Sunday, December 27, 2015

We care for you....

Joint families had their advantages and disadvantages. Many persons belonging to three or four generations living under one roof was possible and necessary in the days of limited opportunities to move away and make a living. There were strong men working in the fields or outdoor jobs and women looking after maintaining food supply at home. There were relatively idle older people to look after the babies and toddlers. The system itself took care of the old and sick. Nobody was left alone to fend for himself or herself and old age was not a burden to be carried on one's own shoulders. True, physical pain and suffering was not transferable, but emotional and psychological support was always available to the older ones at home. The comfort level for the old and sick might not have been the same for all; it depended on the atmosphere and values at their respective homes. Nevertheless, there were no huge problems of the old living a life in solitary sojourns and waiting for the final call. There were indeed some cases here and there; it had not reached epidemic proportions. Medical facilities were limited and life expectancy was low as well. 

Improved quality of life and developments in medical and surgical facilities have now enhanced the life expectancy. Education levels of women have noticeably gone up opening up abundant avenues for them to work and earn on the same footing as men. Advancement in transportation has enabled movement to far off lands for education and employment. Joint families have disintegrated and problems have crept up in taking care of infants and toddlers on one side and old and sick on the other. Better financial status of families can provide some funds for taking care of these sections. More and more "Daycare" facilities have come up for taking care of babies and toddlers and kids after they return from schools. The problem of managing old age and related issues has not yet found similar solutions around us at least for the present times. 

There are some organizations that are doing yeoman service in taking care of the aged and sick. Some institutions provide good "Day care" facilities for the aged as well. Old age homes are growing in numbers and some of them are indeed providing good care and security to the inmates. Cost for quality care is naturally higher and all cannot afford these charges. Old age homes with lower charges are unable to provide quality care. Some of them present a pathetic look and a visit to them makes one sorrowful and sorry. The faces of the inmates has only one expression; the one of awaiting the final call. There is an urgent need to develop institutions that adopt a commercial yet compassionate approach to running old age homes. 

Many old men and women would prefer to continue to live in their own homes and familiar surroundings than move into a old age home. This gives a better sense of living and purpose in life in those tender years. The care required is basically non-medical in nature. What are the requirements of the aged people who are constrained to stay either alone or with spouse, but want to remain in their own homes? Many of them need the following facilities:
  • Companionship and social interaction. Movement physically may be restricted, but otherwise mentally agile and hence living singly during the day becomes a burden.
  • Light house keeping help due to restricted movement on account of either advanced age or sickness.
  • Assistance in preparation of meals of their liking and choice or as prescribed to them by a physician.
  • Support for bathing and personal hygiene and assistance in laundry and grocery shopping and arrangement.
  • Transportation service or companionship during outings for social or cultural functions and get-togethers.
  • Fixing and managing appointments with family physicians and specialists.
  • Reminding for medication, making beds and arranging their belongings so that they are within reach overnight.
  • Additional support would be required for patients under rehabilitation after surgery, Alzheimer and Dementia cases.
  • Wheel chair and bed-bound patients would require a lot more understanding and physical support.

Many countries have regulations for providing such support by registered institutions. The candidates sponsored by them are given adequate training in handling these requirements. They are also trained in giving first aid and emergency support. They have their own conveyance arrangement and motivated to develop service mentality along with working for a living as well through such work. The candidates can work either full time or part time. They can also offer to stay as live-in mates. The decision to choose the candidate rests with the hirers. The sponsoring organizations check on the service on an on-going basis. 

With each passing day, more and more members of the older generation are moving into the pool requiring such services. The need is to meet these requirements and yet provide the required assistance with reasonable charges. Governments of the day should devote some time and resources to address this problem. Some budgetary support and contributions from CSR sources would come in handy to reduce the financial costs as well. A regulated and answerable system to help the old and sick is now a responsibility of the society.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Do you want a share?

Some six to seven decades ago, production of adequate food for the large populations was a big issue for many countries. World War II had taken its huge toll on civilized society. During the war years (1939-1945) almost all able bodied men were recruited to the fighting armies and the labour force to work in agriculture fields was had simply vanished. Large areas of agriculture lands were turned into battlefields. Bombing and destruction of bridges and canals to retard the speed of advancement of enemy armies had further cast a shadow on the agriculture infrastructure. Diverting all food supplies to armies resulted in famines in many parts of the world. An estimated 3 to 4 million people died in the 1943 famine of Bengal itself. Many parts of Asia and Africa reeled under severe shortage of food. The number of deaths due to depriving of two square meals a day killed more humans than the war itself.

The urgent need to develop and adopt progressive agriculture methods to increase food production brought in extensive research and scientific applications. Newer varieties of grains, especially in Rice, Wheat and Corn were introduced. Chemical fertilizers were developed and used in large quantities all over the world. Food production increased considerably and many countries achieved self sufficiency in food production. Unfortunately, these developments had their side effects as well. A part of the chemicals used as fertilizers found its way into flowing and ground water. Use of pesticides further compounded the ill effects. These chemicals merged with the produce and reached the stomach of the consumers. While pests themselves developed immunity against these pesticides, consumers suffered due to their effects on their bodies. Phosphatic fertilizers contributed to eutrophication due to their quality of promoting growth of algae resulting in lower oxygen levels in water bodies. Nitrates enhanced ground water pollution. An increased awareness of threat to human beings and ecology by these fertilizers brought the farming methods to a full circle. Organic farming has again taken center stage.

