ruled by mercury

One morning, when I was walking around the lake near my house and thinking of nothing in particular, two unrelated streams of random thought intersected.

Why does the world seem to be constantly in turmoil? Could it have something to do with the zodiac signs of the men and women that run the world? Ha! That’s funny!! But, wait . . . aren’t there too many born under Gemini* in this lot? Just an impression – but I thought it would be fun to find out anyway.

Now, I don’t know much about Astrology except what I picked up from Linda Goodman’s Sun Signs and Linda Goodman’s Love Signs during college days. There were a couple of copies of each around and they were in much demand as everyone in the hostel used them as ready reckoners to figure out roommates, friends and boyfriends.

So I looked up the zodiac signs of people who routinely take the lead in world affairs.

There are three types of Signs:

  1. Cardinal – leaders
  2. Fixed – organisers
  3. Mutable – communicators

The world now seems to be run largely by people born under Mutable signs, i.e. Gemini, Virgo, Sagittarius and Pisces!

Among the G-20 nations, 9 are Mutable!

  • India, Modi – Virgo
  • China, Xi – Gemini
  • Turkey, Erdogan – Pisces
  • Saudi, MBS – Virgo
  • France, Macron – Sagittarius
  • Germany, Scholz – Gemini (Merkel is a Cancer, leader)
  • Italy, Draghi – Virgo
  • UK, Boris Johnson – Gemini
  • EU, Charles Michel – Sagittarius (represents EU at G20 summits along with Ursula von der Leyen as far as I know)

There are only 5 Cardinal signs in the G20:

  • Russia, Putin – Libra
  • Indonesia, Widodo – Cancer
  • Brazil, Bolsonaro – Aries
  • Canada, Trudeau – Capricorn, and
  • Argentina, Fernandez – Aries

Of these, two (Brazil, Indonesia) are born on the cusp, the 21st, and might not even be Cardinal.

The remaining 6 are Fixed signs:

  • Japan, Kishida – Leo
  • Oz, Scott Morrison – Taurus
  • S Africa, Ramaphosa – Scorpio
  • US, Biden – Scorpio (cusp, 20th Nov)
  • Mexico, AMLO – Scorpio, and
  • S Korea, Moon Jae-in – Aquarius

These people are supposed to keep things steady and may not lead change. Biden might’ve been more relaxed if he didn’t have the world scrutinizing his every move intently. He might’ve been more like pre-COVID Scott Morrison, or Moon Jae-in without the Kim factor!

It’s not surprising the G20 doesn’t come across as a cohesive, focused, pro-active group. There aren’t enough leaders in it, especially after Angela Merkel retired.

Now, look at Europe.

These 7 are ruled by Mutable Gemini:

  • Poland
  • Germany
  • Greece
  • Romania
  • Bulgaria
  • Hungary
  • Estonia

Gemini is also Trump’s sign, Pence’s too, also the late Gaddafi’s, and Xi’s and Boris Johnson’s, and IMAFT head Raheel Sharif’s.

The following are ruled by the other three Mutable signs, viz. Virgo, Sag, Pisces:

  • Spain – Pisces
  • Turkey – Pisces
  • Austria – Virgo
  • Switzerland – Sag
  • Portugal – Sag
  • Serbia – Pisces
  • Norway – Pisces
  • Latvia – Sag

That’s a lot of communicative leaders in Europe who may mesmerize people with their silver tongues but not necessarily lead their country anywhere, nor hold on to gains and keep things stable. You can expect some amount of drama and chaos with Mutable signs.

Tedros, the WHO chief who has been handling the corona pandemic, is also Pisces. So is Jens Stoltenberg, the present secretary general of NATO.

By the way, Teresa May and David Cameron are Libra, and so was Margaret Thatcher. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, is Libra too.

Wang Yi, the tough-talking Chinese foreign minister, is Libra, so is the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov.

Central and South America:

Only Chile and Guatemala have Mutable heads of state at present. Venezuela too, if you consider Nicolás Maduro President. Other than Costa Rica, all have presidents born under Fixed signs, and six of them are Scorpio – Haiti, Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras, Paraguay and Ecuador. Scorpios are good at staying on track and getting people to toe their line.

I don’t know enough about these countries to say how they are faring under these leaders, but my Mexican friend says AMLO has been good for Mexico and is very popular.

The Middle-East:

8 countries are ruled by Mutable signs:

  • Iran – Sag
  • Iraq – Virgo
  • Saudi – Virgo
  • Turkey – Pisces
  • Kuwait – Gemini
  • Syria – Virgo
  • Qatar – Gemini
  • UAE – Virgo

Only 2 by Cardinal signs:

  • Israel – Aries (his predecessor Netanyahu is Scorpio; Benny Gantz is Gemini)
  • Cyprus – Libra

6 by Fixed signs:

  • Egypt – Scorpio
  • Oman – Scorpio
  • Bahrain – Scorpio
  • Lebanon – Scorpio
  • Palestine – Scorpio
  • Jordan – Aquarius

Again, a lot of Scorpios.

We in India have had our share of them during the Nehru and Indira Gandhi years, both Scorpio. Morarji Desai and I K Gujral were the only Mutable signed Prime Ministers we’ve had. Four of our PMs were born under Cancer, two Libra, two Capricorn, one Taurus and one Leo.

