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Monday, 22 July 2013


(Published in Woman’s Era June (First) 2013 Page 15)

The seating pattern in the class was alphabetical. So she sat next to me in class V in Bulandshahr, UP, in the year 1958. I remember her even today as a very pretty girl, fair and petite with very attractive features but a strange kind of sadness always enveloped her. I don’t recall having ever seen her smiling. She was very quiet too. Even when spoken to, her replies were in monosyllables only. As a nine year old, I could care two hoots for a girl who was not interested in talking or playing with me; I had many more friends to keep me occupied.

In the school, we also had a system of midday meals when the entire class would sit in the same order and nice, hot healthy meals were served to us which we had to finish. If Miss Varma, the principal of the school, noticed any unfinished plate in her rounds, the student had to undergo rigorous punishment. This created tremendous pressure on all of us to finish the meal before we could run off to play for the remaining time during the lunch break.

One day, as I quickly finished the daliya (porridge) and was about to buzz off, she who used to sit next to me here also, pushed her untouched plate towards me and asked me, “Please, can you eat this too?”
I frowned, “Why? Why don’t you eat it? If Ma’am sees us, both will be punished.”
“No. I can’t eat,” she looked desperate.
“But why?  Why not?” I was getting impatient getting delayed for the playground.
And suddenly what she said froze me, “How can I eat anything when my children are hungry for two days?”
“Your children? Are you mad?” was my stunned response.
“Yes, my children. I have four of them. They live in Ayodhya,” she said with sadness welling up in her eyes.
“I used to live there near Saryu River where my husband used to row a boat for his livelihood. I died in child birth when my fourth child was born.” Tears were flowing down her cheeks now.

I noticed Miss Varma moving towards us from a distance and quickly exchanged my plate with hers.

“Ranjana, why are you so late in finishing your meals today?” admonished Miss Varma.
“Sorry Ma’am. I had gone to the toilet first,” I replied as I carried on eating.

Woman's Era Page 15
Later when I shared the incident with my mother, she confided in me that she knew about it. Bulandshahr being a small town my classmate’s  father being an eminent lawyer, my mother had heard about it but what she did not know was that she was my class-mate.  She said, “Actually her parents have already visited Ayodhya and checked up the whereabouts of that boatman. Yes, it is a true story and he has four children, the youngest son being about 10 years old.”  She continued while cautioning me, “It sometimes happens that some people do remember their previous births but they forget it in the course of time. Don’t tell her anything about this. After all, nothing can be done.”
And I wondered why her parents could not bring over her children to stay with her. Today I understand how difficult it must have been for them.

Next year, my father got transferred from Bulandshahr and I left the place never to meet this classmate of mine. But even today at times I wonder whether she still remembers her previous birth or time has erased her memories of past-life. Do re-births really take place? Are we all carrying some baggage of our previous lives with us? Why is it that I meet a person for the first time and feel as if I have known her for ages?  Or I meet a person for the first time and simply dislike him even without talking to him. What is it in him that puts me off? Do we have “old” connections with the “new”?


Monday, 1 July 2013


This episode took place sometime in April 1970, but the memory of the experience is so deeply etched in my mind even today that I can recall it vividly although 43 years have since elapsed. 
My Aunt and I had gone to Kedarnath Temple. When we reached the shrine, I told her, “Taiji, you go. I am not interested in going inside the temple”. As she frowned at the crazy idea, I quickly added, “I am enjoying the scenic beauty outside.”

The high mountains all around were reaching out to kiss the azure blue sky: their lush green beauty was mesmerising me. There was no crowd, no people anywhere and I stood alone in a corner outside the temple gate leaning on the small wall around the shrine, feasting my eyes, my mind, my entire being on the nature’s unparalleled beauty.

Suddenly, a tall well-built man with long flowing beard and moustaches appeared from nowhere: his hair was tied up in a knot on top of his head and he was wearing large rudraksha beads around his neck. A tiger skin was wrapped around his waist. He walked straight to me and put a tilak on my forehead with a little force and announced in a powerful voice, “Jab Bhagwan swayam aa kar ashirwad dete hain bachcha to sab manokamnayein poori ho jaati hain. (Child, When God himself comes and blesses a person, all his/her wishes are fulfilled.)”
Saying thus, He disappeared with the same speed with which He had come.

I woke up with a sudden jerk, shocked, confused and dazed. The entire episode was so real, it shook me up. It took me a little time to realise that I had actually gone off to sleep with my head on the book while studying for my post-graduation examination. The feeling was so real, so life-like that I got goose pimples. Who was He? Where did He come from? Where did He go away? Who knows?

