Musings for a responsible society

Amidst the dark and grey shades increasingly engulfing, invading and piercing deeper and deeper, let me try to enjoy the little smiles, genuine greens, and the gentle breeze. Oh! Creator! If you don't exist, my vain!
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Friday, October 31, 2014

When God starts staying in your neighborhood

The faithful believe that they have a living God. Some of them look up to the heaven. Some look within. Some wait for the advent. But, what if God comes and stays in your neighborhood?

The crisis of faith most often emerges in a rational mind when doubts arise about the contextual relevance of sermons and scriptures.  For most religious denominations, their creed and the faith are rooted in scriptures that are several centuries old and in events that said to have happened millions of years ago. There could be instances when some of the believers seek from their leaders or explore themselves the contextual interpretation of the writings and oral traditions. Whether it is Adam- Eve, Big-Bang, connection between the microcosm and macrocosm, or any mundane chicken-egg question, the faithful tend to engage in inconclusive debates.

During my sixteen and half hour journey in Rani Chennamma Express Train  to  Kolhapur in Maharashtra state, ‘Joshua’ gave me company. It is a fiction written by Joseph F. Girzon, published by Collier Books (Macmillan, New York) in 1983. That was my second reading of the entire book. Some books do not age. The apt sub title tells it: ‘A Parable for Today’.

It is quite a coincidence to pick up this book to read again on the day media reported with a lot of interest and excitement about Pope Francis’s view on evolution and big-bang. He had said that ‘the scientist must be motivated by the confidence that nature hides, in her evolutionary mechanisms, potentialities for intelligence and freedom to discover and realize, to achieve the development that is in the plan of the creator’. It has always been a challenge for the theists and religious leaders to give divine authenticity for things that happen today. They are asked these questions: What would be God’s view on this? What would God do if he faced such a situation? It needs a lot of courage to admit the truth to the world even if it might be interpreted as a deviation from the existing conclusions.

How is it like if Jesus takes ‘reincarnation’ after 2000 years in this world? What will he do to earn a living? What new gospel would he preach? What would be his attitude towards the religious denominations founded in his name? Will he drive out the people there?   Will he pay a visit to the multitude of churches established in his name and what would be his response to the activities there? What would be his lifestyle? Will he use the modern amenities? What would be the reaction of the people and the authorities? Will they crucify him again or shoot him with a gun?

A poster of the film based on the book

The book ‘Joshua’ is a story about the arrival of a carpenter in the 1980s to a peaceful town with simple people. He taught everyone about the freedom to expand the breadth of inner life. The life was not easy for him though there were many admirers. The book is indeed inspirational and introspective.

Readers get an impression that Joseph F. Girzon wanted to tell his views to the world attributing them to Joshua. A fiction was the easiest and harmless route for that. However the book ‘Joshua’ does not have the flow or style of a good novel. Factually too, the book suffered from several shortcomings. Casual reductionism is very evident while he manifested an oversimplified view of the reality as it existed. One example is his (through Joshua) rejection of the inevitable institutional structure and authority conspicuous in large organized denominations. As a retired catholic priest, Girzon would have known it better.

I found the content thought provoking. The narration could make readers forget the fact that the book is a work of fiction. I fell in love with Joshua just like the way the characters in the fiction viz. Phil, Mary, Charlie, Pat, Herm and many others got infatuated. 

I have jotted down a few of my wishes after reading this book. They are given below:

I wish I could carry a huge cherry log of problems on my shoulders and walk unaware and unconcerned about its weight.
I wish I could notice all those beautiful creations and know how much the Father loves me
I wish I could make my inner life richer and less showy
I wish I could avoid creating human laws to dictate how one can worship the creator
I wish instead of being an expert in law, can I be an expert in love?
I wish I could break my bread and share with a total stranger.
I wish I could make a living just to meet my needs of the day
I wish I understand the fact that 'talent doesn't justify putting on airs and any ability I have comes from my creator, and my recognition of it should make me humble, not arrogant'.
I wish I understand the ' modern unforgivable sin' when I tend to see the 'latest discoveries and creations as reasons to question the very existence of the person who gave them the abilities to discover and create'.
I wish we had leaders who set an example, 'who draw people to God by their own deep faith and by the beauty of their personal lives, not by intimidating people into sterile external observances'.
I wish I tell to myself often that everyone has imperfections as that's the way God made them and “perfection is more a process of striving than a state to be attained"
I wish I could be more humble in my attitude towards those who are less privileged than me
I wish I can lay aside the pettiness and prejudices, even those that have been consecrated through the passing of centuries.
I wish I have more goodness so that I will be chosen to witness better things in this world

An imperfect soul I am, I do not wish to be suppressed by the guilt, threat and fear. Let me be vibrant and joyful to cross the hurdles created by me, accepting the way I am and enjoying the freedom the creator has bestowed.  Then I can be like Joshua: free, simple, courageous, loving and peaceful.

Views are personal                                                     © Sibichen K Mathew

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Save the jeans: Vulgarity is in the mind of the beholder

© Sibichen K Mathew

Today’s fashion is tomorrow’s lifestyle. When jeans entered the neighborhood market, I had thought that it was a dress for the cowboys, for those who were into western music, and those who were ‘deviant’ and promoters of a counter culture. As hippies also got ‘upgraded’ from their bell-bottom pants to the jeans, it was thought to be representing an abnormal way of life. Movies of those days created Jeans clad men when they wanted to showcase drug addicts, deviant urban youth, and rebels of any type. Thus my first reaction to this costume (originally designed for miners and sailors) was negative.

My negativity slowly transformed to curiosity as I saw the rich urban young men wearing jeans that looked torn, shrunk, and faded. I wondered why they couldn't afford to buy new jeans. Only after a while I realized that the jeans were sold just like that and they were not to be washed so often like other clothes. Someone told me that Levi Strauss, a German who migrated to United States in the nineteenth century (collaborated with a Tailor named Davis, to design and manufacture denim trousers) advised the customers not to wash them. I knew only one Levi Strauss till that time. That was Claude Levi-Strauss, an anthropologist about whom I studied in the college. Initially I thought that he was the same person who invented the Jeans also, as he was known as a ‘structuralist’, as per the lecture by my sociology professor. 

