Archive | June 2011

Spring-cleaning the Self and Shelves

I’m off to meditate.

Ten days of peace and harmony being put through one of those old clothes-wringers. The manually operated ones that have to be stopped every now and then, just to rest the tired arms of the operator, before he or she starts again, slowly turning those handles while the cogs creak and the clothes squeak. It’s sadistic.

So you get a couple of moments where the cool air courses through every fibre, and then it starts again, that slow wringing out. I’d much prefer the dry cycle on my washing machine, no human intervention apart from flipping on a switch and turning a couple of knobs. Sure, it pauses, but just to cool off, but when it goes… it goes and then everything is wrung through. Dry as the Sahara in summer.

Speaking of the weather I’m glad the rains are here. But it also means I’ll have to dust down the book shelves and turn out my cupboards, putting in little dehumidifiers just so that the mould stays away. Which makes me wonder how much I’ve collected since I last sat down to meditate. And I’m not talking about those daily sittings, the fifteen minutes or half hour breaks in between the insanity of a Mumbai day. It’s those 10 or 30 days of silence, of observation, of introspective emptiness and realising rather sagely how much refuse one has accumulated and the passage one has to take, the rocky road one has to travel towards getting rid of it.

But its not all bad. There are incredible moments as well. Moments of understanding and of revelation… of everything arising to pass away. The good and the bad, the nice and the not so…


I used to be a regular at meditation centres… the quintessential dhamma bum. It’s a rite of passage. You’re born. You go to school. Then get a job. Work sixteen hour days. Make money. Party hard. Quit that job. Shave your head, grab your bowl and sit in contemplative silence. It’s enlightening. I’ve done that.

But its been five years since I last took time out to meditate and in the interim, I’ve changed, collecting so much mould and lichen, I need airing, a firm brushing… a sloughing off.

And my washing machine is on the blink.


Angela’s Ashes and Ear-less Bunnies

There’s a cute little ear-less bunny somewhere in Fukushima.

Damn those nuclear power plants and the Curie’s, Bohr’s and Rutherford’s of this world, the whole bleeding lot. If it wasn’t for science, we’d have no progress and no nuclear fission and we’d have bunnies with ears.

Okay, so I’m a pacifist and there’s nothing wrong with that. No! Not one of those bleeding heart sorts you’d want to throttle on sight, just the no first strike sort. No shoulder rubbing with the Mohandas Gandhi’s and Mandela’s of the world. I’m not proffering any cheeks.

Now Germany’s decided to nuke its nukes, and no one really cares. In fact I believe the guys at Greenpeace are planning a protest. They just can’t seem to accept the fact that they’ll have to knock Berlin out of their date-books. Life’s a bitch called Angela I heard one of them whisper, stretching his legs and folding up his tent outside Jaitpura, as he marked a huge red cross over Germany.

Yeah… life sucks!

By the way, I’m thinking of taking a trip to Japan. I like the Japanese, besides I haven’t been there and I believe the air is good. Okay I’m not really being honest here because I don’t know any Japanese people to like them, but I contribute quite significantly to their GDP, so I wonder if that gives me de facto status of any sort. I also like the fact that they’re such a stoic lot, controlled, tightly wound up. So when the tsunami struck I was surprised to see them thrown, but they recovered soon enough and in a couple of seconds, almost as soon as the waters receded. And the world watched in admiration as they stood in serpentine queues, calmly reading their newspapers as the hours ticked by… only to be told that the store had run out of whatever it was they were in that queue for. Then they’d move to another store, and another long line and patient wait… only to hear the same thing at times. No pushing, no shoving. I suppose that’s an attribute reserved for this part of the world.

They didn’t even flinch when those nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daichi blew, one after another, and the authorities lied through their teeth, downplaying the incident for the world, and it made me wonder if it’s because they’re no strangers to nuclear disaster. But this time the ghost of mushroom clouds past decided to stay away, WWII was bad enough, and once is certainly enough, even if ‘Tora Tora’ or ‘Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence’ had you believing that they were the bad guys. It was a war for crying out loud, and there are always sides, it depends on which side you’re on… and then there’s Switzerland. But the world has changed a bit, and bad seems to have gone Middle Eastern… and there’s still Switzerland, only its neutrality isn’t the only thing in focus. So in fact nothing really changes. It just shifts around on its axis.