A preponderance of Cardinal signs. Our country loves monarch-types rather than those that cycle to work like Mark Rutte (Aquarius, not a conventional guy) of the Netherlands!

Right now, we have China, Nepal and Sri Lanka in our immediate neighbourhood ruled by Gemini. Aung San Suu Kyi is Gemini too. Imran Khan of Pakistan is Libra and General Bajwa is Scorpio. Interesting!

I haven’t looked at Africa, the SE Asian countries or all the countries formed when Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were fragmented; I’ve also left out places that don’t loom large in the daily news, like Kosovo, Moldova, etc. I don’t want to labour the point . . . This is, after all, not a serious in-depth study but a bunch of observations born out of idle curiosity.

I glanced through the zodiac signs of people who dominated the political scene in the seventies, i.e. the places we heard about frequently in connection with India. Here’s a sampling:

  • India – Indira Gandhi, Scorpio
  • Sri Lanka – Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Aries
  • China – Mao, Capricorn; Hua Guofeng, Aquarius
  • Pakistan – Z A Bhutto, Capricorn; Zia, Leo
  • Russia – Brezhnev, Sagittarius
  • Israel – Golda Meir, Taurus
  • Iran – Reza Shah Pahlavi, Scorpio
  • France – Georges Pompidou, Cancer
  • UK – Harold Wilson, Pisces
  • US – Nixon – Capricorn, Ford – Cancer, and Carter – Libra
  • Germany – Helmut Schmidt – Capricorn, Helmut Kohl – Aries, but Willy Brandt was Sagittarius

In other words, most of them were steadfast/rigid types, and not prone to being all over the place like the Mutable signs that now rule the roost!

Make of it what you will. I’m just a dabbler. I know the sun sign is far from the complete picture. For example, an astrologer would make something of the fact that Brezhnev had Aries rising, Obama has a Gemini moon, and Modi has a Scorpio ascendant.

And that’s why this is merely a light blog post and not a research article 🙂     

*Mercury, the ruler of Gemini, is the god of shopkeepers and merchants, travelers and transporters of goods, and thieves and tricksters in Roman religion. In Greek religion he is Hermes, the fleet-footed messenger of the gods. Mercury is also known as quicksilver, i.e. given to changing rapidly or unpredictably.

to be happy

I came across an interview from 2018, where the late David Graeber talks about his earlier book Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, that I hadn’t heard of until today, because that’s not my area of obsession, unlike his new title The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity. This was recently released by his co-author David Wengrow, and I was looking for a review of it.

The interview is full of great insights, but this line especially jumped out at me:

David Graeber: “I think most people really do want to believe that they’re contributing to the world in some way, and if you deny that to them, they go crazy or become quietly miserable.”

Link:

https://www.vox.com/2018/5/8/17308744/bullshit-jobs-book-david-graeber-occupy-wall-street-karl-marx

What he says is a thought that has kept many of us awake nights at some point in our youth. To be happy we need to contribute to the world, we need to have a purpose so we don’t “go crazy or become quietly miserable”, as he says.

We are often told, “If you want to be happy, try to make someone else happy.” Ethical altruism.

For the longest time I accepted this. I believed it was the answer to the age-old question of the purpose of life. This truism dovetailed beautifully with my work as a doctor, so there was no dissonance. Over time though, I stopped being so certain that ethical altruism towards people – or animals as the case may be – was the only way for anyone to find meaning.

My faith in us as a civilisation has been shaken in recent years. Ignorance used to be bliss before Internet. Information was simply not available. Not anymore. It’s frustrating to have an abundance of information about something, say COVID, and still be ignorant because of the contradictions.

Though I know that worse things have happened over centuries past, I have lived most of my life in a period of peace and predictability in the world. The Cold War, and then a couple of wars involving India but restricted to border areas, hardly impacted me. Most importantly, news came only once a day, in the morning newspaper.

I visited many countries in Europe, North and South America, Africa and Asia in the eighties and nineties. Boarding an international flight was as simple as boarding a city bus, and it was all fun. The world was a friendly, trusting place overall.

Ever since oil- and terrorism-related events erupted in the world, the sense of safety that I used to have is gone. Now the world doesn’t even make sense at times. For example, I find things like prison-industrial complex and military-industrial complex pathological. Just thinking of their ramifications makes my head hurt.

With so much stacked in our favour as an advanced species, this is not who we are supposed to be. We can be so much better. Or I wish it were so – for the sake of my children’s generation.

Governments are squandering away human achievements of the last few hundred years by indulging in all sorts of brinkmanship. This needs to be fixed, but can’t be. The beacon has gone out in the UN lighthouse and the G20’s declarations sound like pipedreams. Sure, on an individual level a lot of people, including me, are happy with their lot.

******

I wrote this but didn’t hit ‘Publish’ because I was still mulling over what I had jotted down.

******

It’s Saturday. There is a weekend curfew on because of Omicron.

We decided to watch a movie. We picked one without reading reviews. Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cate Blanchett, Jennifer Lawrence, and young Timothée Chalamet in a small role as well. It had to be a good movie, right?

Well, it was. Don’t Look Up is its name. But it left me with more of the same feeling, that we are wrecking the earth through greed and short-sightedness.