Organic farming emphasizes on use of green manure, biological pest control and rotating pattern of raising crops. Petrochemical fertilizers are discouraged in growing crops and use of hormones for livestock is restricted. More and more people are looking for organic fruits and vegetables. Large chain stores display organic fruits and vegetables in separate enclosures. Other items like grain and flour display the word "Organic" in bold letters. Consumers in advanced countries have started checking the "organic produce" labels before putting the items in their shopping carts. They often cost more, but the psychological relief they bring is valued high. In short, consumers are lapping up any opportunity for getting their share of organic food items. 

During my recent visit to rural Pennsylvania, USA, one special feature was noticed. Consumers around farming villages are taking more interest in organic farming. There are farms using only organic fertilizers and pesticides. Consumers of fruits and vegetables can take part in the activities at the farm indirectly. The farms encourage the consumers to pay a lump sum at the beginning of the cropping season and take a share in the produce grown in the farm. The payment is made at the begging of the summer months and they are given a share in the produce, in accordance with the advance payment made by them. Amounts are paid in April and supply of fruits and vegetables starts from May and continues till the end of October. Every week on a fixed day, say Friday, the farm places the items grown in the lands for distribution to the financing households. The items are kept in an order with a notice board displaying the list of vegetables and quantity to be taken for each share.  Consumers visit the farm and take their share of fruits and vegetables in an orderly manner. The arrangement concludes in October as winter would be setting in. Thus for a period of six months, consumers get farm fresh organic vegetables and fruits.

A visitor to the farm can see the advanced farm mechanization and irrigation methods in use in them. Green houses are used for growing some vegetables. The consumers are allowed to enter some areas of the crop growing land and pluck the produce themselves as in the case of beans, mint and lettuce. Children derive great enjoyment while picking flowers from the plants they are allowed to. The whole activity goes on in a disciplined manner and it is a good outing for families on a friday evening. There are no instances of any attempts to gain by violating the norms. It is also an opportunity to see the various plants and flowers as well as get fresh fruits and vegetables within a few hours of their being harvested. 

The picture shown here is of a cone shaped cabbage grown there. The cabbage we usually see is either spherical or elliptical in shape. There is also this conical variety and the shape is like a rose bud but much bigger in size! 

This system of crop sharing has advantages both for the farming community as well as the consumers. It protects the farmers from the vagaries of crop yields. As the payment is received in advance, a part of the cost of raising the crops is already financed. If there is a bumper yield, the consumers get bigger shares of fruits and vegetables. If there is a modest crop, their share is also modest. If for some reason, crops fail, consumers also share the loss and develop better understanding of the farmer's miseries. Individual losses are small, but farmer gets relief in case of crop failure. As part of the the crop is sold before it is raised, farms save on transportation costs. The consumers are benefited by getting organic items without the necessity to check labels. They are closer to the nature here than when they visit the supermarket. 

This type of co-operative farming, if it can be called as such, deserves to be encouraged. Thee would be a closer farmer-consumer relationship and prevent middlemen who benefit at the cost of both farmers and consumers. However, basic discipline is to be ensured during the entire period of the contract by all the participants in the venture.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

My Fair Lady - the Play

George Bernard Shaw, the well known Irish playwright has the distinction of being the only Nobel-prize and Oscar winning person. "My Fair Lady" is a musical play based on his play "Pygmalion". It is said that Shaw wrote the play in 1912 and it was first staged in 1913, more than hundred years ago. It was a big hit and attracted wide approval. It became one of the all-time popular musical play in due course. Pygmalion is based in Greek mythology, about a sculptor who fell in love with his own carved statue. It refers to the phenomenon where higher expectations lead to higher performance. This higher expectation leading to higher performance is also known as Rosenthal effect, named after Professor of Psychology Robert Rosenthal who did extensive work on expectation-performance and non-verbal communication. It is believed that higher expectation of teachers leads to better performance of students.

When "My Fair Lady" was first staged by Broadway in 1956, Julie Andrews played the lead role of Eliza Doolittle with Rex Harrison as Professor Henry Higgins. This performance gave her much acclaim and led to further success in stage plays as well as films like Mary Poppins (1964) and Sound of Music (1965). When the stage play was produced as a film in 1964, Audrey Hepburn played the role of Eliza Doolittle while Rex Harrison was retained to play the role of Professor Higgins. The film was an outstanding success and is enjoyed by musical film lovers even today. It pocketed eight oscars (academy awards) including best picture, best actor and best director. It still attracts huge audience when presented on stage in different parts of the world. Songs like "I could have danced all night", "On the street where you live" and "Wouldn't it be loverly" became hugely popular with the audience. NewYork Times review called it as the "perfect musical".

The story of "My Fair Lady" revolves around a Cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle and Professor of English Phonetics Henry Higgins. "Cockney English" refers to the accent or dialect of English traditionally spoken by working class Londoners. Higgins laments as to why many people do not talk proper English. He is of firm conviction that only the language separates classes and not money or customs. He wagers with another Phonetics scholar Colonel Pickering that he can turn Elizabeth Doolittle into a lady in six months by teaching her to speak properly. Colonel Pickering challenges Higgins to do so and agrees to bear the expenses of her training. An intensive training in speaking, dresses and mannerisms follows and Eliza comes out successful at the Embassy Ball. Eliza tells Higgins that she became lady not because of the teachings but due to the way Colonel Pickering treated her as a lady. Eliza finds that she cannot return to her old life now and Higgins cannot live without her as he has developed attachment to her. The play ends with the indication of a possible reconciliation between them.