Axis… Well.

So Nuclear technology is seemingly the life-force that vitalizes the planet… too many Hollywood films about the sun dying on us, we’ve got to have alternatives. But there’s always the risk of something going wrong… we’re human and extremely fallible and God just likes to mess with us. In reality we ought to backtrack but we don’t, spreading the accessibility to and dependence on nuclear power as a cheaper and more viable energy source, when what we really should be doing is relegating it to the back burner, to be shelved. And then there’s nuclear warfare and arsenal that everyone wants to stockpile on, and no one wants to give up. The United States would do well to lead by example, but the progeny of Little Boy and his cousin Fat Man just won’t go. They’ve dug their heels right into that hard sand of the Nevada desert.

A friend in Japan tells me that the air around the Fukushima reactor gets a regular infusion of radiation from the broken down plant, and the winds carry that toxic air far. She and her neighbours shut their windows and doors, but she’s not moving anywhere even though she can. And she isn’t even Japanese. I guess resilience is contagious.

So this is the third major nuclear disaster, on land, after Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, and though there were no direct deaths reported from the first and the situation brought under control, it exposed the dangers of radiation, with several reported cases of cancers being attributed to it and then brushed aside. And then there was Chernobyl in the erstwhile USSR, where the number of casualties depends on whether you’d like to believe the official or unofficial count, and I’ll leave the report on the effects of radiation from that one to the experts.

But India’s a hard nut… we’re a tough lot… from combating incursions from outside, to throwing microphones and knocking each other out cold in Parliament, we’ve seen it all… and survived. Then the UPA government led by that tough bird Sonia and her man in waiting were desperate to show their stripes and decided to go forth and ink a 123 Agreement with the United States. No! That’s not an arms deal… Those generally tend to bypass us, heading straight to Pakistan, unless we’re having a good day.

The 123 is one of those treaties where the US flexes its nuclear clout and dictates who can play in that exclusive ‘no dogs and wogs’ club. And suddenly the door opens a chink, and we rush in euphoric, ceding supervision over our civilian nuclear facilities to the IAEA (the International Atomic Energy Agency), which the Reds weren’t having and hammer and sickled their way out of the government. But the UPA stood, buoyed up by other bed-friends, while their detractors bitched and moaned and screamed the ‘C’ word. Get your heads outta the gutter people… I’m talking about corruption here. So we did good and one good turn naturally deserved another, so the IAEA gave us the nod and Uncle Sam… or was it George, asked the NSG (Nuclear Suppliers Group) to waive us in… right through those plutonium gates.

Ho Hum and Bah Humbug!

Hey! don’t go off into flights of fancy. It’s purely for civilian purposes.

So we finally get endowed with that dubious distinction of being the only known country not to have signed the NPT to trade in nuclear tech…Great. Pats on the back and pass the laddoos please. Pappu pass ho gaya! And I’m wondering if the US has suddenly gone all loving on us or is it a question of economics, you know the kind of largesse that’s typical of Uncle Sam, who wants his share of the billions that India’s nuclear power plants are expected to generate. Nothing comes for free. Or am I just sceptical?

But time flies and we’re in 2011 and the earth rumbles and tectonic plates shift somewhere under the sea off the coast of Japan sending gigantic walls of water inland, and the nuclear conscience of the world hits the panic button. Meanwhile Angela Merkel looks at those terrifying images and shudders and turns off seven N-power stations. Seven with one stroke, just like that boy in the fairy-tale. Wear that on your belt! And everyone’s stunned at her sudden U-turn, when just last year, she and her coalition buddies were quite emphatic about keeping them all, including the ageing, run-down ones, up and running until 2035.

So what gives?

I guess it was the bunny.

Chalo… Chale… Jail Bharein!

