Thursday, August 17, 2017

Poetry and Conversation

My neighbour (a remarkably astute principal of a college) periodically asks me to judge a poetry contest she conducts during their college festival.  So it was that I spent much of yesterday poring over poems, almost all reflecting teenage angst (except for one, who had written about Hitler's prowess as an artist!).  The title given to them was 'Is This Me', hard enough for anyone to think about, more so perhaps for young adults.

When I went to return the poetry filled sheets, I mentioned to my neighbour about how much angst the students seemed to have.  "Yes," she said, in a very matter of fact way.   "That's partly why I organize these contests - to give them an outlet."

We have all gone through phases of struggle; the process is familiar but the contents seem to have changed, and we discussed this for a while.  She said that the main problem students in her college voiced was not peer pressure but being unable to communicate with their parents.

I was a bit taken aback at this; I had attributed many of the problems to social media, lack of time and place for sport or creative opportunities, a sense of isolation and more.  Not to parents.  But that's not how the students seem to see it.  Reality probably lies somewhere in between but I can see that relentless pushing at home would not help a teenager who is anyway struggling to come to terms with the world around.  Something to ponder about.

The poems were free and frank and reflected more confusion and dismay than anger.

At the end of all this, I was happy to turn back to old loved poetry, to Rilke, who reminds us that every moment is precious and life changing.  I have quoted this poem before but I put it down once more for it moves me each time I read it-

A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Five Element Acupuncture- A Patient's Perspective

I'm writing this blog because I have often been asked, "Does acupuncture really work?" and I have been thinking about it long and hard.

My answer is, "It depends."

It depends on the style of acupuncture (my husband visited a clinic in Delhi where he was hooked to a machine that gave out a signal.  Based on this, a doctor shoved in some needles.  My husband felt nothing, then or later).

It depends on the practitioner and their ability to read the patient's problems and what is causing them.  ("When you see a child who comes for treatment, it's often the parents who need it," said my friend Nora.)

It depends on the nature of the condition to be treated and whether the patient has tried other systems of medicine or healing.  (A visiting scientist and friend from California recently said that for several days he had been hiccuping continuously.  Nothing helped until he finally turned to acupuncture, and the hiccups stopped soon after.)

Acupuncture did not enter my life in any determined decisive way.  Like most of my decisions, I drifted towards it entirely by chance.  While returning from America, I stopped to meet my mother in law, who was staying in London with her old college friend, Nora.  I spent a few days with them and when I left, Nora gave me a book to read on five element acupuncture as I am interested in traditional forms of healing.

I did not think I would ever need treatment, but many years down the line, when I was feeling burnt out and low, and conventional medicine had no answers, I turned to acupuncture.  Instinctively, I turned to Nora, who had become a close friend.  Since then, I have returned to London several times, sometimes just for a visit and on several occasions, for treatment as well.

Each time, my experience with acupuncture has been the same (though the treatments have varied with each session).  There are some points which trigger a discernible physical reaction- warmth in certain parts, an unblocking of the ears or nose, coughing out mucous or tears that well up in my eyes.

But these occasions are few.

Generally, there is a feeling of relaxation, sometimes fatigue, a desire to sleep or to release one's emotions in some way.  I often go for treatment when I am at the crossroads of important decisions (as I realize later).  They are times when things seem very difficult or when I have just finished a period of struggle and am completely worn out.  I feel I need something more than my yoga practice or a holiday, to renew myself.

I always love the moment when I enter Nora's clinic.  I get a timeless feeling of being part of something old and venerable, and recently, of being in the presence of a master.  Nora is warm ('fire'), spontaneous and brings a wisdom and slant of her own to the practice.  (In fact clinic is the wrong word for this place, for it is filled with paintings, calligraphy, beautiful stones, a cheerful air and a comfortable bed where one can lie down and shrug off one's cares.  My son is very fond of the dragon in the corridor, whom he has named 'Flamie Jamie'.)

Decisions about diagnosis and treatment seem to come from Nora and beyond - as if a whole line of  teachers were standing behind guiding her spirit and her hands.  This might sound fanciful, but it's what I felt on this visit.

For those who wonder how it's done, five element acupuncture is not a gentle, wishy washy process.  The positioning of the needles is very precise.  Often the spot is warmed before by placing a little cone of moxa and heating the area, and repeating this a few times - if you don't tell the practitioner when you feel the warmth, you're likely to get slightly singed!  You don't feel the needles as they go in, but when the point is being needled there is a definite tug, sometimes a feeling of being stung!

