Sunday, April 29, 2007

The old and the beautiful

The trouble I go through, dear reader, to make this page worth your while... I read up books I never knew I had, remember things I struggled to forget, confess to feelings and facts that leave me cringing when I read what I’ve written and worse of all, rub some very significant individuals the wrong way. I might tell them that a rub is a rub and it is the effort that counts, but then, nobody is anybody’s fool. So, this time, I’m through with feeble entertainment at the cost of personal derailment. Instead of telling you what’s wrong with the world and how you should right it, what I’m going to do is tell you about what’s wrong with me ( a mere microcosm of society) and how I intend to fix it.

You see, dear reader, I owe you a confession too. All these issues, I’ve been so busy trying to tell you about all the things that you should do to make your life better, I forgot to keep doing the things that made my own life worth living. Behind wintery woollen armour, the clandestine excesses of my life as an editor were surreptitiously transforming themselves into tangible tonnage while I kept wishing it away until it was too obvious, too embarrassing and as some older, rounder colleagues suggested – nay, insisted, too late. But let me assure you dear reader that your columnist shall not wilt in the face of precedence or prudence. And if you too are often told that it’s ok to walk like a penguin and look like a walrus just because you were born in a time when gay meant merry, take heart from the experiences of a man called Phil Campbell, a 53 year old from Jackson, who, while training for an annual family event stumbled upon what seems to be the ‘final solution’ for sagging bellies (both muscle and beer) and egoes.

In a tattered, dog eared issue of ‘Outside’, (call me a plagiarist if you will, but don’t columnists own everything under the sun?) I came across Phil’s story about Sprint 8 – a workout that promised astonishing results in a very short amount of time. Campbell and the other individuals quoted in the story were in their 40s and 50s and each maintained that after following this programme, they became stronger and leaner and felt as fit as they did in their teens and twenties. The programme basically entailed a brief warm up followed by eight explosive 30 second sprints interspersed with gentle, easy paced running for 90 seconds between each sprint. Variations of this workout, which shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes, have been used by athletic and tennis coaches around the world but apparently this particular combination triggers a unique response within the human body that dramatically reduces body-fat, and increases speed, strength and muscle mass.

The secret ingredient in this elixir, the article claimed, could be HGH (Human Growth Hormone). HGH is naturally present in the body which gets flooded by the hormone during puberty. An excess of this hormone, like most good things in life, could create problems of its own, like gigantism. However, in the right dosage, it is claimed, HGH could act as an anti-ageing agent. In fact, ageing populations around the first world spend thousands of dollars every month in order to be able to inject their bodies with synthetic HGH, in the hope that it will restore youthful vigour and vitality to a decaying frame. That path, however, is fraught with peril, for the anabolic effects of synthetic HGH often come with a battery of problems like higher susceptibility to diseases like diabetes and cancer. It is also claimed that (synthetic) HGH merely increases body mass without increasing strength or stamina. But don’t let this bother you for it really doesn’t matter what HGH can or cannot do. All that you need to know is that all the purported benefits of HGH like high libido, and the wherewithal to back it up with a desired course of action, are surefire benefits of Phil Campbell’s discovery, without any of the risks or negative side effects associated with HGH treatment. In fact, similar interval training programs have been recommended by strength training gurus like Robb Rogers to body builders who hate squatting in order to build lower body strength and muscle size.

However, I maintain that Sprint 8 isn’t as complete and comprehensive a system as Yoga or Qigong and although it is a great way to kick start a workout after a long lay off, I strongly urge you to also consider incorporating one of the above two systems to fully exploit the potential in our bodies and our future. If you catch Dove’s new international campaign for their new line of skin care products for the mature woman called Pro Age, you’ll realize that one is never too old to be bold and beautiful, irrespective of gender. Yoga and Qigong might dominate my ‘pursuit of happiness’ but for those of you who find them too complicated and are too busy to do little else, I insist you get yourself checked by a pleasant, non depressive doctor and then start your mornings with 20 minutes of Sprint 8. In all probability you’ll survive it and love it. And if you don’t, may you rest in peace... just like you do on the couch.


Sprinting and high intensity workouts are great launching pads for a wellness program that seeks the Holy Grail of everlasting youthful beauty. However, though obviously effective, these workouts aren’t complete lifestyle programmes because they lack the healing properties of relatively more esoteric systems like Yoga, Tai Chi Chuan, Pranic Healing and Reiki. However, a comprehensive perspective to anti ageing practices can be gained by reading any of the following books which offer a great many answers to the questions that time asks of us and our bodies.