Village Theatre is an organization dedicated to performing arts and functions from Issaquah, Washington state, USA. It's Francis J Gaudette Theatre in Issaquah, about 20 miles from the city of Seattle, presents stage plays regularly. The 35 year old 500 seater auditorium provides facilities such as sound proof family rooms for watching play (so that parents with small children can see plays with them, but not disturbing other theatre lovers), dressing rooms, rehearsal rooms, shops and other amenities. The theatre has staged over 85 musicals and also provides kid stage that offers theatre classes to children and youth in the age group of 3 years to 20 years through its art enrichment pre-school. Village Theatre is a popular destination for theatre lovers in its surroundings.

We were privileged to visit the auditorium last fortnight and see a performance of "My Fair lady", staged by a group of about 30 local artistes. The performance of the artistes on the stage was of a high standard and well supported by the music, light and sound. The three hour play was performed without wasting a minute. The stage provided for moveable fixed sets with real staircases, balconies, furniture and other physical displays. Change between scenes was effortless and quick. The entire performing team worked as a well-oiled machine and brought the true pleasure of watching a musical like "My Fair Lady". It was also great to watch many youngsters and senior citizens alike visiting the theatre and encouraging stage plays.       

Friday, December 4, 2015

Resilience and Triumph

Sales and Marketing experts use a term "FMA" or "First Mover Advantage", that refers to the benefits gained by the early movers into a market segment who can capitalize on the prevailing situation and establish themselves as a market leader. Early movers have no competition and stay as monarchs till the later players come in. In many other walks of life, early movers have a distinct disadvantage as they have to wade through unchartered waters. They have no idea as to what to expect and what may happen next. Each situation is a new challenge and calls for an immediate and spontaneous response. There are no precedents or advisors; each issue has to be dealt and learnt through one's own experiences. Such learning through own experiences are invaluable, but often extract a heavy price from the persons put through them. But these experiences are the ones that steel and temper human beings and make the quest for a better life that much more enjoyable despite the pain that they bring. They suffer from "Early Mover Disadvantage" and yet emerge as people who lay the road for the successors to travel much more comfortably.

History is the study of the past events and told to us by someone, who record and document the events. The history we have on any aspect of human life is based on visual and written evidence of the past and their present interpretation. Such recorded history suffers from two infirmities: the limitations of the historians themselves and impact of their own likes, dislikes and prejudices. Historians living at the time of recording events in the past were naturally beholden to their benefactors and tended to glorify them while putting down their opponents. Historians of today who record past events are many times guilty of viewing the age-old events with the eyeglasses of the present times. The official history we have, therefore, is history with many distortions.  The true history gets buried somewhere in the volumes of the official versions. The story of the lives of the common man is relegated to the background and glossed over.

This is even truer in the context of the history of immigrations and movement of people to newer destinations. Such movement was generally for higher education, job opportunities and search for better life elsewhere. Some fifty years ago, avenues for higher education and advanced professional jobs were not available in abundance in many parts of the world. North America, USA, and Canada, in particular, offered openings for all these reasons, and many young people moved there from various parts of the world. They were early movers in the sense of such migration. The atmosphere into which they walked in was much different than what it is today. Technology was not this advanced and communication facilities were not the same. Many places did not have electricity available freely. Air-conditioning or heating were not available at many centers to cushion the vagaries of severe summer or winter. Computers had not yet made their appearance, and they had to rely on public transportation as owning a car was not that easy. Many students migrated on the backing of small scholarships as bank loans were not available. Households did not have the financial strengths to sponsor higher education. Issues of obtaining visas and making travel arrangements were also not easy tasks. There were no direct flights from smaller centers in their home countries like today. Opportunities for earning while pursuing courses in the Universities were not many. Managing oneself on the limited financial resources added to the physical problems of stay, food and entertainment. Understanding the culture and living pattern of the regions was a major challenge. Achieving the acceptance of the immigrants by the local populations was a major task for those arrived at these destinations. The immigrants had to develop close bonds with other members of their groups. Sharing and caring were required in much larger measures then than today.

The situation was even more difficult for women. Their problems were complex due to their multiple roles as housewives or housekeepers, workers, and young mothers. In addition to their responsibilities as students or workers, they had to manage their chores like cooking, serving and raising kids. Adapting to the new living atmosphere was even more difficult for them given the cultural and physical environment in their countries of birth and growth. The only means of contact with those back home was through mail and writing letters or waiting for letters from loved ones in their country was a routine requirement. Visiting their countries required a lot of planning and was very expensive too. The perception of those back home about the immigrants and the reality was vastly different. Some of them were more fortunate to find understanding friends and colleagues. Others were not that fortunate and had to face hostile situations. They marched on with commitment and dedication towards the goals for which they migrated to new stations. Strong friendship and mutual co-operation from other immigrants formed the cornerstone of their journey. There were always a few understanding locals available in times of need and crisis.

The present generation of students and workers moving for education and job opportunities today has a much-improved atmosphere. Present times too have their complexities and challenges. It is not that everything is easy and simple today. But there is a marked difference in the two scenarios. Today’s students can obtain bank loans, and their households have better financial muscle to sponsor higher education abroad. Multinational companies with presence in their countries of birth and migration provide similar working conditions and set-ups. Communication facilities are excellent, and one can talk to their people back home many times a day. E-mail and Face Time enable continuous contact with friends and relatives. Contact and networking with other students or groups are possible for seeking and extending support. Students can find out someone who would receive them at the airport, put them up for a few days in temporary accommodation and provide initial support. Improved banking channels can ensure inward remittance within hours in an emergency. Practices and customs in the new country can be better-understood thanks to the advent of Television and Internet.

Is there a need for the present generation to understand the history of the immigrants of the previous generations? Are there any lessons for them available in the tales of the migrants of earlier generation? Many would dispute their need and relevance today. Nevertheless, such a record is necessary to complete the history as well as developing better perspective for present generation to understand where they stand now in comparison to the previous generation.