Energy shifts and changes can be very strong and the effect is not always felt immediately.  This time I felt like a rusty old engine - coughing, spluttering and eventually coming to life.  Nora detected a block in my ears that I had completely forgotten about (after having visited several doctors, all of whom told me there was nothing wrong).  I awoke the next morning to find smells from the street almost overwhelming as I began to smell clearly after ages.  Needless to say the migraines have also been receding.

After the treatments, there is a general feeling of stillness and contentment that I have experienced time and again. A feeling of being at peace with nature and with oneself.  It's happened too often to be a coincidence.

After a week I returned to India to find I was able to deal with all the physical and emotional demands around without getting flustered.  I began to change my attitude towards things that had got me stressed and anxious earlier (this was partly a result of feeling stronger and partly an aftermath of conversations with Nora about dealing with things that worry me- something no doctor in any conventional clinic would waste their time doing).

The change has also reflected in my creative decisions - writing to begin with.  I have found a tranquil place to write and I now have the energy to write almost everyday, which I didn't have earlier.  My thoughts about what to write and the next project to embark upon have changed tremendously.  Right now I'm standing in the midst of a very happy jumble of paths, feeling my way forward.

For me, five element acupuncture with Nora has cleared many physical and mental blocks at times when conventional medicine or yoga could not.


Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Delights Of British Food

British food is not very highly rated back home (perhaps elsewhere as well).  I will never know why.  My nephew (who spent a couple of years in England before going to America) always makes a face and says he much prefers his current options - and so do many others apparently.  Perhaps many people look for vegetarian options and don't find much, or don't take kindly to the boiled and bland options available.  I disagree.

Perhaps it is because much of my vacation time in England has been centred around London, which is a melting pot of cuisines.  Perhaps it is because I have had the good fortune of being invited to home cooked meals with British friends who serve wholesome and tasty food.  Looking back, I find that while in America I would eat largely the food of immigrant origin, in England I look forward to sampling British food.

In India we grew up on a hearty diet of traditional and western (Anglo Indian) fare.  In the pre-oven days, my grandmother would turn out delicious steamed puddings served hot with custard and would roast chickens in a large pressure cooker.  We could smell the fragrance of the ginger, garlic, black cardamom and bay leaves long before the chicken appeared at the table.  Roast mutton, fried fish and a variety of soups and stews periodically made an appearance, along with rajma, chicken curry, kulfi and other favourites.

My mother acquired a Baby Belling, a reliable and sturdy little oven, on a visit to England.  This tiny, accurate device works still but is not used by anyone at home any more.  In this oven, we made our hot puddings, baked potatoes and it was with this that I learnt to make my first cakes and tarts.  I would pore over the Women's Weekly recipes (and I still love to flip through this British magazine, if I find issues of the sixties and seventies, which were utterly charming) or the Reader's Digest gigantic tome of recipes arranged month wise, and decide what I wanted to try.

My family and I visited London this month and ended up eating meals that we could easily assemble in the apartment where we stayed, buying not very exotic fare from shops close by.  We were lucky to be in a 'good food zone' (I think certain areas of cities just have a higher concentration of better food options than others- not just restaurants but also shops, big and small, that make and source fresh food).

Just down the road from us stood a little Nordic bakery with unusual and delicious seafood and dill sandwiches,  pastries strewn with berries with a hint of sugar and more (the question of Brexit raises its unpleasant head, and one wonders what one will see a couple of years down the line).  Further down the road was a fruit seller who stocked fruit from England and parts of Europe.  Opposite this there was an organic food shop which had delicious soups, stews, fruit, vegetable and meat.  Waitrose - the excellently stocked store, our sustenance really - was where we bought oatcakes, smoked salmon, cheese, cold meat, olives, cider and fresh bread in copious amounts.  My little son was often content with his summer berries and a plate of bread and butter, Cornish Yarg (a cheese) and Scottish smoked salmon!

One Sunday we visited the local farmers' market just outside Paddington Street Park (a short walk away) and (bought and) sampled an excellent array of local food- potted shellfish (freshly caught), savoury British pies (which I like immensely - steak and ale, chicken and leek and my son (who wanted to have Stilton) ate a delicious meat and Stilton pie).  We also tried the handmade fresh sausages - freshly fried with onions and served in a soft roll of bread (we could only manage one between the three of us), and these were very flavourful.  Along with all this, we had fresh summer greens, eaten raw, with just a dash of dressing.  We rarely made it to desserts, but the summer fruit in all its forms (particularly delicious by itself or served in puddings and sweets with whipped cream) was the perfect way to end a large and satisfying meal.