Slowly I found not only men, but many young girls in the cities in blue and brown jeans. My professors entered the class rooms in Jeans and Kurtas and lectured Gramsci and Chomski with fervency. That was the ultimate signs of legitimacy for me. I picked up my first jeans from a street vendor in Karol Bagh market in New Delhi. Though I am not sure whether it was a used one (it looked so), I felt that I am also ‘trendy’ in the campus. I was curious how others looked at me for a few days. But for the sarcastic remarks of some of my country cousins (from my home state), most people appreciated my decision to enter the ‘intellectual’ cultural domain in the campus. Yes, in a matter of few years, jeans transformed from a costume of the ‘miners’ and the rebels, to that of urban elites and then of so called intellectuals. 

Now, jeans have become an everyday wear not only for the young but also for the old. There is no other garment in the world which has appreciated and worn by all types of people. Like Pizza and Burger, jeans also turned out to be a universally recognized and globally sought after product. It was reported that a Canadian student named Josh Le used his jeans for 15 months without washing them. He wore it 330 times during that period. When he found that his professor researched on textiles and bacteria, he requested for a bacterial analysis of his jeans. It was mentioned in the test result that "there did not appear to be differences in the bacterial carriage depending on whether the jeans had been worn for 15 months or only 13 days" 

In spite of its huge popularity and recognition, it is a paradox that this particular clothing has invited maximum criticisms than any other attire in the history of textile wears. 

The most recent attack was from the 74 year old music legend from Kerala, K J Yesudas who said that women should not wear jeans as it attracts unnecessary attraction from men and they would get tempted to do undesirable things. I don’t doubt his good intentions, though I prefer to disagree with him. A few years back, a group of girls living in two villages in the Uttar Pradesh state, carried placards against the ‘vulgar outfits’ and collected jeans from all the houses and burnt them at a public place. They said that the skin-tight clothes provoked antisocial elements to attack the ladies. A khap panchayat (union of villages) in Hisar in Haryana State banned wearing of jeans by girls in all the villages under it. 

Not only in India, in many other parts of the world, certain people and institutions felt that skinny jeans are a distraction for men! A school in  United States banned skinny jeans and leggings stating that ‘the action is not meant to objectify girls, but to stop boys from focusing on something other than class work.’

Jeans, unlike many other clothing is an ‘attitude-neutral’ clothing mainly because of its heterogeneous patronage down the history as narrated by me earlier. However, certain jeans manufacturing companies, in their advertisements tend to associate Jeans with sensuality and market it as a tool to exhibit one’s related predispositions. Advertisements put up by Diesel in prominent locations in the cities had to be removed on a protest by a political organization in India.  

Whom or what to be blamed? :Whether the blame lie on the jeans made of denim which is known for their comfort, durability, ease of maintenance and style or the persons who wear it? Or one needs to blame the people who look at the persons wearing it with a lot of prejudices and rigid notions? 

Many argue that by wearing jeans, a woman invites trouble from the hooligans. They say that rapes and other sexual abuses happen in society because women wear jeans. If that is the case, no rape or sexual abuse would have happened in villages where not many women wear jeans. Even if one conducts a study on the sexual assault cases and attempt to find a correlation with the dress worn by the victims at the time of the unfortunate incident, one would not find any! (Don’t know whether any study has been done on this). But there are many reports from different parts of the world which clearly indicated that the way one dresses has nothing to do with being sexually assaulted. 

However, there is a tendency to put the blame on the victim if she had dressed ‘provocatively’ just before the assault. In a study conducted on 352 high school students to investigate the effect of the victim's clothing on subjects' judgments of the date rape, the students were shown either a photograph of the victim dressed provocatively, a photograph of the victim dressed conservatively, or no photograph. It was found that ‘the subjects who viewed the photograph of the victim in provocative clothing were more likely than subjects who viewed the victim dressed conservatively or who saw no photograph of the victim to indicate that the victim was responsible for her assailant's behavior, that his behavior was justified, and were less likely to judge the act of unwanted sexual intercourse as rape’. 

My view is that neither the Jeans to be blamed nor the persons who wear them. The fault lies with the perceptions of people. There is no logic in singling out Jeans out of an array of dresses women wear. In fact, jeans are one of the most protective dresses a woman can have in any unpleasant situation. It could aid in preventing any abuse and most appropriate in case she needs to fight back. Such advantages are not available with skirt, sari, capris, normal pants, leggings or even salwar-bottom.

Any dress can be perceived as vulgar if one does not take care to select the fitting that is appropriate to one’s figure. Another aspect of importance is the awareness regarding what to wear where. One should be clear of the type of attire one has to be in when one goes to the office, to worship places, for shopping, on a picnic, to the gym or for a swim. This awareness is important for women for not to ward off the hooligans or assaulters but to be more attractive and presentable and to be perceived by others as ‘dressed for the occasion’. No doubt, a perverted mind would attempt to figure out the finer structure of a woman’s body even when she wears a long niqab or burqa dress. 

Those who see a ban on jeans as a solution to the sexual assaults on women are clearly advocating a view that, it is natural for men to attack any woman in a vulnerable status and thus the women are both the victims as well as the ones who are responsible for the crime. As long as the patriarchal, chauvinistic and oversimplified approach to sexual assault on women persists in society, there is no hope. 

Let the jeans live long! Let the prejudices die early!

Views are personal.                                 © Sibichen K Mathew

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Ageing with Grace and Dignity: Thoughts triggered in the seminar by the Lundbeck Institute

Plato said: "He who is of a calm and happy nature will hardly feel the pressure of age, but to him who is of an opposite disposition, youth and age are equally a burden." Plato (427-346 B.C.)

