Sunday, October 24, 2010

Abuse of Power

We, the modern Indian upper middle and upper classes, have been by and large supposedly taught to reject blind faith and to think rationally thanks to the boost that «scientific temper» received ever since our beloved Uncle, Chacha Nehru, ensured that it was made one of the Fundamental Duties of every citizen of India to develop a «scientific temper». Without elaborating much on this subject as that can take the space of 10 blogs or more, I directly arrive upon the problem of the blind faith that is conferred upon doctors. Since physicians are perceived as men and women of science who work with the sole and single-minded objective of curing a malady or alleviating the troubles caused by a disease based on their medical studies, there is apparently no need felt to question the remedies they prescribe (including medicines and surgeries), their training (good marks ≠ good doctors always) or even whether they are psychologically sound enough to be in the close proximity of their patient.

The recent rape of a Vashi lady patient under anaesthesia by Vishal Vanne (I refuse to prefix his name with Dr.) did not come as a shock to me. It definitely did shock and anger my parents, especially my father who is an orthopaedic surgeon himself. He is of the opinion that Vishal Vanne should be bobbitised as that is the only punishment fit for him. I, for one, was only stoic, only wondering whether more such things could have come to light earlier, had patients not been under complete anaesthesia. A late-night conversation at my hostel with a roommate 5 years ago had shocked, outraged and numbed me enough to not feel anything this time around. My former roommate has an elder sister who is a doctor. Let us call her Dr. V. Dr. V. did her M.B.B.S. at a reputed medical college in Bombay when she experienced stuff straight out of movies based on psychopaths. Dr. V’s parents had started hunting for a single, young, eligible doctor for her when she consented to have an arranged marriage as she did not have a boyfriend. The very first proposal they managed to fish was from a cardiac surgeon. The girl refused him without meeting him. The parents were taken aback. Furthermore, she instructed her parents not to allow a surgeon even in the veranda of the house! This left her folks flabbergasted. She explained her reaction. She had participated in several surgeries where she had witnessed surgeons (young and old) abuse patients under anaesthesia (not penetrative assault of course) and make such debauched and deplorable comments as to be unimaginable to someone with even an iota of decency. On those occasions she had wanted to escape from the operation theatre as she was unable to concentrate on the task at hand and was unwilling to tolerate indecency aimed at the patient and herself. I was left stunned and speechless. Given my paternity, I also felt betrayed. I was extremely embarrassed too (as if the guilt were my own) as the other two girls present at that time made a quick glance in my direction (possibly to gauge my reaction) and looked away. At that moment, I would have given up anything to be told definitively that my father was not a surgeon or a doctor at all! However, that would have made him a quack given that he tells the world that he is a surgeon. Nonetheless, he was and he is a qualified surgeon with verifiable credentials and I had to make my peace with that. Dr. V has now completed her M.D. and she is now married to a M.D. She stuck to her decision of not having a surgeon for a husband.

That exchange had remained in my mind ever since and it continued to torment my soul. I once casually brought up that conversation during a tête-à-tête with my parents and asked my father if surgeons have a reputation for being perverts in the medical community. Their reactions were remarkable. My mother, who was convinced that nobody from her husband’s profession was capable of such a thing, declared Dr. V. to be crazy. My father however was perturbed and disconcerted. He did not say a word and he avoided eye contact for quite some time with his 19 year old daughter. A year or two later, I mentioned the same conversation to a lady doctor in my French class. She admitted that such things are commonplace and it disturbs her that any and every kind of a person, irrespective of character, can become a doctor as long as they score high marks in the medical entrance test and class 12 exams. The doctors who abhor perverse and anti-social behaviour in hospitals and medical colleges often don’t speak up for the lack of conclusive evidence and since student doctors have the additional burden of obtaining their degrees before starting a revolt. My father may not be guilty or even capable of such a crime but he along with this lady doctor friend of mine and Dr. V., is guilty of not protesting on the spot against errant doctors or at least reporting such things to competent authorities. What compounds the gravity of the Louts Hospital rape case in Vashi is the fact that Vishal Vanne is not even a surgeon! He is an ayurvedic doctor and yet had access to an operation theatre where these guys have no business! The Lotus Hospital has rightly been served the show cause notice.