Grow Younger, Live Longer:10 steps to reverse Aging by Deepak Chopra MD, and David Simon MD - This book is a fusion of Dr. Chopra’s understanding of Western medicine, Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine. It also talks about the minds ability to undo ‘aging by conditioning’. It offers 10 step by step processes that promise to make a practitioner feel younger by decades. Definitely worth sampling.

The Tao of health, sex and longevity: A modern practical guide to the ancient way by Daniel P. Reid – A user friendly and comprehensive tome that offers healing techniques and dietary solutions based on ancient insights into practices that were apparently popular with the ancient Taoist masters. This book also explores everyday habits that unwittingly sabotage our potential for leading a full life.


Sunday, April 22, 2007

A tiger in bed

Apparently, Chinese libido, or rather the lack of it, threatens to kill off the tiger. Condom giant Durex, in one of their surveys noted that China is one of the least sexually active nations in the world. Consequentially, the rising demand for Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) treatments like tiger penis soup (claimed to be an aphrodisiac) is pushing tiger farm owners (who rear captive bred tigers) to urge the Chinese government (which had banned the trade in tiger parts) to reopen its domestic market. But that’s less than half the story. Tiger parts, from bone to bile, are coveted by a persistent number of TCM faithfuls, to treat everything from rheumatism to pimples, as well as the odd case of bedroom blues. To compound the problem, in Tibet, the nouveau riche amongst the traditionally frugal and non-violent Buddhists, have taken to wearing tiger skins and trimmings in an uncharacteristically ostentatious bid to flaunt new found wealth. But when Dalai Lama asked his fellow Tibetans to give them up, skins worth millions of dollars were discarded and burnt by the Tibetans. Recently, however, I happened to bump into an old friend, a conservationist who has risked her life on umpteen occasions for the sake of India’s wildlife, who told me that many Tibetans were being forced to wear tiger skins, even on television, by local Chinese authorities, in order to tarnish Tibet’s reputation as a land of courage and Buddhist pacifism. And now, one hears that the Chinese government is considering legalising the trade in tiger parts, because tiger breeders are insisting that not only is there a high economic cost being borne by them because of the ban, but due to existing stockpiles, easing it would also ease the pressure on wild tigers.

The idea of course, is preposterous and even the rascals who came up with it know that. The cost of a captive bred tiger’s parts would be prohibitive compared to a tiger poached in the wild and since the poached parts are indistinguishable to the naked eye from those from a captive bred one, all this will serve to do is open up the market for illegally procured bones from all over the world, including India, which has seen it’s tiger population drop to just about a 1,000 odd from a relatively stable 4,000 within a short span of three years. I mean, how ridiculously stupid does one have to be to understand that in a world where lions are killed (case in point – Gir) in an attempt to sell off their parts as tiger parts, legalising the trade in tiger parts would only serve to wipe out tiger populations in the wild. And that is precisely the motive behind the feigned naiveté of these breeders, for when tiger populations are extinct in the wild (and at this rate it wouldn’t take long to decimate the remaining 3000 odd tigers that remain in the wilds of Asia), these handful of breeders would have monopolised this increasingly lucrative trade. While the Manmohan Singh government’s toothless initiatives remain distressingly ineffective, if one needs further vindication of the illogic that must have inspired this proposal, take a look at what the skewed ban on elephant ivory (it can be bought on ebay but can’t be im/exported!!) has done to elephant populations in Asia and Africa. The inability to easily distinguish between old, new, Asian and African ivory has led to high incidences of poaching in countries like India and Kenya where it is illegal to hunt elephants.