Not finding any answers, I pushed everything out of my mind, rubbed my eyes and started studying again. But today all of a sudden, perhaps after seeing the Kedarnath tragedy again and again on media, I recalled the entire dream once again after 43 years. Yes, the temple in the dream looked like this only. 

Incidentally, I have to date not visited Badri Nath-Kedar Nath Temples. I never perform any pooja or prayer or worship. I do not visit any temple for prayers. But I always feel that God is within me, wherever I go and in whatever I do. I do not have to seek Him outside; I only have to listen to my Inner Voice to be able to relate to Him. 

(This is a real life experience)


Sunday, 23 June 2013


It was more than two decades ago that I had bought a pair of Fish Tail Palms for placing in my Living Room, a job they did commendably well for a few months. But the winter came and the frailer one dried up for want of light. Concerned for the well-being of the surviving one, I carefully planted it on the ground. Perhaps being closer to mother earth, it received all the love and affection it needed and started growing like a teenager. Soon, it was strong enough to withstand the vagaries of nature bravely. The leaves became huge having a lovely hue of green and the diameter of its trunk kept expanding. Within no time, my precious Fish Tail Palm had become the pride of the place!

Although we were busy with our respective jobs, official duties, domestic chores and handling growing children, it was not easy to ignore the phenomenal growth of this beautiful tree. Each year, it used to develop a ring around it making it easy to count its age. And lo and behold, one day we noticed that there was a queer growth coming out of its trunk, which did not look like a normal leaf. We soon realised that our tree was flowering. Soon an inverted dome-like growth with thousands of dangling buds was in place. These green beads hanging so gracefully were actually its flower buds which bloomed in due course and then acquired a burnt red hue. Later, they turned into small fruits showering honeydew all around.

During the last twenty-five years, this beautiful palm stood in front of my house like a strong sentry overseeing our daily activities and keeping an eye on whatever happened under its shadow. It watched my sons growing up from young kids to tall young men, studying hard for their exams as well as holding bar-be-cue parties under its loving shadow. It saw my mother-in-law and father-in-law growing frail in the evening of their lives and finally leaving this world. It witnessed our tears when we had to put our dear pet Peter, a black Labrador, to sleep to save him from unbearable agony. It saw us growing from a youthful couple into mature stable people. It saw all the ups and downs of our lives and stood by us through thick and thin.

On one Diwali, I saw those beautiful decorative lights and brought home a long yellow one to  wrap around its trunk. It brightened up the place on festivals like Diwali, on birthdays, on weddings of our children or whenever my spirits were sagging.

During last few years, its beautiful leaves all dried up and it was reduced to a leafless 60 feet tall trunk but still looked majestic. Now it supported the money plant creeper that started growing on it and developed unusually large leaves streaked with white and yellow stripes. We saw kittens playing hide and seek around it when the colony cat brought her litter to my flat.

“Neighbour’s envy, owner’s pride”, I said repeating the Onida TV ad.  It had again become a beautiful landmark in our colony.  
But with its unmanageable height, my neighbours became apprehensive of its unpredicted fall one day and started suggesting that I should have it chopped lest it should fall and damage their property. Much against my wishes, I went to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi requesting them to trim it down. Was it some kind of euthanasia I was requesting? They said they are not empowered to do so as it was within the confines of my boundary wall and advised me to go to the Forest Deptt. Now what has Forest Deptt. got to do with it? It was not in any forest. But such are the Govt rules. I requested them too to chop it citing very valid reasons that its roots were eaten away by white ants and that it could fall off any day and was the danger to lives. Would they listen? Indemnity Bond, affidavits, additional plants, maintenance money for the plants etc is all that a remember now. I gave up and came back, but I was happy within. Neighbours kept warning against the potential risk but I pretended helplessness.

Recently, the trees in our colony were being pruned by the Forest Deptt. and the guys merrily pruned huge parts of the Neem tree in front of my house. It suddenly dawned on me that both the trees were planted almost at the same time, the Neem by my neighbour Geeta and the Palm by me. Both had grown to unprecedented heights and stood tall in their respective places. Seeing the Neem tree being pruned so ruthlessly made me sad. Looking at my Fish Tail Palm also made me sad as if time, for it to go, had come. Was it like an elder of the family who was sick and helpless?

We were going to Mumbai last week when my husband said, “Don’t you think the palm is getting inclined a bit?”
“Yeah. But nothing can be done.”

Last week, we returned from Mumbai amidst torrential rains and it continued to rain cats and dogs the whole night. I woke up to a pleasant morning and went out to see the big green parrot which at times used to sit on top of the palm in the morning. There was none, but the palm stood tall and magnificent.

