Saturday, April 23, 2011

Looking Beyond The Physical

Yesterday I picked up again a few spiritual texts and thumbed through them.  Why, I really don't know.  It was probably partly because I was trying to find a way out of dealing with a visit to a dentist (!), partly as it was Good Friday and I always ponder over the message of crucifixion. As I read and thought over the core of these texts, it seemed to me that they all dealt with looking beyond the physical- something many of us are unfamiliar with or reluctant to explore.  My thoughts continued through the evening as I attended an Odissi dance performance by Ileana Citaristi (a gifted Italian dancer who has been learning and practicing dance in India since 1979) and her group.  The first piece was a very powerful depiction of Krishna's sermon to Arjuna on the eve of the great battle as described in the Bhagavad Gita.  Krishna shows Arjuna the nature of reality and urges him to fight in a battle that involves killing most of his relatives and friends.

Though seemingly unrelated, the message from all these spiritual tales seems, to me, one that urges people to question the reality of a world that is so shifting, vulnerable and full of potential threats and sorrow.  What is the alternative and can one really accept the existence of subtle elements that one cannot describe in a physical way?  This is a difficult and highly subjective issue and I attempt merely to put down a few thoughts that arose when I tried to understand some of the words that I read.

One spiritual view is that the physical world that we experience and that drives us is just an effect of a deeper cause and the cause is really our self (the soul, the unmanifested spirit or our intrinsic nature).  This does not follow physical principles and is not bound by them.  The outer manifestation is, in essence, a kind of dream made by us and we become part of other bodies' dreams in a complex web that we see as our world (this was very cleverly depicted in the film 'Inception' that was a recent hit).  But actually, we are not the dream (or the body or physical manifestations that we see), we are the dreamer.  And so our dreams can be altered (this is the basis of healing, of miracles or events that seem to transcend or shift the physical), if we begin to align ourselves with our true nature.  Obviously, as we have no idea of our true nature, this is easier said than done.  But one way to proceed is not to put energy into changing the dream (i.e. not to focus on the physical, changing aspects of our lives - or as Krishna says to Arjuna- focus only on doing the work and not on its outcome) but into understanding the driving force behind our experiences.  In other words, to dissociate the doer from the deeds and to put more effort into understanding the former rather than judging and being driven by the latter.  And when I attempt to do this, I find I am functioning in a different way - I am less torn by events and people around, I am more relaxed and am not driven by fear of the future or anger in the present.  Of course, I have not tried this for very long, but it does add an element of calm and positivity to my mind.

I wonder if I have been able to put my thoughts down as lucidly as they appear to me, but anyway, this is the message that Easter week brings for me this year!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Sweet Sixty five!

A landmark British study - and its subjects reached the age of sixty five last month, and I hope it sees many more happy years ahead.  The 1946 British birth cohort study, initiated at a time when there was a great deal of interest in socio-economic planning and reform, is the only one of its kind in the world, in terms of number of years spent and amount of information gathered.

The post war years had an optimism and momentum that lent impetus to this ambitious study that was thought of by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and implemented by a physician, James Douglas, who had been studying effects of air-raid casualties during the war.  The study identified 16,695 babies that were born in the UK in one week of March 1946.  It then looked in more detail at 5000 of these babies and documented social, economic, physical and mental aspects of their lives over time.  The data collected was enormous, the cost and infrastructure considerable, but the study managed to proceed,uninterruptedly, under the leadership of three very different personalities over more than six decades.

Douglas's initial work demonstrated the vast economic gap that existed in society and its effect on health and lifestyle options.  He showed the disparity in medical facilities available for the care of the mother and infant and how these affected their health and survival.  Later on, he addressed the issue of the relative success of the educational system and how children from different socio-economic backgrounds fared in national school exams.  Several of his publications led to changes in parliamentary bills and policy regarding health care and education in Britain.

In 1979, when the project seemed to be stagnating, a social epidemiologist, Wadsworth, who was a part of Douglas's team, took over and steered it in a new direction.  He persuaded the MRC to fund the study to follow important medical parameters (heart, lung and general physical functions) and aspects of people's lifestyle for the next two decades.  He wanted to see if conditions of early life affected people's health and lifestyle when they were adults.  A large amount of data was obtained and several new correlations discovered.  The general impression seems to be that early life experiences do affect one's later choices and also affect one's susceptibility to specific kinds of health problems (though the researchers stress on the fact that one's fate is not ultimately determined by early experiences).

This study, being continued under the leadership of Diana Kuh, now looks to interpreting some of the medical correlations in molecular terms- the genetic variations of the people being studied and epigenetic changes that occur (small modifications of DNA that are induced by environment or stress of some kind and that change patterns of gene expression).

The study is conducted in a highly personalized fashion and several of the subjects, when interviewed, said they were happy to participate.  Obtaining consent in the mid-forties required much less effort (and red tape) than currently, which certainly helped a study of this magnitude.  However the nature and scope of investigations early on was more limited, mainly owing to social reservations about certain issues.  The research has evolved in an interesting way over time and I suspect it sheds light on many more aspects than it was originally intended to.  Other such cohort studies have since been initiated, but it will be many years before one sees whether they succeed in their stated aims.

This study has shown a link between cognition, hormones and aging, something people did not think about much.  The effects of lifestyle, environment (physical and emotional) and social trends on a person's life have been shown very clearly for thousands of people who were born within a few hours or days of each other.  This has made people begin to think about factors influencing life, health and aging.  The study is remarkable  not only in the quality and quantity of data collected but also because the data was not taken just when people were ill or facing difficult times, but periodically through their lives.  It would be wonderful if eventually one could look at alternate or traditional medical systems (several of which emphasize the maintenance of balance and prevention of illness) and incorporate aspects of these in the questionnaires and tests that such people are subjected to.