That’s not the end of the big cat’s worries. On a recent trip to Ranthambore, over a cup of tea with a local tracker, I discovered that animals like Sambar and wild boar, the mainstay of a tiger’s diet, were regularly hunted by local tribals and as Ullas Karanth, a noted tiger biologist once wrote, “for every 50 deer hunted in a year, there is… one less tiger on this earth”. With a depleting prey base, fragmented habitat, greedy tiger ranchers, some not so virile Chinese and a very sterile local government, the fate of the tiger in India seems doomed. In most of India’s national parks, the rangers are too old and too poorly equipped to put up a fight. But as the examples of committed and relatively better equipped forest guards in Kaziranga and Siberia prove, it is possible to protect valuable species like the rhino and the tiger with just a little more ammunition and some more gumption, until local support is enlisted by involving them in the conservation process. The tigers of India owe a lot to conservationists in China who lobbied for the tiger and undoubtedly, the Chinese ban on tiger products provided at least a toe hold to the beleaguered big cat. It is now upto these conservationists to keep up the good work even as a Chinese delegation prepares its case for reopening trade at a wildlife convention in Kathmandu on the 16th of April. So, come on China, tigers, conservationists and eco-tourism economies across the world need you to stay strong and support the global conservation movement. As for Durex, in the very same survey, they found Chinese women to be the most attractive in the world, and if that doesn’t perk things up enough, I recommend some old fashioned Taoist qigong. It’s sure to cure one’s woes – from rheumatism to pimples, and yes, even the odd case of bedroom blues.


Sunday, April 15, 2007

She drives me crazy

‘Sure you do honey, but this one’s about the way you drive’

A Sunday ago, maybe there was something in the breakfast she prepared, or perhaps it was a heady concoction of her bewitching smile and some spring sunshine . . . Whatever the reason, my six-year-old nephew and I threw caution in the boot and settled down for the quarter kilometre ride to his house with my wife behind the wheel. I don’t know what it is like on the outside when she is driving, but on the inside it’s a bit like sitting on an angry bull high on Spanish rum at the Pamplona Bull Run. With a loud bellow, it charges . . . backwards. Stops. Bellows again, louder this time, perhaps as much in embarrassment as in anger, and then charges forward, lurching to a hobbled stop. Eventually, it gathers its bearings and charges straight ahead, on blind faith and adrenaline. Belief reinforced that there is a God after all, the car reaches its destination without a scratch. Well almost, if one discounts the mouthfuls of seat foam I needed to chew on to get through the ride. I kept repeating to myself the findings of a 1996 survey that claims that women drivers might scrape and bump their cars more often than men but somehow are not involved in a quarter as many serious accidents. Guess choking on seat foam isn’t all that serious accident after all.

This is where the plot thickens. Researchers, from the criminally blissful pair of Allan and Barbara Pease to Desmond Morris and beyond have all suggested that men can only do one thing at a thing at a time (which is why I guess we are advised not to drink and drive) and though blessed with better spatial judgement than women, are better, more confident and therefore more dangerous drivers (you figure that) while women, though irritatingly and infuriatingly safe drivers, while driving forward, are like bowling balls in a pin deck while reversing (I didn’t say that ladies, the research did). Speaking of what men can and can’t do, I distinctly remember that the first car I ever drove, a free spirited Contessa, had this rather disconcerting habit of swinging the driver’s door open every time I would turn left, and therefore I had developed a handy technique of holding on to the door with my right hand even as I would be steering the car with my left (So take that Allan, and dear Barbara).

Some years ago, I was sitting by lake Geneva, watching the Jet d’Eau kiss the sky when a man on a bicycle stopped to ask for a match. Well, no match, but we got talking. Conversation veered toward a uniquely Swiss situation where Italian, German and French-Swiss live together in typical Swiss harmony. I asked Paul, our new friend, if he could ever make out the difference between the three by just looking at them. He said “If they are driving, I don’t even need to look at them. You see, the Germans, they always follow the rules, and if they catch you breaking any rule, they’ll follow you home before mildly rebuking you and asking you to drive carefully. The French, well they don’t really break a rule unless they have to but if you do, they’ll give you a cold stare and an angry honk. And the Italians, as a rule, break every rule, and if you happen to be in the way because you’re following the rules, they’ll call you things that crawl in hell and swear to set the mafia on you.” That seemed simple enough. As we rose to leave, Paul, rode away toward the street. An errant driver screeched to a halt, millimetres away from him. The driver was in the wrong lane and so he apologised. Paul though would have none of it and went on and on in every tongue known to man, even as the car reversed out of the lane. So that makes him..? ...French-Italian?