When we were too young, we wanted to be older. We wanted to dress up like elders while we were in school.  But as we grow old, we try to dress up like young ones. Look at our own profiles in the social networking sites. We try to put the most ‘young looking’ photos as profile pictures! None of us want to become old. We try to Google things and strategies that can make us look younger than what we are. The world cosmetic industry is thriving with sales reaching about $170 billion a year. We see new beauty parlors and cosmetic clinics being opened every other day in our vicinity. Too many companies sell various types of hair colors: natural, herbal and what not! I asked a friend of mine who looked very young but for the grey hair, why he is not dying his hair. He said, ‘I want to die only once’!

“You look just the same!” This is the best complement one can shower on another when they meet each other after many years. I used to see my Grandma putting the cream from the milk all over her face every night before going to bed, even when she crossed 85. She never accepted the fact that she was hard of hearing and always said she was having a bad cold for the past two days and the ‘ears’ got blocked. Why to blame Grandma! I felt uneasy when my daughter displayed my age prominently on the birthday card pasted in the living room hall. I asked her, ‘why do you want to write the age there?’

For people who are getting old there are more worries than the unhappiness of being less handsome or pretty. They worry about their failing health, the neglect they experience and the powerlessness they feel.

Lundbeck Institute, India recently organized a seminar on the topic ‘Ageing with Grace, Dignity and Courage’ as part of its social initiatives. Lundbeck is a global pharmaceutical company committed to improving the quality of life of people suffering from brain diseases. Its products are targeted at diseases such as depression and anxiety, psychotic disorders, epilepsy and Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. Mammen Mathew who leads its Team India, took the initiative to bring together three eminent experts to speak on three important topics under the broad area of ‘Empowerment: in spirit and mind’. 

According to the organizers, there are  two dominant views of ageing. First one focusses on the physical decline and the consequent dependency. The other one is about ‘successful ageing’ where physical and psycho-social activities play major role. The seminar projected an alternate view that sees ageing as a ‘spiritual journey’, that empowers to find meaning in one’s  life and, therefore, reason for continued life and hope.

Dr Thimmappa Hegde

Dr Thimmappa Hegde, the Director and Senior consultant Neuro Surgeon at Narayana Hrudayalaya (and former Professor at NIMHANS, Bangalore) had the following to say at the seminar attended by a large number of senior citizens:

In his talk titled ‘From Ageing to Growing’, he said that the brain is the greatest asset. Are you using the most of it?

The purpose of life should be a life of purpose. There is only one 'unrepayable' debt for every human being. That is the debt to the parents. But your achievements in life can bring happiness to them. He narrated the following incident in the life of Buddha:

When Buddha was eighty, he called the faithful Ananda to him and said that he wished to die in the city where he grew up.
Ananda was grief stricken. "O Buddha," he cried, please do not leave us! For so many years you have been our guide. What shall we do without you? Then he began to sob bitterly.
Buddha answered, "Do not cry, dear Ananda. I have always taught that death is a natural part of life. It is nothing to fear. You must understand that. And when I am gone, let my teachings be your guide. If you have understood them in your heart, you have no more need of me."
So Buddha and his disciples travelled back to his home city. Not far from Kapilavastu they passed through the village of Kusinora. The Buddha asked them to stop there and rest.Then he turned to Ananda and said "This is where I shall pass away."Then Buddha went out into the garden and lay down between two trees. His followers gathered around him. Some were crying, but others, their minds completely at peace, looked on silently.
The Buddha spoke for the last time. "Remember what I have taught you. Craving and desire are the cause of all unhappiness. Everything sooner or later must change, so do not become attached to anything. Instead devote yourself to clearing your mind and finding true, lasting happiness."(Source)

Ageing happens at three levels: Chronological, Biological, Psychological. As Buddha said, old age, sickness and death are inevitable.

Dr Hegde quoted from the interview given by  Author/physician Shigeaki Hinohara when he was 97 years and 4 months to the Japan Times.
Shigeaki Hinohara

 'Energy comes from feeling good, not from eating well or sleeping a lot.
All people who live long — regardless of nationality, race or gender — share one thing in common: None are overweight.
Always plan ahead. My schedule book is already full until 2014, with lectures and my usual hospital work. In 2016 I’ll have some fun, though: I plan to attend the Tokyo Olympics! 
There is no need to ever retire, but if one must, it should be a lot later than 65. Share what you know. I give 150 lectures a year, some for 100 elementary-school children, others for 4,500 business people. I usually speak for 60 to 90 minutes, standing, to stay strong. 
When a doctor recommends you take a test or have some surgery, ask whether the doctor would suggest that his or her spouse or children go through such a procedure. Contrary to popular belief, doctors can’t cure everyone. So why cause unnecessary pain with surgery? I think music and animal therapy can help more than most doctors imagine. 
To stay healthy, always take the stairs and carry your own stuff. I take two stairs at a time, to get my muscles moving.
My inspiration is Robert Browning’s poem “Abt Vogler.” My father used to read it to me. It encourages us to make big art, not small scribbles. It says to try to draw a circle so huge that there is no way we can finish it while we are alive. All we see is an arch; the rest is beyond our vision but it is there in the distance.
 Pain is mysterious, and having fun is the best way to forget it. If a child has a toothache, and you start playing a game together, he or she immediately forgets the pain. 
Don’t be crazy about amassing material things. Remember: You don’t know when your number is up, and you can’t take it with you to the next place. 
Find a role model and aim to achieve even more than they could ever do. My father went to the United States in 1900 to study at Duke University in North Carolina. He was a pioneer and one of my heroes. Later I found a few more life guides, and when I am stuck, I ask myself how they would deal with the problem. 
It’s wonderful to live long. Until one is 60 years old, it is easy to work for one’s family and to achieve one’s goals. But in our later years, we should strive to contribute to society. Since the age of 65, I have worked as a volunteer. I still put in 18 hours seven days a week and love every minute of it.'  
(See full interview reported in Japan Times here)
Dr Hegde also mentioned about the following book. It is worth reading.