The school and college system does not very actively seek to inculcate correct principles amongst students. Most teachers very conveniently and erringly label high scorers as ‘good and sincere children’ and those who are distracted, average or low scorers as ‘failures’ or ‘wasted’. Such sweeping generalizations have multiple faults of their own but the worst being that we, as a society often fail to acknowledge the fact that even criminals are very sharp, intelligent and clever. Combine this with knowledge, professional and/or social position and the nerve to act out depraved desires and then the likes of Vishal Vanne ruin lives. The same reasoning also applies to our notoriously corrupt bureaucracy, fouled by a large number of unscrupulous IAS, IPS and IRS officers who were all high scoring students during the years they were being ‘educated’. Seemingly trustworthy, unethical people in positions of power (even seemingly insignificant such as that of a surgeon) are precisely those who we refer to when we say in Marathi and Hindi that the monkey has a burning torch i.e. माकडाच्या हातात कुलीत or बंदर के हाथ में जलती मशाल

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Elevator = Alleviation of troubles

It is either not allowed or it is not obligatory in India for building with 4 storeys or less to have an elevator. I do not know the reason for this. If anyone does, you are requested to enlighten me about the same. I am still very young and disease/disability-free (thankfully) to be bothered by non-elevator buildings but unfortunately certain family members are not. This has got my blood boiling.

The last Ganesh festival took us to my aunt’s place. She lives on the 3rd floor of a 4 storied building in Thane. Here is what happened.

1. My mother, whose one knee has recently decided to be troublesome, took more than 6 minutes (with a nearly 2 minute halt at the 2nd floor) to get to the 3rd floor. She had only a slightly-less harrowing time coming downstairs.

2. Upstairs, my aunt looked much more portly than she was last year. I was taken aback by the change. My aunt and her husband are diabetics in need of regular exercise. My dad, an orthopaedic surgeon, gave his cousin a sermon on the benefits of walking. She just had one dry reply. “I have not left the house in months. I am old now. The legs don’t permit that. It’s easy to go downstairs, but it’s an uphill task getting back home. Her husband had the same complaint.

The conversation between my parents, my aunt and my uncle got me thinking and brought to mind troubles of people facing the same predicament due to varied reasons. Consider the cases below.

1. A friend’s mom recently underwent a hip replacement surgery and needs the assistance of a walking stick to get around the house. She stays in a 4 storied South Bombay building without a lift. This lady is largely confined to her house as using the staircase gives her leg aches.

2. Imagine the agonies of expectant mothers in such buildings. Movements become much slower and demand more efforts during this period. The woman will have to trek up and down the building during the 2nd and the especially strenuous 3rd trimester if there is no lift. A working lady might even consider going on leave earlier for this reason. It will also be a tough task to help a lady in labour out of the building. It can be suggested that she move out to a more convenient location as the due date approaches but why should such a need arise?Just because lifts aren’t considered important for all buildings?

3. Heart patients who live in these buildings must also find it taxing to go downstairs and come upstairs every time the need arises. This kind of exertion may not even be advisable for many amongst them. Someone may not have a cardiac problem today but it’s hard to tell who may suffer from a degenerative heart disease. Somebody who is fine today may not be so next year.

4. Consider the cases of temporary disabilities. Say I sprain an ankle or fracture my leg. I will not be handicapped for life but that period of convalescence will also mean of a period of confinement to my home if it is in a 4 storied building.

I spoke to a co-worker about this problem as he is committed to civic engagement. I asked him if he knew what could be done to resolve the same, maybe a PIL or something. This is what he said. If the 4 or less storied building has space, an elevator can be installed, provided all residents agree and are will to pay for it. But there is a catch. People living on the ground floor often refuse to pay stating that they will hardly ever use the facility. This argument is fallacious as irrespective of the floor people live on, they have to contribute to the maintenance charges of the society and those include the money for maintaining the lift. People living on the ground floor do pay for these things in buildings that have more than 4 floors everywhere.

This problem won’t be resolved anytime soon but something has to be done. At least people have to be made aware of the fact that this problem exists before they face it themselves. Till them, I guess my mom, my aunt and uncle and other acquaintances will just have to put up with the uphill task of getting home.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

To do or not to do. Decide well.

There are precisely three reasons I chose to write this blog.

1. A sex-crazed friend who now claims that he is ‘changed’.
2. The print promotion for Udaan in Mumbai Mirror.
3. The article ‘Sex get younger’ dated July 25, 2010 in Times Life!, Mumbai Edition.

The media references above give statistics and changing opinions regarding the attitude towards sex in India. My friend gave me a headache. More about that later. The ‘Udaan’ display ad claimed that 9 out of 10 boys and 7 out of 10 girls are ok with pre-marital sex. It did not state the number of youngsters surveyed, their age and socio-economic groups or the cities surveyed. The Times Life! article presented uninhibited outlooks of 20-somethings with regards sex and how more and more Indian teenagers are becoming sexually active at earlier ages. Being a 20-something myself, I wasn’t taken aback by any of it as I know what our generation thinks like and wants in life and yet I found certain things worrisome. Do I plan to moralize in this blog? No but there are certain fundamentals that do not change irrespective of your age, socio-economic class, era, skin colour, religion, caste, race, nationality and location. That is what I plan to rant about.