Not for me the chicken tikka masala or balti chicken (ridiculous names in my opinion though these dishes are immensely popular).  A glass of cider, fresh bread with smoked salmon or a crisp, hot pie, a handful of watercress and dark sweet summer cherries would be my perfect summer meal.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Dreams Drift On

One relearns many things through little children.  The importance of dreams, for example.  Not the kind that come when we are asleep but the ones we actively generate.  Much of the time we are too busy to dream, too reticent to voice them.  But children have no such reservations.  My son has a distinct set of things he would like to do in an ideal world, and he says them all aloud.

Saying things aloud has a different effect from just thinking them.  They seem more concrete, like little rose coloured clouds that take shape in front of us and drift along beside us.  Our companions, not our foes, that serve not to dredge up frustrated goals but to remind us of wondrous possibilities.  If only..

One of my son's most predictable dreams is to swim in any water source he sees.  Thus it is not surprising that he now wants to swim in a lake close to our house, called Sankey Tank.  This is a dreadfully muddy and polluted place, so it is now his dream to clean it up so that people can swim there.

A long list of what he has to do follows - remove the mud and the rocks, take them to a dump, filter the water, add some chlorine and ozone to clean it up and then, finally, to put up some signs.  What kinds of signs should he put, he asks me.

"Please don't throw garbage in the tank.  Use the garbage bins," I reply.

He nods.  And then dreams on.

"I think we will have some more signs -

'Hallo and welcome and how nice to see you'

'Have a good swim'

and

'Bye bye and thank you and see you next week'"

He laughs and claps his hands, and I'm amazed that these dreams did not occur to me.  Now that we say them aloud, it seems as though it may only be a matter of time that Bangalore lakes are cleaned up and full of happy swimmers.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Swimming Lessons

My three year old son and I are going to the swimming pool everyday, until school begins (for the first time, next week).  We wake up early, get ready the way we would for school and set off in the car.  The driving time is about the same as what it would be to drive to school.  We carry our bags, filled with the same things we will take next week.  We meet people and swim and, afterwards, sit and watch the swimming classes for older children while eating our tiffins.

I did not plan this routine months ahead, it just fell into place by itself.  I'm not a meticulous planner!  This schedule has given my son a sense of direction to his day (he loves water so it's nice to see him waking up all excited every morning), a sense of independence (he now happily converses with all the 'aunties' sitting around (the children are too busy swimming to notice him)) and has increased his stamina to the extent that I am confident he will not get completely exhausted during his long school hours.  He has also figured out ways to cope with the unpredictability of traffic and road conditions.  Apart from all this, he has learnt to make egg sandwiches from scratch and loves doing so (more than eating them)!

I too have learnt much from my visits to the pool, which in the mornings, is filled with elderly people and children who are taking swimming lessons.  There are no young people or teenagers in sight.  All the mothers (and an occasional father) are sitting at tables scattered around the pool, waiting for their children, shouting a few instructions now and then.  Some are talking to each other, many are busy with their cell phones.

My son and I are cheerily greeted by many of the women, the coaches smile when he comes because he's so excited about going into the water.  He and I are the only ones to enter the children's pool.  All the other children are hard at work in the main pool while we are playing about in the water. Many mothers are surprised that I am teaching my son on my own instead of handing him over to the coach next year.

I realized, with some surprise, that parents feel that other people (especially professionals) are better equipped to deal with the education of their children.  This is something I came across while searching for schools as well - mostly it was said by teachers (except for a small number who urged me to keep my son at home in the early years), but it seems to resonate within a large group of parents as well.

I see four year olds crying, throwing up and older children wanting to 'goof off' periodically in the pool.  The parents are not sympathetic.  My instinct would just be to go and hug the child and say, "It's all right.  You can relax," but parents look disapprovingly at the child and a bit apologetically at the coach (who is a very dedicated and well meaning teacher in my view, but not every child is ready for intense coaching).

