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!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Come, Take my Place!

In theory, nobody on this earth is self-sufficient. In practice as well, each one has to depend on others to carry on with their lives. Even sixty years ago, when wants were very limited, this was the case. Farming community in the villages were self-sufficient to the extent that they were able to grow all the foodstuff they needed. They also had the livestock to provide for meat, if they needed it. The small hut they had, made from mud, wooden logs and leaves of trees provided the shelter. Thus basic requirements were sourced by themselves, without depending on others. However, they needed support from outside for four important things; clothing, salt, kerosene and match box. A visit to the weekly fair in the nearby bigger village provided market for their produce and buying these four items. 

Others were not self-sufficient to this extent. Basic requirement of food was to be obtained from the farmers or other intermediaries. As the wants increased and the list of items considered as essentials grew longer, this need for dependence on others also increased. Advancement in science and technology created more wants and also gave solutions to meet these needs. Asking whether science and technology evolved to meet the growing wants or their evolving created more wants and needs, is like the proverbial seed and tree (Vruksha-Beeja Nyaya) question. Asking others for either money or things money can buy, is as old as money or material wealth itself. Hence approaching others with a request for items or favors is perhaps as old as civilization itself. 

Whom should we approach when we need something? The answer is very simple. The person approached for a favor should be one having the capacity to give it. Poet Kalidasa has beautifully brought this out in his epic work "Raghuvamsha". Koutsa, who has just completed his education in the Gurukula of Varatantu Maharshi meets King Raghu with a desire to seek a certain sum of money to meet his "Gurudakshina". When he reaches the capital of Raghu, Raghu has just finished his "Vishwajit Yagna" and has given away everything he had to others and does not have anything left! He receives Koutsa with earthen pots containing water to wash his feet. Koutsa understands the situation and desires to take leave of the King without asking for anything. The King insists that he be told about the purpose of the visit.  "Even Chataka does not look for water in winter clouds", says Koutsa. Chataka is a legendary bird that does not drink any water fallen on the ground. It waits for the rains and opens its beak to the sky for the drop of rain water to fall in its mouth directly. Chataka knows that there is no use in expecting a drop of water in clouds of winter months. There is no logic in asking anyone for something when the other person does not have the capacity to comply with the request.  Of course, King Raghu did meet Koutsa's desire through an alternate route, as described by the poet in the epic. 

What can anyone give to others? One can give a little less than what he has or at the most whatever he has. This is true of material wealth. As regards position or status is considered, it can always be something lower than the giver himself has. A Chief Minister or a Prime Minister can make you a Cabinet Minister.  He cannot make you a Chief Minister or a Prime Minister. Someone who guards his own position with everything at his command cannot give you his own position. That will be self-destruction at its worst. Even if he desires to give away his position, there are other conditions to be met and it is not entirely in his domain to give it away. They are often helpless. But there is only one who can do this as well!  Who is that? 

Saint-poet Kulashekara Alwar, one of the twelve Alwars in the Srivaishnava school of philosophy, is highly revered for his contribution of Tamil devotional compositions and a sanskrit work "Mukundamala".  Kulashekara Alwar was one of the last Kings of the Chera dynasty in Kerala. As a King as well as a saint, he must have seen many people asking for favors from others. In his "Mukundamala", he refers to such seekers of favors and laments about their plight. In the 28th sloka of Mukundamala, he observes:  

नाथे नः पुरुषोत्तमे त्रिजगताम् एकाधिपे चेतसा 
सेव्ये स्वस्य पदस्य दातरि सुरे नारायणे तिष्टति 
यं कञ्चित् पुरुशाधमं कतिपय ग्रामेशं अल्पार्थदम् 
सेवायै मृगयामहे नरमहो मूका वराका वयम् 

Naathe nah purushottame trijagataam ekaadhipe chetasa
sevye svasya padasya daatari sure Narayane tishtati
Yam kanchit purushaadhamam katipaya gramesham alpharthadam
sevaayai mrugayamahe naramaho mookaa varaaka vayam

Lord Narayana, who is the sole authority for this whole Universe, is omni-present and available to us always. He is even prepared to give away his own position to the seeker! He does not hesitate to do such act of kindness. This being the case, why do people go and beg before worthless people who own a few villages or have some small amounts of wealth? We are unfit to be called as human beings; we are even worse than speechless animals!

Saint Kulashekhara Alwar's view as above is exemplary and can be reached only by few souls. Of course, there is an endless debate as to whether there is a God or not.  There are as many people who believe that man has created God, as who believe God created this universe. Nevertheless, it is advisable to at least think before asking a favor from someone else.  Whether it is absolutely necessary or whether the person approached is capable of meeting our need, are two simple questions that are to be answered before putting forth the request.