Thursday, 17 June 2010

Book lovers' paradise

Books, books and books... Wherever you glance your eyes are met with heaps of books.
Welcome to the famous Sunday Kitab Bazar or Sunday book market of Daryaganj in Delhi. Every Sunday, over 250 book sellers set their stalls on the pavements or the patio of shops which remain closed on this day.
If one is on the lookout for rare titles then this is the place to be in. Hundreds of thousands of titles from all over the world on all subjects under the earth can be found here. From current magazines and bestsellers to old, hardbound, priceless books which have gone out of print can be spotted here.
One can buy books here at 1/10th of the original price in standard bookshops. The latest issue of Time magazine or The Economist can be bought for Rs10 and Rs20 respectively. From classics, novels, biographies, autobiographies, to books on medicine, history, travel, law, IT, engineering, architecture, interior and fashion designing and text books, you name it, all are available here.
So, it’s worth taking a trip to the market and rummaging through the heaps of books to chance upon a treasure trove.
Arun Laxmanam, 37, has been coming to this market since he was 17. He says he is passionate about books. “I can find here books on all subjects and in one place. It’s fun to discover new books. Sometimes the books I buy here turn out to be so interesting that I end up ordering their entire series at full price,” says Laxmanam.
Like him, Rohit Khatri, 18, was seen squatting and browsing through a pile of books. A Delhi University undergraduate student, he has been especially coming here to look for text books which he needs to prepare for his civil service exams. “I have been looking for some books which have run out of print and not available anywhere else,” says Khatri. The day was successful for him as he found most of the books he wanted.
The market is always chock-a-block with students, parents and book lovers in spite of scorching heat or bitter cold. While parents can be seen selecting story or rhyme books from a vast range for their young ones, students particularly come here to buy text books for pittance. The market suits students perfectly as they live on a very tight budget.
Sudha Ranjan, 60, from Delhi’s neighbouring city Noida, has her bag full with bestselling novels that will last her a month. “I come here every month to take my stock,” confesses Ranjan who was checking out each stall.

Amidst the din of sellers calling passengers to their stalls, some buyers could be seen haggling for a further price reduction, while a few others visibly surprised after seeing a rare book at as low a price as Rs20. “Are you sure you are selling it for Rs 20?, asked a youth to make it sure after chancing upon a book in a heap. “Yes, pick any, all are for Rs 20,” said the seller indifferently. Clutching his favourite find the buyer made a happy exit.
Apart from Hindi and English, books are also available in Arabic, German, Chinese, Urdu and French.
Ramlal, 35, has been selling books at the market for the past 18 years. He says he doesn’t make much money through retail selling though. But when customers buy in bulk from him about 300- 400 books together then he makes some profit.
Ramlal sources his books from publishers and distributors. Most of the books sold here are second hand books but not all of them.
“The sellers get books at a very cheap rate from publishers who are not able to sell old editions. Some other sellers get books from customs as well which remain unclaimed. These books are bought at dirt cheap rate,” says Malik Singh, 54.
Singh sells only international magazines in 1/10th of their original price. How is he able to sell them so cheap and still make money?
“I get these magazines from the International Airport. Everyday hundreds of magazines come with international flights. Once a plane lands at the airport, the magazines are also binned while cleaning up the aircraft. These magazines are not reused. So I go there and buy in bulk as if I was buying potatoes in kilograms,” says Singh.
He has been selling books at Daryaganj for eight years now after leaving his odd job. By selling magazine at the Sunday market he earns enough to support his family. “One of my daughters has just landed a job with a MNC after completing her engineering in electronics. I paid her fees and other expense by selling magazines here,” says Singh with a proud smile.
Three decades on the market still exudes old days charm. Tourists coming to Delhi bookmark this place on their planner. And, for booklovers it’s an assured haven to find their “best friend”.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Playing footsie with football

As the world is gripped by FIFA fever, cricket-crazy Indians are playing footsie with football . Though cricket is the first love of the nation, sexed-up soccer is catching on with a selected but a growing fraternity of fans.
The mother of all games, the 19th 2010 World Cup, has sent football fanatics on a psychedelic trip that will last till month end.
Bars, pubs and restaurants are in full swing to recreate soccer frenzy, thousands of miles away from South Africa, here in capital New Delhi-- All in an effort to tap the sentiment for business gains.
Giant screens beaming high voltage matches, rounds of beer to wash down dishes that have been named after soccer players or their countries are helping those to live and breathe excitement of 2010 World Cup live who have missed to be in South Africa around this time.
Blues pub at Connaught Place is among many that has literally turned into a mini stadium. As the sun goes down, football enthusiasts start pouring into the pub for a ‘kick’ on a 12x10 giant screen.
Flags of all the participating countries, nets, and footballs are either hanging from ceiling beams or on walls. You name your favourite player and chances are you would get a dish and a drink named after him. So punters are not only enjoying their favourite stars playing but are also relishing chewing on their names too!
There is a variety of meals to choose from the menu. To name a few, order from Messi’s delight grilled chicken fried or vegetables patty, Rooney’s fish and chips or Zamrota’s golden extravaganza pizza with grilled chicken, salami, bell peppers, black olives and wash them down with abundant beer, Kaka’s Kick Vodka or John Terry’s Banana Kick of Bacardi and Blue Cerecao.
But what seems to be tickling the punter’s taste buds is the sizzler. Waiters with Ts of their favourite teams are serving piping hot platters on almost every table and replenishing beer glasses. As the momentum picks up, more and more orders of drinks are ordered in the backdrop of the loud music that is helping to build the atmosphere. People edgy on their seats with eyes glued on TV watch the next second-by-second action while mechanically gulping down drinks.
There are gasps as a goal is missed by their favourite teams, some resort to swearing even and some just sigh. Immersed in the live action, spectators just become oblivious of their surroundings and enjoy each and every action followed by their verbal exclamations.
“If you look closely Fifa matches reflect human characteristics—the good and the ugly, ruthless, selfish, team spirit, you just have to observe it. One can identify himself with the game and the players,” says one football enthusiast who has grown up watching the world cup for three decades.
Referring to the punters at the bar, he says, “these are the loyal football fans no matter what they would come here to catch the frenzy.”
But its weekends when the bar is chock-a-block with people. “On the first day of the match on June 11, our bar was jam-packed. Over 200 people came on that day,” said Naveen Kumar, manager of Blues. Saturday and Sunday were no different too. And the sale went up by about 25 per cent.
The ecstasy of the sport carnival seems to remain in the air till the winning team lifts the trophy. Meanwhile, people will love to flock to a place where they can soak in and share football mania with their mates. Most importantly, “to watch good game irrespective of which team they support,” says another football enthusiast.