Play is greatly underestimated nowadays, especially spontaneous play.  My son and I have a wonderful time playing in the water, driven mostly by him.  He is at the stage where make believe adventures have just begun, so he's not just swimming when he's in the water.  He is standing like a sea horse, jumping like a dolphin, floating like a jelly fish.  He is surfing, he is hunting, he is deep sea diving.  He has learnt how to move in water, how to cope when water gets into his eyes, nose or mouth.  He has understood the feeling of floating and he loves to enter the big pool whenever he is allowed (the sense of buoyancy and the excitement of seeing so much water is far greater there).

I have learnt the importance of sharing these adventures and moments of learning with a child.  Of being there at the same level, and doing the same things, to enable him to overcome fear and hesitation easily.  Of not pushing him into things he is not ready for or not meant to do no matter how sensible or worthy the ideas appear.

Of enjoying each step of life along the way, if I have the chance to.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Supplements To Counter Ill Health

My migraines had reached a level of frenzied frequency last month and constant travel, stress of various kinds, disruption in food and sleep did not help.  It was a time I was on pain killers half the month and finally I felt that enough was enough.  My migraines are triggered by hormonal changes in relative levels of estrogen and progesterone (I have figured this out on my own), so they are triggered repetitively each month.  Several women I know say they experience these (Asian women have lower levels of estrogen, and are therefore more susceptible to migraines apparently) and menopause is the solution, something I don't agree with in principle!!  Apart from this, who wants to wait that long??

Migraine sufferers know that there is no universal solution, each one has to work his (or her) way through the condition and hope for the best.  Circumstances, lifestyle and temperaments dictate choices.  For me, the first choice is always nutrition (perhaps having been brought up with a mother who was a nutritionist), and I began a search for information on diet and migraines.

Of course, there are the usual trigger foods that one has to avoid, but there are also a lot of supplements which seem to help some people.  The internet is a vast (albeit slightly biased) source of information, and internet delivery services make many things accessible to us which were not earlier.  This helped me choose my nutritional supplements.

About two weeks ago, I began to add supplements to my diet.  Magnesium, vitamin B2, vitamin B12, vitamin D and vitamin E.  Also a highly purified extract of feverfew, which is the only known western herb which can be safely taken for migraine relief.

Around the same time, I began to take my son to the swimming pool evryday, where he and I splash around for 45 minutes.  Exercise always helps migraines, and I find swimming and running in combination with yoga to be ideal (if one has the time, which I don't right now!).

Most treatments are said to take effect in 2 to 3 months, but I have already noticed a decrease in intensity (and more recently perhaps in frequency as well).  I have also noticed an increase in energy, both physical and mental.  I am also sleeping a little better.  Long term control will require optimising safe combinations but this is a positive beginning.  In a short while, I hope to return to my yoga and also to get some acupuncture treatment, which has always helped me.  And I will take it from there.

The role of specific nutritional supplements in reinforcing good health and in relieving even drastic symptoms has long been discussed.  Linus Pauling's theories on the role of vitamin C in curing heart disease and cancer continues to be debated and there are innumerable such examples and other studies in progress.

A recent very interesting scientific study (published in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences in March 28, 2017) showed that giving mothers who had recently given birth certain selected protein components (tyrosine, tryptophan) and blueberry juice and extract (rich in anti-oxidants) helped greatly in reducing the depression that often arises after delivery.  This depression is triggered by the sharp decline in (100 fold of) estrogen and (50 fold of) progesterone hormones and an equally sharp rise in other molecules that increase oxidation.  The activity of many molecules that ultimately contribute to this postpartum depression can apparently be lowered just by taking a small set of nutritional supplements.  I looked up the kinds of foods that tryptophan and tyrosine are normally present in and I could see that a traditional Indian diet (specially vegetarian) prescribed currently for new mothers will not contain high levels of any of these molecules.  It's probably time to reassess our nutritional needs based on some of this emerging evidence especially because postpartum depression is far from being on the decline (and given modern lifestyles, it may well be on the rise, I don't know).

Finally, I quote from an old book that belonged to my mother, a book I have always enjoyed dwelling upon."Anatomy Of An Illness as Perceived by The Patient', by Norman Cousins (who managed his crippling illness on his own when conventional medicine had no solutions to offer)-

"Pain Is Not The Enemy-

We know very little about pain and what we don't know makes it hurt all the more.  Indeed no form of illiteracy in the United States is so widespread or costly as the ignorance about pain - what it is, what causes it, how to deal with it without panic.