A couple of hours later when hubby came out, he was surprised to find it reclining gracefully on the Neem tree across the road. It had uprooted naturally and had fallen slowly on the shoulder of its friend, the Neem tree. It did not make any sound, it did not damage the boundary wall as was our apprehension and it did not fall on any neighbour’s house. It did not even block the road. The life of my Fish Tail Palm ended so quietly, I could not believe it.

I called a few people to help me out to take it to its logical conclusion. When they brought it down from the shoulders of its friend, the Neem tree and lay it on the ground, we realised that the angle, at which it had fallen, was the safest possible position.

It went away without causing any pain or discomfort to anyone. The helpers had to chop it into at least eight pieces to be able to lift it as it was extremely heavy. They have now stacked it in a corner of the colony for using it on the next Lohri or Holi where it will once again provide happiness to everyone. 

The huge money-plant creeper with massive leaves which was a sucker on it had to be taken off. I have got it planted in each and every park of the colony where they will continue to grow and remind all the residents how they once clung on to the Fish Tail Palm in my front yard.

Four days have passed, but my eyes have not got used to the vacuum where my Fish Tail Palm once stood for over 25 years. This place will one day be filled with other plants but the vacuum created by my Palm will perhaps never be filled.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013


(A Tribute to my Mother on her 12th Death Anniversary)

Maa, tujhe salaam...
Years ago, you told me that when you were in the family way in the year 1949, you prayed every morning that you be blessed with a baby girl. A few months later, I landed up in your lap and ever since, I have always been proud of being your daughter.  As I grew up, I learnt so many things from you that you have become an integral part of my being.

When I was only five years old, you asked me to go and watch whether the cook was doing his job properly. When I pointed out to him that a black bug had fallen in the daal, he dismissed me by saying that it is burnt dhania. I brought it to your notice and you appreciated my alertness profusely. You actually taught me supervision.

When I was six years old, they did not teach English in school in those backward places where we were posted but you yourself taught me English. You taught me never to be cowed down by  circumstances.

When I was only nine years old, you used to direct me to go around the huge bungalow to check whether the orderlies had properly secured all the doors. When I detected a few unbolted doors and brought it to your notice, you admired me no end. You actually taught me undertaking responsibility.

When I felt scared of going in the dark holding a lantern in my hand, you taught me Gayatri Mantra as a weapon against fear. You taught me to fight against baseless fears.

At the age of ten, when I was studying for my exams and you were confined to bed, you asked me to look after my baby brother also. When I protested, you explained to me how I could handle both by giving him some toys and by keeping an eye on him while reading my books. You taught me basics of multi-tasking.

When at the age of thirteen, I made my bed and folded the blanket or cover-sheet and it did not match corner to corner, you asked me to do it again and not do a shoddy job. You taught me the importance of being a perfectionist.

When I neglected my studies and ran short of your expectations, you told me, “If you study well, you will become something one day. Otherwise, you will keep rotting at home.” You inculcated in me ambition and a desire to excel.

When I avoided entering the kitchen, you told me in clear terms, “When you grow up, you will not have servants like we have now. If you want to enjoy good food, you must know how to cook it yourself.” You inculcated in me an interest in cooking and a need to be independent.

When I picked up the only apple in the fruit basket, you asked me to cut into multiple pieces and give one piece each to all those who were present in the house. You taught me the value of sharing.

When I divided any item for sharing, you directed that the one, who divides, should be the last one to pick up to ensure that one does not try to take a bigger pie. You taught me to be fair in deals.

When I complained about non-availability of all the expensive books as a reason for insufficient preparation for exams, you told me that knowledge comes from reading the books and not by possessing them and that, the library was the place where all the books were available. You taught me never to cite lame excuses.

When I wanted to send an orderly to buy a First Day Cover from the Post Office, you asked me to pedal my bike up to GPO and stand in the long queue to pick up the FDC to add to my collection. You taught me to move my own limbs in pursuit of my hobbies.

When I wanted to buy a suit, you told me to go to the market and pick it up myself. You only said, “It is summer time. So get cotton and a light colour. It should not be more than Rs 3 per meter.” I went from shop to shop until I found a soft pink cotton material with floral designs within a total cost of Rs. 10.” You taught me decision-making within laid down framework.

When I wanted to give that suit for stitching, you asked me to do it myself and helped me understand the basics of stitching. The profuse praise bestowed on my achievements encouraged me to be self-reliant.

When you asked me to see that all my four younger brothers finish their homework and do not fight with each other when you were away, you taught me team-management.