(Kathopanishad is a unique Upanishad which starts with a katha (a story) of a young boy who is ready to face the Lord of Death in his quest for Truth to know what lies beyond death. He asks the very pertinent and philosophical question, Is there or is there not, and if it is, what is it? In short, this teaching is an extravaganza of spiritual knowledge and meditation that guides a student step by step to the glorious state of immortality, peace and bliss. You can buy the book from Flipkart)

 Dr Hegde drew attention to four simple Sanskrit words, “Deham Naham Koham Soham”
• Deham = Body (Deh) am (is);
• Naham = I Am (ham) not (Na);
• Koham = Who (Ko am I (ham)?
• Soham = I am (ham) That (So).

We can see below a Christian discourse by a scholar in the above context.

“While they were at the table He took bread, gave thanks and broke it and gave it to them saying, ‘This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:19). He also took a cup with some wine and did the same saying, “This Is My Blood”. When Jesus said, “This is My Body” He was teaching the disciples the truth of the Bible and of all the Scriptures: 'I am not this Body - I do not identify Myself with the body. (Deham Naham - I am not the body. Koham? Soham – Who am I? I am that.) Because I am not the body, I break it and give it up for you. In the same way, you should do the same in My memory. You should give up body consciousness. This is a Divine Command.' 

Ven. Tenzin Namdak

Ven. Tenzin Namdak who was an environmental researcher for the Ministry of Agriculture, Netherlands before he took Bhikshu ordination from H.H Dalai Lama spoke extensively on Spiritual Empowerment.

He emphasized the following in his talk:

Every being has the wish for happiness. One needs to eliminate the destructive emotions  to be truly happy. Only by self-awareness, one can  recognize and understand the nature of destructive emotions. Self-discipline can prevent the manifestations of destructive emotions by applying their antidotes. There should be sustained contemplation by reflecting again and again on the reasoning that establishes the faults of destructive emotions and the positive qualities of their antidotes. Loving kindness and compassion can eliminate destructive emotions.

Anger, Attachment and Ignorance (stemming from deliberate action or inaction) are destructive emotions.  There is no weekend course to eliminate anger. One has to learn through the experience that anger is a destructive emotion and then try to take deliberate steps to avoid it.

Every person thinks that he suffers more than others. The fact is that suffering is universal. Ageing is a reality. Understanding that reality is the antidote to ignorance. There is no use  worrying about ageing. Cosmetic industry plays to that worry. Understanding impermanence leads to a better acceptance of ageing. This will lessen the suffering.

Dr S Kalyanasundaram

Dr S Kalyanasundaram, a Professor of Psychiatry at NIMHANS  and past President of Indian Psychiatric Society spoke on ‘Emotional Empowerment’.

He emphasized the following in his talk.

Everyone wants to live longer, without realizing what we want to live for? It is necessary for all to get engaged in productive activities or in social, economic, cultural and civic affairs. This is called active ageing.

Active ageing is the recognition and support to achieve one’s potential, continuous engagement with family and society, independence, and retaining one’s dignity despite the adverse environment.

Autonomy is just a click away with the Information Technology. Senior citizens should not be reluctant to learn to use the internet and the social media.

No point in complaining ‘What is it I can’t do’.  Share happily with others ‘what I can do’. What are the areas in  which there is an improvement in health conditions? What are the things you learned new? What is the knowledge you gained recently? What are the activities you engaged at home, neighborhood and society? These are the things you need to share when you meet your friends rather than sharing the news of your disabilities. Positive ageing is a stage where you are valued by and contributing to community as age progresses. You need to foster social connections.

At home, you should know where to intervene and where not. You should ‘do with’ rather than ‘do for’ other family members. One should not forget the fact that by being older doesn’t mean that you are wiser than the youngsters at home in everything. Try to respect the inputs from them.

There are four major fears for the senior citizens: a) Fear of the process of dying, b) Fear of losing control, c) Fear of letting go and d) Fear of losing life partner. All these fears are to be fought head-on. Accept the reality as it is.

Concluding note

When my mother who is more than 70 years old tells me that she is going to plant teak and jack-fruit trees on her land, she is in fact ‘growing from ageing’. The message that she gives is, it is never too late to contribute to the society and to the future generations. It is sheer selflessness. What else can bring peace and happiness as one grows old?

Views are personal                                          © Sibichen K Mathew    

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Monday, September 29, 2014

Strange Hobbies: What is your hobby?

People usually ask this question not just inside the interview chambers but also outside. ‘What is your hobby?’

Though the rational man has enough freedom to do what he wants, he is tied up many times with work that he dislikes. He is forced to pursue the choices he made (whether they are later proved correct or incorrect) for the sake of bread and butter and to fulfill his commitments. Principles like ‘Work is Worship’ could make him altruistic and the material rewards like financial incentives or promotion could give him the impetus to perform. Except in the case of a proprietary business or a profession, one could rarely find real passion in the performance.

Hobbies provide people positive energy. Studies have shown that people who picked up  hobbies and pursued them passionately had less mental stress.

In most conventional CVs one could find a column about the hobbies. Bio-data prepared by many students who are potential candidates for jobs contain the usual ‘cut and paste’ entries such as  ‘Reading’, ‘Travelling’, or ‘Listening to music’. Once an interviewer asked a candidate to tell the titles of two recent books he read since he has given ‘reading’ as his hobby in the bio-data. Poor fellow could not tell the name of any book (not even the books he studied in school or college as part of the curriculum).

There are thousands of hobbies from which one could pick up. Some of them are cooking, gardening, knitting, painting, sculpturing, games, horse-riding, photography, instrumental music, creative writing, travelling, blogging (which I am doing!), fishing etc. They are stress-busters. 

Let me introduce today, two persons who pursue hobbies that are different from the routine ones. 


We have seen people collecting stamps, coins, antiques, bottles, cameras, comic books, cell phones etc. But have you come across a person who collects bookmarks? Here is Gangadharan, whose main passion is to collect as many diverse bookmarks as possible. He visits the book fairs, book shops, and literary fests in search of unique bookmarks. He could find some very rare types of bookmarks while searching old books shipped from various countries. He has more than 2500 bookmarks in his possession right now.