Friday, 11 June 2010

Bhopal Gas tragedy, a lesson for Nuclear Liability Bill

The recent verdict on the world’s worst industrial disaster, Bhopal gas leak tragedy, which handed out a meager penalty to the convicts, is casting a shadow on the American hope of the Civil Nuclear Liability Bill from being passed in Indian Parliament.
India’s main opposition party the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has for the first time asked the government to withdraw the Bill in the wake of the Bhopal gas fiasco verdict. 'We are opposing this (Bill) in parliament,' said BJP spokesman Shahnawaz Hussain. The bill is facing opposition across main political parties.
A trial court in Bhopal, capital of India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh, sentenced seven officials of former US-based Union Carbide Corporation to two years’ imprisonment for criminal negligence in the gas leak. However, they were immediately granted bail. They were also imposed a meager fine of Rs100,000.
Anti-nuclear activists and environmentalists are drawing clear parallels with the gas tragedy. They have been criticising the nature of the bill and accusing it of “protecting the American interest” and ignoring “Indians’ rights”.
The absence of stringent laws in the country enabled former Union Carbide Company escape criminal liability after the gas leak on December 2-3 1984 killed thousands of lives immediately and in years to follow.
Activists fear the same absence of criminal liability in the bill will let suppliers of nuclear technology and equipment in the US go scratch free in case of a nuclear disaster which would be much bigger and dangerous than the gas leak tragedy.
“The present nuclear agreement with the US is contentious. It ignores the welfare of the nation and overtly protects the suppliers of the technology,” accuses Kruna Raina, from Greenpeace Foundation.

Uday Kumar, coordinator, National Alliance of Anti-nuclear Movements (NAAM), says, the Bill will help the supplier companies to reap the profits from nuclear commerce and investment in India but if there is an accident they would not be liable to pay any compensation to the victims.
“According to this legislation, if there is an accident in a nuclear power facility, the onus for paying the damages will be on the operator of the facility. In this case on Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL), the operator of the nuclear facilities in the country,” says Kumar.
The NPCL, which is a public company, will use the taxpayers money for compensation whereas foreign suppliers will just pocket the profit and pay nothing.
Another contention anti-nuclear activists have is that the Bill provides a cap of Rs 2,400 crores by way of damages which is not enough. They say the liability clause is not stringent enough as the Bill does not have the criminal liability clause
“Even 25 years after the Bhopal tragedy, people are not fully compensated. In case of a nuclear disaster there would be many more people, who will be wiped out, suffer from radiation and wait for treatment for many years,” says Kumar.
On June 20, NAAM will protest the bill in the light of the Bhopal Gas tragedy verdict at Koodankulam nuclear power construction site built with the help of Russia in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. The organisation will also conduct a nationwide Nuclear Prohibition Tour on October 2, Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary.
Kumar says the very argument that nuclear energy needed to match the fast growth of the country is a sham. It’s benefiting a tiny per cent of rich in India.
“Real people in India are committing suicide and dying of hunger. To empower people at the grassroots level and to provide energy for growth, energy should be reproduced at a local level. It should be decentralised. Producing electricity at a local level will be more meaningful instead of importing technology and centralising its production,” says Kumar.
He says India does not need nuclear power and says the country has enough resources like solar, wind, hydro to generate clean energy.

Sunday, 6 June 2010

Children of captitalism nurse a social cause

They are young, single highly educated and well-heeled MNC employees. The upwardly mobile young brigade in Gurgaon, a neighbouring town of Delhi, works in swanky offices through the week.

Deep in their heart, away from the glitz and glamour of capitalism, they nurse a social cause — to do their bit for those who have been left behind in the race of modernity.

Come weekend, they teach in schools and scout through slums — mushrooming on the fringe of high-rise apartments and outskirts of the city — to persuade rag pickers or daily wage labourers to send their kids to school.

It’s their efforts that today many slum children are able to experience the classroom environment and are able to read and write.

These professionals are volunteers of AID India Gurgaon Chapter. Every Saturday and some Sundays they teach the children in three schools — Prerna, Disha and Unnati.

The pupils of these schools eagerly wait for Saturdays to be with these volunteers who play with them and make them laugh while teaching them basic Mathematics, Hindi and English. Kids love the non-conventional method of learning while playing. Their enthusiasm for learning is apparent as all of them try to outdo each other in answering questions.

Chamara, who doesn’t know his age but looks about 6-7-year-old, says he likes the volunteers. “They love us, make us laugh and sometimes get us goodies too,” says Chamara who studies at Prerna.

These schools were started by some of the volunteers at a small level. Unnati was the first to start in January 2007. Nishank, 27, a research analyst, along with a few friends started the weekend school for rag pickers’ kids.