Although you left us twelve years ago on this day, I do not miss you as you still live in me and in my thoughts. Your values guide me in whatever I do. When in confusion, I always think of how you would have tackled this situation and I find the right path. If I start chronicling all that I imbibed from you, I will fail miserably. I can only say about you what poet Kabir wrote about God.

सात समंदर की मसि करौं लेखनि सब बनराइ।

धरती सब कागद करौं हरि गुण लिखा न जाइ॥

(If I make ink out of seven seas, pens out of all the wood in the jungle and convert the entire earth into paper, they will not be sufficient to write about your greatness.)

Thank you, Mom for always being my guiding star!


Thursday, 9 May 2013


Adyant, my Guru for unlearning violence
“Spiiiider,” screamed Adyant, my four-year-old grandson in fright. I dropped my book and rushed to the spot only to find a big spider near the backyard door. My spontaneous response was to kill it and I did so. As I went in to bring a tissue to clean up the mess, Adyant asked inquisitively, “What did you do, Dadi?”
“I killed it,” I said proudly, feeling great that I had eliminated the cause of fear for my darling grandson.
“You KILLED it? Why did you kill it, Dadi? That’s not a good thing to do.” Saying this, he appeared quite miserable, feeling of internal pain showing on his tender face. 
Looking sideways to hide my embarrassment, I sounded defensive, “I killed it because it was scaring you Baby?”
“You could have thrown it out,” was the solution offered by him.
“Poor spider! Has it died?” he looked very sad and hurt.

Like a wise old grandma, I immediately resorted to diversionary tactics, “Come on! Come on! Forget it. I will show you the book that I have brought to you from India.” We both merrily romped up the stairs to reach my room where I pulled out one of the Amar Chitra Katha Cartoon books, which I had lovingly carried for him to acquaint him with Indian mythology. After all, he is an Indian child and should know about our mythological characters although he is staying in Canada, I had thought.

The book that I took out depicted Lord Krishna’s life and story. Adyant was so happy to see the book that he grabbed it from my hands and ran to his room with me trailing him. As he excitedly leafed through the pages, he saw Lord Krishna killing Shishupal with his chakra and Shishupal’s head flying off his torso with splashes of blood all around. Seeing this sketch, Adyant was again miserable. “Why has this man killed him? See Dadi, there is blood.” I wanted to explain all that ideology about the triumph of ‘Good’ over ‘Evil’, but Adyant would not listen, “Dadi, he must be a bad man, no? He has killed this person.” His eyes became narrow with disgust and face distorted.

I quietly took the Amar Chitra Katha from his hand and put it back in my suitcase. At night, I took all of them out and scanned each one from my newfound perspective about violence, blood and gore. I leafed through Dashrath Putra Rama, Pawan Putra Hanuman, Durga Mata and found violence on every single page. I cannot let my little grandson be exposed to this type of violence and quietly consigned them back to the suitcase. 

My dreams of educating him on Hindu mythology through these books were badly shattered. However, I got a new perspective on violence through the unbiased eyes of this innocent child. He taught me a real lesson in non-violence that day. Thank you Adyant for being my guru!!!


In the evening of life
As the phone rang and the caller said, “Hello,” I instantly recognised his voice.
“Good morning, Sir,” was my respectful response. Yes, he was my boss some three decades ago.  Exchange of pleasantries and he announced that he was visiting someone in my area and intended to visit me too during that trip.
“Wonderful! We have not met for ages. It’ll be great to catch up with each other,” I said.

He was there in the afternoon. For the two hours that he sat with us, he talked of nothing but how he had thrown his weight around in the organisation when he was working; how everyone was so afraid of him; and how even very senior officers had to bow to his personal whims and fancies all the time.  And believe me, all this in the organisation from where he retired almost two decades ago.  I lost count of how many times I suppressed my yawn!

His daughter, who had driven him down, kept smiling while looking indulgently at her father. I could not figure out whether she was happy to see her almost 80 years old father talking non-stop on meeting an old colleague or was she actually in awe of him. As they were leaving and he continued his self-proclaimed importance, I politely whispered to his daughter, “This is what we are left with in the end …memories of our almost 40 years of association with the organisation.”

After they left, I could not get over the fact that in those two hours, not once did he talk about his ailing wife whom I also knew and who is bed-ridden at present. He never uttered a word about his children who have had their share of pains and pleasures in life. There was not a single mention of his grandchildren or his current state of health.  He did not talk of any common colleagues that we had worked with except when they were part of his ego-trip. His total concentration was on himself and his so-called achievements that had no relevance for anyone then and are totally meaningless now in the evening of his life.

