicious craft approached a tanker. Master sounded general alarm, increased speed, crew mustered and fire hoses standby. The speed boat closed at 0.1 nm, and when it noticed crew alertness, aborted approach and moved away.
November, 2007, Somalia: A car carrier noticed an unlit boat at 3 nm off the port bow with a speed of 19 nm. The boat reduced speed to match the speed of the vessel. Another unlit boat observed at 2 nm. Master raised alarm; crew mustered and switched on deck lights. Both boats moved away.
November, 2007, Vietnam: Robbers armed with knives boarded general cargo ship at berth. Port security informed. Ship stores stolen.
November, 2007, Malacca straits: an unidentified small watercraft approached a chemical tanker underway. Alarmed raised, the craft came within 150 meters and aborted the attempted.
November, 2007, Mozambique: Robbers boarded a container sip at berth and stole ship store amid tight anti piracy watches. The ship had shore security personnel deployed by the port security. In addition there were armed security guards on the shore side.
November, 2007, Hoogly river, India: Six robbers armed with knives boarded a chemical tanker at anchor, via the poop deck. Crew raised alarm and activated anti-piracy measures. Robbers jumped overboard and escaped, with ship’s stores in their waiting boat. No injuries to crew. Reported to harbor pilots but no action taken.
November, 2007, Mogadishu, Somalia: A general cargo ship was boarded and hijacked by seven armed pirates while at anchor after discharging cargo at Mogadishu. Pirates took control of the bridge, engine room and steering room. There was a fight between the crew and the pirates. Six crew members were injured. An U.S. warship rendered assistance in rescuing the crew and ship.
September, 2007, Haiti: Robbers armed with knives boarded an anchored general cargo ship unnoticed. Ship’s general alarm sounded and crew mustered, robbers jumped overboard and escaped with ship’s stores. Attempt to contact the local authorities were futile.
September, 2007, bonny river anchorage, Nigeria: five robbers in two motor boats armed with guns and knives boarded an anchored chemical tanker from the bow using ropes and hooks. Duty crew spotted the robbers and raised the alarm. The robbers broke the locks on the forward store and stole ship’s stores and escaped. Bonny signal station was called many times, but did not respond.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Chandigarh....the city beautiful

Ever since I left Chandigarh way back in 1982, I have looked for opportunities to visit Chandigarh again and again. There are so many pleasant memories and experiences associated with the city. It has not yet disappointed me in my so many visits in last 25 years. Though these visits are now never for a longer period, not more than 2 nights usually, but the visits and meeting with old buddies always refreshes me. Chandigarh has changed in so many ways, and yet it has remained the same in its character. It has expanded in all directions. Like NCT region of Delhi which now encompasses Noida, Gurgaon, and may be Sonepat also, Chandigarh’s unofficial boundaries now engulf Mohali, Panchkula, and may be Raipur Rani. It is not uncommon to find letters for Panchkula also mentioning Chandigarh in the address. The traffic has multiplied manifold; the ubiquitous cycle, the most common mode of transportation earlier, has rapidly been replaced by motorcycles and small cars. Traffic jams, unheard earlier, do occur now on some roads. I used to own a cycle then; and would enjoy using it for various errands, and also on many occasions with Chitra on carrier at the back. Later I also put a small seat in front and would take Ishu for fun ride in the campus. It was a bit of unusual since very few docs in PGI used cycles, and perhaps none to use it as a family transport.
My hobby for bird watching really took off from the woods adjacent to the hostel. There were many resident and visiting birds there and gradually I learnt to recognize them. I still remember my joy when for the first time I made a spot recognition of golden oriole and grey hornbill.
We got lot of visitors from Delhi who would visit us for various reasons: medical consultations in the hospital, just to visit and spend some time with us, or on their way to Kasauli or Shimla. We were always on lookout which hostle-room’s occupants were away on home vacation so that we could accommodate our own guests. Besides usual tourist attractions, we would always entertain them at the first floor cafeteria which they found so spotlessly clean. They found it amusing to see the caloric value of each item of food served there.
Some of the friends we made there are our closest friends now and we value their friendship. People of Chandigarh were warm, simple, and yet fun loving; unlike Delhi. I also tried my hands to learn to speak Punjabi; speaking same language is a key tool to communication and it proved very useful to establish rapport with patients. My skills to speak Punjabi were OK if some linguistic expert did not sit on judgment. However, what I learnt most at Chandigarh and which I continue to cherish is to take pride in my profession.

So when there was another opportunity to visit Chandigarh for a meeting, I jumped at it. And the organizers of the meeting booked my stay at the UT guest house in sector 6. It has just been renovated and its sprawling lobbies would put ordinary 5-star hotels to shame. The best part of the guest house is its close proximity to the lake. I went there for my morning walk. I was visiting it after so many years, may be after two decades, but was very happy to see it as clean and unpolluted. On the opposite side, one could still see the clear land and greenery with no encroachment. When we were there, visits to lake, rock garden, rose garden, 17 sector market were quite frequent. What I also liked very much there was the cactus garden in the Punjab University. It had at that time some amazing variety of cacti. I have not been to all these places now in so many years now, but would like visit cactus garden once again.
The roads and various sectors continue to be clean and uncluttered. It is such a contrast from Delhi where you could not pass a stretch of one km without the road being dug up, or huge dump of garbage. Unauthorized floors or extensions are not visible, at least on my short visits. However, with third generation having now grown up, the Chandigarhians will be facing tremendous pressure for the need to have an extra floor above their houses.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