...Of all forms of pain, none is more important for the individual to understand than the 'threshold' variety.  Almost everyone has a telltale ache that is triggered whenever tension or fatigue reaches a certain point.  It can take the form of a migraine type headache or a squeezing pain deep in the abdomen or cramps or pain in the lower back or even pain in the joints.  The individual who has learned how to make the correlation between such threshold pains and their cause doesn't panic when they occur, he or she does something about relieving the stress and tension.  Then if the pain persists despite the absence of apparent cause, the individual will telephone the doctor.

If ignorance about pain is widespread, ignorance about the way pain killing drugs work is even more so.  What is not generally understood is that many of the vaunted pain-killing drugs conceal the pain without correcting the underlying condition.  They deaden the mechanism in the body that alerts the brain to the fact that something may be wrong.  The body can pay a high price for suppression of pain without regard to its basic cause."

We are far from understanding basic causes and effects that happen in our bodies, but my recent experiences have made me more open to taking supplements in terms of nutrition and alternate medicine, even though I don't completely understand how they work, as long as I seem to feel stronger and more balanced from within.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Bond, Agents And All That Stuff

I've been busy the last few weeks, with travel, and also trying to get my children's book into some shape.  That's why the blog has been dormant.  The work is still in progress but I've learnt quite a bit that I didn't know about trying to get a book published!

When Bond brings to mind Michael rather than James and agents are invariably literary, it's time to finalize that list of people to send your manuscript to.  I began with Indian publishers for children's books and wondered whether to contact an agent or not.  Searched on the internet and found a handful of agents and authors and children's publishers (no dedicated children's book agents) - each set cursing the other and decided it's probably simpler to begin on my own.  The good news is that apart from the usual publishers, I found a couple of small but enthusiastic new ones - Tota and Yolk Pickle, whose voices I liked.  Whether they will like mine is moot.

I continued my research by checking on U.K. agents (largely based in London), the idea being that the commonwealth group might be easier to reach out to, in the case of an Indian book.  I've made a list of fifteen (though ambitious authors advise going through entire books of agents' addresses and mailing them in batches of twenty five!  Almost all agents now only accept queries by email, which seems to enable this kind of process).  Of these, one represents Bond (yes, the one who wrote Paddington), another Milne and  Shepard (Winnie the Pooh etc.) ...ooops!  Regarding illustrations, there seems to be no rule.  Whether one should write 'XXX and YYY' for author and illustrator, (the advantage in this case as far as I can tell is that some publishers only want single author cum illustrators (I don't know why) and maybe will extend themselves to a team) or whether to specify 'written by XXX and illustrated by YYY', which, to me is only fair.  Then there is a another set who says 'Don't bother with illustrations, we have our own illustrators and so do the publishers' (or we know what we want).  It's too late to pander to this group though they are welcome to reject our illustrations.  A tiny set say, 'No unillustrated manuscripts will be read'.  I can safely send my draft to this minority.  Whew!

As for the illustrations, they are still in progress, about two thirds are done.  It's been a terrific learning experience, working with an unknown foreign artist miles away.  Once we got to the thick of things, where the story moved to India, chaos began.  The illustrator (naturally) had no idea that small town garages and shops were not gleaming and filled with machinery and that women were not typically tall, aggressive and dungaree-clad.  Where to begin to fill the gaps?  I gave a one-paragraph description and about five pictures of street scenes (including Indian cows!) and he came up with a terrific picture, so realistic that one would not guess he had never stepped into an Indian town.  In this process, I also remembered that in the sixties and seventies, the only cars sold were fiats, ambassadors and standard heralds.  From there we proceeded, with the usual ups and downs, some successes and some failures and a lot of learning.

I realised how invaluable Indian film songs were to describe certain scenes, and it turned out he liked music and now wants to visit India with his girlfriend sometime!  What songs did I send?  My story is set is the sixties and seventies, a time when many pleasant songs existed in relatively down to earth settings.  But to showcase some of the natural beauty and joy that still exists in this large and varied country, the song I liked best was from the early nineties, 'Chinna Chinna Aasai' (from the film Roja).  It's been translated into other languages, but I give below the link to the original Tamil version.  When I need to take a break from those long lists I am still compiling (will have to begin the U.S. agent list next, which will be an uphill task), I sit back and listen to this song, which my son likes as well.  It translates to 'Tiny tiny hopes...'

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dT99bwT8io
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