It is my childhood friend mentioned above who made me concerned about the state of affairs of the people of my age group and socio-economic class who are well-educated, well-travelled and who have excellent access to information from across the planet thanks to the internet. My friend and I, until recently, had argued on a regular basis about India’s ‘conservative, closed and regressive’ stance towards sex and sexuality. These arguments continued even after he shifted base to live with Uncle Sam for graduate education. Do not think that we do not talk about anything else but this buddy has a knack for bringing any conversation on to this track. Most of our arguments would commence with his complaints about Indian girls being very traditionalist about sex, our refusal to satisfy our ‘biological urges’ (whatever that means!) and our ‘hypocritical’ wait for marriage to lose our virginity. I resisted and fought the urge to use the much employed “Will-you-like-it-if-your-sister-practices-what-you-preach-?” rhetoric for the sake of propriety and our long-standing friendship. It is none of anybody’s business when or why someone (male or female) decides to lose their virginity to. It is an extremely personal decision that shouldn’t be taken just like that. Before our last and final argument, I had often tried to reason with him the dangers of casual sex and multiple partners as date rapes, MMS scandals (remember DPS scandal?), the spread of salacious rumours, damage to reputation and psychological scarring. He always rubbished these arguments and seemed convinced that such things only happen to others. I would get accused of not being open-minded. Clearly his definition of open-minded and my definition of open-minded were not the same. If his understanding of the word is correct, I would rather not be open-minded at all! Once, I had to make my stand very clear about a few things. The personal life of any adult is none of my business till the time that person is doing it behind closed doors (windows and roof) and that his/her partner(s) is (are) consenting human adults! Keep very quiet about things and I won't take. Juicy details don't get out without the partners making it public! The involvement of minors or animals in a sex act makes it a criminal offence and hence my business as people who try and have sex with animals often turn to abusing children when they grow bored of animals. At this point, I was accused of changing the topic and being too politically correct. I did not get that accusation but realization dawned upon me, albeit late, that a rational and objective debate with this character was useless.

The last time a similar argument took place (on an ISD call) he simply bowled this ‘maiden’ over. The argument this time was about India’s reluctance to accept casual flings and one-night stands. He asked me to look at how liberal and open the Western societies are. I firmly held my ground. I told him that we ought to look at and emulate the 10,000 excellent aspects of industrialized societies and avoid their problems. I do not think casual sex and one-night stands are immoral nor should it be illegal for adults to indulge in these things but I personally find them highly avoidable for multiple reasons. He asked me to explain my hypocrisy. This enraged me but I kept my cool. For the first time, I got down to extremely practical issues. I asked him to spell and explain the terms ‘Chlamydia’, ‘Syphilis’, ‘Herpes’ and ‘Gonorrhea’. Here are his responses.

‘K-L-A-M-I-D-I-A’ – Sounds like some worm.
‘S-I-P-H-I-L-I-S’ – Must be another worm.
‘H-E-R P-E-A-S’ – Don’t know.
‘G-O-N-O-R-I-A’ – This is definitely an earthworm.

I was simply stunned. For those of you who are and who are not stunned, read further carefully. I brought it to his notice that these are STDs (sexually transmitted diseases). He replied by saying that such things only happen in books! What is the next thing that we are going to think up for shouting out loud? The sex education seminar held in our school (St. John the Baptist High School) has been completely wasted on him. I had cut the call immediately as I had nothing left to say and neither did I want to hear further rubbish. We haven’t heard each others voices since.

Here was a high-scoring engineer, who had missed the merit list in class 12 by a very slim margin, who spoke like an idiotic and irresponsible person, being precisely the kind ‘Rancho’ from ‘3 Idiots’ criticised, well-trained but not well-educated. That telephonic conversation left me disturbed. I decided to ask a dozen more friends to spell and explain the terms ‘Chlamydia’, ‘Syphilis’, ‘Herpes’ and ‘Gonorrhea’. All of them hold at least a Bachelor’s degree and are well-travelled, nationally and internationally. I drew zilches everywhere. There was only one girl who correctly said that Herpes is something that gives you boils. To worsen the situation, one guy actually revealed the height of anatomical ignorance when I brought up the topic of STDs. He called the vagina an ovary. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. This moron had obviously learnt everything he knows about sex only from porn and porn doesn't teach you anything important. The gravity of the epidemic of ignorance of sex-related issues hit me real hard that day.

The media is constantly telling us about how adventurous we, the youth, are getting about sex. Well, tell us something we don’t know! Give us the basics for heaven sake. A lot of practical information can be given out regularly in the media about sexual health for although most people know that HIV/AIDS can be prevented by the use of condoms, most don’t know that condoms don’t provide 100% protection. (For their credit, Mumbai Mirror and Bombay Times ran one article each in the last 2 months.) Only abstinence does. In fact, there are nearly 30 odd STDs and condoms don’t work well for all of them. Herpes can even spread by just kissing on the mouth! In fact in the USA, the country my crazy friend adores for its supposedly liberal attitude towards sex, 1 out of every 4 teenage girls contracts a STD and Herpes affects 1 out of every six people. Apart from AIDS, other STDs probably don’t get talked about because a Parmeshwar Godrej and a Richard Gere do not make a song and dance about it. The truth is that they exist, became curable after the discovery of penicillin (except Herpes) and are now becoming incurable about a century later.