The Scent of Fruits and Vegetables

You read any health column; invariably, you will be told umpteen number of times the value of fresh fruits and vegetables in your daily diet to ward off modern life illnesses like diabetes, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, or heart attack. You can also ward off pernicious illnesses like prostrate cancer, colon cancers, or even Alzheimer’s disease. We all take the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables in India almost for granted. I now know from my personal experience how much one can miss even the mere sight of fresh fruits and vegetables. I have now known what the sight or scent of fresh fruits or vegetables can do to boost up your morale and improve your mood. We were returning from Larsemann Hills (69° 25´ South, 76° 15´ East), Antarctica on M.V. Emerald Sea and by the time we reached Cape Town, we were already on board for nearly six weeks. We had exhausted all our supplies of fresh fruits and vegetables and were getting slowly sick of frozen stuff. Only potatoes and onions were unfrozen, but they had also started sprouting inspite of being stored in the cold room of ship. As luck would have it, our ship anchored on ‘fruits exporting dock’ of Cape Town harbour. South Africa is a major fruits exporting nation, and crates after crates were lying all around ready to be loaded on to vessels going all over the globe. During our short trip to the city, I was thrilled to see the quantity, variety, and looks of so many different kinds of fruits. Of course, our mess committee did not disappoint us, and made sufficient purchases of fruits to last till we reached Goa two weeks later. When we set sail again after one night’s halt at Cape Town, I refused to have any daad-chawal-roti for next three days and thrived very well on fruits and salad.
Who can forget the scintillating and award winning performance of Al Pecino in ‘Scent of a Woman’, but scent of fresh fruits and onions can excite people so much if they have not set their eyes on fresh fruits and vegetables for six months, you can very well gauze by reading Ashit’s account. He is the current wintering member of our 27th IAE team.

The scent of the fresh vegetables and fruits
Guest Column by Ashit Swain

I never imagined that the scent of the fresh vegetables and the fruits will be so sweet aromatically. I could never have thought that this much of urge for the fresh things would be there with a large group of people who stay for a common cause in the harsh wintering period of Antarctica.
From my first day at Antarctica, I have been exposed to so many wonderful things. At one side, where some of the natural beauty is unparallel, the other side focuses on the different attitudes of the human beings. Towards the end of October, skua and penguins have reached Maitri and generated intense interest among the members. Even though these birds of Southern Hemisphere generated intense excitement in most of the members here, all did not participate in showing their eagerness to watch them. However, with their arrival, summer season has begun. Very soon lakes will melt on which I have traveled a lot with the vehicle and walked length and breadth for various scientific and other interests. The accumulated snow will melt away and the landscape will change entirely.
With the start of the summer season, the flight service between Cape Town and Novo airbase in Antarctica has started and we are once again reconnected to the mainland. The de-induction has started. With the inaugural flight coming on 31st October, we were told, there was a huge parcel for Maitri. The news spread like fire to all the members that some important things for Maitri station have reached airport. Very soon, there was a guessing game began on the possibilities of things which are coming. Some members were of the opinion that the most crucial parts of the vehicles must be reaching; others were of the opinion that this must be the fresh vegetables and fruits package; or it could be some vital and delicate scientific equipment. The suspense was increasing every hour. It was taken into the custody at the Novo airbase and reached Maitri late afternoon, and no time was lost in opening the packets. To our great delight, there were apples, oranges, lemons, onions, carrots, leafy vegetables, broccolis, coriander leaves, ginger, garlic, green chilies etc. All of us were excited and extremely happy to see all this and wanted to touch it and smell all vegetables and fruits. We were setting our eyes on them after a long gap of more than nine months. The sight of fruits excited us, but it was not comparable to the sighting of the onions, which were long missing in the kitchen.
For fair distribution, apple, orange, onion, carrot and lemon was equally divided among all the members. I would not have seen my share so closely, if I were there in India. But with the fresh stock in my hand I saw it more closely than ever. It seems I had already forgotten the taste of lemon, apple, orange etc. I smelled the lemon. It was so sweet. When somebody is away from it for a long time, only then the importance of the very common things can be best felt. The green, orange, yellow, light pink and reddish orange colors of the fruits and vegetables could attract all of us together that starting from the youngest to the oldest, all are very happy to get, see and feel it. Even penguins and skua had not generated that much interest or excitement!
Very soon, the plans were made to prepare the salad and omelets, with the fresh stock of the new things. It was like a festival; possibly more numbers of persons were seen in the kitchen area to prepare the dishes of their choice, keeping Narayan Singh aside. I wish subsequent incoming flights will bring more fresh stocks. To appreciate fresh fruits and vegetable with all the five senses, you have to be Antarctica and spend the polar nights here. Not a big deal!

Tuesday, October 21, 2008


Turmeric or haldi has been used in my family for many purposes besides culinary. I am sure it must be true for most of the homes in India. I was introduced to turmeric powder (haldi) during my own childhood when my mother and grandmother prevailed upon us to take it for frequent bouts of cough during winter season. We took it in powder form with hot milk just before going to bed. We were also advised to take it when having general aches and pains all over the body after a particularly grueling day in the sports field. The powder of haldi was also sprinkled over open wounds to speed up healing. Now we know that it works as an antiseptic and prevents infection of the open wound. I started taking haldi regularly only a few years ago to overcome my frequent bouts of sinusitis. I think it has benefited me somewhat. It has reduced my frequent use of antibiotics. However, it has not set right my proneness for easy and recurrent rhinitis and sinusitis. Recently I discovered that Bikash, a very close friend and famous neurosurgeon in the US, also takes haldi on regular basis. Bikash and Dottie were visiting us in England, and after dinner Chitra asked them if they would like to have a drink. She suggested if they wanted to flatter me, they should take ‘haldi-milk’. Surprise, surprise; Bikash had been using haldi regularly for some time in the same way as I took, though he took it in cold milk.
So, when recently I was asked about the scientific validity of haldi powder, I rushed to where else, but Prof Google and Tutor Wikipedia, and collected the following information.