No more mulling. Hitting ‘Publish’ now.

lathe biosas

Another year begins. Another blip on the fourth dimension, the temporal dimension on which we can only move our three-dimensional selves forwards. There is no going back. Which means we live with awareness, so there’s no regret, no longing to go back to correct something.

Ever since I began delving into the geological history of Earth my world has become immeasurably larger and more ancient, more awe-inspiring, more precious. The sense of continuity the fourth dimension brings is indescribable. It’s a whole new perspective.

I see myself as a short-lived life form, just one of the trillions of creatures that routinely float across the earth’s surface like soap bubbles and disappear. Our lifespan of a few decades is nothing compared to the earth’s age of 4.5 billion years.

From the time COVID started, this awareness of deep time has become more intense. It’s become the wallpaper of my life. It informs every thought, emotion and judgment. But it’s also a sort of relief, like laying down a heavy load. So much is not in my hands. Not indifference, not nihilism, just que será, será.

Psychic numbing caused by the big COVID numbers of the last two years has added to the befuddlement created by elastic time, time that is marked by random corona outbreaks rather than by clock and calendar. I feel like a child looking hard at the sky to see where it ends.

So much has ceased to matter. Taking the narrower view of life, the health, safety and happiness of my family, friends and myself do matter, and I have been worried when one of them came down with COVID and I couldn’t travel to be there. Thankfully, a good friend, an infectious diseases specialist who lives in the same city, held the fort.

I have had minimal contact with other people for a long time now. Over these two locked-down/social-distanced years I have unconsciously withdrawn emotional investment in human beings and formed some sort of happy connections with elements of the landscape of Karnataka over many road trips and hikes during the last 15 months, like a series of mini peak experiences! If something goes out of your life, I guess something else takes its place, and life goes on.

Lofty boulder-strewn green hills, forests, smooth winding roads, wayside coffee shops, small towns, trekking trails, wild flowers, bird calls, hilltops, village temples, backwaters, clouds, hill shrines, flocks of farm animals, tiny rills and waterfalls in the ghats, the occasional squall, are like a screensaver in my head now.

I feel I belong with them more than I belong to Bangalore city. I’m very, very surprised by this realization. Life right now is like living in a child’s picture book! It’s like what people say about being invested in characters in TV shows that run into many seasons, and vicariously living those lives.

Day-to-day life is the same, though. Lathe biōsas* works for me. It’s quiet. It’s meaningful.

At my stage of life the present is the future that I had envisaged in the past. I’m here, in the future. This is it. I’m not interested in leaving a legacy of any kind when I depart because, for what? The kids are perfectly capable of making interesting and happy lives for themselves. As for the world at large, it has enough people leaving legacies; I have no such duty or wish!

Lots of people have helped make my life easier. For example, I don’t have to keep a cow in my building basement and milk it everyday as someone somewhere keeps cows, and the milkman gets me half a litre of milk every morning!

The dairy folk and the milkman are glial cells to my neuron, just as I am glial cell to someone else’s neuron. Neurons need support, protection and nourishment from glial cells for complex thought processes . . . We are all connected and need each other, like neurons and glial cells . . .

It’s unthinkable that glial cells were dismissed as packing material for neurons when I was a medical student . . . The universe is a network. Nobody and nothing is anyone’s exclusive support; each one is the nucleus of some other subsystem.

Yet, in my current state of psychic numbness, these nice people are only their roles, mere cardboard cutouts. I feel grateful for them, but wearing a mask means unseen smile and muffled speech, so it feels like a video call with a bad connection every time. I miss the warmth, wholeness and rapport of engaging with unmasked faces.

I hope 2022 will be different.

A happier new year to all!

*One meaning of lathe biōsas is to ‘live in obscurity, get through life without drawing attention to yourself, live without pursuing glory or wealth or power, but anonymously, enjoying little things like food, the company of friends, etc.

what if . . .

It so happens that the book I finished today, Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany, and the movie Dev Bhoomi that I had started watching two days ago and finished just now, set off thoughts that converged and kept me occupied all evening.

In both the book and the movie the main characters are in their sunset years, looking back at decisions taken decades ago to leave their countries for better lives. They yearn to go back to the point where the road forked and look at the one not travelled, to paraphrase Robert Frost.

In Dev Bhoomi, Rahul Negi returns to his Himalayan village after forty years and is met variously with wariness, hostility, relief and joy by the different people who used to be in his life before he left for the UK.

He appears so ill at ease, so displaced, aching, regretful, occasionally hopeful . . . A range of nuanced emotions flit across his face, consummate actor that Victor Banerjee is. A step taken at one point in his youth, and he is left thinking of the road not taken for the next forty years. What torture!

In Chicago there is severe confusion and regret regarding the path taken, the one that actually led to the dreamed-of success! The characters – of whom there are quite a few transplanted and homesick ones – go through identity diffusion, loneliness, and a sense of not belonging to either home country or adopted one.

Despite the stilted dialogue and the translated feel that never leaves you through the entire book, you appreciate the conflict between their intense nostalgia for the established societal rules that decide things for them back in Egypt, and the freedom that makes them frighteningly responsible for every decision while living in the US.