One’s driving style perhaps really does reveal a fair bit about age or gender, but what it reveals most of all is culture and character. Honestly, I’m a rash, bully of a driver when in a hurry but am always the first to apologise if I make a mistake. And I realise that by using the phone while driving, not only do I endanger my own self but also pedestrians and other road users. I know it isn’t right but guess I give in far too easily to the convenient habit of putting immediate self-interest above the ethics of driving. I really hope that both you and I, dear reader, mend our ways before we make a mistake we can’t mend, for a moment’s convenience could cost someone a lifetime and I hope we learn our lessons without becoming an example for each other. As for women drivers, we men might huff and puff, snigger and giggle, but the truth is they are here to stay, and perhaps for the better. After all, if we are chivalrous enough to open the door for them in our drawing rooms and bedrooms, why should our roads be any different. As for you honey, of course you should keep driving but just sometimes, I’ll just listen to mom and try walking instead . . . Like she says, it’s good for the heart.


Sunday, April 8, 2007

Where are the djinns?

From a window in my 5th floor office in Qutab Institutional Area, I could see the green spread of Sanjay Van, a city forest in the heart of Delhi. The forest canopy stretched across the horizon for almost as far as the eye could see, broken only by two tall turrets that stood tall – forgotten, forlorn and proud.

These turrets are all that now remain of Lal Kot/Quila Rai Pithora – remains of the city that the Tomars established and the great Prithviraj Chauhan extended. Something about these ramparts drew me toward them. On misty winter mornings, they would seem to rise through the mist and call out my name, gently. So one empty Saturday, I strode off through the mist toward the great towers. To reach them, I had to walk a kilometre or two along a trail through the forest. Part of the Delhi Ridge, this patch of green is a world away from the busy bustle of one of the biggest, noisiest and most polluted metropolises of the world. The trail descends into a pan that is surrounded by trees and tiny hill. There isn’t a man-made structure in sight, and buffered by the trees, there isn’t a sound to intrude into the stillness either. Throw in the haunting beauty of a peacock’s call, carried along by a gentle breeze, and just yards away from civilisation, the sense of desolation is complete. The two towers, both about 30 metres tall, stood less than 20 yards apart and were connected at the top by a narrow crumbly bridge. Through thorn scrub and brambles, I finally made my way to the top of the taller of the two towers and then tried to make my way to the other over the bridge. While walking across the bridge, barely 10 inches wide, I noticed that it opened into an archway under my feet, or what must once have been a gate into the ancient city. Thick thorn scrub had blocked out the way but a yard away lay twin graves with a chadar in green and gold covering one of them. It was quite breezy that day – and yet, the wind around the graves was as still as death, as if out of respect for the dead. That was many moons ago, and I’ve walked those trails many a time since, but be it eerie or divine, physics or metaphysics, the wind continues to pay its quiet respect to the holy pir and his wife who lie there, whose graves I’m told are as old as the stones of Lal kot.

Sanjay Van is dotted in corners with forgotten graves from the time of Mohammed Ghori and Qutab-ud-din Aibak and has a couple of cremation grounds around it. It is also I’m told, an inviting dumping ground for headless and chopped up bodies, and so it was no surprise to come across a website that marks it as one of the 10 most haunted locations in India. Unlucky or not, I’ve walked across nearly every inch of this forest, from late evening to early morning, and unless a reverential breeze counts, I haven’t really seen enough of the place to vouch for it’s reputation. Honestly, I’m not complaining. The lyrical William Dalrymple, a Delhiphile if there ever was one, calls it the capital ‘The City of Djinns’. So where are the djinns? Old Delhi, it seems is a popular haunt. Almost every old building in the neighbourhood, including the Red Fort, boasts of a resident ‘ghost who walks in anklets’. The Bhuli Bhatiyari Masjid and Salimgarh Fort have their own tales of resident spirits, while Delhi Cantonment and some South Delhi houses are also apparently home to souls that refuse to rest in peace. I’ve often wondered why, if there is a soul, would it want to while away its time spooking out people? I’m sure there is more to do after one dies than just playing ‘peek-a-boo’.

For some strange reason, ghosts and apparitions choose to become apparent only in dark and lonely corners. But why would they be bothered by the presence of light or crowds? Or is it our mind that plays tricks on us when we are on our own, hemmed in by the dark?

Perhaps, instead of fearing a paranormal experience, we should welcome the possibility as affirmation of the fact there really is a possible life after death. Religion suggests that the souls that haunt the earthly realm are a bit like the lame child from the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin – laggards who couldn’t make it to paradise in time. Maybe a haunting, if there is such a thing at all is a plea from the disembodied to the bodied, to help them get across. So the next time you come across a bodyless soul, remember to ask if you could help. What I’m more likely to encounter though, are living, waking soulless bodies, and for them, my advice is – write your own column. It requires a lot of soul-searching, I assure you.