Medicinal properties of Haldi (Turmeric, Curcumin) as gleaned from the net:

In Ayurvedic medicine, turmeric is thought to have many medicinal properties and many in India use it as a readily available antiseptic for cuts, burns and bruises. Practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine say it has fluoride which is thought to be essential for teeth. It is also used as an antibacterial agent. It is taken in some Asian countries as a dietary supplement, which allegedly helps with stomach problems and other ailments. It is popular as tea in Okinawa, Japan. It is currently being investigated for possible benefits in Alzheimer's disease, cancer and liver disorders.
It is only in recent years that Western scientists have increasingly recognized the medicinal properties of turmeric. According to a 2005 article in the Wall Street Journal titled, "Common Indian Spice Stirs Hope," research activity into curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, is exploding. Two hundred and fifty-six curcumin papers were published in the past year according to a search of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Supplement sales have increased 35% since 2004, and the U.S. National Institutes of Health has four clinical trials underway to study curcumin treatment for pancreatic cancer, multiple myeloma, Alzheimer's, and colorectal cancer.
A 2004 UCLA-Veterans Affairs study involving genetically altered mice suggests that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric, might inhibit the accumulation of destructive beta amyloids in the brains of Alzheimer's disease patients and also breaks up existing plaques. "Curcumin has been used for thousands of years as a safe anti-inflammatory in a variety of ailments as part of Indian traditional medicine," Gregory Cole, Professor of medicine and neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA said. Another 2004 study conducted at Yale University involved oral administration of curcumin to mice to study its benefit in cystic fibrosis. Anti-tumoral effects against melanoma cells have been demonstrated. A recent study involving mice has shown that turmeric slows the spread of breast cancer into lungs and other body parts. Turmeric also enhances the effect of anti-cancer drugs in reducing metastasis of breast cancer.
Curcumin is thought to be a powerful pain-relieving agent. In the November 2006 issue of Arthritis & Rheumatism, a study was published that showed the effectiveness of turmeric in the reduction of joint inflammation, and recommended clinical trials as a possible treatment for the alleviation of arthritis symptoms. It is thought to work as a natural inhibitor of the cox-2 enzyme, and has been shown effective in animal models for neuropathic pain secondary to diabetes, among others. Presenting their findings at the Endocrine Society's annual meeting in San Francisco in June 2008, researchers discovered that turmeric-treated mice were less susceptible to developing type 2 diabetes, based on their blood glucose levels, and glucose and insulin tolerance tests. They also discovered that turmeric-fed obese mice showed significantly reduced inflammation in fat tissue and liver compared to controls.
Welcome to Haldi Club!

Saturday, October 11, 2008


Fire is a major risk in Antarctica with grave consequences. When we, the members of 27th Indian Antarctic Expedition, were being trained and briefed at Auli, our team leader, Mr Arun Chaturvedi, veteran of many Antarctic expeditions, had very explicitly told us the risk of fire in Antarctica due to closed spaces, wooden structures, high wind, dry air and plenty of oxygen.
Unfortunately, inspite of it being a real danger and all the precautions, such accidents do happen in Antarctica with tragic results. Besides the loss of life, loss of scientific and communication equipments, medical and other supplies can also become major hindrance in the successful completion of expedition. Sadly, such an accident has happened last week at Russian station, Progress, situated at Larsemann Hills (its rough coordinates are: 69S and 76E).
I had visited this station in March, 2008 when I visited Larsemann Hills where India is also coming up with its third station. The Russian leader, Lukin, had greeted us very warmly, and the team doctor, again Lukin, had taken us around the station. I was very impressed with the new station coming up at Progress. I am reproducing below the mail which the Russian leader shared with all the Antarctic nations after the accident. The photograph below shows Mr Ajay Dhar, again an Antarctic veteran and leader of the summer team of the 27th IAE, with both the Lukins.

From: - Valery Lukin (lukin)

Dear COMNAP members,
With great regret I have to inform you that at night on 5 October around
2.00 Moscow time (4.00 local time) there was a fire at Progress station in
the two-storeyed living building. The station team was not able to cope with
the fire by their own efforts and the building was completely destroyed by
fire. The station team comprised 29 people including 10 builders. As a
result of the fire, one person is missing (the body was not yet found) and
two persons were injured (fractures of different gravity). All three people
are from the construction team. The injured people are now at the medical
unit of the station. On 7 October the Progress personnel began dismantling
the collapsed structures and probably they will find the body of the third
builder at this place. Most of communication facilities and part of
scientific equipment including all PCs were destroyed. At present the
station team (28 people) lives in the old small houses left by previous
builders. The fire did not spread to the other station facilities, so we
have the mess-hall and the galley, the medical unit, "warm" and "cold"
warehouses, all transport vehicles and also the facilities of the new
wintering station under construction (diesel-electric power station, garage
and repair shops, a bath-house, a heli-pad, fuel storage and the carcass of
the new building). All food, fuel and medical supplies were preserved. The
people are provided with normal meals, polar clothing and medical service.
The station continues to fulfil the program on geomagnetism, partly on
coastal oceanography and hydrography. Meteorological observations and
receiving satellite information were temporarily stopped. The Progress
station now has HF radio-communication and telephone satellite communication
via Iridium and RAE daily communicates with the station and Progress station
communicates with Mirny or Vostok stations twice a day. We are very grateful
to Chinese colleagues from Zhongshan station for their immense help and
various assisstance provided after the fire. The Zhongshan station is at a
distance of 1.5 km from Progress station in the Larsemann Hills on the coast
of Prydz Bay. The burnt building was built in 1991. RAE plans to organize a
flight of BT67 airplane from Novolazarevskaya station in early December. If
the state of the injured people aggravates, RAE will make this flight in
early November for evacuating these people. The R/V "Akademik Fedorov" will
approach the Progress station on 20 December and deliver the necessary
equipment and supplies and new personnel.
So far the cause of the fire was not determined. We have informed all our
wintering stations about this accident with the request to check all
equipment and safety emergency action plans.
We are not asking the Antarctic community for help as the situation at the
station is not critical and station continues operation.
Have a good Antarctic season.
Best wishes.
Valery Lukin
RAE Head

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Dharan Revisited...