There are other things too that need to be kept in mind before getting adventurous. Some people consider anal sex harmless as it cannot lead to pregnancy. That’s right but it can lead to tearing of the rectum and penile fractures. Gentlemen, you can fracture your penis even if there isn’t a bone in it! And lastly, everyone, please get the names of the male genitals and the female genitals right. There are 3D body maps on the net to help you out! I highly advise all ignorant fools to check out how pregnancy takes us from being miniscule embryos to kids and how puberty takes from being kids to adults. This is the 21st century for heaven's sake! In fact, even in the USA, responsible citizens are hopping mad about ignorance and the fact that unsafe sex has stopped being scary for some people.

The problem of AIDS in India is very different from that of industrialized nations. In those countries, the problem arises because their citizens have more than 5 sex partners on an average in their lifetimes. In India, these diseases are greatly restricted to MSMs, migrant workers, truck drivers, CSWs, drug addicts and the spouses and children of these people. We can do our Health Ministry a favor and keep things this way. I have a strong hunch that the revolting sights of babies born with congenital syphilis and herpes and other emotional and social repercussions must have made societies across the world look down on people who have multiple sexual partners. Even Helen Keller had voiced concerns about syphilis being a leading cause of blindness in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Let us, the educated and economically sound youth (SEC A &B), take responsibility to keep ourselves away from high risk activities and not create new problems for our society. After all, we are the ones who walk around like Mr. / Ms. Know-It-All. Let’s make best use of our access to information and not be ignorant about what we are against. It’s best to make optimum use of the internet and base our decisions on modern, scientific knowledge (most of which comes from the Western world at any rate!) and behave properly. After all, the internet isn’t there just for social networking. It isn’t worth spoiling our lives over few minutes of satisfying our 'biological urges'!

Post Script:

1. As a Facebook rat myself, I got back to my friend by putting links from http://health.aol.com about Syphilis, Gonorrhea, Herpes and Chlamydia on his Wall. They stayed there throughout daytime Indian Standard Time while he slept at night, Central Daylight Time, USA & Canada. Imagine that 'open-minded' individual's horror AND panic stricken phone call that arrived subsequently. ;)

2. In case if you suspect that you or your partner has a STD, call 69999999 or 28888888 (JustDial.com) to locate your nearest gynaecologist (for a girl) /urologist (for a boy) and get the requisite tests done. Any delay will only worsen the situation.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Crooked rickshaw-drivers and lackadaisical RTO and why Raj Thackeray has a point.

While the whole nation chooses to rant against Raj Thackeray and the antics of his MNS, I’ll play the Devil’s advocate and argue his case against UP wallahs and Biharis. I do not object to these guys monopolizing the taxi and rickshaw driving jobs in the city of Bombay. The constitution grants every Indian the right to settle and work anywhere in the Union of India. These guys are working hard to feed their families. They are doing the right thing by toiling hard to sustain themselves. They have also made the choice to not pick up guns and fight against the Republic of India like the Naxalites. Furthermore, they are far from the criminals who choose to run begging rackets by exploiting little children instead of earning their bread by the sweat of their brow.

However, the above facts do not justify the swindling of customers according to the whims and fancies of taxi-drivers and rickshaw drivers. Read the following incidents to understand what citizens of Bombay, New Bombay and Thane, Marathi and non-Marathi people included, undergo on a regular basis.

1. I stay at a place called Saket Complex in Thane. It costs about INR 19 or 20 by rickshaw to come to my residence from Thane railway station and vice-versa from a place called CIDCO about 3 mins away from the station. From the station, it will cost you INR 25-30. Once on a Sunday evening, there were no rickshaws near Saket Complex. I was waiting for one. With me, there was a slightly aged couple. Their manner of dress suggested that they were village folks. A rickshaw came by and this couple asked him to take them to Thane station before I could. I asked the couple if we could share the fare because I had to go to the same place. They agreed. I asked the rickshaw driver to take us to CIDCO. The couple looked confused but I assured them that we would reach where they intended to. On reaching CIDCO, the fare came to INR 20 which we split into half. This couple was surprised. This is how the conversation took place.

The elderly man: Bees rupaiya? Itna hi paisa hota hai! (20 rupees? That’s all it costs?)
Me: Jee haan. Itna hi hota hai Saket se yahan tak. (Yes sir. That’s all it costs from Saket to here.)
The elderly man: Hum jab aaye they, tab hamse 70 rupaiya liye they. (When we had come, we had been charged INR 70 for the richshaw.)
Me: Kya? Sattar rupaiya kaise? (What? How were you charged Rs. 70?)
The elderly man: Jee whoh rickshewallah bole they ke ek seat ka 35 rupaiya hota hai. (The rickshaw driver told us that they charge INR 35 per head.)