“There was a slum area between my house and office. I wanted to do something for them. So, one day I visited them and started teaching kids under a tree. And, Unnati was born,” says Nishank, who was joined in by more volunteers.

But the kids wanted to study everyday instead of just on weekends. Four months later, collaboration with Literacy India got them a paid teacher who would teach kids five days a week and now in a classroom at Jharsa village adjoining the Gurgaon city.

Gradually more kids from other slums were brought in. They would be taught in two shifts for two hours in the morning. And volunteers would continue meeting and teaching them on weekends.

Two years later, Disha was opened, a few blocks away from Unnati. “Fifty kids joined on the first day on January 26, 2009. All of them were children of rag pickers,” says Munish Duvedi, 26, a clinical researcher, who coordinates activities of the three schools run with the help of Aid India Gurgaon Chapter volunteers.

The one-hall classroom was donated by the village council is neat and lively with drawings and paintings done by pupils. Colourful furniture, book racks, teaching boards and a statue of a Hindu Goddess of wisdom, Saraswati, in a corner do make it look like an abode of learning.

At present, there are 32 kids enrolled at Disha. “The kids are very sharp and pick up very fast,” says Poonam Saini, the teacher at the school, adding that some pupils still go back to rag picking in the evening after attending the class.

The main aim is to introduce these kids to the joys of reading and writing and finally graduate them into mainstream schools.

Moffidul, 11, is now in class II at Vivek High School. He likes his new school as he is being taught new things. But he still loves coming to Disha where he first learnt alphabets of Hindi and English.

“I come here to meet my teacher. I like her a lot,” says Moffidul with a smile. He is the youngest in his family and says, “Munish ‘Sir’ enrolled me at Disha”.

“Before coming to Disha I never went to any school. I used to pick rag. But now I put all my attention on studies,” says he.

He understands education can open a new world to him where he won’t have to pick rag and live in a shanty house anymore. “When I grow up I want to become a teacher. My father says I’m proud of you. He now doesn’t force me into rag picking,” says Moffidul with a smile.

But if need be, Moffidul still helps in cooking food and cleaning his house.

Papiya, 9, a classmate of Moffidul, has also come along with him to meet the teacher. Daughter of a migrant labourer from Bengal, she had to leave school when she moved to Delhi with her father.

“At our new school (Vivek High School) they teach us more. Earlier I knew very little but I think I now know quite a lot,” quips Papiya.

Mofuddil and Papiya are among 25 pupils from the three centres who have been inducted into formal schools. But their progress is still being monitored by the volunteers who also collect money to pay for their fees.

About 10 minutes drive from Disha and Unnati is Prerna. Forty kids come to the makeshift school everyday. A paid teacher gives lessons to kids during the week. And volunteers take care of weekends.

Most of the kids don’t know their age but all of them now know the value of education.

Puja says, “I don’t want to remain illiterate like our parents. I want to do something better than them. I want to become an engineer.” Another girl, Pushpa, wants to be a teacher when she grows up.

“The pupils have learnt some classroom etiquettes and keep themselves neat and tidy to an extent,” says their teacher.

The school was a result of Manish Kumar, 24, an IT Engineer, and his friend, Kunal, who wanted to do something meaningful on their weekends instead of just watching movies or shopping week after weeks.

Thus began Prerna in a tent on Children’s Day, November 14, in 2009 amidst a slum of sculptors. However, retaining kids was still a challenge. “On the first day there were 50 kids, curiosity brought 80 kids to the classroom the second day but the third day it came crashing to just 20 as part of the slums was evacuated and partly parents were not bothered to send the kids to school,” says Manish. So with it came another task of motivating parents to send their kids to the school.

Soon they lost their temporary school as well. “Luckily, Brigadier AS Yadav let us use his land to build a makeshift school and today the strength of pupils is 40 with equal number of girls,” says Manish.

The volunteers raise money and Aid finances additional expenses. While these kids benefit from the well-educated volunteers, the volunteers say kids help them to evolve as better persons.

Dillip Kumar, 29, a banker, says, “After coming in touch with these kids I have learned to be patient and listen to people. I have learnt how to smile even in adverse condition without cribbing about harsh life.”

All volunteers eagerly wait for a Saturday to come. This is the time to break from office environment and be with fellow volunteers who are full of beans and a bunch of hilarious people. One cannot stop but laugh while being with them.

Mansi Jain, 24, a software engineer, has been teaching kids since November last year and doesn’t want to miss any weekend to be with them. “I have made quite a few friends after joining Disha. I love coming here. The atmosphere is jovial here. We have some nice time in teaching and learning with kids,” says she with a smile.

Anjali Mehta, 23, who is pursuing BA in social work through distance education, comes to Disha and Unnati everyday to teach and take care of administration and on Sundays she goes to slums to motivate parents to send their kids to school. She is glad what she is doing because “this is what I always wanted to do this,” says she.

The volunteers want their strength to grow manifold as it would mean making a difference in more disadvantaged children’s life.

Super 30s 's Super Success

Super-30 has got yet another feather in its cap. The US based 'Time' magazine has included it in its ‘Best of Asia 2010’ list.

The Super-30 coaching centre’s ticket to fame is 100% success rate of its students in cracking India’s toughest exam to secure a place at the premier Institute of Information Technology (IIT) for three consecutive years since 2008.

The centre was founded by Anand Kumar, 37, in India’s eastern state of Bihar’s capital Patna in 2002. The news of this latest international honour has brought cheers to Kumar and his students.

“We are very happy to hear this. We are happy for the students. Our students from all over the world are calling up and congratulating us,” says Kumar excitedly over the phone.

However, “what makes that feat even more remarkable is that these (its) students are the poorest of the poor who would otherwise never be able to afford full-time coaching," says the magazine.