Ever since I spent time in Dharan, I have looked forward to visiting it again and again, and fortunately there have been a number of opportunities to go there and relive the time once again. To the uninitiated: I spent more than two years between 1997 and 1999 at the B. P. Koirala Institute of Health Sciences, Dharan. Dharan was then a sleeping town in the foothills of Eastern province of Nepal. It is 150 km from Siliguri (airport: Bagdogra) or 5-hour drive from Darjeeling. Bihar border is only 50 km at Jogbani adjacent to Birat Nagar. Dharan had been the centre for the British Army to recruit soldiers for its Gorkha Regiment. The Ghopa Camp, established by them on a 700-acre estate, offered them to live there in style with an 18-hole golf course, swimming pools, sports facilities, and a vast jungle. They had established a 150-bedded hospital too there for people living there, ‘goras’ as well as ‘civilians’. There was a clear dividing line between ‘gora lines’ and ‘civil lines’ with civilians being prohibited to enter gora lines. In the early 1990s when the demand for Gorkha soldiers decreased, British decided to hand over the camp to Nepalese government, and subsequently wound up their operations. It became difficult for the Nepal government to sustain this sprawling estate. The then Indian PM, Shri Chandra Sekhar, a good friend of Koirala family, offered a substantial grant to develop the camp with a new health institution with a mandate to train local manpower for spreading health care in the Himalayan state. Thus, the B. P. Koirala Instt for Health Sciences got established where Indian doctors have been going there for short-term as well as long-term assignments for providing clinical care as well as training the young Nepalese health professionals for the country. I had gone there to help set up the department of psychiatry in the institute for its clinical and training facilities.
When I went there more than 10 years ago, Dharan was just a little sleeping town. It had started to awaken then and now 10 years later it is a bustling town with a vibrant economy, and in keeping with modern trend, has a few ‘malls’ too. In those two years, besides doing my clinical and academic work, I got plenty of opportunities in Dharan for trekking to nearby areas where I got a chance to see first hand how people lived in mountains with no roads, no health facility, or only a symbolic school. Only means of transportation was either to trek for a few days to reach the road head, or fly. Yes, Nepal could boast of nearly 40 airports situated on plateau on various hill tops. Flying in a small Dornier and landing over flat grassland was an experience in itself.
Last month when the Dean Office invited me there, it also advised me to come to Bagdogra (airport in Siliguri) from where I would be picked up. Normal route would have been Delhi-Kathmandu-Birat Nagar by air and then to Dharan by road. The Kosi River was in full spate with incessant rains in the hills and had breached the road bridge on the highway linking Dharan with Kathmandu, and with road traffic totally paralyzed, the Kathmandu-Birat Nagar flights were going full. The floods-prone Kosi, 'Bihar's sorrow', is a nightmare in flood management. Efforts to contain the river's annual season of fury by building embankments have not succeeded. Kosi is one of the largest tributaries of Ganga. In spite of an age-old treaty between India and Nepal, both countries have failed to tame the river. Each year it is the same story of floods, destruction, and human migration. It was funny watching Nepalese and Indian TV channels there when both sides blamed the other side for not fulfilling the obligation of maintenance of embankments etc.
The BPKIHS staff car was waiting for me at Bagdogra. The Nepal border at Kakarbitta was 25 km away. The road on Bengal side was in pathetic condition due to rains as well as poor maintenance even during dry season. While traveling in those parts of the country, the main worry is not because of the condition of roads, but because of frequent and instantaneous road blocks or ‘bandh’. The famous village, Naxalbari’ is on this route. Once we crossed into Nepal, the highway became better. East-West highway is the longest in country and is maintained in large parts by India. We stopped at Damak to straighten our legs and have tea. Over the last 10 years, the quality of ‘samosa’ had certainly improved. We reached Ghopa camp or BPKIHS on time. A number of new buildings had come up in last two years since my last visit. However, the greenery was still intact and it was very welcoming. The guest house was full of various medical experts from India and Nepal who had come there to conduct the M.D. examination in various disciplines. It was very nostalgic meeting some old colleagues; it was almost like home coming. A big colonial house has been converted into a guest house where I was put up with the luxury of a suite. It was very heartening to see that inspite of vast new construction, the green cover apparently was still intact. During my early morning walk next day, I came across a number of birds with whom I was familiar. I almost felt as if we recognized one another. Besides common birds, I spotted grey hornbill, pied hornbill, tree pie once again. While walking back in the night, I wanted, but at the same time did not want, to come face to face with a snake. Those days, it was a common occurrence for a rat snake or cobra to cross your path during late evening walks. But now with increased human and vehicular traffic, the snakes perhaps have hastened their exit.

It was quite satisfying to see the department of Psychiatry at BPKIHS progressing quite well. It has made a space for itself in clinical, teaching and training activities. It is training MBBS students, specialist psychiatrists, as well as psychiatric nurses; it is fulfilling a vast gap between supply and demand for mental health care in the Himalayan nation. The department as well as the Vice Chancellor were kind enough to allow me to share my experiences of Antarctica with the students and staff.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Eid Celebrations in Antarctica

Eid Mubarak at Maitri, Antarctica

I am so full of my Antarctica days. Any event, even remotely connected, fills me with nostalgia. But the Eid that I celebrated last year while at Antarctica will always remain a cherished memory in my mind for ever. Let me tell you about it.