You face a fork in the road several times in a lifetime. You choose one. All the paths you couldn’t take are alternative lives you might have led. No matter which one you choose there’s only so much you can do in one lifetime, even if you max out your talents and abilities and make every second count, use every minute being productive. No route is guaranteed to be the right one; even in hindsight you can’t tell if any of the others might have been the right ones. And right does not mean perfect because some things will still go wrong anyway.

When I have the crazy urge to look back and “What if . . . ” about my choices, I ask myself what is it exactly that I hope to gain from the exercise. It’s pointless to dwell on what I could have done differently, because things have turned out well enough.

“What if . . .” is fine if I go into a pleasant reverie in an idle moment, in which case I drift lazily through my parallel universe, enjoy the change of scene, and come back recharged when I finally stop dreaming. Even when I hit the brakes, they work like Tesla’s regenerative braking, using that energy to charge my batteries!

pursuit of political aims

In large families the eldest child is often the third parent, helping mum and dad get the younger ones to follow house rules. She has the privilege of her parents’ trust and almost as much power over them as their parents do. She is expected to never hit back if they pummel her with their little fists or kick her in the shin when she tries to bathe or dress them against their will. She is held responsible for any fracas involving the rest, often getting punished while the smaller children go scot-free. I know, because I was that eldest sister.

With this template, I entered adolescence thinking the government was right in overextending itself to take care of minorities at the expense of the ‘privileged’ majority.

When my siblings and I were in our teens I was battered in a fistfight with my brother who seemed to have developed superhuman strength overnight! Until then I had got by with a long, furled, towel stretched between my fists to use as a nunchaku when attacked by any of the younger ones. But that wasn’t enough when they were no longer little. They just yanked it out of my hands!

In 1990, when the minority Hindu Kashmiris were tormented and chased out of Jammu & Kashmir by that state’s majority, and the government did nothing, I questioned the label ‘minorities’ being applied to the group that was larger, disruptive and violent – the equivalent of my ‘defenceless’ brothers and sisters – for the first time.

In my last post I wrote about the Tuareg people being sidelined in Niger. That seems to be the pattern everywhere: minorities are sidelined, or even persecuted, or annihilated.

Unless, of course, the government accedes to the demands of ethnic minorities at the expense of the majority, as has been done in India. For example, churches and mosques get to use donations made by their followers for their own activities, as well as receive funds from the government, but donations made to temples by Hindu devotees go to the government!! For over 65 years our government had total faith in the gullibility, self-doubt and fatalistic acceptance that has been hardwired into the mental make-up of Hindus over centuries!

As Indian Hindus have a small presence in many countries, most people who have come in contact with them will agree that they are generally law-abiding, make no demands on the government, do not resort to violence, and do not try to convert local people to their religion. Their spiritual values are not rigid and they don’t concern themselves with other people’s gods and religions. Which is why democracy has survived in India, though I admit it is far from perfect.

I am pretty sure that some nations are incapable of democracy because the narcissistic upper echelons can’t imagine being equated to the hoi polloi. But democratically oriented countries propagate it with a missionary zeal, ignoring the fact that the countries they want to mould in their own image prefer oligarchy, so they can hold on to their limitless power over the tribe.

An evolving civilisation in its early stages tends to stick with tribal customs and hierarchies, and no amount of harping on democracy and human rights can change this. It looks like some civilisations refuse to evolve. They mark time rather than march forward, or even take a few steps backwards time and again.

Not even ‘education’ can help a community or nation grow intellectually and spiritually if its children are indoctrinated with ideas of ‘only one god, our god, revere him, serve him – or else!’ As we know, a lot of people who run terror outfits are ‘educated’, as are narrow-minded busybodies who infiltrate stable well-knit communities to spread subversive beliefs, wreck social systems and cause strife.

Terrorism is defined as ‘the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims’. Regardless of what they claim, there is always a political goal, and I think that is the most important part of the definition of terrorism. Once terrorists achieve that goal there can’t be peace for ordinary citizens.

While unlawful use of violence is relatively easy to understand, intimidation is harder to define. It can be subtle, like people who aspire to power via religion threatening gullible people that they will burn in hellfire if they don’t toe their line. It’s surprising how naïve people are intimidated by threats like this, but it’s common enough, going by what I have heard from panicked patients who have had a breakdown when thus intimidated.

Minorities like refugees, traders and temporary settlers often request concessions to follow the ways of their homeland in their new country rather than assimilate. They can who-moved-my-cheese their way into political power right under the noses of the hosts if governments give in to all their demands. At any rate, that is how the East India Company jumped from being traders to colonisers in India! What followed was not different from terrorism, really.

Since getting free of the British, India has always had a problem of infiltration from the neighbouring countries they hurriedly hacked out of India along their Radcliffe line, etc. before they left. Plugging gaps in its land frontier – 15,200km of it – is an ongoing process, and hasn’t been very successful so far.

Even well guarded borders in developed countries are not perfectly sealed. Desperate people find ways to get in. And, with time, they become the ‘minorities’ and begin making demands on the host country’s government, backed by human rights activists, while citizens continue to fund them with the taxes they pay.

Countries that have traditionally been White majority are now uneasy about changing demographics. When European immigrants became the majority in the Americas the original inhabitants were wiped out, so the White world is fully aware of the danger of being in the minority, of being overwhelmed by people whom they allowed in as guests.