A group of enthusiasts of the previous generation of immigrants thought on these lines. To broad base the variety and authenticity of the effort, they reached out and requested their friends to contribute their experiences in the form of small articles and publish the collection as a book. More than 50 women immigrants from various parts of the world (who migrated to Canada in the 1960s and thereafter) responded to the request. They have contributed their experiences in the form of articles. A dedicated team has edited these articles and brought out a book titled "Resilience and Triumph". The Second Story Press, Ottawa, Canada on 3rd December 2015, has released the book. 

The book (ISBN 978-1-927583-85-2) makes for interesting reading and brings out the resolve of the determined women who overcame the challenges and emerged successfully. A reading of this book provides a wider perspective of time and life in those crucial years. There are many lessons to be learnt from these experiences. This bunch of contributors in bringing out this book deserves our congratulations and gratitude. They have indeed brought to surface, the buried history of the earliest immigrants!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

I am ready with the tools, Sir

Living in own house has its advantages in comparison to life in a rented house. There are many physical benefits in addition to emotional comforts. There is no problem of the searching scrutiny of the landlord, especially if he or she is living in another part of the building. Lady of the house can go on buying whatever she wants as there is no problem associated with packing and movement while changing houses. Rented house is not our property; taking proper care of the building or not can reflect on our values and culture. If this is ignored, there is no problem of maintenance. However, living in own house has its disadvantages too. Even small problems cause more mental tension. The biggest disadvantage is that the problem cannot be transferred to the landlord and denies the pleasure of reminding him repeatedly till it is redressed. On the other hand, if the lady of the house is reminding of the problem repeatedly, intensity of the pain can only increase! The quantity and quality of problems increase as the building ages and becomes old. The troubles are confounded as we would also have aged with the building.

We had one such trouble some years ago. Rodents had made home rather unauthorizedly in the sewerage lines of the house. They had neither obtained permission for settling there nor paying rent, but living and multiplying comfortably. There were disciplined enough not to trespass into the house and fortunately there was no problem inside the house. But the sewerage lines were blocked and water flow was disrupted. It is difficult to find workers to handle these types of issues. Finally one person was located. He came, dug up the entire length of the lines, removed the heaps of muds deposited by the bandicoots and cleared the way. My presence was required throughout the action and he needed support by providing buckets, mugs, pouring water and checking the flow, answering his questions etc. He took a lunch break in the middle of the work and went away for two hours. I could neither go out on other errands nor relax at home as it was not known when he would come back. After he was finally done with the job, water was flowing freely. He said that the lines are to be got covered by someone else as he does not do that type of jobs. The sewerage lines were now left open and could not be left that way for long for well-known reasons. Another person was found for covering the lines, after much efforts. He arrived at his convenience and needed money for cement and bricks before start of the work. Items were bought and work was started, but he said the quantity of cement was insufficient and needed more money for additional purchase. He finished the job, charged more than what was agreed and was about to leave. When asked to clean the surroundings, he said it could be got done by our domestic help on the next day.

The problem of blocked drains returned after one month. The person found for solving it started by advising me that the earlier worker had done a horrible job and hence the problem has returned. He was told to complete the entire work up to cleaning stage. He found co-workers and ran a fat bill. Other troubles in getting the work done were the same like unscheduled lunch and tea breaks, asking for help and observing water flows etc. At last the work was completed but the problem returned after one month. When I mentioned about the problem to friends and relatives, each of them said they had faced similar problems. There is lot of comfort in sharing such problems with friends and relatives. Some of their tales made me feel better because their ordeals were much worse. One friend even said that he had to get a part of the wall re-done because the water was flowing into the foundation after repairs, instead of the sewerage main lines outside the house. Ultimately I had to find the solution myself. I got the entire line replaced using strong pipes instead of brick and cement masonry work. Thankfully the problem has not returned. The bandicoots are probably still learning about penetrating those strong pipes.
My host here in USA had some issues with his house and needed some help to address them. He told me that the worker would come at 11 AM and I was requested to get the jobs done as he would be away on some other work at that time. I reluctantly agreed and braced myself for the ordeal in the light of my earlier experiences. The items for fixing and repair included a small leak in the roof, clearing clogged drains and repairs to the glass doors. A car stopped in front of the house five minutes before 11 AM. The driver waited for five minutes and rang the bell at exactly 11 AM. He asked me to advise the jobs to be done and show the spots. Once it was done, he inspected the problem areas  and said that there were two more issues that required fixing which we were not aware. He showed the spots and suggested that it be got done now or else the problems may aggravate during snowfall. He wanted to know the opening loft position in the house to enable him to reach the ceiling to fix the leak. We said that there is no such loft inside the house. He insisted that the houses have such an arrangement as he knew layout and structure of such houses. He identified the loft, went in it and made a final inspection. He said he would be back on the next day with the required material, at the same time.

He arrived promptly at the appointed time. He wanted to start the work. Out of courtesy, I asked whether he needed any support from me. My host had shown me the tool room in his backyard and I thought some tools lying there could be handy. "I am ready with the tools, Sir", he said looking at his mini truck parked in front of the house. "I have all the items and chemicals required for the jobs as well", he said and proceeded with his work. There were no breaks in the middle of his working. He used a collapsible ladder that was mounted on the truck for climbing over the house. The 15 feet folded steel ladder was extended to about 80 feet for reaching the top of the house. At the end of his work, he collapsed it to its original size and mounted again on the truck, all by himself. I was looking expectantly that my help may be called for holding the ladder, but there was no such request. 