Last year Eid was celebrated in the Maitri on 21st December, 2007. I had gone for a long walk at about 4 pm after talking to Chitra. I returned just before 7 pm (and it was bright day light) and headed for Annapurna lounge for having tea. I was surprised not to find anyone there. I was just wondering what happened when I found all the spoons missing. I guessed immediately that some party was going on in the summer camp. I went to the recreation lounge of the summer camp, Dooda Beta, looking for the group but was more surprised finding that it too was totally deserted. I was now certain that Eid party was in full swing somewhere, and just when I was scratching my head I noticed a bucket outside the igloo hut. And that gave it away since this hut usually remained locked. Reaching there I found the party in full swing. One does not need any invitation to join the Eid celebrations, so I jumped in. I was welcomed very warmly by Sheikh Ghaffar Saab who produced a bottle of Scotch to welcome me. Other people were happy with Rum. People were cracking jokes and reciting Urdu poetry. I was also asked to speak something. I recited a poem by Kaka Hathrasi that I reproduce for you. This poem is more than 40 years old and we as kids listened it many times on All India Radio.

It is about the days of early 1960s when adulteration was rampant in Indian markets. Kaaki sends Kaka to fetch pure ghee from the market, and when he brings it she immediately declares that it is as good as kerosene oil!

“ghaaslet batla rahi, hum laaye ghee shuddh,
isi baat per ho gaya deviji se yuddh;
deviji se yuddh, sambhala hum ne danda,
do belan par gaye ho gaya danda thanda;
ghairat ke karan hua bura hamara haal,
do aane ka sankhya le aaye tatkaal;
le aaye tatkaal, pees kar maari phanki,
mooh dhaap kar so gaye, kar marne ki taiyyari;
kar marne ki taiyyari,
lekin hum nahi mare, kyno ki sankhya nikla nakli”

Ghaaslet: kerosene oil
Ghairat: humiliation
Sankhya: poison containing arsenic

I also narrated my most favourite story of Eid by Munshi Prem Chand “Idgaah”. I am sure you remember it, or I will reproduce it some day.

In the Maitri dinning haal, Ram Das and Narayan had made biryani of both kinds, to top it with gulab jamun. What else I could do after taking some scotch but to indulge myself. So I had 4 gulab jamun, and just when I was about to finish, SK Singh came along and announced that I must have gulab jamun with yoghurt. That is the way sweets are consumed in Bihar! So I had two more. I reassured myself that I would walk extra mile next day.

Sunday, August 31, 2008


In a paper written and published in the American Journal of Psychiatry many years ago on Eating Disorders in India, we had argued that the need to do well in education is a stress for young students and their families, and in some vulnerable young girls and boys, it may lead to some psychopathology. The point we wanted to make was that education remains a very important means for upward mobility in Independent India.

For nearly two decades now, I have patronized Harish, a fruitwallah, in Kotla. Kotla is a versatile market for all household necessities in South Delhi known for its wholesale prices. It is not in the league of nearby up-scale markets of South Delhi like South Ex or Defense Colony. Harish has a ramshackle kiosk and specializes in some select fruits and sells full boxes only. I like to go there because he stocks fruits like mango, apple, grapes, oranges etc that I like to buy in bulk for our use and share with friends. When I went to him yesterday, he asked me if I could make a medical certificate for his child. Though I never told him, but he has seen the sticker on my car announcing the place where I work. I thought he must be wanting a med cert for his child studying in school and must have been missing his school on account of truancy. I told him that my certificate would not work in the school, but was curious to know the school where his child was studying. No, not for school, it was the Australian embassy which was demanding such a certificate. I could barely manage to hide my shock – I knew Australian embassy demands med cert only if the applicant is applying for a long term visa, like immigration or for studies. I asked him why he was going to Australia. His son had obtained admission in the Univ for studying Computer course. Harish would be spending Rs 25 lakh on his education.
More shocks were to follow. His son no. 2 is already in Sydney studying for his Masters. He supports himself by doing part time teaching in the Univ itself. His son no. 1 is in Bangaluru and works for an MNC, Accenture. He is coming back to Delhi on transfer with a package of Rs 2.5 lakh a month.
I thought I had enough shocks that early morning for the entire day. But I was extremely happy. Though I managed to conceal my shock, I did not try to conceal my happiness. I expressed my desire to meet his sons. Harish said in a very matter of fact manner, and may be with a sense of pride that all his life when he was working hard, he never allowed his sons to come to the shop or to extend help. Harish’s hard work and sacrifice has worked so well for his children, who did not disappoint him.

Sunday, August 17, 2008


While in Beijing, it is almost customary to visit the Great Wall of China. Though China is known for many things, the Great Wall, one of the seven man-made wonders of the world, remains an attraction for all the visitors. So when we were planning to visit Beijing, I had made sufficient enquiries before hand if it was possible to make a day-long trip to the Great Wall from Beijing. After all the name ‘Great wall’ has been etched in my memory ever since I knew there was another country by the name of China in my primay classes many decades ago.