So, I discovered that my towel nunchaku could no longer protect me. Even if it had been the real thing I couldn’t have wielded it like Bruce Lee because I had no intention to kill my brother! So I turned my room into a bomb shelter, figuratively speaking, and used the dining and living rooms for civilized conversation when we had to sit together, what else! We all grew out of our teens and stopped terrorizing one another.

That possibility of civilised diplomatic dialogue between nations has been taken away by events of the past two decades. Trust and respect have both disappeared completely from the international political scene. The spread of terrorism has left us with a choice of upgrading our weaponry or building bomb shelters. Or both. Unfortunately.

sidelined

A few days ago, I saw on the news that Niger wants France to clear up radioactive waste in the French-owned uranium mines around the city of Arlit.

I was surprised that anyone would leave radioactive material lying around, and that too, France, which generally comes across as a responsible country. Fifty percent of the uranium ore from Niger’s mines goes to fuel France.

I could be wrong, but it looks like no country has a perfect plan for disposing of radioactive waste. There is a stockpile of radioactive waste from nuclear reactors in the world stored in temporary facilities. The intention is to eventually bury it deep underground in cement canisters.

I know that ‘high-level’ waste is less than 3% and the rest is ‘low-level’ waste that supposedly decays and becomes harmless over time, and this depends on the half-life of the element. I know very little beyond that and hope people who operate nuclear reactors know what they are doing.

Three months ago Japan announced that it planned to release treated radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea starting two years from now. Japan says nuclear power plants all over the world routinely release water that has minute amounts of tritium into the sea anyway!

After the Fukushima incident, some countries like Germany and France have started shutting down their nuclear reactors and are temporarily going back to coal until they can increase renewable sources of energy like wind and solar. Italy closed down its nuclear power plants in 1990 following a referendum. Some countries are opposed to nuclear power and have never set up nuclear power stations.

It seems such a shame, because nuclear makes for a cleaner environment than coal. On the other hand, there have been a total of more than a hundred serious nuclear accidents in the world, five or six of them in India . . .

To come back to Niger, I wondered why a system hadn’t been put in place in the forty years France has been mining uranium there. The locals must have been adversely affected for decades, so who exactly are these affected people?

Apparently they are mainly the Tuareg nomads, an ethnic minority, who have lived in those parts from the 5th century CE. They are spread across many countries – Libya, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, as well as Niger. They are more loyal to their Tuareg identity than to Niger and are often at odds with their government over the ownership of the land leased out to foreigners for mining uranium.

Like the Yazidis, Kurds and other ethnic groups that are spread across many countries and don’t have a nation of their own, I guess they get sidelined in the affairs of their country.

Some activists have taken up their cause. But I get the impression that the European Union politely listens to their concerns, waits for the spike in public interest to subside, and ultimately doesn’t do much.

Then again, why will the ‘world’, i.e. the G7+EU+/–Russia+/–5-emerging-economies, care about the tribulations of a nomadic tribe that doesn’t contribute to the world economy? The ‘world’ is like an eye, the economy occupies the fovea, and images of events that are seen as dragging the economy down land on the blind spot, the point that ironically connects the eye to the brain! Of course, the fact that I get my ‘news’ from English-language channels and sites decides what I ‘know’, so someone somewhere might be taking action on this and I may never hear of it.

*****

These were some of the thoughts triggered by what I read off the ticker on TV. Then I browsed the net a bit and found that pros and cons are still being debated furiously. While environmentalists have raised concerns about the ‘dangers’ of nuclear reactors and radioactive waste, the World Nuclear Association and scientific journals and blogs have countered the ‘myths’.

So I’m none the wiser!

If I have to choose I might throw in my lot with Science, because I believe scientists take a calculated risk after working out the theoretical framework of anything experimental. And new findings are peer-reviewed and replicated by others. It is not my business to make judgments on nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.

Leave alone nuclear reactors, I wouldn’t have had the imagination to invent a bicycle if it didn’t exist! I wouldn’t think it possible to stay balanced and move forward on two narrow wheels attached to a frame, a thing on which I can stay astride only as long as I constantly work my feet up and down!

Auroville, India

greener grass

When I was a kid we sometimes visited relatives in a village called Kesaragadde near Mangalore during school holidays. Their farmhouse stood in the middle of lush green rice paddies. We would want to run out into the fields like we had seen people do in the movies. How different it was from the narrow road and tiny park of our neighbourhood in Bangalore, how vast and open!

But, no. Our aunt said that villagers who didn’t have toilets in their homes used random fields, so you never knew what you might step on . . . There were many questions about this, like what happens when you need to harvest your crop, or but isn’t it your field Uncle, and why don’t they build their own loos, but mum’s warning look kept us from asking them.

Children’s storybooks from England were the staple when I was growing up, and the kids in those stories hiked through fields, woods and grassy meadows all the time. They camped out in tents far away from civilization. I did wonder, even then, where were the facilities in those wild, lonely places? It was obvious they used the fields and woods too, like the villagers in Kesaragadde, and some of the places they wandered through were private property too. That didn’t make it okay as such, but that’s the way it was everywhere, then, perhaps?