He had identified the tools required for the various components of the work and ready with them at the start of the work. The tool kit had a collection of all tools for every conceivable application available in it. Required material was also kept ready in a bag. What was more impressive was the approach to the work.  He had waste cloth ready with him in his kit for spreading on the ground before placing the small ladder and tools on the floor inside the house, to prevent scratches on the floor and smudges on the carpet. At the end of his work, he cleaned all parts, removed the old screws and nails, shingles that were removed while repairing the ceiling etc. and carried them into a dust bin in his truck. There was no need for any cleaning to be done by the maid on the next day. 

I was now concerned about the amount to be paid for the work done. He said he would send an invoice by mail. The mail duly arrived and my host took care of it. I was advised that the final bill was less than what my host had anticipated. The bill had breakup of items used, inspection charges and service charges. The whole episode was a pleasant one. It was an example of professionalism at its best.
This is not to suggest that all experiences are either as good or as bad as above. There are good experiences as well as bad ones, everywhere. There is scope for planning and display of professionalism in all walks of life. That is what sets apart good workers from the mediocre ones. This also shows the importance of proper training as well as imparting and acquiring necessary skills in various walks of life.  

Monday, November 23, 2015

At the Library

Online dictionary defines a library as "a place set apart to contain books, periodicals and other reading material for reading, viewing, listening, study, or reference, as a room, set of rooms, or building where books may be read or borrowed". Such organizations may be public bodies catering to the needs of the general public or private institutions meant exclusively for their members. The facility may be made available free of charge or for a prescribed fee. Libraries have their own rules and regulations that are to be complied with to avail of their services. Whatever may be the context, the first thing that comes to the mind when the word "Library" is heard is books and books.

The earliest available library for us in our childhood in the Primary school (standard 1 to 4) was the single old bookcase kept in the room of the Head Master in the village school. There were very few books and we neither had access nor the capacity to read and understand their contents. It was not known whether the teachers themselves read those books. When we moved to the Middle school (standard 5 to 7) in the small town, the library was a little bigger with three or four bookcases. One teacher was in-charge of the library and we got 2 or 3 books during a full academic year. The position was much better in the High school with a separate room provided for the library and one period in a week earmarked for "Library" sessions. We could read some newspapers and magazines in the library room during lunch time. Each student had to pay a fee of 50 paisa (Half rupee) every six months as "Reading Room" fee. The college had a regular library with many books, but not many students were interested in the general books by then. Institutions we worked in for a living had their own libraries in big offices and were quite useful with stock of professional and general management books.

Villages hardly got any newspapers in those days. Small town had a few households getting newspapers regularly and one had to visit them in the evening to read the newspapers. Availability of the papers was directly proportional to the mood of the residents of the households. Some were kind to recognize our needs while the behavior of some others bordered on contempt. Three of us friends were regular visitors to the "Municipal Office" of the small town, every morning to read the daily newspapers. We had to wait until the Municipal President and Administrative Officer finished reading them. A new Administrative Officer who came on transfer was kind to instruct the watchman to allow us to read the papers before his arrival on the condition that the papers were handled with proper care by us. That was a big concession for us and a true recognition of our earnestness in those days!

Experience with public library later on were not very happy either, as they worked during the same hours, usually 10 to 5 during the day, when we would be working in our offices. Becoming a member was a difficult task as was borrowing and returning of the books. Much depended on the attitude of the staff manning the counters. Distances between places of work or stay and the libraries did not help matters either.
A few days ago, my hosts here were discussing about seeking an appointment after 8 PM at the local Library in Pennsylvania, for obtaining a passport for their two week old baby, I became alert. It was a surprise to think of an appointment that late in the evening and that too for obtaining a passport! I went along with them and made a round of the local Library and witnessed the process followed for obtention of a passport. There were many interesting features in the functioning of the library and the facilities they provide to the residents of the community. Some of them are given below:
  • Each county (similar to the Districts we have) has a set of libraries in different locations depending on the population of the areas. 
  • The libraries generally work form 9 AM to 9 PM on three days of the week and 9 AM to 5 PM on other three days of the week. Sunday is a holiday. Late working days are especially convenient to people at work during the day time.
  • Membership is free for local residents. Others too can become members by paying a nominal fee. 
  • Application for obtaining a library card can be made on-line. Libraries have easy access for differently abled persons.
  • On-line catalogues are available for reference and choosing books one needs to borrow or refer.
  • If the books needed is not available immediately, there is a system for reserving the books to borrow them when returned by others.
  • If the required book is available in another library of the county or even nearby counties, request for transfer can be made. The book arrives in 2 or 3 days. 
  • A book borrowed in one library can be returned at another library within the county.
  • Returning of books can be made through drop boxes located at the entrance of the libraries and need not be only during working hours and inside the library. Books deposited here are cleared periodically and accounted by the library.
  • In tune with the times, library activity is not confined to books alone. DVDs and E-books are also available at these libraries.
  • Libraries have well-equipped computer centers. Free wireless internet and public laptops and I-pads are available to the members. One hour free laptop use is allowed.
  • Computer centers have facility of scanners and printers available in them. Scanning is free of charge.
  • Self-copying and faxing are permitted for a reasonable fee.
  • Snacks and soft drink vending machines are installed for providing refreshments.