There are two or three areas of the Great Wall, within 100 km from Beijing, which have been well developed for tourists’ visits. The visit is also combined with other attractions enroute. We chose a package which combined it with Ming’s tomb. Also thrown in the package were visits to Jade factory, enamel factory, Tibetan herbal medicine house and tea house. All such factories had packaged these visits as an educational tourist attraction, but in reality they all were commercial enterprizes which organized guided trips within the factory with the ulterior motive of persuading the tourists to buy their products. As a sale strategy, these houses had employed English speaking charming damsels to lure the visitors. We disappointed all the pretty young girls, but were impressed by their perseveration. However, the Great Wall was interesting. We had chosen the Badaling section of the Great Wall for our visit. It is 70 km northwest of Beijing and is the best known section, and hence the most packaged. The moment you reach there you are welcome by a number of restaurants and souvenir shops. And since we were there just three weeks before the Olympics, the most saleable souvenirs were Olympic memorabilia. It had been cloudy since morning, and by the time we reached there it had started drizzling. So we also made a beeline to one of these shops to buy ‘one-time use’ kind of raincoats. We decided to climb the wall from one part of this section and descend from the other negotiating and climbing steep stairs and hiking on the wall. The wall followed the contour of the adjoining steep range of hills. The area was full of local and foreign tourists, and the local school children made the entire atmosphere very lively. We three Indians stood out different from the rest and were in huge demand by the school students to have photographs with us. Of course, we did not disappoint any. We decided to walk and walk leaving the crowd behind us. Then the natural landscape and scenic beauty got better with hills and lush greenery on both sides of us.
The Great Wall of China is 6400 km long and has been built over a period spanning from 6th century BC and 16th century AD, making it a wonder that has taken the longest time to be erected, by successive dynasties to defend themselves against the northern invaders. Over the centuries the wall has been in despair at many places due to neglect, vandalism, and harsh climate or sandstorm. Our guide also told us that at many places, local people vandalized the wall to use the building material for their own houses! However, at Badaling, the wall has been restored for tourists and does not give the feeling of ancient ruins, unlike the ruins of Greece. In fact the wall does not seem restored but rebuilt in its entirety. Some people feel that there is nothing genuine about the experience. However, we were happy with the visit and other experiences and returned to our hotel in time for the evening Beijing Opera show.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Hiking and Rock Climbing

The moment Las Vegas comes to mind, one thinks of the casinos, gambling, spectacular shows and all the adult entertainment that the city has to offer. The city thrives on the pleasure principles and has been nicknamed as the ‘Sin City’. It has some of the grandest hotels and fanciest malls in the world. Though Macau has fast grown in gambling opportunities, however, it is not at the cost of Las Vegas, which still remains as popular as ever. Undoubtedly Las Vegas is known more for its casinos and gambling, yet it has many other activities and recreations to offer. The state of Nevada boasts of two very popular recreation areas just outside Las Vegas: the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area and the Red Rock Canyon Conservation Park. The austere wilderness of both the areas is home to several plant and animal species that are unique to these areas; however, what attracts the adventure sports enthusiasts is the unique and varied climbing environment. Mountain peaks rise thousands of feet off the desert floor and the mountain faces are among North America’s most unrelenting formations.
If you happen to plan a vacation with Kush, you will find yourself invariably landing into some hiking or climbing spots. So even if our itinerary began with man made amusements like Las Vegas or Los Angeles, it ended with a day-long visit to Mount Charleston in the Spring Mountains National Recreation Area which lies west of Las Vegas at about an hour’s drive from the famous Strip of Las Vegas. Mount Charleston is an imposing peak at 12,000 ft rising from the meadows below.

We drove from our hotel, Flamingo, and soon left the hot and humid weather of Las Vegas behind and entered the town named Mount Charleston in the valley of Spring Mountains. The air became cool and pleasant and soon we sighted the Mount Charleston Lodge, a rustic hotel which must have been a popular joint with Las Vegans to escape heat. If I tell you the population statistics of this town nestled in the valley, you will laugh. As of the census of 2000, there were 285 people, 133 households, and 80 families residing here. The population density was 9.7 people per square mile (3.7/km²). Such low density of population in India is just not thinkable, or may be, some village in far North-East or high up in Himalayas could match it.
The area is full of hiking trails for easy walks, and mountain faces for rock climbing enthusiasts looking for adventure. We chose an easy trail of 5 km for our hiking. Kush was not carrying his climbing gear, so we were comfortable in our thought that he would not insist on initiating us into this difficult and technical sport. Towards the end of our trail, we came across a group of young women and men, some on the ground and two of them high into the air with nylon ropes and slings around them on a mountain face which was sheer vertical. One girl was climbing up with nylon slings and harness gear, and a rope trailing between her legs. The climb was totally vertical and to our unaccoustomed eyes appeared totally smooth. How she was going to climb there, we wondered. ‘But small cracks and protrusions from the rock would provide passage up’ explained Kush. That explained why she would stop intermittently and scan the route above before reaching for such a crack or protrusion. It required subtle balance, long reaches and precise footwork for her climb. One thing was sure: this girl could not be suffering from acrophobia, that is, fear of heights. I wondered what happens to the depth perception on such height and open spaces.
After all the glitter, fun, excitemen, and tensions of Las Vegas, time spent in the green environs and fresh air of Mount Charleston was quite refreshing. Kush will return here quite soon with his rock climbing group; we may also come here in future, but only for our easy hikes.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Flight of the Condor

2nd August, 2008

While at the Grand Canyon, I was lucky to spot a condor soaring high above in the sky and shoot it, of course, with the camera. I had read and heard so much about the ‘flight of a condor’. We also attended the educational programme on the condor and its successful conservation which has brought it back from the brink of extinction.