He gave a very interesting answer when I asked him how and when he started this: “I am a book distributor and closely connected with many academic institutions. On a business trip abroad in 2008, I read a news item that Hitler’s bookmark was stolen by someone. That news made me think a lot about bookmarks and I started looking for them at various places.”

He has a variety of bookmarks made from leather, metal, and different types of hand-made papers. Bookmarks in his possession contain writings in Arabic, English, French, German, Greek, Italian, Spanish, and in many Indian languages.

Mr Gangadharan received an award from the India Book of Records in the year 2012 for his achievements. He continues his passion vigorously and aims to enter the Limca Book of Records by collecting as many bookmarks from whatever source. He can be contacted at geedee.65 (gmail).

Joseph Vannery

Most of us write personal diary. But very few persons write a daily diary on whatever happening in the world. Meet Mr Joseph Vannery, young and pleasant at 82, who pursues a very interesting hobby for last several decades. He not only maintains the newspaper cuttings of important events, but also writes his analytical views on the happenings very neatly and systematically.

When I visited his house in a unique small residential colony called ‘Aranyagiri’, designed by him and his friends (Though it is in a metro city, you would feel as if you are in a beautiful dense-green village.), I was amazed to see cupboards full of diaries he wrote for decades. I picked up a few old ones at random. They are treasures of knowledge about the culture, society and events of a world beyond the reach of any encyclopedia or Wikipedia.  

When we write about Joseph Vannery, who was a Surveyor with the Survey of India, we cannot forget to mention one of his important contributions to the city of Bangalore. After reading books in the British Library about decongestion of cities in America and England with connecting roads, he conceived a concrete plan for an Outer Ring Road (connecting Magadi-Tumkur Road and Mysore Road) and suggested it to media and authorities. It took shape precisely years after as suggested by him.

Pick up a hobby

If you feel that you don’t have a hobby, start picking up something that you can pursue passionately and happily. Add one more hobby, if you already have a few. Hobbies can recharge your energy, reduce your stress, bring happiness and make you love yourself and others.

  Views are personal                                          © Sibichen K Mathew                   

Read below more about ordinary people with extraordinary lives. Click the links below

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

'Adultery'- A Review (A disappointment too!)

I am an admirer of the writings of Paulo Coelho for the last several years. I also owe him for the huge traffic (about 16000 page views in three days) for my review of Aleph in my blog, mainly because Paulo Coelho talked about that in his website. 

Let me repeat what I wrote earlier while reviewing the book ‘Manuscript found in Accra’ by Paulo Coelho here:  Alchemist had touched my heart. Aleph had refined my soul. Veronica decides to die gave me so much pain. The Zahir triggered in me more questions about the worthiness of relationships than answers that can console. Eleven minutes taught me about the love beyond lust. The winner stands alone tried to dissect my personality and left me in loneliness. 

I had the same excitement when I picked up Coelho’s latest book ‘Adultery’ from a book stall which forced to sell it at 25% discount because the illegal replicas were available in the street for one-fourth of the price of the original.

I finished the book within a day making full use of a long intercity travel. As the return flight touched the ground around midnight with an unusually strong jerk, I was on the last page.  I too felt a strong jolt within. Where did Coelho ultimately take the reader?

Novels are written artifacts for the consumption of readers. People read them mainly for entertainment, information, relaxation, and inspiration.  Coelho’s books gave these in plenty though the last one viz. inspirational content was the predominant reason for the popularity of his books. So naturally, readers who are driven by the stereotypical expectations would look for the same element in every work of Coelho. However, ‘Adultery’ was different. But that is not the reason for my worry.

Let me share the theme in the book very briefly without giving any vital clue about how the story ended.

Linda, who is in her thirties, is a journalist with a leading newspaper in Switzerland. She is married to a ‘rich, charming and intelligent’ man. According to her, she always wore the best clothes that money could buy thanks to her ‘husband’s limitless generosity’. She had two lovely children. Yet she felt depressed often. She was in search of something that could lift her out of the routine life. She perceived new hope after the unexpected encounter with a childhood friend who became an important politician. Later one could see the lady with frequent mental aberrations reflected both in thoughts and action and an uncontrollable drive characterized by lust, jealousy, revenge and frustration. Like the ‘Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, she found herself to be on the one hand honest, kind, caring and professional and on the other hand impatient, irritated, and jealous. And, quite surprisingly she has a husband who said, ‘I love you. I would endure anything, absolutely anything, to always have you by my side’.

Certainly, some of the Coelho fans would find the book slightly distasteful. But, moral character of a work cannot influence an assessment of the story. Certainly, it is not mandatory for any author to give a message in his work, though it could emerge as he unravels a story. Readers could possibly draw insights on the human experiences and form his own conclusions if he considers reading a book of fiction inspirational, educative or therapeutic. In short, It is for the readers to search for ‘moral of the story’ if they want.

However, it is true that many writers and critics of literature had a different view. The debate on the relation between literature and morality existed for centuries. Plato acknowledged that ‘a fictional text can be a receptacle of morally instructive significance’. Plato argued that if the art (we may add literature also here) does not teach morality and ethics, it would be damaging to his ‘Republic’. Aristotle believed that plot, character, thought, diction etc. influence the audience’s (let us add readers’) catharsis (pity, fear and/or satisfaction with the work). We know this for sure when we read authors like Dostoevsky and Shakespeare.

In his book ‘The Great Tradition’ (1948)  F R Leavis argued that there can’t be great art (and literature) without serious moral purpose. While he rejected ‘Madam Bovary’ (1856) by Gustave Flaubert for its lack of ‘moral seriousness’, he found the works of George Eliot in line with his thought. Famous British theatre critic Eric Bentley had said, ‘Literature deals with morality but does not necessarily, does not qua literature, help you to be more moral, either by precept or by example’.

