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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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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Thursday, September 4, 2014

Teachers for the out-of-school children

When someone mentions the word ‘Teacher’, we know that the person is referring to a school or college teacher or a person who takes tuition!

We forget about those dedicated persons who teach but are not ‘teachers’!

When someone mentions the word ‘student’, we often conclude that the person is referring to someone who is trying to learn something to earn a degree/qualification and is part of an institutional structure. 

We forget about thousands of underprivileged kids who are outside the formal educational system but yearn for knowledge for a living.

Meet here a team of persons who have devoted their life for schooling the non-school going children. ‘Bal Utsav’, the NGO led by Ramesh Balasundaram and Binu Ramesh is bringing in educational revolution among the children of construction workers, slum dwellers and labourers in the city of Bangalore and elsewhere. 

Padmini, Binu and Ramesh

Let us hear from Mr Ramesh Balasundaram about his unique mission in teaching.

What was your inspiration (incident/person/experience/ or anything else) in taking up the field of teaching non-school going children?

The year was 2010 and there was a lot of celebration about the Right to Education Act (RTE). It was surprising to know that Out of School Children even existed, because everyone we knew was in school. Even our maids’ children were in school and every second road had a school.

When we took a focussed study to understand what the RTE was all about is when we realised that elephant in the room that nobody was talking about - Out of School Children and Children Who Drop Out of schools.

Can you brief us about the nature of different teaching work undertook/ being undertaken by you and team?

We have identified the top contributors to out of school children and built interventions around each of them.
Children from Urban Slums - Museum School, Bangalore 
Children in Construction Sites - Schools working from within Construction Sites
Children From Tribes - Schools set up inside various Tribal communities.

According to you, what is right or wrong with our present formal educational system?

There is a clear demand & supply issue. Resulting in the possibility of seeing parents wait overnight to seek admission in schools for their wards. Since supply is an issue - obviously there is little or no effort to understand quality.

The issue that is plaguing the system though - is for parents, teacher and schools to understand the purpose of education. While learning to read and write is an outcome of schooling it is not the purpose of it. If each parent and teacher could understand the purpose of education the schools today will be a different place.(At all Bal Utsav schools the purposed of education is to facilitate the mental, physical and spiritual growth of the child)

Most of the children fear schooling/syllabus/exams etc. Famous sociologist Ivan Illich went to the extent of arguing for deschooling society. What do you say about the perception that school is an inevitable EVIL for children?

While schools have their own role and are meant to be learning spaces for children, (as homes are not designed for learning in children) the fact that the purpose is not established is exactly like playing a game of football with great facilities, coaches, best of merchandise but no goal post to be seen. This results in children not knowing what they are expected to do, parents ensuring that the children reach the ground wearing the best of merchandise and teachers/schools ensuring that the children are always on the ground and learning to play a game (without understanding the goal) in the absence of a goal post. 

Can you narrate any incident (one or more) that motivated you or deeply touched you or disturbed you or delighted you, while you were teaching children?

The sight of joy in every child when they discover something is worth everything. If the focus is on enabling the child to discover himself/herself - the child is totally interested in the task at hand. Wants to be in school everyday and reaches a stage when they don't want to go home/let go off what they are working upon as they are totally interested in what they do. This  joy that we see in the children's faces that we work with is what helps us and every person in the team to keep going. 
This journey of discovery, even once saw us witness a child who wanted to vein school that day inspire of seeing her own mom being rushed to the ICU after an accident, earlier that day.

What role you see for the educated and employed youth in teaching the non-school going children in India? 

The youth need to understand the critical role that teachers play and choose two of the most critical roles that define our tomorrows - that of Teachers and Politicians. Instead of treating the role of teachers as someone who couldn't get placed because of their inability we need to have hordes of young learners, take to teaching. The only way we are going to have a better tomorrow is if our youth take to teaching both children in schools and those who are pout of schools. To fill this gap, we at Bal Utsav have recently started a Teacher training program that exclusively focusses on churning out High Quality teachers who are inspired to teach and are not here because they didn't have any other job to do.

You can read more about the above initiative in one of my earlier blogs. Click to read: My mid-day break with pearls from the slum


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