On the wing, the movements of the condor, as it wheels in circles, are remarkably graceful. The birds flap their wings on rising from the ground, but after attaining a moderate elevation they seem to sail majestically on the air.
Wild condors inhabit large territories, often traveling 250 km (150 miles ) a day in search of carrion. They prefer large carcasses such as deer or cattle which they spot by looking for other scavengers. That led to their near extinction, since the caracasses of wild animals shot dead by bullets killed the condors too by lead poisoning. Attempts are being made to induce the hunters to use copper bullets instead of those containing lead.
Condors are basically vultures. California Condors are the largest flying land birds in North America.
The adult plumage is uniformly black, with the exception of a frill of white feathers nearly surrounding the base of the neck and, especially in the male, large patches or bands of white on the wings. As an adaptation for hygiene, the head and neck have few feathers exposing the skin to the sterilizing effects of dehydration and ultraviolet light at high altitudes, and are meticulously kept clean by the bird. The head is much flattened above. The white patch under both the wings at the armpits is diagnostic of condors (see the photographs). California Condors' huge wingspan measures up to 2.9 m, and they can weigh up to 10.4 kg.
California Condors are intertwined in many Native American cultures. There are people who believe California Condors were the origin of the Thunderbird myth, while some Western tribes regarded the California Condors as sacred beings, using feathers in religious ceremonies. The Chumash tribe believes that if the condors become completely extinct, so will the tribe. The Moche people of ancient Peru worshipped nature. They placed emphasis on animals and often depicted condors in their art. The same is true of the later Incan civilizations: the condor represented sky as one of the three celebrated animals. Vultures have been immortalized in Indian mythology too. Jatayu, one of the heroes of the great Indian epic, Ramayan, belongs to the race of vultures.
Twenty years ago, the California Condor Recovery Program began a new era when condors known as AC-4 and UN-1 produced the first egg to be laid and hatched in a managed setting. The resulting chick, Molloko, turns 20 years old on April 29, 2008. The goal of the California Condor Recovery Program is to establish two geographically separate populations, one in California and the other in Arizona. As the Recovery Program works towards this goal, the number of release sites has grown. There are four active release sites in California, one in Arizona and one in Baja California, Mexico with condors flying free.
While listening to the success story of condor, I thought of its cousin, the vulture, back home. In Delhi and most of North India (I hope it is still thriving in other parts), nearly 99% or common vultures have disappeared due to a drug, diclofenac, a common and popular analgesic; it is also used extensively in veternity medicine in farm animals. When vultures scavenged on their carcasses, they died due to diclofenac toxicity. I wonder why we can not replicate the same success story in India for our own vultures.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

GRAND CANYON…one of the most spectacular natural wonders

23rd July, 2008

During our recent visit to San Francisco, Kush took us for a visit to the Grand Canyon. It is only when you go there and witness the imposing character of the canyon that you realize that it is for no illegitimate reason that it is called Grand. We all (myself, Chitra, Kush and Vasu) had flown to Los Angeles to visit Atul and Anita and their lovely and lively daughters, Priyanka and Natasha at their home in Orange County. After doing the usual circuit of LA, Hollywood, San Diego and Sea World, and witnessing the fireworks of the 4th of July, we drove to Grand Canyon. After only an hour or two, the landscape had changed into desert with huge dunes on either side. In spite of the day being hot and humid, it was a relaxed drive after bumper to bumper traffic of LA and San Diego. After passing through the magnificent Hoover Dam, we reached the southern rim of Grand Canyon just in time for the sun set. Because of the long weekend on account of US Independence Day, the lodges were full and restaurants bright with chatty people. After our dinner, we got into our cabin and retired early after a long day and also to catch some sleep before an early rise to witness the sun making its grand appearance over the canyon. We got up early and drove to the Bright Angel Lodge which is also a good location for a number of short and long hikes. We found a good location and waited expectantly. Fortunately, there was no appreciable haze or fog that early morning. We were rewarded and witnessed the spectacular sun rise. It coloured everything on the opposite side in beautiful pink. Then we started for our 5 km hike towards the gorge. We wanted a longer hike, but we were not fully equipped with liquids and food. The canyon gets humid and hot very early morning and challenges your physical fitness. There are many deaths reported among people who thought themselves to be completely fit, but met a tragic end due to heat stroke, dehydration or exhaustion during hiking or other adventure activities. On our return, we were now starving and had a relaxed and sumptuous breakfast at the restaurant.

The Grand Canyon is one of the seven natural wonders of the world; the other being, Northern lights (aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere over Canada), Paricotin Volcano (Mexico), Harbour of Rio da Janeiro (Brazil), Victoria Falls (Africa), Great Barrier Reef (Australia), and of course, Mount Everest, Himalayas.
The Grand Canyon is a steep-sided
gorge carved by the Colorado River in the U.S. state of Arizona. Considering its importance, the Grand Canyon and area around it has been declared as Grand Canyon National Park.
Grand Canyon is a geologist’s delight because of the ancient rocks that are beautifully preserved in the walls of the canyon. These rocks are testimony to the geological history of the North American continent.
The canyon was created by the
Colorado River over a period of 17 million year time span. The canyon is 446 km long, ranges in width from 6.4 to 29 km and attains a depth of more than 1.6 km. It is not the deepest canyon in the world, yet it is unmatched throughout the world for its overwhelming size and its colourful landscape.
Besides offering a beautiful sight, the canyon offers a number of activities for people looking for adventure sports, like, hiking, camping, and kayaking in the Colorado river. For wild life lovers, there is much to see and photograph. The Canyon is one of the few sites in the US for the habitat and breeding site of the magnificent bird, condor. I was lucky to witness the majestic flight of condor during our stay there.
I had long cherished to visit Grand Canyon. I hope to visit it once again to spend more time in the amazing, magnificent, and daunting environs of this natural wonder.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Presentation at Google, San Francisco

18 July, 2008

I was recently in San Francisco where Pranay, my nephew, organized a visit for us to his company, Google. I was asked if I would be willing in making a presentation for the interested staff on my Antarctica experience. The possibility of space flights and extended space missions becoming available to the ordinary citizens has caught people’s imagination and they want to know how such flights and missions would impact them and their health and behaviour. Since there are many common characteristics (for example, stress, isolation, and sensory deprivation) between Antarctic expedition and Space mission, my talk would be helpful to people wishing to be on the Space flights in the future. Google has uploaded this presentation on the youtube :
By the way, this blog is also through the service provided by Google.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Polarman, Polarman....