My view is that the terms ‘moral’ and ‘morality’ are very relative and one cannot possibly have a universal, spatiotemporal interpretation. What is considered moral for one could be absolutely immoral for another. But every piece of work, whether it is a best seller or a non-moving stock or one that contains material which is blasphemous, obscene, libelous, or false, there would be a definite cognitive and affective impact on the reader. Therefore, to me, Coelho’s ‘Adultery’ is consequential to that extent for substantial number of readers.  

When I read ‘Adultery’, I got reminded of the story and its depiction in the book ‘Madam Bovary’  (1856) by   Gustave Flaubert, which I mentioned above as a work scrutinized by F R Leavis when he analyzed the relation between morality and literature.  Emma (Madam Bovary), in order to escape the dullness and emptiness of “provincial life” goes to experiment her romantic fantasies with other men. The thrills of cheating followed by anxieties and tensions did not stop her from pursuing the pleasures further. We see Linda in Paulo Coelho’s book not much different.


The language is beautiful as in most books by Coelho. The ‘moral’ policeman within me wished that the book had an ‘A’ rating on its cover to restrict it to children below a certain age group. Of course, I am not speaking from a monastery which is cut off from the open-access world. But many adults who prescribe Coelho’s books as compulsory reading for young students would not prefer to see them read Coelho’s narrations of fantasies and private acts of two consenting adults in this book. (Like movies, why not have an adult rating for books too?). Anyway, this is a trivial issue.

The main character seems to be mentally ill. The readers would draw a conclusion that the author attempts to project her as one who represents multitude of such women in the modern society. The author has shown that restlessness, lack of contentment and boredom, if not properly tackled and understood, could lead to unintended actions and abnormal mental status. The author creates confusion among readers whether Linda is after love or lust. One would doubt whether the author started the writing with one projection of the main character and later thought it can have a different projection and a climax (was there any climax?).  Dissatisfied with the last page, I flipped again to look for some post script or epilogue! There was none.

I am sure the author himself would wish to tell the readers that the theme is not adultery. But why then he chose that as a title? Perhaps, the author or the publisher had a different idea when they selected the title without considering the fact that millions of copies of Paulo Coelho’s book can be sold even without a title.

Unlike the previous books of Coelho, I found something seriously wrong with the flow.  For me it was felt as if the author has sandwiched a few extra pieces here and there after he finished stitching the cloth. One example is the section that dealt with the explanation for love in the letterof St Paul to the Corinthians. A clear ‘balancing’ attempt!

Sorry for being an uncharitable reviewer of Paulo Coelho this time. The exercise was indeed painful for me too! Though the book cannot be one of the bests by Paulo Coelho, it is definitely deserve a top position among the best seller fictions in the market now.

Views are personal                                      © Sibichen K Mathew

Those who want to read my review of ‘Aleph’ by Paulo Coelho click below:

Read my other book reviews below:

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Is it worth to have iPhone 6?


I was not very excited when my cousin brought me an iPhone couple of years back. Only when others looked at my phone with awe and admiration that I realized that the petite,  pretty device is something that stands above among a range of cell phones available with people.  They praised my phone and narrated its features and said it can store lakhs of applications for everyday use. Yes, I used the phone and important applications. But let me confess that this phone is not worth its money though it can satisfy one’s urge to own a globally sought after and widely hyped gadget.

This write-up is not for those brand conscious, trendy people, but for those who would like to have their phone cost-effective, reasonably durable and easily serviceable. 

Why I say that it is not worth to have an iPhone?

First:  The cost of the iPhone is exorbitantly high. I am sure all the techno-entrepreneurs would agree with me that the retail price is highly disproportionate to the cost of its hardware and software and all related expenses. I know they spend hefty amounts for marketing and advertising.  I was amazed to see some of the leading vernacular dailies in India carried multi-column articles in their editorial pages (not in the business pages) about the benefits of the new iPhone. They never thought a national calamity (flood in Jammu & Kashmir or many other larger public issues) be given priority over the launch of a mobile phone! One can’t blame the media or the marketing companies. India is a country with 880 million mobile subscriptions (second in the world), though half of them have no bank accounts! Ultimately money matters honey!

Second: Do you want to spend such a hefty sum for a product lasting just 18 months? Why I say this? Your costly mobile phone will become an ‘ordinary’ one within that period. The technology changes, software changes, applications changes. After a few months, you can’t update your phone with latest software and applications. They say ‘it is not compatible’! You can continue to use it for basic services for a few more years. But, for that you can get a phone costing less than Rs 1500 (less than US $25) which has internet and many other utilities.

Third:  I faced several issues with the phone within a few months. (I don’t want to generalize this because I haven’t attempted for any corroboration from others). I could see a bunch of employees in their stores who are totally uninterested to respond to the customers who carried their cellphones to the store with complaints. After several minutes of waiting they irritatingly direct us to meet the service personnel, who won’t have the patience to listen. He would rudely ‘request’ you to leave the phone there and come back after a week or fortnight. And the service charge? I am leaving it to you to guess!

Fourth: I faced problems with its charger all along. It won’t work properly in some plug points (especially in the trains and also in a few airport points). It won’t work if the charger is not tightly fitted in the plug. These are all fine. But most chargers will become useless within a few months of its use. And, after about 18 months of purchase you go to the authorized stores to buy a charger and the first comment from the sales guy would be, ‘Oh! Old model’. He will make you a ‘second class customer’ instantly. Then you tend to request, and they demonstrate before you that they are frantically searching for one in the showroom. Then they would tell you: ‘Out of stock’, ‘Check in other stores’ or ‘Check for the local ones in the city market’. You go and buy a cheaper ‘duplicate’ from the city market which either won’t work properly or would get damaged in no time. This is true for most spare parts as well.

Fifth:  I faced issues with signals too. When the person sitting next to me who is subscribed to same telecom service provider but in a different device has better signals, my phone will totally ‘ignore’ the signals if they are of poor quality. If I spend a few minutes in a ‘blind spot’ where there is no signal and then immediately move to an area where there is good signal, the phone takes several minutes to detect the signal. Many times I had to switch to airplane mode and back to retrieve the signal manually when the phone remained without detecting signals.