I was shocked. This couple was fleeced. Judging from their accent, they were definitely UP wallahs or Biharis. We started walking towards the station.

Me: Kya aapko malum nahi tha yahan pe paisa kitna hota hai? Kya aap yahan pe pehli baar aaye hain? [Didn’t you know how much it (rickshaw fares) costs here? Is this the first time that you have visited this place?}
The elderly lady: Jee haan. Yahan pe shaadi thee. Hum Mira Road se aaye hain. Thane toh pehli baar hi aana hua hai. Humare pehchaan wale Saket mein rehte hain. (Yes. There was a wedding here. We have come from Mira Road. It is the first time that we have come to Thane. We have friends who live in Saket.)
Me: Jab aap aagli baar aayenge, toh CIDCO se rickshaw lijiye ga. Station se mat lijiye ga. (When you come here next time, take a rickshaw from station. Do not take one from the station.)
The elderly man: Hum toh wapas yahan aayenge hee nahi. Koi kaam hee nahi hai yahan pe. (We won’t come here again. We don’t have any business here.)

We exchanged good-byes and parted ways.

2. A Gujarati gentleman from our neighborhood once complained about a similar incident with his guest. His friend had been charged Rs. 50 from Thane station to Saket Complex.

3. Some weeks ago, there were severe traffic problems on the road from CIDCO to Saket. It generally takes 10 mins to get from CIDCO to Saket. That day it took vehicles more than 45 mins. So I decided to walk home instead of waiting for the traffic to clear out. Half-way through the road, I asked a rickshaw fellow to take me to Saket. He agreed. He did not start the meter. I asked him why. He said, “Madam, fixed rate, tees rupaiya. (Rs. 30)” Preposterous! I got off immediately. That ride should not have cost me for than Rs. 15. Later, as I continued walking, a Bengali couple who live in the neighbourhood, called me out from a rickshaw and offered me a lift. We got down at Saket. On getting off, I realized that it was the same rickshaw fellow who tried to dupe me. The Bengali gentleman was the one who got duped instead. Arguments yielded no result as the rickshaw-wallah had been given a Rs. 50 note. He returned Rs. 20 and drove off. This rickshaw fellow was definitely from the group that Raj Thackeray is ranting against.

4. Once, a neighbour and I took a rickshaw from Mulund station to Kopri Bridge. My neighbour regularly goes to Kopri Bridge to cross over from Mulund into Thane but I had never been there. Suddenly my neighbour confronted the driver and asked him where he was taking us. He replied Kopri Bridge. She told him that he was wrong. The argument revealed that he thought that Kopri Bridge and Mulund-Thane check-naka were the same place! The two places are nearly 3 kms apart. Had I been alone, I might have landed up at the check-naka instead of Kopri Bridge. It would have been a complete waste of time and money. The driver was again either an UP-wallah or a Bihari.

5. A co-worker Malyalee Borivali resident visited Thane sometime ago. He had to visit a place near Malhaar theatre. This theatre is roughly a kilometer away from Thane railway station and Thane bus depot. He does not know Thane. This guy got charged INR 70 instead of the usual INR 12 to 15 for a rickshaw ride from Thane station to Malhaar. I asked him how the driver spoke Hindi and the reference was towards India’s north.

6. My office is located near the Nehru Planetarium, Worli, Bombay. In case if you decide to come to this place in a taxi from Byculla station, you have to tell the taxi driver to take you to a well-known hotel called the Copper Chimney or to the Lotus or to Atria Mall or to Poonam Chambers. There have been multiple occasions on which the taxi driver has told me that he does not any of the 5 landmarks I previously mentioned! The driver literally asked me to keep giving him instructions.