The MRC has made a small documentary recording to mark this 65th anniversary which can be viewed at

Monday, April 11, 2011

Delhi Jazz Festival

This year, ICCR (Indian Council for Cultural Relations) embarked on a new venture, in assocation with Seher (a group that has been organizing free music and dance performances in Delhi).  They invited six international and three Indian jazz groups to participate in a three day jazz festival in Delhi.  The performances, free for all, were held in Nehru Park - one of the large and beautifully laid out parks of the city.  I went yesterday, to meet and hear my Bangalorean friend, Amit Heri, and his group play.

The park was lit up by fairy lights- tiny glowing bulbs that marked the way to a large, venerable tree, strung with lanterns, beneath which the musicians were to play.  Chairs had been laid out and next to them, thick waterproof sheets, on which people could sit.  However, eventually the place was so crowded that many people stood along the sides, listening to the music. 

The music began shortly after sunset.  The sky was a purple grey until it darkened and the moon rose.  The night air smelt of - mosquito repellant!  Not too nasty though and it definitely kept the bugs away.

There were three bands, playing for an hour each.  We heard the Ekkehard Wolk Trio, a Berlin based contemporary jazz group, with several of its compositions based on classical pieces and others inspired by literature or the city of Berlin.  It was a treat to hear a proper piano on stage (after ages!)  They were followed by the Amit Heri group, who played several of his jazz compositions.  Amit is a guitarist and composer and often experiments with Indian sounds in his own style of jazz.  He also has a very nice energy on stage which permeates to the other (somewhat changing set of) very accomplished musicians who play along with him.  The last group, Trio AAB+Clandemonium, a Scottish band was performing along with some Indian musicians, but by then we had to leave.  We saw some of their performance at home, on the computer, as it was being shown live through the internet.

The festival had a wonderful atmosphere; the venue and weather were perfect (though the Berlin group did find it a bit warm, more like summer than spring they said!) and the audience appreciative.  ICCR announced that they would probably make this an annual affair, which would be wonderful indeed!  Music played outdoors has its own distinct charm, I think.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Quiet Revolution

Masses thronged Jantar Mantar over the past few days as Anna Hazare continued his fast unto death, asking for the enactment of an effective anti-corruption bill.  It was a peaceful protest, one that did not disrupt the machinery of any state, yet turned out to be more powerful that any form of verbal or physical violence that people (including politicians) resort to these days.  I think this is why it appealed to so many, of all classes.  The cause was worthy- a simple pledge to reduce corruption, with a clear method (and a deadline for implementation).  It appealed to many of us, as there are very few who are not at the receiving end of corruption in this country.

No man is an island, and this was a remarkable demonstration of the power of a dignified and gentle yet unrelenting plea.  Several of my friends and family were involved in this movement, in one form or another.  They were in different states yet they sent messages or personally stood amongst the quiet demonstrators.  The interesting thing is that the people I knew were not angst ridden youth or tempestuous teenagers.  They were all retired people who were involved because the principle and the method appealed to them and they wanted to do their bit for a country in which corruption has snowballed over the decades and now comes in the way of real progress in any direction.  

Will this really help? Is it perhaps too simplistic?  How will it be implemented?  We don't know, but this is a small spark which holds the promise of something brighter and better and the only way to find out is to help keep it alight.  That's one of the bonuses of being in a democracy, so let's make use of it (if we wish to).

At the time of writing this, the fast has been called off, the government (on the brink of assembly elections) has acceeded to all the demands.  This has brought a wave of encouragement, a breath of fresh air to the nation.  Let's see how things evolve in this ever-changing, chaotic country of ours!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Goodbye, Inspector Ghote

H.R.F. Keating died a few days ago and with him passed his gentle and shrewd detective, Ganesh V. Ghote (Inspector in the police force of Bombay).  All good things must come to an end sometime.  Keating's detective stories are impressive partly because many were written with amazing authenticity much before he ever set foot in India and also for their ability to entertain without invoking any high tech or overly complicated methods or plots.  The crimes (and their solutions) revolve around people - the simple actions (and not so simple words) that enable Inspector Ghote to doggedly and ultimately get his man.

Yes, he will be missed - not just for all he did but the way he did it.  Inspector Ghote represents a vanishing breed - the relatively gentle, idealistic generation of the sixties and seventies.  The descriptions of the city and its inhabitants carry a twinge of nostalgia - a bitter sweet memory of how (deceptively) simple things were.  Some things change (Bombay itself has become Mumbai), but many remain the same - the myths, superstition, social norms, the middle class aspirations, the sharp economic divides.  All this was brought to the fore in a very kind, perceptive manner by the author, often with a sharp twist of humour that was so characteristic of his writing. 

Though many of his stories were set in Bombay, there were some that accurately described various other places - colonial towns, villages and modern cities in India.  He captures the essence of each place beautifully - chaotic, temperamental Calcutta, spiritually complex Benaras, colonially propah Ootacamund and more. 

Ironically, Keating's books were never widely sold in India.  They are rarely stocked (his last book has not even been released here) and one can only find them in old libraries and second hand bookstores.  This is both unfathomable and unfortunate.  The ways of the publishers and marketing agents remain a mystery- one perhaps too complicated even for Inspector Ghote to attempt to unravel.  But let us not dwell for too long on such mundane matters.  Inspector Ghote has had a long and successful stint in one of the most challenging police stations of the country, one filled with glamour, grime and... groans?!  It's time he took a break from it all.  We wish him well!
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