In addition to the above features, Libraries also provide various other services to the community and truly work as centers of learning. Other services provided include:
  • Learning environment for all residents is provided in various forms.
  • Educational programs and classes for different age groups like Pre-school kids, toddlers time, Babies and Books, Pre-school Yoga are held periodically. There are programs for kids, teens and adults as well.
  • Family music classes, computer help and job counseling sessions are held for the required groups.
  • Local author book talks are arranged to encourage local talent.
  • Income-tax forms are available at the libraries.
  • Duly filled Passport applications can be submitted at the Library. A designated official checks them, verifies with the original documents, takes photographs and sends them to the concerned authorities. A prescribed fee is levied for these services. Telephone appointments can be made for these services to avoid waiting time and enable proper planning.
  • Libraries have meeting room facilities for hosting cultural, civic and educational purposes on payment of prescribed fees. Advance booking can be made for such events.

These libraries are managed by Library Boards constituted by local residents. Funding is by local governments as well as donations from general public. Members of the general public can attend the library board meetings and offer suggestions.

I was also advised that some libraries have open gardens as reading rooms. You can pick a book from a tree, read it in its shade and return it to the tree with grateful thanks! I could not visit such a library this time. May be, it has to wait for another time.
Two weeks after the visit to the library with the baby and submission of the passport application, his passport arrived by mail. Obtaining a passport was that simple, thanks to the Library, systems followed and concerned departments. Modren libraries can certainly be agents of change and convenience to the general public!

Monday, November 9, 2015

Trick or Treat?

Remembering ancestors, celebrating harvest time and involving children through various activities during these events is a practice followed in all parts of the world. The name and form of the celebrations may differ from place to place and among societies; the essence and spirit of the festivals and the pleasures sought through them are the same everywhere. 

In our parts of the world, Navaratri or Dusserah (meaning nine nights and ten nights respectively) is celebrated around late September or early October. The festivities run for the entire period and has many forms of activities in different parts of the country. Staging of Ramleela with grand finale on the tenth day, Durga Puja, Ayudha Pooja and grand parades on Vijaya Dashami day are some of the forms of observance. There is a practice of arranging dolls in the houses artistically and tastefully during this ten day period. Children go from house to house in the evenings to see the captivating "Doll display" and enjoy the atmosphere. As the children visit the houses in the evening time, there is a practice of giving some snacks or refreshments to them by the households. During our younger days, we used to look forward to these festivals. Mid term holidays for the schools during the academic year, going to visit relatives, taking part in the evening "Doll show" rounds together enhanced the pleasure of the long period of celebrations. We used to carry small baskets for storing all refreshments received in the houses visited on the evening rounds. Pooling all refreshments and sharing among the siblings and friends was a thrilling experience. Modren life style has robbed the present generation of these pleasures.

In our country, the fortnight after Ganesh festival, second half of Bhadrapad month, is earmarked for remembering the ancestors. Families have a day for performing rituals of the deceased ancestors, as per family practices. The last day of the fortnight (New Moon Day), known as Mahalaya Amavasya, is widely celebrated among all sections as Sarva Pitru Amavasya. This is the time for all relatives to get together in one place, pay tributes to the ancestors and have a grand lunch together. In fact, the period of Navaratri or Dusserah starts immediately after Mahalaya Amavasya. 

Halloween festival observed in Europe, America and other parts of the world is also connected with remembering ancestors and involving children in the celebrations. It is observed on October 31st every year and dedicated to remembering the ancestors and all departed including saints, martyrs and all faithfuls. It's full name is All Hallows' Eve or All Saint's Eve and it is also deemed a harvest festival. Halloween arrives just before winter months. The festival has gained prominence from early 17th century and also said to mean Hallowed evening or Holy evening. Celebration practices include decoration of houses specially for the occasion with lighting and red pumpkins. Lights are used inside carved pumpkins and displayed in front of the houses. Pumpkin carving is itself an art and shops and malls display a variety of carved pumpkins days before the festival. Lanterns are also associated with the festival and there is a story of Jack-O-Lantern representing souls denied entry in both Heaven and Hell (Antara pishachi?).

In addition to decorating houses with pumpkins and lights, other celebration practices include attending special church mass services and lighting candles on the graves of the dead. Arranging Halloween costume parties is another popular phase of the festival. All participants including elders dress in special costumes for these parties. Families visit shops and malls for buying the costumes and pumpkin lights days before the event. On the evening of Halloween Day, children dressed in Halloween costumes and carrying Halloween bags go from house to house in the locality with the basic activity of "Trick or Treat?". The phrase "Trick or Treat" represents the children asking house owners whether they should carry out some trick on their property (meaning bringing some damage to it) or the house owners settle for a treat by way of offering candies to them!  Households keep candies, chocolates and similar items and offer to the children coming to their houses dressed in various costumes. Children have a large collection of assorted candies at the end of the rounds on the Halloween night. 

Our experience with Halloween during our earlier visits to USA was confined to decorating the house and offering candies to children on their rounds in the evening. This year it was extended further with one child in our own household making the "Trick or Trade" rounds. There were visits to the malls for purchase of carved pumpkin lights and Halloween dresses. We were also invited to a "Halloween Parade" in the school where all the children and teachers were present in Halloween costumes. The parade was followed by serving of refreshments to the participating children and visitors like us alike. In the evening, we had the pleasure of offering candies to children coming on "Trick or Treat" rounds and moving around with our participant in the rounds. We ourselves did not participate in any Halloween party in special costumes. May be that may have to wait for sometime later!