I last visited Arthur Road jail in 2009. Shantaram had stayed there once, a guest of the Mumbai police, but there weren’t any stickers proclaiming the news, the kind you see on autorickshaws nowadays, promoting B grade films. But Ajmal Kasab’s still there, that boyish maniacal killer, who even the pacifists among us want to see hanging from the end of a very short rope. So security was naturally tight, but it still wasn’t the fortress it has become today. And Swati Sathe was in charge. A formidable woman, she wasn’t in uniform that day. Dressed in a salwar kurta you still wouldn’t mess with her. Her detractors can forever hold their peace and their RTI forms, but I liked the woman. She came across as matter of fact, didn’t gloss over anything, and though she parried our queries like a seasoned campaigner, she was friendly. I guess when you’re not in attack mode there’s no reason for her to go there either.

The inner courtyard area just outside the kitchen was full of under-trials waiting for us… legal aid clinic, that’s what they were told it was. A few of them had no clue what it meant and most of them didn’t know that they had the right to a lawyer. A few looked dazed, wondering what they were doing there and a couple of them cried for home, which brings into focus the old debate, apropos the Miranda, which I think is necessary to implement in a country like India, with its large swathes of illiterate populace, who routinely get hauled up on frivolous and often trumped up charges, and they often just blab out their innocence or guilt, mostly guilt, anything to get away from that stinging arm of the truncheon wielding law. So we need the Miranda, and the netas can call it what they will… Godbole or Godse, or name it after Rajiv Gandhi for crying out loud. There’s nothing left in a name nowadays anyway.

We interviewed a few of the men, most of them there on petty charges, nothing glamorous, though they wouldn’t let us near Emile Jerome, housed in a separate barrack at the time, with Abu Salem and the newly incarcerated Saji Mohan… they have paid counsel, seemingly some of the best. So we got the so called riff-raff, some of them with that air of… ‘Yeah, so what, I’ve been here before and I know your kind’, the lumpen elements, who viewed us with suspicion and amusement. But most of them were first timers. “Watch-out and be careful”, Swati Sathe said, as we deposited our bags and her men let us in through the inner gate and to that unfortunate bunch, some young enough to be called boys. The charges against most of them weren’t even framed, though their little name tags carried the sections under which they were arrested, some appeared to be trumped up charges, or so it seemed from their account of the events, and they appeared to be a largely naïve lot, most of them, and not hardened enough to be putting it on. Among them a young boy from Pune, a student, who had defaulted on his rent. He spoke English, the only one from that lot, dressed in jeans and a T shirt, he wore slippers that were a couple of sizes too big. The police had hauled him off barefoot. He had fallen foul of his father, he told us, but was now desperate to get in touch with him, this errant child with his scraggly beard. Only this time his dad had had enough, and wouldn’t bail him out. So there he was, in Arthur Road… growing up, waiting out his appointment before the judge.

And then there was a young boy from West Bengal, working in an embroidery unit, picked up on chain snatching charges… the chain was found he says, in the woman’s purse, right before his eyes, but the police were suppressing the truth. Though that’s not always true, it is at times, with quotas to be filled and packed jails to stuff, more often than not the police round up helpless innocents because they haven’t a clue, and someone has to be caught after all. It’s about the numbers.

So now there’s a call from a certain segment of the population to jail bharo, and I wonder… Where? Arthur Road presents a far prettier picture than many of the jails in India. I dread to think what a jail in the M.P. heartland or one in Bihar looks like. In our overcrowded jails, where there are often 400-600 packed into those holding cells meant for a hundred. Where they are compelled to sleep sitting, or pushed tight against each other with no room to breathe, and where tuberculosis or HIV are what you get as parting gifts when you leave.

Enthusiasm is great and I’m all for it, well fed and on my Japanese therapeutic mattress. So how about a debate, or perhaps an argument, even a holler, a zillion signatures campaign, a morcha, a few candle-lit vigils where we’ll wear white or black and get our colours mixed up. And then file a couple of RTI applications and even a few frivolous PILs if we can round up the money for the fine. But jail! A cell filled to capacity with a hole in the ground for a potty. That’s a different deal entirely. It isn’t romantic, and you could get your hair ripped out of your scalp by someone who doesn’t like your nose or suddenly has an urge to do you in.