Kumar along with his coaching staff scouts through the least developed pockets of the state and handpicks 30 bright students from financially and socially backward strata of society.

Once selected, these students are provided free food, lodging and coaching for IIT’s examination test. The one-year coaching is intensive.

The centre provides the students with one single lifetime opportunity that can potentially transform their life. These children of rickshaw pullers, fruit and vegetable hawkers, daily wage labourers, auto drivers, kiln workers, marginal farmers know it’s an opportunity to swim or drown. If they seize this one chance it can drive them out from their destitution.

This single hope motivates them to do their very best. During one year at the centre, the students completely cut themselves off from the world. “They don’t watch TV or movies, read newspapers or magazines. They don’t visit their parents during festivals either. They just immerse themselves in studies with a single goal— to find a place in IIT,” reveals Kumar.

The students are coached in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics for four hours, five days a week. However, Mathematics is the main thrust area. To sustain the interest of students, the teaching staff makes learning interesting and simple.

“We explain them in depth and in an interactive way, clarify various concepts and their applications in various problems,” says Kumar.

Apart from teaching, the Super-30 teachers have a task without which coaching wouldn’t yield desired results. That is to boost the morale and self respect of these students.

“Somewhere they are conscious about their background. When they first come to the centre they are shy and nervous about the challenge of getting through the IIT test. The fear has to be removed from their mind and heart. So we condition them psychologically that they can do it,” says Kumar.

Apart from the rigorous coaching, the students have to write two tests on weekends. According to Kumar, the tests comprise challenging questions.

The weekly brain racking tests through the year make students so thorough in their subjects that writing an IIT test becomes a cakewalk for them.

According to Kumar, the students are self motivated and study for 16 hours a day. They discuss various problems and solve it among themselves. Since all of them have high IQ level they are almost at the same wavelength while discussing problems.

However, girls are in minority in Super-30. To increase girl students’ intake, the coaching centre gives them relaxation in marks. “Still we don’t get more than two girls each year on an average. Unfortunately, their parents don’t encourage them as they think they will be married.”

It was Kumar’s own experience that inspired him to give free education to economically weak but talented students. A Mathematics wizard, Kumar got his papers in the subject published in Indian and foreign journals while he was still doing his BA in 1993. He says he could not afford to go to bigger universities in Delhi or Mumbai because he did not have enough money. This was the very reason why he could not join Cambridge either in October 1994 after securing a place in post graduation Mathematics study. His father’s death just before his departure for England ended his last hope of pursuing higher education. He had to stay on in Patna to help his family earn a living.

“While in college I already used to go out on my bicycle to sell ‘papad’ (paper thin lentil crisps which needs to be roasted or fried) which my mother used to make at home. This was the only source of our livelihood,” recalls Kumar.

However, while living in a hand-to-mouth situation, he kept his passion for numbers alive. He used to solve Mathematics questions with his friends in Ramanujan School of Mathematics which he had formed in 1992 in college. In his spare time he used to teach poor kids for free.

In 1995, he seriously thought about teaching Mathematics regularly and making it a source of his income. His friends Amit Kumar, Praveen Kumar and Neeraj Pratap Singh suggested him to teach Mathematics while they would teach Physics and Chemistry to students. So along with his friends he started offering tuitions to students while continuing his free education for the needy children.

It continued till 2000 and by then Ramanujan School had already become famous for its teaching standards. At that time he used to charge Rs500 each student to be able to fund poor students’ education.

Poverty all around him inspired him to do more each time he saw some talented but helpless student. In 2001, Kumar met a potato farmer’s talented son and realised that he had no money to pay for his fee, rent or food if he shifted to Patna from his village. Kumar did not let go such a talent waste.

He designed a project where he would provide free food, lodging and coaching to talented but needy students. It was supported by his family and fellow colleagues at the centre.

“My mother got ready to cook for them, my brother, Pranav Kumar, a violinist in Mumbai, said he would help me and my colleagues were ready to teach them Physics and Chemistry for free and I took care of Mathematics,” says Kumar.

Thus began Super-30 with conviction in 2002. And since then it has sent 212 students of the 240 to IITs. In 2008, 2009 and 2010, all 30 students of Super-30 made it to IIT with flying colours.

To support a batch of 30 students, tuitions are given to 400 students for Rs6,000 each per year. However, most of his time is dedicated to the Super-30 centre. When he is not giving tuitions in the evening, he spends time with his two-year-old baby and wife. Even while at home he devotes four hours every day to prepare new questions for weekly tests. He says it’s possible because of the cooperation of his “loving wife”.

This year, Kumar wants to increase the Super-30's strength to 60 students and employ additional teachers and other staff members. To support the coaching centre, he will have to give tuitions to 100 more students.

At the moment, hunt for Super-30 students is on in states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. The classes will begin in July.

According to Kumar, super-30 has given him a new aim in life. “It has changed my life. When I could not go to Cambridge, I was disappointed. I always wanted to be a Mathematics teacher in Cambridge, Yale or IIT. I could not go there but I’m able to send my students there,” says Kumar proudly.

Recalling the proudest moment in his life, he says, “One day a kiln worker’s son Suresh Kumar came to us. We had taught him for two years as he needed extra coaching. And now he had cleared IIT. His father did not know what IIT was but he knew his son had achieved something big. The father and son got us some sweets and both of them could not stop but crying with happiness.”

Suresh Kumar and the likes of him would remain thankful to Super-30 for making a difference in the lives of those who could otherwise never think of making it to IIT.

Monday, 24 May 2010

The saint of earthen pot

Matka Peer or the Saint of earthen pot is a well-known name in Delhi. True to the name, his shrine is quite a sight.