I cannot help but feel from personal and second-hand experience that Raj Thackeray has a point, a very valid one at that. No matter how much I despise the violence that his thugs carry out, I have to admit that he has voiced the concerns of civilians everywhere in the city, Marathi or otherwise. Most of the traffic police personnel and RTO officials (I will not say all) lack scruples and neglect duty. They issue licenses to rickshaw drivers from other states although the Motor Vehicles Act clearly prohibits this. The driver has to be domiciled in the State that he/she is working. This means that someone who has lived all his/her life in Maharashtra cannot drive rickshaws and taxis in UP/ Bihar/ Delhi, etc. and vice versa. This is a central government act. This seems unfair but as of now is the law. Even more important is that the law requires the driver to know the area that he works in. This is essential to protect travelers from incidents mentioned in point 4 and 6 and yet the RTO does not take the necessary pains to do what the law asks of it. Raj Thackeray had raised questions regarding the integrity of the RTO on the same issue during a rally in Thane. His question was, “Don’t you have any shame? How can you neglect duty?” He had very clearly stated that we can be assured that if a commuter visits a locality for the first time, he/she will be over-charged by a Bihari / UP wallah rickshaw / taxi driver as described in points 1, 2, 3 and 5. The solution to this is not MNS-style brutal histrionics. The MNS got a well-deserved black eye when its MLAs were suspended for turning the Maharashtra legislative assembly into a wrestling ring. Fist fights are not the answer to everything. Cheats are bound to take advantage of the irresponsible attitude of the law enforcers and of the fact that most commuters hassled by traveling to and fro to work or slightly lost in an unknown area will not do much to confront them. The Chief Minister of Maharastra, Mr. Ashok Chavan was right when he spoke of the strict implementation of the Motor Vehicles Act. Not just Maharashtra, all states should do this. The taxi unions protest every diktat issued by the State with regards to the use of Marathi which is in fact very practical. I wonder what answers they have to this abominable behaviour of their members. The Motor Vehicles Act has to be strictly implemented by the law enforcers themselves. That is what they are paid for. No one deserves to be cheated even if the cheat has poverty as an excuse.
P.S.: I choose to say Bombay because the origin of the traditional English name Bombay holds that it was derived from a Portuguese name meaning "good bay", Bombain or Bombahia. The prosperity of this city commenced because it was identified as an excellent harbour, not because of the local goddess Mumba.

Monday, April 5, 2010

THE TRAGEDY OF ENGLISH AS A SECOND / THIRD LANGUAGE

During my junior college years, I had opted for Marathi as my 1st language, with English being compulsory as the second language. It was for the first time that I got to know the manner in which the Maharashtra State Board of Secondary and Higher Secondary Education is creating one batch of students after the other, who can’t use English properly in day-to-day life. I had always thought during school that our English textbooks neither contained thought-provoking lessons nor did they do much for improving our vocabularies. One might say that the ICSE, CBSE and IB board schools cure this problem but the fact is that my family cannot afford those schools. Had our parents not exposed us to the English media at home, I doubt that my siblings and I would have been fluent in English.

While studying Marathi during my two years of college, I was exposed to a wide range of Marathi literature, right from short biographies, essays, poems and travelogues. We had these in school but qualitatively speaking, the one that we studied in college were more serious in nature. I learnt a lot about different social classes of Maharashtra, during different eras. The textbook effectively dealt with myriad range of subjects from the freedom struggle, caste prejudices, superstitions, child marriage, dowry, unrequited love, lives of expatriates, religion and mythology. I regret not having studied the subject seriously back then or having preserved my textbook. Those two years opened me to my own literary heritage, that which I was indifferent to.

However, I cannot say the same for our English lessons. The chapters were barely age-appropriate and did not provoke deep thought. I cannot say that the English textbook served as an introduction to the rich literature of England and North America. It did not do justice to even Indian writers. I don’t even remember one single chapter properly. That students could not have improved their English language skills with the help of those lessons is beyond doubt. It would irritate me to find that the English textbook was far inferior to that of Marathi. Our college had in fact provided us with a supplementary textbook to make up for the mediocre textbook of the Maharashtra board. However, I did not give it much thought back then.

During the first year of B.Sc., I met many people from all over Maharashtra. Almost everybody had pathetic English language skills. The Dr. Balasaheb Sawant Konkan Agriculture University is ware of this problem and has hence integrated an English language course in the first semester. Alas, the textbook prescribed by the University is best suited for 11 year olds. It is not astonishing that most students don’t gain anything substantial from those lessons. In fact, there is a joke on our campuses that agriculture students cannot speak English beyond, “I go, you come”. I admit that it is difficult for students from Marathi medium schools, rural and semi-urban areas to become fluent in English. But this does not imply that Universities and the State Education Boards treat them as intrinsically weak at linguistics and not expect them to cope with larger vocabularies and complex texts. They are not morons. People learn. This defeatist attitude of the staff towards the English language skills of the students leads them to excuse horrible spelling mistakes. Numerous agriculture students shamelessly misspell key terms. For e.g., ‘Alphonso’ becomes ‘Apanso’, ‘buffalo’ becomes ‘bofelow’, ‘porcupine’ becomes ‘pokcurpine’ etc. Even scientific names are goofed up! The misspelled scientific names of plants and animals may make Carlus Linnaeus turn in his grave! That’s inexcusable come what may! If some rare, straight-thinking professor does cut marks, he is accused of being too strict and harsh! That’s the equivalent of accusing a policeman for abuse of power for making a legal arrest.

The lenient approach of the education authorities towards erring students gives no incentives to students to improve their vocabularies, make fewer mistakes and write better. This approach is largely concerned with passing out as many graduates as possible without caring a damn about the quality of education they receive. The idea seems to be that they don’t want someone to be left behind just because they can’t spell properly. However, this has created a crisis of sorts. This deplorable stance towards writing skills seems to have affected every sector and there are IT companies claiming that they’ve had to reject fresh engineers due to poor English language skills.