Why do we love to live in a fool's paradise?
Is life about concentrating on self and thinking of I, me and myself only? What is the psyche that makes a person so much in love with himself that he does not even want to look outside?  Family members usually do not pay any heed to the person’s ego trips of which he is so used to while working during his official life where others, particularly sub-ordinates are forced to listen to him and helplessly nod their heads in agreement with a genuine-looking plastic smile on their faces. The better the performance, higher is the reward by way of favours from the superiors. Do we tend to internalise that flattery and start believing that we are the best to that extent that we continue to live the rest of our life in that fool’s paradise? Who are we trying to befool? Is staying in that make-believe world easier than accepting the reality of “Here & Now”? 

Many questions and many answers but at the end of it all, I could only feel sorry for him. 


Monday, 29 April 2013


“….Demolish my Goddamned house….”

Can we keep our plants within our boundary walls like this?
(Having received from the society for over sixty years, I decided to give back to the society in whatever humble way I can. I thought the best thing would be to serve selflessly our small community, a DDA colony comprising only 204 flats, inhabited by highly educated upper-middle class strata of the society.
What I am going to share from time to time under this series is my true experiences of interacting with the residents of the colony, without any malice towards anyone. The purpose is to share the prevalent value system as well as to share my own feelings of amusement at their behaviour.)

A particular road leading into the colony is definitely narrow and it has become narrower as the residents have planted trees in front of their flats. We all love trees and need them for oxygen, greenery, beautification etc. However, many residents have also covered some extra space along their outer wall by making it pucca with brick and mortar and by planting permanents plants and shrubs. Now after this, there are cars parked on both sides of the road making the approach road even narrower. The result of all this was that when a flat recently had an incident of fire, though the fire brigade arrived within minutes, it could not reach the flat.

Recently, the Management Committee of RWA, after continuous efforts and vigorous follow-up made Municipal Corporation agree to put interlocking tiles on both sides of the road that they thought will beautify the colony and have some sort of value addition for it. This was a good opportunity to widen the road from wall to wall. We cannot cut the trees. Neither can we remove the cars of the residents. Therefore, we thought that we would request the residents to remove voluntarily the encroachments made by them on the public land.

The owner of the first flat, a well-educated senior citizen, we approached with folded hands, started shouting at us, “You do whatever you want to do, but you dare not touch my plants. You can break this goddamned house of mine if you want but don’t you even look at my plants.” Our humble requests made with folded hands fell on deaf ears. As he continued to breed more plants for his gamlas, we retreated gracefully.

Incidentally, this "gentleman" has nicely covered with solid stones a small piece of mother-earth provided to him by DDA in his flat and now is hankering after public land for expressing his love for the plants in the most uncivil manner to fellow residents least bothered about an unforeseen exigency of a fire-brigade required by a fellow-citizen, which may be a matter of life and death for some. 

I understand that the desire to possess land is an eternal one and this was a crude manifestation of that. The fact of the matter is that Municipal Corporation, if they so desire, can easily demolish this unauthorised construction extending into the public land any day but a common man is not willing to listen to the polite appeal of a fellow citizen made in the interest of better community living. 

Hum aise hee hain.... (That's the way we are....)


Thursday, 25 April 2013


Mr RC Sharma ( 25th April,1926 to 19th January, 1997)

It was a lazy Sunday morning some 45 years ago and I was studying for my forthcoming exams.

“Ding dong” the call bell announced arrival of a visitor. Reluctant to leave my books, I was relieved to see my father moving towards the Drawing Room. The initial exchange of greetings was partly audible in my room and distracted me. However, I tried to concentrate on Karl Marx. “From each according to his capacity, to each according to his need…”

The orderly walked in, “Saheb has asked for three cups of tea for the guests.”
“Ok. Keep three cups of water for boiling on the gas. I am coming in two minutes,” I told him detesting the idea of getting up at that point of time but I had no choice. 

The conversation outside was hardly audible. Who were these visitors, I wondered. It was normal for most people to become extremely humble while talking to my father, perhaps because of his position of authority that he held or may be because he was so upright that nobody would dare ask him for out of turn favours. Ignoring these thoughts, I turned back to my notes.

“The water is boiling,” the orderly informed me. As I got up and moved towards the kitchen, I suddenly heard a loud thud from the Drawing Room as if something heavy had been thrown out on the lawn. My father’s voice was loud and angry. He was shouting at the visitors at the top of his voice, “Get out of here! How dare you…”
I rushed back to my room to gauge what was happening outside.