Anyway, I finally got my chance to run up a gently sloping grassy hill in England on a family holiday a few years ago. We passed these beautiful velvety green hills while driving through the Lake District and pulled over into a convenient little bay near a stile. We rushed excitedly up the slope, enjoying the feel of springy grass underfoot, the kids shouting to each other that they could roll down the hill like people did in old Hindi movies . . .

Hardly five metres up, and we stepped straight into piles of sheep droppings! So much for plans for rolling down the slope! And don’t even talk about the scraping of soles before getting back in the car.

For me, a childhood fantasy got a reality check. For the kids, a lesson: The grass might look greener on the other side of the world, but it’s as full of s––– as the grass on your side of the world!

After a couple of days we visited the Linlithgow palace in Scotland set amidst lovely lawns. The kids joyfully ran up the slope towards the castle. They looked so carefree, so exhilarated, such a joy to watch . . . At the top they came across a sign: Keep off the grass.

So, Lesson #2: If the grass looks good, and is not pasture, you aren’t allowed to step on it!

They quickly got off the lawn, disappointed.

And, therefore, Lesson #3: Do well in school, go to college, get a job, buy a house and have your own lawn 🙂 Don’t wait to be ‘allowed’, make it happen!

While writing this, I suddenly remembered that I had visited Kesaragadde with my son when he was four, just for a few hours. I dug out the snaps from that trip. So I had got a chance to walk through the fields after all, and the paths had been clean, and it had been a nice, happy, sunny day . . .

the yin and yang of enid blyton

Enid Blyton has recently been accused of sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and lack of literary merit. Well! After 70 years, an organization called English Heritage chooses to reappraise her works through the filter of the current value system. Not my circus, not my monkeys, except that I grew up loving her books in faraway India, and feel impelled to speak up.

Even if some of this harsh criticism were true, I would say her characters simply reflected the mores of those times, or at least what most ordinary people of that time might have agreed with. As someone who has read her books over and over as a child, and later as a mom, here’s my take.

Sexism: That Georgina of Famous Five wanted to be George was not hard to understand. Growing up with brothers who had more freedom, I could see the advantages of being a boy too! Cousin Anne preferred being protected to being free, so she was considered a normal girl, in keeping with patriarchal attitudes that, by the way, are still widely prevalent. Then there was the fiercely independent Henrietta, who went by Henry, in Five go to Mystery Moor, and the fearless Wilhelmina, who went by Bill, in Malory Towers. Wilhelmina didn’t want to be a boy, but growing up with seven brothers might’ve made her boyish.

Racism: There’s ambivalence towards the French in many of her books for sure. She often said that French kids did not have the ‘famous English sense of honour’ and, therefore, lied to get out of things like swimming and nature walks, but in the next breath she hastened to highlight their cleverness, artistic talent, sense of humour and forgiving nature. Actually, her ambivalence comes through more clearly in the characterisation of the various Mam’zelles.

She talked up the Irish, Scots and Welsh who were always frank, outspoken, dependable and righteous people, loyal to the idea of a united Britain, perhaps reflecting Enid Blyton’s own pride in the British Empire.

Circus folk in the Mr. Galliano’s circus series, Circus of Adventure and Five Have a Wonderful Time were multiracial and exotic and she gave them a wide berth when it came to bad manners, a lack of hygiene, lack of integrity, bad grammar (yes! like “didn’t ought to”), and other traits she disapproved of in civilized folks.

Americans were ‘large’ and hearty and addressed people as ‘Honey’. They longed to acquire an English accent. They had big cars and were rich and vain, but also generous.

Enid Blyton did try to balance the yin and yang of a lot of her characters!

However, Indians were caricatured, like Mr. Hohoha of Bong Castle, India, in the Mystery of Tallyho Cottage, or used as a simile to describe a sunburnt White person’s skin tone.

Xenophobia: No. In fact, she was careful to not ruffle international feathers and invented countries like Prince Paul’s Baronia (Spiggy Holes) and Prince Gussy’s Tauri-Hessia (Circus of Adventure) instead of setting villainous kidnappings and murders in real countries. Villains whose names sounded Spanish or German usually belonged to unnamed European countries, though she sometimes slipped up, like making Engler the villain an Austrian in the Mystery of Banshee Towers. But, frankly, nine out of ten criminals were White and British, so I won’t even make a representational list here.

Homophobia: There was hero-worship of older boys/girls by younger boys/girls certainly, but there was nothing sexual, not even the hint of a crush anywhere! Blushing was either due to shyness or because a bolder child had made public a secret talent or good deed of a timid one!

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The slight snobbery of the upper middleclass Find-outers was obvious to me because I recognized it here too. They had a benevolent but faintly patronizing attitude towards the house help and the policeman’s nephew, Ern Goon. But the fact that the children were always trying to be fair in giving respect, praise and criticism registered subliminally. It did bring about a subtle positive change in how I interacted with people who worked for my family.

The Famous Five seemed to mix around with gypsies on equal terms though, but mostly because the gypsies were unscrupulous and dangerous. The Five came in contact with all sorts of lowlife but dealt with them with dignity, with Timmy the dog’s help, of course. Even the bickering and making up among them influenced me to behave better when my siblings and I squabbled.

The School stories derided snobbery and strongly advocated looking at the strength of a girl’s character and not her parents’ wealth or social standing. Character was a big deal, a common thread running through most of her books. That, and a sense of honour. Humility was much appreciated. Even gifted girls with musical or artistic abilities of a high standard were ‘taken down a peg’ if they thought too much of themselves.