Jails in India are grossly overcrowded, and the jail manual needs to be updated, to present a more realistic picture. Seriously updated, not just moving around a few commas here and there. Besides, those jail manuals need to be out in the public domain, for all to have access to and not just for internal circulation. But then our bureaucrats love taking those trips to Utopia… so they dream on, envisioning jails with large yards like those in ‘Prison Break’, and so while the jail may actually have capacity for 500, they are stuffed with thousands, and jail wardens like Swati Sathe lift their hands up in desperation, “we have no choice, we just get the numbers thrown at us” she said, bemoaning the fact that they had no option and not enough space in which to house them.

Jail reforms almost seem oxymoronic, the two seemingly at cross purposes, but necessarily bed fellows. So there weren’t any worms in the flour for the rotis that day as we peered into it, and the rice looked decent enough, bubbling away in huge pot, with that Maharashtrian staple, usal, cooking in another, I tasted some of it. Not bad I thought… Ehhh… pass the salt shaker please. But then again I don’t eat it every day. Besides I wondered if that was the regular fare, or if what they got every day was a more watered down version with wormy rice slopped in measured quantity onto a thali…

“Please sir, can I have some more?”

Chalo… Chale… Jail Bharein!

(Come… Come on…  Let’s fill our jails!)

Waiting to Exhale

As a child I hated hospitals. So when an old family friend met with an accident I baulked at going to visit him, but he was fond of me and I of him, so I eventually went, with my brother in tow and carrying a large basket of flowers. He’d just been moved out of the ICU to a room and we didn’t have his room number, so we searched, from room to room, down corridors smelling of ether and cheap disinfectant, and then I caught a glimpse of an old, white haired man lying on a bed in a room and walked into it.

Suddenly there was a flurry of activity all around.

“Hey, Uncle Nap”, I called out, loud and cheery through the din. But neither he, nor did anyone else turn to look.

And then I heard it… the gurgle. You read about it in books and watch it mimicked in movies, but hearing it in person is something else. He gurgled again, slower this time but distinct and loud, a sound that hasn’t quite left my ears and then there was nothing, except the voice of the doctor yelling that he had lost the man. I dropped the bouquet of flowers and my brother caught me before I hit the floor.

When I came to, my brother told me it wasn’t Uncle Nap. We eventually found him in another room, his leg in a cast, eating his pudding.

Saw a film on TV the other day titled, ‘How to die in Oregon’. Thought it was a dark comedy looking at the title… It wasn’t. But it made me wonder if taking one’s own life, when in the throes of agonizing physical and emotional despair can be termed as dying with dignity? And I wondered what was  so undignified about lying in a bed, hooked up to machines that helps you breathe easier than you normally can, and on medication that helps ease your pain?

Dying isn’t easy despite all that I’ve been raised to believe. It’s never easy to let go… attachment our biggest bane and we forget the part about death being glorious, wonderful and a pathway to greater glory… provided you’ve been good. If not, you’re condemned to being slow roasted.

The film brought into focus a law in the US state of Oregon that allows people suffering from terminal disease which gives them six months or less to live, to take their own lives, supervised or assisted by a physician. The provisions of the law are rather stringent to prevent misuse, and dictate that the patient has to make the request to terminate his/her life, in person, to a physician, with two witnesses required to co-sign the request in the presence of the patient. The patient can of course, at any time, rescind the request. The attending and consulting physician’s diagnosis and prognosis are vital in considering the request, and the patient should be capable of making a conscious and voluntary decision to end his/her life by taking the prescribed lethal dose of medication. So basically while the physician actually does not pull the plug, he/she helps you while you do it yourself, informed, guided and counseled. It apparently gives you control over your own life or what’s left of it and got me thinking about what I would do if I knew that my life, if consumed by a terminal disease, wasn’t worth prolonging. If I knew that every subsequent moment of my existence would be wracked in excruciating pain, with no hope except that of death.