It is almost camouflaged with earthen pots resting on tree boughs and stumps, rooftops, parapets, you name it. Everyday, Summer or Winter, Spring, Autumn or Monsoon, people come to the mausoleum of the 12th century Muslim Sufi Saint to pray or to make a wish. When their prayers are answered, they thank by offering an earthen pot along with 1.25 kilogrmme each of black gram, jaggery (thickened sugarcane juice) and milk. By the number of earthen pots, one can gauge the number of people visiting the shrine to express their gratitude once their wishes are fulfilled.

People come in hundreds throughout the week but on Thursday and Fridays it increases manifolds. “This will give you an idea about the faith people have in the Saint Matka Peer who helps to answer their prayers,” says Shakeel Ahmed, Secretary, Matka Peer Dargah (mausoleum) Welfare Society.

The Sufi (mystic) Saint’s name was Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakr Tusi Haidri Kalandari. Abu Bakr hailed from Iran’s Tusi district and belonged to the Kalandari family. “He had travelled to India in the 12th century to spread the message of peace and Islam,” says Ahmed.

The site of present mausoleum, then a thick forest, is where he lived and prayed to Allah away from humanity. “Legend has it that once the saint saw a man from a nearby village, Indrapath, was going to commit suicide by jumping into the Yamuna River. He was frail and depressed. He wanted to end his life to get rid of his suffering caused by an incurable disease.

“The saint intervened and calmed him down. Upon hearing his story, he gave him some water from his earthen pot. His health started improving. Lo and behold, he crossed the deadline beyond which the doctor had claimed he would not survive. He was a healthy man again and could earn a living for his family. He came back to the saint along with his family to express his gratitude for giving him another chance to live,” narrates Ahmed.

The resurrected man shared his story with fellow villagers and soon the word spread like a wild fire. When the then ruling Sultan of Delhi, Giyasuddin Balban, heard this he tried to test the Saint’s mystical power and sent a platter of black grams made of iron and jaggery made of clay. The royal platter caused curiosity and awe among the saint’s followers but when the cover was removed they got angry with the audacity of the Sultan.

“The Matka Peer sensed that the Sultan wanted to test him. So he pacified his followers, prayed to Allah and the platter of iron grams turned into edible roasted black grams and clay turned into jaggery. The saint ordered milk from the village, added jaggery in it to make a sweet drink and distributed it among people along with the grams.

“At that time he made an announcement that whosoever will go to him and if his wishes are fulfilled he should offer an earthen pot, black grams and jaggery,” says Ahmed.
The tradition continued.

Centuries later, the faith of people in him is intact. People irrespective of their religious backgrounds come here to pray and thank the saint in form of earthen pots. Praying here is quite democratic, anyone from anywhere belonging to any faith can come here any day to see the mausoleum and pray. Atop the mausoleum of the saint stands a structure erected by Balban in white marble stone, which has Islamic carvings, designs, architecture and couplets from the Quran engraved on the wall of the room. A photo of Mecca is also hanging on the wall.

Hindus, Muslims Christians, Buddhists all come here and pray in their own way without disturbing the peace and sanctity of place. While Muslims can be seen with opens hands asking for ‘dua’ or blessings and praying, Hindus and other faith followers can bee seen praying with folded hands.

Outside on the compound, oil lamps are lit and incenses are burnt the way Hindus and others would do in their temples. The things offered at the mausoleum represent elements of different faiths like an Islamic sheet with Quranic verses on it, Hindus way of offering flowers, red thread and some edibles sweet balls. Nothing clashes here with anything.

“Sufism shows its way of humanity. The philosophy preaches that whichever religion you belong to you should put humanity and harmony first,” said Ahmed whose family has been looking after the management of the mausoleum for 150 years. Part of his family resides on campus.

The Matka Peer’s mausoleum is perched on a hillock surrounded by an expanse of greenery. The quiet of this little corner in the midst of central Delhi is punctuated with the birds’ twitters or singers’ qawali (mystic songs in praise of God and the saint) and beats of drums.

There is some energy in the atmosphere which has a cathartic on quite a few. While they pray sitting by the ‘mazar’ or mausoleum, tears start rolling down their cheeks and their sobbing continues for a while after they finish their prayers. Perhaps, it has done some cleansing of soul and mind and has made their heart light. Their demeanor now looks calm and composed. It seems a day well invested in soul searching.

For many, coming here is the last hope to find answers and solutions to their problems and sufferings. Some seek the divine intervention to bring happiness in their lonely world. Babu Khan, 55, has traveled overnight from India’s northern city of Lucknow to make a wish for a family. He has lost all his family members to various diseases. He is poor and single. Stubbles cover his cheeks and despair cast gloom in his eyes.

“I have put an application in the ‘darbar’, mausoleum. I hope Matka Peer blesses me. All I want is a wife from a well-to-do family and some money to come in my bank account,” says Babu Khan with a hope.

Babu Khan will have to wait before he sees some miracle happening in his life but Naushar Ranee, 20, is happy. She along with her toddler son and family members has come here from a village on the outskirts of Delhi. She spread a sheet on the mausoleum and presented an earthen pot and other must-offer things, while a cleric chanted some Quranic verses and sought blessings for her.

“I’m very happy. One of my wishes has been fulfilled,” says Nausheer. She will not give a hint about her wish because “wishes are not meant to be shared”. “I’m still waiting for my one more wish to be fulfilled,” says she with a smile while hurrying her folks to leave as dusk descended on the hillock.

People from far and near come here to visit the shrine. It has an important place on Delhi’s map. During the Commonwealth Games, the shrine will be especially shown to visitors as the cultural and spiritual heritage of Delhi.


Tuesday, 18 May 2010

Potter marries Gandhian and Tagorean values, creates art

He hero worshipped Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore. He photographed their last meeting for posterity. The picture of Gandhi and Tagore sitting together with students at Santiniketan is now a rare treasure.