What I’m saying is that I – and many of my generation – benefitted from Enid Blyton’s books, apart from truly enjoying her stories in the mystery, adventure and school genres. Younger children enjoyed the magic realism in The Wishing Chair and The Faraway Tree series, and fantasy in the Noddy (wooden boy who comes to life, like Pinocchio) and Mr. Pinkwhistle (half man, half brownie) series. I remember how much my sister loved Mr. Pinkwhistle and Mr. Meddle stories when she was in second grade.

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There are two genres that I have not seen mentioned in any of the articles that have been in the media recently: Drama, and what could be called Documentary.

Drama:

There are a whole lot of books, family dramas, from which I imbibed many good values as a girl. Being children’s books, the characters are necessarily black and white, but that doesn’t matter, as I realized during my multiple readings for each of my kids.

Each story deals beautifully and lovingly, but sensibly and firmly, with how families cope when bad luck befalls them and they are beset by difficulties; how they all pitch in and pull their weight; how each member contributes and grows from the experience. The stories deal with relationships and family dynamics, often including extended family – cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – and farm animals and pets too.

There is a strong emphasis on consequences of actions like lying, stealing, shirking responsibility, laziness, procrastination, carelessness, etc. Some books focus exclusively on the importance and value of friends. Issues of fairness, loyalty, trust, dependability and courage get spotlighted in these.

This is the list of family dramas that I read to my children, simply explaining anachronisms as I went along, like telling them that there used to be dolls called ‘gollywog’ a long time ago. In the welter of gnomes, goblins, fairies and elves, plus toys that came alive at night, I felt it was okay for the moment to not launch into details, given that children are naturally accepting of differences.

  • The family at Red-Roofs
  • Those dreadful children
  • The children at Green Meadows
  • House-at-the-corner
  • Six cousins at Mistletoe farm
  • Six cousins again
  • The Put-em-rights

Documentary:

I had read a book by Enid Blyton called The Six Bad Boys when I was 11 years old. It was about neglected children ending up in a gang and getting in trouble with the police, then going through the Juvenile Court. I was deeply impacted – cried buckets – by this book because it is about kids with uncaring, irresponsible parents, something unexpected in Enid Blyton’s books, and something unexpected in my 11-year-old life. I wanted to buy a copy (as the one I had read was from a library that happened to shut down soon after) but it wasn’t available for years.

A few years ago I came across it in a bookstore and bought it. I read it again, as a parent this time. It’s a book that is still relevant, maybe even more so now, and I wish every parent would read it.

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In Norse mythology the gods amused themselves by throwing objects at Baldr, the much-loved son of Odin, because he was not susceptible to harm. Loki the evil god handed a sprig of mistletoe to Höd the blind god to toss at Baldr. It was the only thing that could kill him. And it did.

Like Loki, the National Heritage people seem to be handing out sprigs of mistletoe in the shape of a bunch of modern –isms to the blind Höds among us who cannot see the joy Enid Blyton has given millions of children all over the world. Her books have been translated into 90 languages and sold 600million copies!

Do we really want interest in her books to die? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to use instances of her biases to learn and educate, so we don’t make the same mistakes? Or even better, pick up what is good and worth emulating in her characters? Surely, cancel culture is not the most effective use of history.

remarkably like us!

‘A virus is a small collection of genetic code surrounded by a protein coat’. A human being is a collection of genetic code enclosed in a physical body.

‘Viruses infect cells and use components of the host cell to survive and make copies of themselves’. Human beings live on earth and commandeer its resources to survive and make copies of themselves.

‘Viruses can replicate only inside the living cells of an organism’. Human beings can reproduce only on this planet because earth makes homeostasis – and therefore life – possible.

‘Often, they kill the host cell in the process, and cause damage to the host organism’. Often, they destroy essential elements of the earth in the process, and cause damage to the host planet.

In other words, our lungs are home to the corona virus just as the earth is home to us, and it seems we treat our homes the same way!

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There’s news that the Delta variant of Covid-19 that first surfaced here in India has mutated into a more virulent version. It’s called Delta+ and seems resistant to currently used medicines.

We have watched the unicellular virus mutate over several virus generations now, and seen how it’s been adapting to stay one step ahead of us. Since we are multicellular and complex, we can observe human adaptations over generations only historically.

Our ancestors took thousands of years to change from quadrupeds to bipeds. Our out-of-Africa ancestors who migrated north took thousands of years to develop blue eyes and blond hair . . .

Over time, human beings tamed animals much bigger and stronger than themselves: cows for milk, oxen for plowing fields, horses for transport, elephants to haul logs and granite blocks, whales for oil to light lamps, feral dogs trained to herd flocks of sheep, etc.

We devised apiaries to lure bees into making honey for us, cooped up fowl, penned in sheep, goats, pigs, cows and other even-toed ungulates our gods permitted us to eat.

We designed dwellings to keep out big cats, and snakes, lizards, cockroaches, mosquitoes and other ‘vermin’. . .

Then we made anthelmintics to kill or paralyse worms that use us as hosts for part of their life cycle, we made antibiotics to attack cell walls of bacteria, antivirals to block receptors on our cells that viruses use to hook their spikes into . . .