Sixth:  The strength of the battery depletes faster within a few months after the purchase.  Even when we don’t use the phone for data services or any other entertainment services, its battery would deplete faster.

Seventh: iPhone is very fragile than many other high-end phones in the market. A very mild impact results in cracked screen. The authorized shop will charge a hefty sum to replace it. I should appreciate their well-researched warranty period. Believe me, most people would face trouble immediately after the last day of the warranty. What timing!

Eighth: You heard a lot of sermon from the salesman about the prospects of upgrading when you first bought it. But many will agree with me when I say that upgrading is never an easy process and if you approach the service personnel, they will simply direct you to have a look at the new model!

Ninth: You can’t blame the manufacturer of a low-end mobile you bought from the city market for the heat it generates on your ears while using. But after spending huge sum, if your ear is getting heated within a few minutes of your call, then there is something wrong with the iPhone! I haven’t experienced this. But this was shared by a friend of mine.

Tenth: The Company proclaims that their products can be serviced globally. But try to go with a complaint in a country other than the country you purchased, you will find how difficult it would be.

The above facts may be true for many other high-end phones as well. In a technology driven world where changes happen every second, the urge to try something new is perfectly justified. Companies thrive on the inevitable technology replacement necessity created by companies themselves for their products to be in perennial demand.

Still I would encourage you to buy the new iPhone 6 if you are a big fan of apple products. You can be above the rest by holding one.  

(Disclaimer:I don't deny that  iPhone has many advantages over other phones. Above facts are based on my personal experience and need not be generalized)

Views are personal                           © Sibichen K Mathew

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Save your heart: Answers to some Frequently Asked Questions

Though all of us are aware that health is wealth, we tend to indulge ourselves to feed our appetite for a luxurious lifestyle at the cost of our well-being.  Invariably, for most, following questions would linger in mind sooner or later.

Will I get diseases like high levels of Blood pressure (BP), Cholesterol, diabetes etc.?
Are heart ailments hereditary?
How can I prevent heart diseases?
Is it true that one cannot stop the medicines for BP etc. even after the levels are fine?
Are there any side effects if there is prolonged use of drugs?
Is there any non-invasive treatment as an alternative to angioplasty or bypass surgery?
Should I stick to vegetarian diet?
How much alcohol I can take?


We read varied responses to such questions in books and in the media. Most of us have formed our own opinions on the above. However, it would be interesting and insightful if we get a response from an expert for the above questions.

Meet here Dr Somalaram Venkatesh MD, DM, Interventional Cardiologist who is also the head of Cardiac Cath Lab at Fortis Hospitals, Bangalore. He is an alumnus of the prestigious Post Graduate Institute (PGIMER), Chandigarh, India. He has been a topper and gold medallist for his post graduate examinations. He has worked as consultant and unit chief in various hospitals including Kasturba Medical College, Mangalore and performed more than 10000 primary and complex coronary angioplasties and procedures.

Cyber Diary had a very fruitful interaction with Dr. Venkatesh, who is not only an exceptionally skilled Interventional Cardiologist but also a very pleasant, gentle, articulate and creative person.
Please see below some of the important information and opinions he shared.

Are Indians more prone to heart ailments compared to people from other countries, especially those from the west?

One can divide heart diseases into two broad categories: First is the Coronary heart disease: i.e., the disease of the coronary arteries. This is due to the deposition of cholesterol within the wall of the arteries of the heart which in turn can lead to heart attacks etc. The second category includes congenital diseases (eg. hole in the heart, blue baby etc), valvular heart disease and diseases of the electrical system of the heart. These are largely independent of ethnic factors though environmental factors, access to appropriate healthcare etc. can aggravate the condition.

There are several studies on the link between Coronary heart disease (CHD) and ethnic background of people across the world. Studies have been conducted in India and elsewhere on the people of Indian origin to examine this. Despite accounting for dietary and other cultural differences, it was found that people from the Indian subcontinent are more prone to CHD and there are reports of high incidence.  In fact, statistics indicate that Indians have about four times higher tendency than Caucasian, six to seven times higher tendency than the Chinese and twenty times higher tendency than Japanese to develop CHD.

In South Asians, the disease tends to appear a decade earlier than Caucasians, more often multiple blocks are found. Heart attacks occur in younger age and the likelihood of South Asians dying of a heart attack is nearly twice that of a comparable Caucasian patient.  And another disturbing fact: South Asians tend to respond poorly to bypass surgery than the white counterparts!

There is an underlying genetic tendency for Indians to develop pre-diabetes and diabetes as compared to other ethnic groups. A significant part of risk of developing CHD is related to this factor.

Am I at risk if I have a family history of cardiac problems?

India is currently riding on the upsurge of an epidemic of diabetes and CHD. While popular notion is that these diseases are lifestyle related, one cannot reject the possibility of an underlying genetic predisposition. One can't quantify the contribution of individual factors but an incisive analysis can throw following insights:

a. Exposure to and unrestricted emulation of  'western' lifestyle has triggered CHD. Similar lifestyles in western and now Indian populations have led to a far higher prevalence of CHD in India than western countries, so obviously there is an underlying genetic susceptibility.
b. We have been carrying the purported genetic risk since our civilization existed. Why should the CHD epidemic explode now? The economic boom starting 1990s and the consequent lifestyle changes seem to have brought in high prevalence of CHD in our society.

Hence, both lifestyle and heredity seem to play important and complementary role in the surge in CHD cases.

Should I become a vegetarian to save my heart?

There is no doubt that a vegetarian diet is healthier. Meat consumption has skyrocketed in the recent years. Per se there is nothing to say that meat consumption is harmful if certain precautions are taken:

a. Avoid excess of red meat. Lean portions of red meat, white meat such as poultry (without skin and avoiding leg pieces) and fish can be taken moderately.

b. Healthy cooking practices. Most people know about using less oil and the right type.

c. Avoid excess carbohydrates: since we are prone to developing abdominal obesity and diabetes - both of which can bring on CHD, curtailing carbs may be an important key.

d. Physical activity – this is the most important lifestyle change if one wishes to have a few dietetic liberties

Is it true that once on a tablet for hypertension, it is for life and should not be stopped?