Devi Prasad, 90, then a young photographer and an aspiring art student at Santiniketan, now Viswa Bharati University, took that photograph just before Tagore died. Since then it’s been reproduced and reused numerous times. But he never exercised any copyright on this photograph. Perhaps he wanted the world to see these iconic personalities as much as possible.

Tagore and Gandhi tremendously influenced Devi Prasad, his personality and what he was going to become in the future — An artist, a photographer, but foremost a studio potter.

A retrospective of ‘The Making of the Modern Indian Artist-Craftsman’ is currently on at Lalit Kala Akademi (Academy of Fine Arts) in New Delhi. The exhibition showcases 300 works of Prasad who created them in 65 years of his artistic life -- from his earliest paintings in Santiniketan to his last pottery he made in his Delhi studio in 2003-04.

Prasad’s work spans the entire latter half of the 20th century at a moment in the history of Indian art and design which brings India into the modern era,” said Naman Ahuja, a curator.

The exhibition, which is on till May 21, gives a sense of how he with “the act of making art” furthered Gandhian philosophy of ‘swawlamban’ or self reliance and pacifism with the help of Tagorean philosophy of seeking beauty of life through art and literature. He successfully complemented Gandhi’s utilitarian view of life with
Tagore’s spiritual perspective of the world. However, striking a balance between the two philosophies did not come easily.

Prasad came to Santiniketan, founded by Tagore, to be an artist. While here, between 1938 and 1944, he was drawn to Tagore’s philosophy to seek truth and beauty through art. He was trained under master of Bengal School of Art Nandlal Bose and “imbibed many different painting styles, including Modern Art, stills, Bombay School of Art, Bengal School of Painting, Malwa and Rajput Schools of Art,” said Ahuja.

While here, he painted outdoors, countryside in water colours, drew sketches and “made self portraits to define himself”. One of his self-portraits shows him lying on a cot with a notebook by his side. “It conveys that he was contemplating about his future and what he wanted to become”. Another painting on display “depicts a female boar and her tensed body before she was going to give birth in a stormy day.

The picture is quite symbolic of his tension just before he was going to be graduated,” says Ahuja.

His six years at Santiniketan groomed him to be an artist—a painter, a sketcher and a photographer. As an artist he wanted to capture beauty on his canvas. But when he joined Gandhi’s Sevagram centre in 1944, his idea of becoming an art teacher came crashing when he received a letter from Gandhi:

“Bread comes first and adornment afterwards…but since you are here, do whatever you conveniently can. Learn here what true art is. The art teacher should first take up some work which would enable him to earn his livelihood. Later on he may paint and teach painting. Such artist alone will teach true art. You will remember what I had said about the broom. Sweeping is a great art. Where to keep the broom, how to handle it, should there be one broom or different brooms for different jobs, should one raise dust or sprinkle water before sweeping, does one sweep the corners by paying attention to the walls or roof — all these questions should occur to an artist. Only then will he finally find beauty in sweeping.”

Gandhi’s reply to a letter from Prasad showed the significance of utilitarianism and self-sufficiency in art.

After reading the letter he was “devastated and went back to Santiniketan to Nandlal Bose who sent him back with a drawing of two wheels representing two different philosophies of Tagore and Gandhi. Bose asked him if he could use them to chart a new direction for himself,” said Ahuja.

For the next 18 years he stayed on in Sevagram. While here, he imbibed Gandhi’s mantra of self sufficiency or “swawlamban” a key element of “Nai Talim” (new or alternative education) to transform society by educating children.

Prasad’s quote on a panel reads that by ‘talim’ Gandhi meant “getting the best out of a child… and it could be only possible by teaching handicraft to him.” According to him, Gandhi believed that the “act of making” would make people self-dependent in making what they needed, instill self pride and respect for labour, create jobs locally and eventually stop migration from the village to the city.

At Sevagram, Prasad built Kalabhawan (building for art and craft). While here, he took to pottery after reading ‘A Potter’s Book’ by Bernard Leach. To drill in Gandhi’s sense of self-sufficiency, he built a kiln at Kalabhawan and redesigned pottery wheels. He taught his students to make their own pottery for everyday use.

To guide potters he wrote “Potters make your own tools and equipment”.
His activism of self reliance drew him into national movements like the Quit India movement, and in Vinoba Bhave’s Bhoodan movement (exhorting landlords to give land to the landless).

During this period, he pursued photography actively and recorded various events. One of his photographs that finds special place in the exhibition is of a farmer walking into oblivion near Mahatma Gandhi’s mausoleum at Rajghat. It was taken two years after Gandhi was assassinated.

“The picture is quite symbolic. After the death of Gandhi, there was no one left to take up the cause of farmers, poor and the hapless so vigorously,” says Ahuja.
But even after his death, Gandhi’s followers continued to practise his teachings of peace.

It was for this cause, Prasad left for England in 1962 to join the London-based pacifist organisation, War Resisters’ International, and later became its chairman. During this time he could not paint, sketch or do pottery. When he left, his colleagues gifted him a kiln and a wheel. While here in London, he tried his hands with porcelain and stoneware and painted on them. His art of pottery evolved to a greater standard but he was always conscious that his pottery should never be overpriced.

Twenty years later when he finally returned to India in 1983, he continued making pottery until 2004. He set up his first pottery studio in Delhi in 1985 and began teaching pottery apart from building gas kilns, wheels, and designing tools to suit Indian conditions. He always emphasized on achieving precise measurement and spot on quality of pottery which could be mastered only after a thorough practice.

Today, he is known as one of the top studio potters in India. Patterns on his pottery, faces and other drawings on platters and plates show his grip on both brush and wheel. His contribution to art won him Lalit Kala Akademi Ratna award in 2007 and the Desikottama from Viswa Bharati University, Santiniketan, in 2008. However, he maintained a low profile throughout his career.