We did a good job of promoting ourselves, perhaps at the expense of others who also live here on earth. I’m not complaining, it was a question of survival, and Nature is not kind to weaklings. We’ve come a long way, but I confess I am bothered by the use of animals in labs, slaughter of animals for meat, sometimes by caged animals in zoos too, but as debates on these topics are never conclusive, I never get into them.

Human exceptionalism has made us believe we own the earth and all its other inhabitants. We have behaved towards other animals exactly as did colonisers who invaded other continents and treated indigenous people as lesser beings, to be used and abused. We have turned the planet into an exclusive gated community for humans.

For all we know, Corona might be an Avenging Angel acting on behalf of all the animals that have fallen prey to Homo sapiens, the ultimate predator, for hundreds of years! And to think we might have shot ourselves in the foot this time by creating our own tormentor! God must be watching grimly from heaven, having decided He won’t lift a finger to help us.

perhaps a silver lining

I got my second vaccine dose yesterday. I’m done for now, but who knows how the final vaccination schedule will pan out, with newer strains, or variants of concern as they are called, still proliferating. These vaccinations could turn out to be an annual ritual. I’ve stopped questioning. What’s the point anyway?

A genuine accident, an act of carelessness, supreme recklessness, a deliberate plan, whatever it was, it has changed everything. I’m talking about the origin of the almighty Virus, of course. Our individual worlds are now tiny spaces in which the same activities repeat day after day, especially during the weeks of lockdown.

For some, it is getting the body battle-ready for COVID – drinking brews made from ginger, turmeric or pepper, squeezing lemon juice on everything that’s served, three different types of exercise regimens scheduled at intervals through the day . . .

For some, it is cleaning out the airways and lungs by inhaling steam with the hope of killing the viruses before they can get in there and start a cytokine storm . . .

For some, it is protecting body and soul through prayer, meditation and chanting, because they believe nobody in the world knows anything about this thing that has descended on us like a swarm of locusts . . .

For some, it is keeping track of the virus in real time, listening to Dr. Anthony Fauci’s pronouncements, picking through whatsapp forwards for new information, following the COVID stats gravely intoned by TV presenters . . .

For some, it is watching movies and shows on Netflix to escape into a world where nobody wears masks and there’s no social distancing, and life is the way it used to be . . .

For some, it is work-from-home, probably the least dysfunctional activity in these times. Those living in the tiny universe of their w-f-h jobs stole a march over COVID by sequestering themselves in makeshift home offices even before the lockdown was announced . . .

For some, it is filling up waking hours with up-skilling, to be eligible for job promotions ‘after COVID’ . . .

For some, it is cooking for family members w-f-h, doing dishes, sweeping, mopping, dusting, occasionally popping out at 7:00 a.m. to the neighbourhood general store for groceries and little necessities . . .

For some, it is reading all the unread books bought over the years, thankful for the uninterrupted time to read, at times marveling at the kind of books their younger versions had chosen to buy!

And so on . . .

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Sometimes I feel like a bewildered child that has passed through Bowlby’s stages of Protest and Despair and has reached the stage of Detachment. My deadened limbic system doesn’t react to news anymore. My head does not process stats and graphs, or try to figure out details about the virus, vaccine technology or vaccine politics.

As far as I’m concerned, it no longer matters whether the Chinese painstakingly crafted the ‘novel’ corona virus in their lab at Wuhan, or tossed some bat viruses into the Hadron collider and zapped into existence a new species with superpowers.

I’m never going to know whether American and European scientists – as recent reports say – were involved in the gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab or it was China’s independent project.

I will never know whether it is a biological weapon surreptitiously unleashed on the world, or an accident that serendipitously brought prosperity to China while decimating the economies of other countries.

The damage is done.

Nobody’s going to confront China anyway. Even Tedros and his WHO team weren’t given access to raw data on their fact-finding mission to Wuhan earlier this year. And if other countries were indeed involved they will go into a secret huddle, make deals, and issue a cleverly worded press statement. A thousand TV channels will convey it to a not-so-gullible, but ultimately powerless, public . . .

I don’t believe our vote is as powerful as it is made out to be, because most of the people who stand for elections are very similar when you scratch the surface and look.

I never said the world is fair to all, and it is very much in the natural order of things, for example, that CONMEBOL (governing body of football in S America) has got Brazil to agree to host Copa América despite being a COVID hotspot, because CONMEBOL has had much bigger losses than the ordinary citizens of Brazil, right?

The same goes for the International Olympic Committee’s reluctance to cancel the Japan Olympics this year even though 70% of the population does not want the Games held there. Risk-benefit analyses depend on who has more clout, not on what is fair or humane.

These corona years will pass into history in a couple of years. Millions will have died, millions will have been pushed into poverty and, yes, a few billionaires will have been created by COVID economics.

Alongside all this, though, armies of young Indians – all with their heart in the right place – will have quietly discovered how much they are capable of achieving if they use their smarts and their considerable skills for the greater good. The newspapers are full of stories of initiatives taken by Indians of all ages, most especially the younger lot, and they kindle hope that the future of our youth may not be as bleak as it seems.

This, then, is what I choose to see as the silver lining to this disastrous pandemic.