Let me confide in you that there was a small peep-hole in the window between my room and the Drawing Room. I struggled through it only to see that a brief-case half open was lying on the lawn with bundles of 100 Rupee notes strewn around in the green grass. My father was shouting at the visitors to get lost. Soon I witnessed those suited booted “gentlemen” stuffing the wads of money back into the briefcase and leaving with their tail between the legs. My father banged the door after them and came in.

I rushed back to my study table and buried my head in the books as if I had not heard or seen anything. My mother had just come out of the bathroom and enquired, “Who had come? What happened?”
“Nothing! These b*** think they can bribe me. They had brought five lac rupees so that I let them continue with their illegal activities. I have kicked them out,” he sounded cool as a cucumber
“Served them right,” was my mother’s spontaneous response.

“Ab chai pilao.” As he said this, I sprang up from my table and rushed to the kitchen to prepare three cups of tea.

Four decades ago, the value of five lac rupees was more than five crore rupees of today. Were you never tempted, dear father?
If you were alive, I would have asked you who gave you such strong values and courage. Was this my grandmother who inculcated these values in you? Or was it my mother who stood by you never raising any demands and managing the household within the limited salary of a govt. servant?

How did you manage to live by your values in this world of greed and avarice? Were you never tempted? Why is it that some people like you, despite humble background and limited means, stick on to their dearer than life values while others have no qualms in collecting wealth through unscrupulous means despite having abundance of it in their lives? Among all your qualities, I admire you most for your honesty. 

I once again salute you dear father for your strong values which all of us, your children and grand-children, have imbibed from you, have been nurturing them and carrying them forward. Although you left us more than 16 years ago, you continue to inspire us.

Today on your 87th birth anniversary, we bow to you in respectful homage.

Friday, 12 April 2013

49. THE MECHANISM OF STRESS (Published in State Bank of India Monthly Review, September 1985 Issue)

Shri Ramachandran, 48, is a Joint Secretary in the Department of Education in a State Government. He is an overactive, high-strung, dynamic and extremely responsible officer- an achiever in the true sense of the word. He is fond of good food, cannot spare any time for any exercise and is consequently about 18kg overweight. These days, he is tense and irritable. The paper-mills in the country are closed down due to strike and there is acute paper shortage in the State. The schools, colleges and the universities are going to open in about three months’ time, but there is no paper available in the market. How will thousands of school going children commence their studies? Shri Ramachandran has been entrusted with the responsibility of tackling this problem by the Chief Secretary and he has accepted the challenge but no solution appears to be coming through. Fear of failure is haunting him. “If I cannot solve this problem”, Shri Ramachandran thinks, “I will fall in the eyes of my superiors…… For once I will fail to perform the task entrusted to me. It has never happened before.” He works day and night, thinking and worrying, snaps at his wife, snubs the children, but does not share his mental agony and torture with anyone. Meanwhile, he develops some pain in his chest. He ignores it. The pain persists. He chews too many anti-flatulent tablets and forgets it. Two days later, the pain shoots up suddenly and radiates to his right arm. There is a choking feeling and cold sweat appears on his forehead. He has just suffered a heart attack. With timely medical aid, he survives the attack, but is laid in bed for six weeks. The doctors discover that his blood pressure is high and so is the level of cholesterol. In addition to the medicines, he is advised to control his diet so as to reduce his weight immediately, bring the level of cholesterol and the blood pressure down and is advised to take a short morning walk and increase it gradually.
The case cited above is not unique. We all have come across such people in our day-to-day life. Constant stress combined with an unholistic living pattern is the biggest bane of the modern life. Stress, according to some sources, is the single number one killer of the twentieth century.

What is Stress?
Dr. Hans Selye, a world known authority on stress has defined stress as the “non-specific response of the body to any demands made on it.” To understand this definition, we must understand the meaning of the words ‘demands’ and ‘non-specific response’.

What are Demands?
Demands on a body can be of different types. These can be physical, mental, psychological or even biological. Accordingly, overload of work, too many deadlines, a demanding boss, a non-performing junior, a competitive peer, excessive touring, quarrel with the spouse, an attack of influenza or anything may act as a DEMAND on the body and this can be a source of stress. These demands or stressors are invariably present in the environment whether it is the place of work, the social set-up or the family circumstances.