Our State education boards need to radically revise the current syllabus and teaching methods for English. Attention desperately needs to be paid to all four language skills namely reading, writing, speaking and listening. The boards need to harmonize the English language syllabus to the Common European Reference Framework for Languages. The syllabus and teaching should ensure that students reach the B1 level by class 10, B2 level by class 12 and C1 level at the time of their graduation. The class 11 and 12 English syllabus must include practical life English skills such as teaching students how to write CVs and letters of motivation. These skills constitute an important part of level B2. In my third year of B.Sc., I was clueless about writing a C.V. and a statement of purpose. Since I come from one of the only 1 million Indian households (1.4% of urban Indian households) that have an internet connection, I logged on to the World Wide Web and learnt these things myself. Even my little sister did not know how to write a CV before her placement interview. I made our lives easy by simply getting a Europass CV made for her. Now what is someone who does not have an access to internet or elder siblings or appropriately educated parents to help them out supposed to do? The teachers should be asked to advise their students to watch Star Movies, HBO, Sony Pix and Zee Studio as these channels sub-title their movies. Students can improve their listening and reading skills at the same time. This is infotainment at its best. The education boards and universities can make it compulsory for students to pass CAE Level C1 or CELS Higher or BEC Higher anytime before completing their under-graduate education. The universities can arrange for the British Council to conduct these exams on their campuses. In this manner, there will be no need for an English language course in the Bachelors curriculum and the students will get a certificate from the University of Cambridge stating that they have the C1 level. The certificates of the mentioned exams are valid for life unlike the IELTS and TOEFL scores that are valid for only 2 years from the date of passing.

This issue needs to be addressed at the earliest as for Indians, English is not just a language it is a job-skill. Our country can’t afford deny good employment opportunities to people just because they are not proficient in English. In the meanwhile, I'll get back to completing a Marathi book "Vyakti ani Valli" by P. L. Deshpande. I recently realised that I read English, French and Spanish way better than Marathi. Back to my roots. Now!

Friday, December 25, 2009

The Human Whatever Virus…

Humanity has always been ravaged by viruses of one sort or the other. Well it had to be! Even other animals, plants and bacteria are. Natural forces do have to regulate populations of all species right? I agree that viruses have nearly halved the human gene pool on several instances but that does not mean we go barmy every time a new virus is brought to the public’s notice! Why the fuss? What’s wrong with the Fourth Estate?

In recent history, we had the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, more popular as HIV that hit off the trend of media-induced phobia and continues to be a rage all over the planet. Every ‘celebrity’ who has any little thing to their credit or has had even the most minuscule space in the entertainment industry jumps on to the bandwagon to prevent the ‘AIDS epidemic’. Well, commendable intentions here but HIV is one of the best dangerous viruses known to mankind. Unlike most other viruses, it does nothing to spread! It is largely dependent on the host to be promiscuous to spread on to other victims! There have been multiple instances of iatrogenic infections but the medical and paramedical community knows how to deal with such cases.

The other crazy thing we had on our hands was the SARS because of some corona virus around 2003-04. That thing just fizzled out thanks to the concerned government authorities, especially the Chinese taking prompt measures to prevent its spread. Nevertheless, they did delay the mandatory information of the outbreak to the WHO and the international community. The next thing in line was the Avian Influenza. The hysteria surrounding it was implausible. We were studying agriculture with Animal Husbandry as an integral part of our studies. Regular poultry farm visits never stopped. Everyone was unperturbed but the media just went bonkers! How often do most people play around with or come in contact with birds? City dwellers have the most minimal contact often limited to pets or cooked chicken. Despite assurance from doctors that cooking kills the virus, chicken consumption fell drastically. The animal lovers’ tribe with PETA as their leader went around town happily telling everyone that chicken lives were being saved. The media scared everybody with reports of an imminent avian flu pandemic which never happened thanks to the systematic genocide of poultry birds that we humans inflicted.

The latest scare has been due to the Swine Flu which is caused by the H1N1 virus (Haemagglutinin 1 Neraminidase 1, try not forgetting this one!). I agree that more than 10,000 victims have been claimed by the virus in the US alone. But that does not justify the fear-mongering by the members of the press. Some friends and my mother almost suffered panic attacks that loved ones and they would fall seriously sick. Governments across the world rightfully wanted the media to tone down the reports but the media did not relent. After all, what can you expect from a pig but grunt? The WHO estimates that the Spanish Flu (also a strain of the H1N1) of 1918 killed nearly 40-50 million people worldwide, the Asian flu (H2N2 virus) of 1957 exterminated about 2 million humans and the Hong Kong flu of 1968 (H3N2 virus) claimed nearly 1 million lives. In fact, these viruses are now the cause of the seasonal common colds that we suffer! That means all of us have probably suffered from the Swine and the Avian influenza at one point or the other.