Watching the film made me wonder what would drive a person to seek death prematurely and I wondered if I would have it in me to end my own life or the life of someone I love, on so-called humanitarian grounds. Fortunately I’ve never been faced with that dilemma. And though I find it fascinating, I realize that I would find it extremely difficult to take that road.

I cannot however stand in judgement of someone else’s decision, whatever it may be.

The film also brought into focus the question whether dying with dignity should be equated with suicide or not, and whether there’s a difference, moral and ethical between active and passive euthanasia. My Christian upbringing dictates that suicide is a sin, and encompasses within that term the taking of one’s own life by whatever means, regardless of the circumstances. And then I’m a lawyer and the law in India views suicide as a crime, that is, if you’re unlucky enough to survive. Ironic isn’t it, given that you want to die because the world around you doesn’t seem worth living in and you fail, even at that and then the law terms you a criminal. That’s criminal!

My years of meditation have brought me to a place where pain, suffering and loss are the flip side to joy, happiness and gain, the one useless without the other. I lost my best friend when I was five, and then I lost another two over the years, three in all, one from illness, another in an accident and the third to suicide… all before I stepped into adulthood. I’ve also learned through meditation not to fear death, to look at it just as it is… as simple as inhaling a breath of air only to let it out again, inhaling and exhaling, just that and nothing more… watching everything arise, only to pass away. It has to happen, one day or another. You’ve got to be prepared… just make sure you have clean underwear.

But then again it’s all intellectual and while I’ve meditated on death, decay and disintegration of the self and have tried to be equanimous through illness and pain, I have yet to come face to face with my mortality in a tangible sense. I am not walking the path that some of those who chose to take these decisions walk. And while I may say that too much of one or too little of the other ought not to be a measure to determine the continuation of life, this isn’t only about me and my thoughts and views.

Watching people who suffer from ailments, diseases or conditions that consume them painfully is tough. I watched my grandma die of cancer. It was painful, with God, prayer and her family her only refuge. Equally painful would be watching someone consumed by demons that plague their minds with despair that’s so overwhelming, it chokes them, prevents them from being wholesome and shuts the windows of hope, clogging every crack in the door with darkness. It is difficult to draw the line, difficult for me at least to differentiate between physical and mental disease that’s so consuming, it gives you no hope, and makes it difficult to differentiate between euthanasia, passive or active and suicide. If you permit the one, you should permit the other… that would be logical.

‘How to die in Oregon’ followed Cody Curtis as she dealt with her impending death from liver cancer, a journey towards death that was painful and imminent, and her decision to terminate her life, with the support of her family and friends. While the film was sensitive, choosing not to show Cody’s final moments, it made you listen in as she sang songs with her family, laughed and hugged them, before she finally drank the concoction of Seconal that her volunteer doctor prepared, and her life ebbed away. She seemed at peace.

It is a Buddhist belief that when the body dies, karma continues, determining the nature of one’s subsequent birth. Karma is the link in the chain, the continuum of life and living, until there’s nothing to work out… until you are fully liberated. The moment of death is therefore all important, and the state of mind at that time of special significance. Dying in acceptance of death, with peace and calm is said to ease the way. So I wonder if making a conscious decision with awareness to terminate one’s life is preferable to dying in terrible agony with nothing but pain and despair, at times unconscious, hooked up to machines that live for you when you are no longer able.

The film also brought to mind the Aruna Shanbaug euthanasia debate and how I felt following the proceedings of that case, the religious and so-called ethical versus the legal and the logical. A part of me, wanted the Supreme Court to have granted Pinki Virani’s petition as next friend of the almost vegetative Aruna, lying like an injured, traumatized animal that we would have put down on humanitarian grounds. But she lies condemned, for as long as her body holds out, twisted and bent on her hospital bed, uncomprehending and incomprehensible, cared for no doubt and admirably so by her former colleagues and the generations that have followed, keeping her fed and alive to die another day, every day.

I wonder what would be more humane.

So the debate goes on, whether one has the right to take one’s own life. I’m sure it won’t be long before the law in India changes as well, given that the Supreme Court has legalized passive euthanasia… so our law makers have their task cut out. But first please revoke Section 309 of the Indian Penal Code.