How Stress is Generated?
When the individual psyche reacts with these stressors in the environment, stress is generated. It is not only the existence of a stressor or demand in the environment, but also how one perceives it that determines the degree of stress generated in an individual in a given situation. This would explain why the level of stress varies in different individuals in more or less identical circumstances. How one perceives stress in a given situation depends to a great extent on one’s judgement of threat in it and the degree of this perceived threat depends upon one’s expectations from self and others, perception of others, others’ perceived perception about self and one’s own aspirations. The degree of stress also depends upon one’s past experience under similar circumstances, his/her individual enduring traits and situational components, especially current needs and activation level. Thus, stress is the non-specific response of an individual, which may vary from person to person and from place to place. Even a slight change or variation in these two components, i.e., the environment and the individual psyche, will affect the response of the person. Hence, the variation in the level and intensity of stress in different circumstances.

How does the Body Respond in a Stress Situation?
How does the body respond when it meets a threat? According to Cannon, the response invariably, is either ‘Fight or Flight.’ As living beings live in a constant state of stress, the nature has provided an inbuilt defence mechanism in the body, which gets activated as soon as one perceives threat in a particular situation. The most primitive response which can still be seen in the animal-world is ‘Fight or Flight.’ When an animal perceives threat, it either fights with the enemy or it flees from the situation. For this, the nature ensures that extra energy is generated in the body to enable it to save itself from the threat, gravity of which is judged by a part of the brain called hypothalamus. The brain accordingly signals the autonomic nervous system, which in turn activates the endocrine glands. As a result of this, certain hormones are instantly secreted into the body. Consequently, the eyes widen so that the animal can see better; the heart beats faster and the blood pressure goes up so that more blood is pumped into the system to meet the need of the hour; the breathing becomes quick to enable the lungs to absorb more oxygen in the blood; hunger dies off so that energy is conserved and used for survival purposes and muscles tone up and burn more glucose. All this is nature’s system of ensuring that the energy of the body is diverted into one single channel, i.e., protecting the body from the onslaught of the enemy threat – real or perceived. When the animal uses up this energy either in fighting or fleeing, these hormones are neutralised and the body returns to normal.

The Executive of today can resort to neither fight nor flight. Although his initial reaction to threat would still be that of ‘Fight or Flight’ only, circumstances compel him to maintain a cool demeanour even if he is seething with rage inside. It is under these circumstances, when he is exposed to stress stimuli on an ongoing basis and stress hormones are pumped into the system without providing a proper outlet by means of physical activity that some distortions in the defence mechanism of the body take place. The eyes, which constantly widen to see better, cause headache and visual strain. The lungs breathe rapidly so that more oxygen is supplied to blood, but may lead to hyper-ventilation under stress. Similarly, heart beats faster and the blood pressure goes up so as to supply more blood to various parts of the body, but this may result into palpitation of heart, a heart attack or a stroke. While the nature is preparing the person for ‘Fight or Flight,’ the blood starts clotting quickly so that the bleeding stops if the animal is injured in the process. In its distorted form, this may cause a clot to form in the blood, which may lead to coronary thrombosis. Similarly, muscles in the system also tone up to facilitate easy movement of the body, but may go into spasms and may cause tension aches and pains in the body. When the heart muscles are affected thus, this may cause angina pectoris. In order to conserve energy for ‘Fighting or Fleeing’, the nature also switches off the digestive system. This is why the person loses his appetite and the saliva in the mouth dries up when he is under a stressful situation. When the digestive system is affected, stomach-aches, flatulence, hyperacidity and duodenal ulcers follow. Let it be clear here that this reaction is nature’s system of ensuring the person against the perceived threat, but the distortions take place because the extra energy generated for the purpose of ‘Fight or Flight’, is not neutralised by any such physical activity.

Do Emotions Affect the Level of Stress?
As the genesis of stress being in one’s mind, which helps in the judgement of threat in a situation, emotions play a very vital role in generating stress and activating the endocrine glands which produce stress hormones in the body. When one has positive emotions like love, tenderness, hope, joy, courage and equanimity, the system is stimulated just to the right extent and generates only that quantity of hormones which is essential for protecting the body against the external threats in day-to-day life. But the negative emotions like anger, hatred, rage, frustrations, failures, rejection, disappointment, aggressiveness etc. overstimulate the system to prepare it for a stress situation and the protectors of the system eventually become its destroyers. This is why exposure to excessively strenuous situations when accompanied with positive and healthy feelings  may not lead to any side-effects, whereas a much lesser degree of strain accompanied with negative feelings may be extremely harmful to the system.

Is Stress always Bad?
Despite all the bad effects of stress o the human system, stress is a force to reckon with. It can be easily compared to electricity. Just as less flow of current is ineffective, lack of stress in the life will make it boring, monotonous and insipid. Conversely, an excessive flow of electric current will destroy the system and excessive stress in a human body will make him ineffective, unproductive and sick emotionally as well as physically. Stress is a bad master but a good servant. In right measures, it is a dynamic force and a motivating factor—a potent source of change and harbinger of progress in the society. What is, therefore, needed is not avoidance of stress but its proper understanding and management.