Thankfully, the swine flu frenzy is dying down. Authorities are minding their business well and doing the needful. In the meanwhile, some pharmaceutical company is trying to bring another virus into fashion i.e. in the media spotlight to sell a vaccine. Ladies and gentlemen, I am talking about the Human Papilloma Virus. Depending upon your gender, it can cause cancers of the anus and/or penis or cancers of the vulva, vagina, anus and cervix. Page long ads in the papers are trying to convince women to protect themselves against cervical cancer with this vaccine. Well commendable intentions again but there is no need! One of my acquaintances immunized herself against the HPV and asked me to do the same. I refused. To begin with, people who don’t have access to clean toilets and those who have multiple sexual partners are the ones at risk of a HPV infection. I don’t fall in any of these categories. I don’t need the vaccine. Thank you very much. She looked cross and tried to tell me that cervical cancer claims more Indian women than breast cancer annually. I replied that it was obvious. Child marriage is still rampant in the interiors and teenage mothers have the highest risk. The point is that unless you are in any of the high risk groups you don’t need the HPV vaccine. If you do, you also need to be inoculated against Hepatitis B.

The reach of the electronic and traditional media helps a great deal about informing people about new disease outbreaks. I am thankful for being told about the symptoms. Nonetheless, everyone will be better off if the death toll is kept to page 2 and 3 or even beyond that if possible. Any viral infection can cause death. Even the most common and well-known viruses continue to kill so many around the year and so do bacterial infections like Tuberculosis. But no one writes about that and people have definitely not stopped spitting! The next time a new virus pops up and the media decides to be the cock of the walk and tells us that Doomsday is coming, relax; we can’t be wiped off that easily.

How French Blogging temporarily put me off English Blogging

Hi, I am back. I had to start blogging again and chose to start with the auspicious Yuletide season. I was taken aback by people who wrote in to ask why I had stopped but that gave me the necessary to push to be here again. I literally had to say Adieu English blogs five months ago because I was pursuing my last level of French (Level C1). My professor, Mr. Bhushan Thapliyal, got us also blogging in French, keeping contemporary trends in mind. Wow, I never imagined that blogging would be homework someday!!! Anyway, our professor Bhushan, trained us for the writing section of the DALF C1 exam by making us blog our brains out. This is because he is pursuing his Ph.D. on the use of blogs as a pedagogical tool. Cool! Who could have thought about that?

The ‘blogging for school’ brainwave came to Bhushan about three years ago when he was teaching school kids in the 12-15 age groups in France. French kids these days don’t write correct French and have made argot, verlan and the SMS lingo their standard language, even in exam answer sheets! This new way of writing and talking French is equivalent to babble for their parents, teachers and the French society at large. The purists are of the opinion that this phenomenon is an unprecedented crisis for the French language. Bhushan wanted to get his students to write correctly. It was only a question of how. The students refuse to fall in line. Now most of these innovative, stubborn scholars are internet junkies who have lost even the most miniscule interest in TV. Bhushan decided to encroach on the virtual space to fix things.

With the assistance of Université Stendhal Grenoble III, he introduced blogging into the curriculum. School essays on various issues were to be written and posted on the blogs of students which they created specifically for class. Students responded in the most astonishing manner. People actually started writing correct, traditional French with all the accents, grammar and vocabulary right. Students were not being adamant about using argot on blogs. You see, the whole world has access to blogs and hence these students wanted to keep their blogs comprehensible and coherent so that everyone and anyone who understands French can read them. Argot wouldn’t work. Mission accomplished.

Bhushan decided to duplicate his experiment in India. He came to the Alliance Française de Bombay. eHere, blogging was a newxperience for roughly everyone in class. I was in his second batch of guinea pigs for the C1 level. He even got the other teachers ofAlliance to unleash the blogging wave on their classes. We would discuss French current affairs in class with the help of 3 news articles related to each theme. That took care of our reading and speaking skills. We would then scrutinize and reorganize the ideas in these articles to write argumentative essays or to write a synthesis or summary with the maximum word limit of 250 words. That exercise greatly helped to improve my French writing skills and also my ability to simultaneously use articles about the same subject from different sources.

I received the result for our DALF C1 last week. I passed. That’s what counted. I was fairly satisfied with my performance. The French blogging did help a lot for the writing section because we had to respect the time and word limit for that essay. We thoroughly enjoyed our coursework. Introducing blooging in studies helps make people tech-savvy and it is surely fun When blogging enters the curriculum’. It is high time that MS Word adds 'blogging', 'blog' and 'blogger' to its dictionary. Blogs are here to stay.

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An infectiously enthusiastic incorrigible optimist, insanely in love with and morbidly curious about life, death and everything in between.