Halloween celebrations have many things in common with our own Mahalaya Amavasya and Navaratri/Dusserah. Halloween also signals the beginning of three months of celebrations - Thanksgiving day in November and Christmas in December and through to a new year on January first of the next calendar year.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Let us reduce their "Burden"

More than three decades ago, I arrived with family in Shimla (hill station and capital of Himachal Pradesh) for a week's vacation. Lodging was booked in a hotel near the bus stand. The hotel building was too near to hire a auto or taxi, but carrying luggage with two small kids was difficult. There were groups of workers helping travelers with their luggage movement. All of them carried bundles of ropes with them, around their shoulders. One of them approached me with offer to take our luggage. I showed him the hotel and asked for the amount to be paid for moving the luggage. He agreed to take the items of luggage for a stipulated charge. I mentioned that what he was asking for was high. He smiled and suggested that I give whatever I felt like after reaching the hotel. He called out a friend to help him out with the luggage. The purpose of carrying the rope with them dawned on us only then. The items of luggage were bound on his back using the rope. Another worker took the two kids on his shoulders. We were asked to walk behind them. The strain of walking on a steep gradient at 7200 feet above sea level was well understood by us by the time we reached the hotel. On the way to the hotel we could see workers carrying heavy items like two gas cylinders each and even refrigerator tied to their backs. After reaching the hotel, we paid the two helpers more than what they initially asked. What looked as a small distance was indeed a difficult climb. 

Watching farmers and workers carrying heavy gunny bags filled with grains or other items was a common sight, when we were young. Forklifts have generally taken over this job now, but manual labor is still used in bus stands or railway stations. Suitcases with wheels have made life easier for travelers, but difficult for those who make a living by carrying loads. Backpack bags have become very popular over the last two or three decades. 

The most common sight of backpack carriers we now see are school children. The fortunate ones who travel to school by cars or even dedicated school buses are a different proposition. But the kids carrying the heavy school bags in public transport face lot of misery twice a day. For some of them, it is difficult to enter the buses or get down from them. Their body can get in or get out, but not their bags. They have to face scolding and ridicule from some of the passengers in the bus as well.

I visited a children's hospital in Pennsylvania recently. One of the display boards carried an interesting piece about backpack injuries to children. Heavy backpacks can result in serious injury to the spine and can have long term consequences for children and adults alike. Heavy backpacks cause over stretching of muscle-ligaments in the spine. When the initial over-stretching progresses to the next level, it results in micro-tears in muscle-ligament attachments. Thus initial strain leads to sprain. Internet gives pictures of how a backpack bag should be used to avoid these strains. One of those pictures is given here.

The hospital has given some sound advice to parents about "Backpack strategies for children". They are easy to follow and can protect the kids from serious injuries. They are summarized below:

  • Total weight of the backpack should be not more than 10% of the body weight of the child. (For adults it could be 15 to 20%)
  • Backpack bag of the right size should be chosen for the child. That could mean changing the bag every year in the initial years.
  • Backpack bag should extend not more than 4" below the waistline of the child.
  • Only absolutely necessary items are to be kept in the backpack. This means checking the contents each day instead of sending the bag in a routine manner.
  • The backpack bag should have well padded shoulder straps. This puts less pressure on young collar bones.
  • Straps should be adjusted to give a balance to the weight. In other words, one side should not sag in relation to the other.
  • Heaviest items should be kept closer to the back, when the bag is put on the back of the child.
  • Weight should be equally distributed in the backpack bag. Keeping heavy items on one side is to be avoided.

If the child complains of back pain, it is advisable to check the above points instead of giving usual remedies like applying some balm on the shoulders and back.

The position is no different when we see adults using backpack bags. Many use only one shoulder for carrying the bag. This can also put extra strain on the back bone and spine.

Come, Let us reduce the "Burden" on the children as well as ourselves!

Sunday, October 25, 2015

What is their Strength?

History of mankind has been recording exploitation of the weak by the strong, from a long long time. It has been survival of the fittest as well as attack on the weak by the strong. "Might was right" when the society was unorganized and the strong always enjoyed at the expense of the weak. In order to instill a just and fair system, many alternatives were experimented. In course of time, the society evolved into a state of organized groups with a method to live under a unified command. The groups created a position of a leader whose writ ran through the members of the group. It was left to such leaders to ensure that the members of the group he led lived with a reasonable level of safety and protection. Not always that leaders of such groups dealt the subjects fairly. There were innumerable examples where a leader created for protection of all the members of the group, themselves exploited the members. These instances further aided in developing proper and acceptable codes for the leader to follow. 

To ensure such fair treatment of all the subjects under their command, the leaders were given support and guidance by a group of wise and unbiased men of high integrity. This was the beginning of the establishment of council of ministers, appointed or elected, to advise and support the leader. From a system of values suited to the times, codes were evolved to fit for all times to come. Many such codes have stood the test of time and contributed to the development of the science of rule of law and protection of the weak. These codes are also dynamic and have found revision and replacement in tune with the times. The experience was the same in all parts of the world as well as under different political systems. Kings and Monarchs to various "isms" and ultimately democracy allowing the members to choose their own systems as well as leaders. Moral and oral codes were replaced by written and enacted codes. The general idea was that everyone knows what to expect when a certain action is initiated. Ultimate objective was to provide a safe and secure system for all subjects to live peacefully and pursue individual growth within the development of the society.

Who are the weak? Who deserves to be protected? Who should initiate the action or process of protecting the weak? What is the recourse for the weak if the system is insensitive to their requirements? What is the protection if the system itself protects the strong instead of the weak? These are valid questions to be considered in the background of what is happening around us in our country as well as other parts of the world right now. This is the all the more important when some of the subjects do not know where and how to seek protection.

Physically weak, financially weak, illiterate, women and children are considered as weak in all codes and societies. These segments are not mutually exclusive and the basic weakness arises as they have more than one of these qualities. It is tragic that these weak groups are under attack in all parts of the world; it may be more in some corners and lesser in some others. The rulers and administrations are entrusted with the responsibility of protecting the weak. In other words, they are the strength of the weak. That is why ancient wisdom says, "दुर्बलस्य बलं राजा" (Durbalasya Balam Rajaa). 