His genius lies in ‘drawing’ his own artistic course, in creating beautiful art to instill humane values by synthesizing Tagorean and Gandhian philosophies.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Tongawallahs of Delhi

Clip clop, Clip clop… The sound of the horse’s hooves of a tonga or a horse-drawn two-wheeled cart has been ringing on old Delhi roads for centuries but may not be heard anymore.

From the Mughal period through the British Raj, tongas were the mode of transportation in Delhi. In this new age, they are still used as effective and quick mode of alternative transportation in certain pockets like Sadar Bazar and Turkman Gate in old city of Delhi.

However, as the tick tock of the time clocks forward that too familiar sound of History—clip clop-- may cease forever. If the civic agency, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), has its way it will stop all tongawallahas from running on the road in Old Delhi from May 31 in the ‘pretext’ of safety and controlling chaos and traffic jams on the road, especially during the Commonwealth Games. However, this is not going down well with the tongawallahs. They are angry with the decision and at the same time anxious about their future if this does happen.

There are about 232 licenced tongawallahs in Delhi who have been engaged with this traditional profession. A few more, who don’t own a tonga, are also dependent on this trade as they have taken tongas on rent.

Babu Ram, 40, says he is quite “sad” and says this decision will make him die hungry. “I have known no other work since my childhood. I have been riding tongas since my childhood to earn my livelihood,” says he.

With seven children and a wife to support, he opposes this move and says, “tongawallahs are not bothering anyone, we don’t pose any health hazard to anyone and we are environmental friendly. Foreigners love to take a ride on our tongas. Why are we being singled out whereas hundreds of rickshaws and auto-rickshaws continue to ply on the road?” he questions.

People visiting the Sadar Bazar just hop on a tonga which can carry 4-5 people at one time, pay Rs5 each person and hop off at the market, do the necessary shopping and take a tonga back.

Mohammed Yasmin, 79, has been engaged in the profession since 1982 after retiring from his government job. At the moment, he doesn’t own a tonga nor does he run one. He is the president of Tonga Association in Sadar Bazar and oversees its affairs. The Association represents 20 tongawallahs running in this area.

“I pray to God that these tongawallahs continue to work. I’m old and shall die soon. My children have settled down. But these people still have their families to support,” says Yasmin.

Moreover, he says that these tongas are running in the area which doesn’t interfere with the routes of the Commonwealth Games on which pretext they are being phased out.

“The Games will be there just for 10-15 days and for that why snatch bread and butter of so many people,” complaints he.

Residents of old Delhi are also not happy with this move. Iqbal, 80, who grew up in this quarter says tonga was the only mode of transportation in earlier days. “We used to go to the market and other areas on tonga. There are memories associated with it. It’s part of our history. But if government is hell-bent on doing away with them then no one can do anything about it,” rues Iqbal.

The irony, however, is that the tongawallahs have no other skills to survive if they go out of work. Most of them are poor and have large families to support.

For instance, Pappu, 45, has been in this trade for nearly 30 years. He has a family of eight to support. He fears if his traditional trade is taken away from him he won’t have anything to fall back on. “At my age no one will hire me to do dishes even. If I lose my work then other tongawallahas like me will be forced into theft or other anti-social activities to feed ourselves. The government won’t look after us or support to get us other work,” fears Pappu.

The government has so far allotted plots in Shastri Nagar area of East Delhi to those who have a proof of having a tonga and a licence. The tongawallahas say the allotted places are far too less and far away from this market where they live and are not conducive for doing any business.

“Those allotted spaces are open. They don’t have any roof on them. We have no idea what we can do with that space or what kind of business we can run there. We have been told to carry all our stuff to the shop everyday and bring it back with us in the evening. Moreover, for commuting back and forth, we will have to pay a lot for tickets. And if we don’t do any business on a day then god help us,” rues Babualal.

MCD has rehabilitated some tongawallahs operating in other parts of the capital like Moti Nagar and Kashmiri Gate. The civic agency plans to eventually phase out all the tongawallahs but has kept May 31 deadline for those running in Old Delhi.

With the move not only the tongawallahs but those associated with it indirectly will also be affected. Yasmin says on an average one tonga supports families of those who make the cart, paint it, decorate it, horse feed and grain dealer, hoof career, not to mention the tongawallaha himself.

Pappu says buying a tonga cost him Rs40,000 but he will not get the same amount if he were to sell it. The cart will go to the scrap yard and the horse will either be abandoned or sold in a much lesser price.

The Tonga Association in Sadar along with other association operating in other parts of Delhi has appealed in High Court against the move. For now, they are waiting for its decision on Monday, May 17, to know whether their tongas will continue to clip clop or will fade into history.

Saturday, 15 May 2010

A brush with Tagore

Not many people know Rabindranath Tagore as a painter. He is rather known to the world for his literary Renaissance — as a philosopher, poet, song composer, essayist and a playwright. His contributions were acknowledged worldwide when he was awarded with Nobel Prize for literature in 1913.

But he had a streak for brush and paint as well. He discovered it much later in his life, when he was well into 60 and continued painting until his death in 1941. The very subjects which earlier found their manifestations through his literary works later found another medium. His fascination for Nature, people and their surroundings were now also being expressed through colour strokes on canvas.

The sheer joy of creating something pictorial started catching on him. This is evident in a letter he wrote to Romain Rollan in 1930.

“Words are too conscious; lines are not. Ideas have their form and colour, which wait for their incarnation in pictorial art. Just now painting has become a mania with me. My morning began with songs and poems; now, in the evening of my life, my mind is filled with forms and colours.”