POLARMAN: 3rd July, 2008

Guest column by Dr Abhijeet Bhatia

(Abhijeet is a wintering member of the 27th Indian Antarctic Expedition, and maintains his own blog:

The big day was finally here. The biggest festival in Antarctica- the Mid-Winter Day! It was the darkest day (or should we call it the darkest night) of the polar night. According to an old tradition, anyone who is in Antarctica on 21st June is called a Polarman. But it does not come so easily. Anyone who is here on this day has to spend almost a whole year here. That is because it is not possible to commute to and fro Antarctica during the winters, that is, from April till beginning of November. The last flight leaves this continent around March and start only in November. The ships also start arriving in only in December after leaving Antarctican shore in March-April. Hence, This privilege of being called ‘Polarman’ is reserved exclusively for the winter teams. So this was a memorable day for all of us, especially the first timers. After all, being a polarman is a rare feat. Congratulatory messages had come pouring in from all over the world and other Antarctic stations.

The Mid- Winter Day also means that Antarctica will only get brighter now. Half of the period of polar nights is now over. We will be able to see the sun again after 1 month, though only for, may be, four minutes. But winters are far from over. July and August are the coldest and the windiest months here. That means that the winters are just peaking.

The Russians came over to join us for the celebrations from the nearby Russian station, Novo. They were expected around 10 AM, but were late. They can't be blamed because driving time in Antarctica is highly unpredictable. When they did arrive, we all had a gala time. We exchanged small gifts, and then it was time for drinks, snacks and then tambola exclusively for the Russians. The Russians did not know how to play, so we guided them. They were playing for bottles of rum. Hence there was cut throat competition. They guzzled alcohol like water. We were no match for them. We interacted with them freely and took them around the station. Language was a major problem. But that did not hinder the conversation, which flowed like liquor. They enjoyed Indian dishes thoroughly. We had made every effort to cook according to their tastes- no chillies, minimum oil.

We had made some good friends. It was nice to see some new faces after a long time. We are now ready to face the rest of the time in Antarctica with renewed vigour, with the knowledge that now it's all downhill from here.

As our leader said- Ab hum roshni ki taraf ja rahe hain.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Wintering in the White Continent (Guest Blog)

Guest Blog by Dr Abhijeet Bhatia - An ENT surgeon and a wintering member of the 27th Indian Antarctic Expedition. Dr Bhatia has his own blog at


This is what wintering has been all about till now. The process of our physical isolation from the civilized world has been a very gradual one. But it is now total and absolute. It began when the previous winter team left Maitri on 14 February 2008. The next day the ship, M V Emerald Sea, left with the summer team. That marked the official beginning of our wintering. The last of the ALCI flights left on 12th March which means no more flights of IL-76 till November, 2008.
The next few days were very gloomy for everyone in the station. But soon Life became routine and we carried on with our jobs. The next to desert us were the skuas. They migrated to warmer lands beyond the Antarctic on 17th April. The Russians' ship came to deliver their supplies and pick up their old winter team on the 24th April. The final blow was dealt by the departure of the snow petrels in 1st week of May. By then the ocean had also frozen over completely. So now there are no flights to Antarctica and the sea route is also closed for the winters. The 26 of us are left to face the long Antarctic winters, with no help possible from the civilized world even in the most pressing of circumstances. Now, even the Sun has deserted us. The polar night began on 20th May. We bade the Sun a Final goodbye on 19th May at around 11:30 AM, staring at it and taking Photographs as the red globe went down to make a face presentation only after two months.


We are having the first good blizzard in end-May as I am writing this piece. So far we hadn't had any good blizzard in March or April which did delay our convoys and made the plying of snow vehicles on the moraine quite a difficult proposition. It was only due to the Herculean efforts of the logistics team in repairing the route at minus 18 degrees C that convoys could be undertaken to bring essential supplies from the stores located 120 km away in the coastal area. Visibility is reduced to just an arm's length with wind speeds reaching 200 kmph, snowfall is horizontal instead of vertical and hits you like a thousand needles. On going out all we see is a white wall. Any movement outside is with the help of guide ropes as people still have to go to the labs and the generators even during the blizzard. We may be holding a person's hand but we are Not able to see him. I kept a Christmas tree outside and it was covered with snow in a few hours. There is a strange mix of thrill and fear. All the stations life support systems are strained to their limits. There is a blanket of Snow all around. The summer camp living accommodation is now under snow. It Will be exposed only in November when the snow melts. Around the station, The snow reaches upto the windows. Soon, it will go above the windows. The Generator complex requires repeated snow clearing to enable them to keep working.


Let me tell something about the routine life at Maitri. After our wintering began, we had some major tasks at hand. They took a few months to complete. The station was organized as per our requirements. A lot of major and minor repairs were undertaken including cleaning. The hospital block was shifted. The new toilet block was constructed. That is one of the biggest achievements of our expedition; it was long overdue. The logistics for the convoy were being worked out side by side. All these activities required extensive, back- breaking shramdaan - voluntary labour. Then the convoys began. The new supplies were to be taken out of the containers brought by the convoy and arranged in their appropriate place. So some activities have been organised to keep all in good humour. These include hobby classes, sports competitions and TV shows like Ramayana in the afternoon. Most of the conversation in the station revolves around nature and a longing to go back to India. Things like sun, blizzard, temperature, weather, clouds, snow, moon, stars, auroras, lake, birds etc are a regular part of our vocabulary. This is very different from India, where we hardly used to talk about nature. Life at Maitri is very comfortable with 24 hours running hot and cold Water, uninterrupted power supply, and central heating (all unlike Delhi), entertainment facilities, and lot of choice to pamper our gustatory habits.

Life in a small, closed community can lead to increased irritability and occasional frayed tempers. There is a certain degree of gloom in the station that is a regular feature in Antarctica at the onset of winters, more so during the polar nights. Spending long austral winter and polar nights in Antarctica can bring out best in a person; however, some people will have tough time in coping with this. The darkness, the isolation, the confinement, the loneliness- all may put a huge strain on the mind and the spirit of vulnerable and unprepared individuals. Some can bear it, others break down. I am sure that by the time we return home, we will be more evolved as human beings- patient and strong. This will be an experience that we will carry within ourselves for the rest of our lives.


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