Grown ups are conscious of their health and ways and means to keep fit. That is why today fitness industry is a multi-billion dollar business. What about exercise for the infants and toddlers? What is the source of strength for infants and toddlers? How do they attract the attention of their care takers? Grandmothers of yesteryears knew this secret. They always advised their daughters and young mothers to allow the child to cry a little before giving the required quota of milk. "Do not feed the child over and over on your own. Let him or her cry a little. Then the child will take the full quota and there will be no indigestion due to frequent feeding. Crying helps expand the lungs. That aids the growth process. Crying is required in some measure, but do not allow the child to cry too much as well!", they would advise. Hence the saying, "बालानम् रोदनं बलम्" (Baalaanam rodanam balam). 

What is the strength of a fool? As long as he keeps his mouth shut, at least the strangers would not come to know that he is a fool! This we experience in many meetings when some compulsive speakers always butt in with their unsolicited opinions. Ancient wisdom advises the fools to keep quiet as that is their real strength. It at least camouflages their foolishness. It is, therefore, "मूर्खस्य बलं मौनम्" (Moorkhasya balam mounam).

Where do thieves and scoundrels derive their strength from? How can they escape the law? At least try to scape? They take recourse to lies and falsehood. One lie leading to another and they can create a false world with falsehood.  Hence the old wisdom says, " चोरानाम् अनृतं बलम्" (Choranam anrutam balam).

All this is summed up in this little saying that was taught to school children fifty years ago and more:

दुर्बलस्य बलं राजा बालानां रोदनं बलम् |
मूर्खस्य बलं मौनम् चोरन्नं अनृतं बलम् ||

Durbalasya balam rajaa, baalaanam rodanam balam,
moorkhasya balam mownam, choranam anrutam balam!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Fall colors are here!

Onset of October gives a signal to mother nature to change her dress from the usual "Green" to more colorful ones. It will not be a single color like green hitherto, but a riot of multi-colors all at once. The change appears to have come overnight; the scene during a morning walk can be different than what one saw the evening before. The change is all the more striking in some parts of the world, where the winter temperatures fall quickly. In many parts of USA and Canada, viewing fall colors by driving up north is a big tourist attraction, especially for those who see this for the first time. This sight is available for about a month, after which nature opts for the white dress once it starts snowing. 

The normally green colors of the leaves of trees turns into a colorful display comprising various other colors. Red, yellow, purple, magenta, orange, pink, brown, and often a combination of more than one can be seen on the trees surrounding us. Botanists have a scientific way explaining this phenomenon, but humble poets and people driven by emotions see it as a fantastic display by mother nature. Leaves have a green pigment called "Chlorophyll" in them. This green color dominates all other colors that are present in the leaves and hence gives the lush green color all around when it is bright and sunny. During the sunny months when the temperature is high, chlorophyll gets used up in the process of preparation of starch. This production of food is vital for the lives of many animals including human beings. Chlorophyll so used up during photosynthesis gets replenished and the cycle continues. In winter, daylight hours shorten and nights get longer. When the temperature falls, the veins in leaves carrying the fluids close down and gradually dry up. As water and mineral intake reduces, chlorophyll not being dominant now, other colored pigments manifest themselves leading to the display of the multi-color display. 

Onset of fall colors reminds of our visit to Poconos and Leigh Gorge Scenic Railway during one of our earlier visits to USA. Among the many tourist centers visitors throng to view fall colors during the season, Pocono mountain range in the state of Pennsylvania, well known as Poconos, is  a very popular destination. It is less than two hours drive from both Philadelphia and New York. This is a 2400 square mile  area mountainous forests overlooking Delaware river. In the native Indian language, the word "Pocono" means the area between two hills. Poconos is an all-year tourist destination as the resort hotels around provide various activities like fishing, hunting, skiing, camping and golf. The journey through the winding roads provides a wonderful view of the fall colors and the beauty is seen to be believed. 

Visitors coming to Poconos also go to the Jim Thorpe Railway Station to have a ride on the "Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway" trip to view fall colors. This one hour 16-mile round trip takes the viewers from Jim Thorp railway station into the Lehigh Gorge State Park to Old Penn Haven. The visitors do not get off the train anywhere and view the scenic beauty while sitting in the train. The trains are usually hauled by diesel engines. One train also uses an old steam engine and has coaches built and used around 1917, which is now nearly a hundred years ago! The journey on the bridges through Glen Onoko is indeed a real pleasure for nature lovers. 

Naming of the Railway station after "Jim Thorpe" also has a history behind it. Jim Thorpe is considered as one of the all-time great athletes. He belonged to Sac and Fox native American group in Oklahoma. He excelled himself in athletics and many sports.  He had the distinction of winning both Pentathlon and Decathlon events in 1912 Stockholm olympics. He could run 100 meters in 10 seconds (in those days!), won other distance running events, long jump, high jump, discus throw, javelin throw, pole vault and hurdles. He also played American football, and professional baseball and basket ball!  His olympic gold medals were taken away on the complaint that he was deemed a professional, though it was disputed. The controversy ran for decades. It was in 1983, 30 years after his death that the Olympic committee deemed it fit to restore his two medals. But Jim Thorpe always remained a champion for the general public and the excellence he showed in so many fields of sports events is still unmatched. He never lived in Pennsylvania, but was honored by naming the railway station in the Lehigh Valley after him.

If you are anywhere around Philadelphia, New York or nearby areas in October, Poconos and Jim Thorpe is the area to go to enjoy fall colors!