(Published in State Bank of India Monthly Review, September 1985 Issue)

Monday, 8 April 2013


“I have brought Pinni to Medical College today,” announced Rajan on phone. “She has been unwell for quite some time and the doctors at the Medical College have advised her to undergo an angiography at the earliest.”
“But why Medical College? Will she get there the care that she deserves?” my husband Shiv could not hide his anguish.
“…Because it is totally non-commercial. The decision of the doctors there is not governed by monetary considerations,” there was finality in Rajan’s tone.
“Rajan, but the inconvenience that she will have to undergo there? I am sure money is not of consideration in your decision.”
“No, it’s not. It’s my lack of faith in other commercial hospitals.”
Shiv and Rajan have studied together in school and can discuss anything under the sun without any reservations.
“Ok. If you have already decided, tell me if I can do anything. Shall I bring your lunch to the hospital?” asked Shiv. We know that there are restrictions on Rajan’s diet as he himself has undergone cardiac bypass surgery a few years ago.
“Ok. That's welcome, but I’ll give you a call when her process is over. You should start from home only after that.”

I packed the lunch and started waiting for his call.

At 12.30pm, a nurse from the Cath Lab of the Hospital called, “Your patient who has undergone angio this morning has come out. Please get some soup and porridge for her lunch.”

It was a surprise thrown at me but I instantly took off with pans and ladles and dished out some tomato soup and porridge with mixed veggies, both fat-free and mildly salted for the heart & diabetic patient that Poonam is.

At 1.20pm, I received a call from Rajan, “Where are you guys?”
“Just outside the hospital.  Will reach there in ten minutes.”
“Wait for me. I’m coming downstairs,” he said.
It took us much more than ten minutes to enter the main gate of this prestigious medical college in the country as it was choc-o-bloc with autos and pedestrians. Even an ambulance was struggling to find its way in. Rajan was at the gate. We picked up the lunch hamper and  followed him.

Such holy confusion in the place! It was so awfully crowded. There were so many people mostly from lower strata of society, moving around and so many others lying on the roadside where there was some shade. Most of them were quite old and sick. There were small children crying and aged people moaning. Some were even lying on stretchers. The temperature outside was already 39C.  As we quickly moved towards the Cardiology Wing, I wondered how much time would we have taken to reach there on our own. Thank God! Rajan had come down to escort us.

“You can’t go into the Cath lab area with shoes on,” Rajan enlightened us. We left the shoes at the entrance unguarded and went in.
“Don’t be surprised to see her on the stretcher. They are short of beds.” Was Rajan being defensive of his decision?

As we approached the corridor outside the Cath Lab, I was shocked to find Poonam on a stretcher and panicking, “Ohh…It’s still bleeding. Give some more cotton.”  A young lady in a colourful silk saree was standing by her side tightly pressing the wound with both her hands.  A nurse came and handed over some more cotton to the woman and walked away non-chalantly without uttering a single word.

I was too zapped to figure out what was happening. I asked Poonam and was aghast to hear that the wound in her thigh, where they had inserted the catheter, had started bleeding profusely, perhaps because of a bout of cough she had.

It took me some time to realise that the woman in the colourful saree was not a hospital staff but a patient herself.
“Where is the nurse?” I asked.
“They all have gone for lunch. Aunty ji, it is lunch-time for them now.”
“And you?”
“I had come here to pick up my report and saw her in pain and bleeding. Therefore, I thought, I’ll hold the cotton for her. You know some other patient had done the same thing for me three days ago when I also started bleeding like this only after my angiography. After all, she is like my mother only,” she smiled lovingly.

For next one hour, she continued standing by Poonam’s side maintaining the pressure on the wound while I fed soup and porridge to Poonam. I wanted to take over from her many a time, but she insisted on continuing.

The nurse walked in merrily after an hour and announced, “No bed is available yet. So you continue here only.” Saying this, she left without even enquiring about the wound and the bleeding although she saw this untrained outsider maintaining the pressure on the wound.

Apathy and empathy, carelessness and concern, insensitivity and love for humanity, neglect of duty and selflessness, all negatives and positives of human character got mixed up at that moment.

While I felt humbled by the selfless service lovingly extended to Poonam by this complete stranger, I was full of rage for the Nurse on Duty in the Hospital. 
But I am still wondering who was the real avatar of Florence Nightingale!

(Based on my real life experience today.)