Sunday, April 1, 2007

Brothers, up in arms

It is easy for an Indian to hold the world against a Bangladeshi. Switch on a TV screen and there are images of marauding cricketers in yet another shade of green, taking our ‘men in blue’ to the cleaners. Then there are images of beady-eyed jihadists, caught on the verge of shedding innocent blood. Most Bangladeshis in India are illegal immigrants, at best, disliked for eating into an Indian’s resources and opportunities, but more frighteningly, many have been found guilty of indulging in subversive activities that range from petty crime to terrorism.

I am what one might call a probasi (non-resident) Bengali. I was born in Delhi, 31 years ago. I missed the passionate protests that followed Lord Curzon’s religious division of Bengal in 1905. I missed the ‘tryst with destiny’ that promised to define a nation and a generation oh-so-long-ago. And I missed the whole ‘jai Bangla’ fervour that seized not just the two ‘Banglas’ on either side of the border but even the rest of India during the Bangladesh Liberation movement in 1971. I’ve grown up believing that Bangladesh owes India and her soldiers an incalculable debt for liberating the land and its people. And yet I’ve grown up reading about how almost every terrorist outfit that operates in India uses Bangladeshi soil as a launching pad for its missions. Incidents like the one near the border with Tripura, where a BSF officer was abducted and hacked to death in April 2005 would leave me seething in impotent rage. Leaders like Khaleda Zia, with their anti-India rhetoric didn’t endear Bangladesh to Indians either. With Bangladesh consistently topping the charts as the most corrupt nation in the world for almost half a decade, it only seemed like just vindication of our collective sensibilities. I could not relate to the nostalgia and strong sense of being ‘one people’ that defines my parents’ generation. My maternal grandparents and their children were refugees from Bangladesh who were forced to leave a land they called their own because they prayed to a different God. And yet, while they were grateful to India for giving them shelter and sustenance, their heart seemed to beat for the banks of the Padma, where the paddy grew sweet and the hilsa ‘so’ big. Their children, including my mother, and perhaps their entire generation speak of Bangladesh with a wistful longing that I couldn’t relate to. I couldn’t understand why they would stop and talk to a Bangladeshi rickshaw puller or a maid, for in whom they saw a fellow ‘Bengali’, I saw a potential terrorist. As a child growing up, I did not dislike Bangladeshis because most of them were from a different faith. Nor did I hold a grudge against them for driving out my grandparents, for I did not inherit that hate and also realised that the same fate or worse would’ve befallen many Muslim families from West Bengal. What I couldn’t stomach was the apparent ingratitude and apathy.

Then I met a Bangladeshi. Not in Kolkata or Khulna, but by the Trevi fountain in Rome. My wife and I had escaped from a party, and were taking in the sights before ending up at the fountain where we were approached by a little man – from his accent – apparently fresh off a plane from Dhaka, selling souvenirs. As we got talking, with some trepidation, I told him we were Indian Bengalis. Immediately, he called out to his mates, five of whom came running in. I didn’t believe they would have the gall to raise a finger but I was on my guard. But instead, he smiled, handed me a ‘Roman Holiday’ T-shirt and then ushered us into a cafe. Some one brought us coffee while another brought us ice-cream. They wanted to know about Kolkata and Delhi, Amitabh and Aishwarya, Sourav and Sachin. They kept talking about shared pride in India’s successes and how nice it was to speak to someone in Bangla in Rome, so far away from home. In the warm after glow of a setting sun and rising sentimentality, while leaving, I insisted on paying for the coffee and the ice-creams, but couldn’t refuse them the souvenirs they presented or the beautiful flowers they gave my wife. In New Jersey, a few months later, I was dropped off at the hotel by a Bangladeshi taxi driver who insisted on not taking more than $30 for a $60 ride from New York City. And he kept saying, “Aamra aki toh!”(we are the same). I was mystified. Here were a people I had abhorred without knowing, and expected them to do the same but all I got from them wherever I met them was affection bordering on the fraternal. In these often terrible times, we often become victims of a ‘fear and hate’ psychosis that divides the world between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and the only way around it is to get to know ‘them’ better. I realise that there is only one world, and there is one only one ‘me’, and every association of mine is a question of chance or choice. And since chance is no one’s fault, one could at least choose to view the world with an open mind . . . and heart.