This is a popular but incorrect notion.

If a patient has high BP, that will remain for the rest of his life. This is applicable for most patients. If such patients start taking BP medications, BP will come under control. If the patient stops the medication, BP will come back again. This is misinterpreted as patient becoming 'habituated' to BP medicine. It's almost like saying that a man has become habituated to food because if he stops food his hunger comes back!

A small percentage of patients however, have BP which is either due to bad lifestyle or due to an underlying medical disorder such as hormonal problem or kidney disease. Some of these patients could keep their BP permanently under control by taking care of the lifestyle issues or if the concerned medical disorder is treated properly. Such patients can definitely stop taking medicines. However, once the BP medicine is stopped, lifestyle management should continue and also BP should be regularly monitored.

What are the side effects of prolonged use of drugs for high BP?


Most BP medicines today have no long term side effects or cumulative toxicity and are safe for prolonged use. Side effects, if any, will come to light soon after starting the medicines in most cases. If one medicine does not suit a patient, it could be stopped and a different medicine started. It is rare for a patient to have side effects for more than one or two drugs. Usually a good solution can be found among the thirty-odd choices from anti-hypertensive drugs

Is continued use of statins for high cholesterol levels harmless? Statins have been linked to decreased heart muscle function and increased risk of stroke, along with other serious side effects. What is your view?

This is a very important question.

Over decades now statins have been shown to reduce risk of heart attacks and strokes in patients with and without heart disease and in patients with and without risk factors. Perhaps no other group of medicines have been shown to have such a preventive effect across different types of patient profiles.
As most drugs, statins too have side effects. Notable ones are injury to liver and muscle. People who known to have liver and muscle side effects are not prescribed statins.

There are some other adverse effects attributed to long term statin use. Prominent among them are neurological changes especially memory loss, increased stroke risk and of late a concern about diabetes onset in patients on statins. It has not been proven conclusively that the statins exert the memory loss or increased strokes, so I personally think these are non-issues. The real concern is the new-onset diabetes in patients who are not having diabetes when put on statins. As we know diabetes is a serious problem that can potentially have multiple effects on heart, brain, kidney etc.

Experts however argue that the protection offered by statins is far greater than the risk of new-onset diabetes. For example, if a thousand patients are put on long term statins, about 35 to 40 persons will be protected against heart attacks and strokes whereas only 5 to 6 persons may develop diabetes. At the same time, scientifically it is not possible to know whether the patients who develop are the ones who are also protected. This is still a question that is being discussed and researched. At the level of practitioners, the consensus is that statin therapy is beneficial across groups and should be continued despite these few concerns.

There are many advertisements from practitioners of allopathic and non-allopathic streams about non-invasive techniques as alternatives for angioplasty and bypass surgeries. Is it safe to depend on such treatments?

Suffice it to say that there is no credible alternative therapy to standard treatment of coronary heart disease. Scientifically determined treatment includes medicines or angioplasty or bypass surgery or combinations thereof. Practitioners of alternative medical systems such chelation, magnetic therapy etc are totally unscientific and some of them can be said to be indulging in fraudulent therapy. The temptation to avoid surgery is dangerous because lifesaving surgery is delayed or refused when patients believe in alternative treatment systems.

Some practitioners of allopathic medicines also promise that, with their treatment, surgery can be totally avoided. While a number of patients of CHD can be treated with medicines and without surgery, to dogmatically deny surgery to EVERY patient is risking some lives and is wrong
What are your tips for the people below 35 to prevent any lifestyle related heart disorders? What are your suggestions to the parents of teenage children on the lifestyle formation for them?

Even the hearts of young children have been shown to have cholesterol deposits. In India, we know that young people are affected with heart attacks and some are dying prematurely. So, young people should not think that they are not susceptible for heart attacks.

Sensible eating, regular physical activities/exercise, avoiding tobacco use of all types, avoiding excess alcohol drinking, maintaining ideal body weight are some of the things that young individuals can practice.

There is a tendency to cook separate food for the adults and patients in the house. They feed unhealthy food (fatty food or food cooked with excess butter, ghee, or oil) with impunity to the young ones in the family with the thought that they are kids and are not at risk.

Historically, we see that as the physical activity is getting more and more limited, the incidence of heart disease is going up. The current generation of children have the least physical exercise of all times in history. In addition if they also take unhealthy food, which unfortunately is available in abundance now, the chances that they will develop heart disease at even younger age than what we see today. Parents of today's children should inculcate good healthy habits right from the childhood.

What are your suggestions to those who are already on drugs for hypertension or high cholesterol levels for many years?

They should undergo periodic medical checks to monitor BP and cholesterol levels. Doctors need to monitor the results for side effects of drugs, complications of consistently higher levels of  BP or cholesterol on other organs such as kidney and to monitor for development of new diseases like diabetes, heart disease etc.

How much alcohol is good or bad for a person?


Western studies have shown that 21 units of alcohol per week for men and 14 units per week for women is safe as far as the heart is concerned.

Units can be calculated by formula:
Units= Quantity (ml) X alcohol percentage by volume divided by 1000.
Eg. If someone has 3 large drinks of whiskey of 45% ABV (alcohol by volume) then the units are calulated as follows:
units = 180 X 45 divided by 1000 = 8.1 units.
We do not have similar studies in Indians but given that build and  body weight of Indians are less than that of caucasians, a lesser quantity should be recommended.

I must caution that if a patient has alcohol related liver damage (cirrhosis) or heart muscle weakness (alcoholic cardiomyopathy), even a single drop should be avoided.

Dr Venkatesh is currently at Fortis Hospitals, Bangalore (+91 80 66214444). He can also be contacted through his e-Mail:  drvenkateshs (gmail). He writes occasionally in his blog.

Views are personal                                 © Sibichen K Mathew

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