In the last 17 years of his life, Tagore made more than 3,000 paintings and drawings. He drew and sketched with ink and pen, painted with pastels on silk or paper canvas.

To shows his this side of creative genius, “The Master’s Strokes: Art of Rabindranath Tagore” exhibition is on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi. This is part of the celebrations which have begun to mark his 150th birth anniversary next year.

Among the displayed works, most of them show his fascination for faces either done with colour or with ink and pen. Graphic-like faces in ‘geometrical shapes, pointed triangles and protruding mouth and nose and even caricature look grotesque and serious.

According to some critics “his faces are said to bring out Tagore’s inner sense of discomfort against people whom he thought were tragic like authoritarians and hypocrites” reads a panel at the exhibition.

Some of his other displayed works formed landscapes, head studies and figures. His art was ‘versatile’ though he had had no training in it.

“Yet through his own efforts, he developed a highly imaginative and spontaneous visual vocabulary. His work displayed a superb sense of rhythm and vitality and his techniques matched his highly developed and refined creative expression,” said India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who inaugurated the exhibition on May 9.

While creating these works, Tagore was guided by a sense of rhythm which he had learnt about in his early days. According to Tagore, his understanding of rhythm of sound helped him to create lines and then forms and pictures.

In one of his letters to Rani Mahalanobis he wrote, “the only training which I had from my younger days was training in rhythm in thought, the rhythm in sound. I had come to know that rhythm gives reality to which is desultory, insignificant itself.”

To gauge a sense of his genius in finding beauty in ordinary things and to know how a person can be so versatile and yet grounded, visitors are trickling in to the gallery to catch a slice of his creativity.

Deepak Vadhera was one such curious visitor. He said more than the paintings he had especially come to discover the man who created them.

“I’m more interested in discovering the man he was. He was into writing poetry, dramas, prose, you name it. At the same time, he took part in Indian politics and freedom struggle. He travelled widely on five continents and couple of dozens countries. How and when he found time to do paintings? What a strength he must had had to do all with such great standards. Hats off to him,” said Vadhera.

He must had had had inner strength to do it all. But at the same time, he kept his strength and interest rolling with the excitement of discovering new phenomenon within himself.

“When I started painting I noticed a great change in myself. I started seeing in trees, branch and leaf images of strange creatures of various kinds. I had never seen them before; I had only seen that the spring is here, the flowers are breaking out on every branch, things of this sort. This wealth of vision is spread all around man. When you exclaim ‘ah’ on seeing a thing, it is not in response to its beauty but its sheer visual presence. That is why there is so much joy in seeing itself. It is this vision found in painting,” reads a panel using Tagore’s quote.

Parisians were the first ones to see his exhibition publicly in May 1930. After that, it traveled to other European cities before returning to his own city of Calcutta the next year.

But for the time being, it’s Delhiites who are enjoying a visual delight of Gurudev’s cultural legacy.
(Picture courtesy National Gallery of Modern Art)

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Remembering Tagore

Melodious renditions of Rabindrasangeet or songs of Rabindranath Tagore echoed in the air. Glowing in dim ochre light was the bronze bust of ‘Gurudev’ perched upon a pillar under a sprawling green tree. Oil-lit earthen lamps dotting the stage periphery of the open air theatre were adding to the effects of the warm starry evening on Sunday the May 9.

It had some inkling with the open outdoor university of Shantiniketan founded by Tagore in West Bengal but the scene was set in the heart of New Delhi’s Meghdoot theatre at Rabindra Bhawan.

The occasion was special — to give a tribute to Tagore on his 149th birthday. The three day-birthday celebrations, which began on May 7, has also ushered in year-long festivities to mark his 150th birth anniversary next year.

Tagore is the most prominent Indian poet and writer known abroad. He was the first Asian to win Nobel Prize for his collection of poems ‘Geetanjali’ in 1913. The poems written in Bengali have been translated in most of the world languages.

An iconic writer, legendary poet, novelist and educator, Tagore had become an institution in himself and his songs became part of every Bengali household music.

Those who grew up reading Tagore’s literature, the celebration was a chance to express their appreciation for the legend and to celebrate the life of the philosopher. People from different walks of life and different lingual communities had converged on the Meghdoot theatre to see modern musical interpretations of Tagore’s songs.

The cultural evening began with the Panchanjali or offerings of five elements-- air, water, earth space and fire-- each represented respectively by the blowing of conch shells, offering of water, flowers, burning incense and the lighting of lamps in front of the Gurudev’s bust in the backdrop of Rabindrasangeet.

Tagore’s works were represented through various classical dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Odissi, Kathak and Chhau or through non-classical dance performances.

The first dance, presented by three lady dancers draped in famous Bengali white saris with red borders, celebrated rain. Monsoon was Tagore’s favourite season and he expressed its various flavours through his songs. Monsoon winds, pitter patter of raindrops and their soothing effect after scorching heat, clouds, swaying of trees everything associated with the season found vivid mention in his works

While Tagore is known best for his contributions to literature and his philosophy of life, less is known about his contributions to political and freedom movement of India. His “image of a sage and a mystique has persisted even in 21st century,” said Pranab Mukherjee, India’s Finance Minister, who was present on the occasion, adding he was a reformer and a great advocate of “gender equality and individual freedom which he expressed through his poems, prose and literature.”

Tagore had a great influence on Mahatma Gandhi and India’s freedom movement. He is best known for his literary genius but he was conscious of his social surroundings and was a critic of colonialism.

In 1905 Bengal’s partition caused him much pain and it found an expression in his lyrics “Omador Jatra hole shuru” meaning our journey has begun and expressed his desire to shake off the yoke with the help of God as “karnadhar” or a helmsman.

Manipuri artistes represented the song by enacting as voyagers who began their journey in high wind. They invoked god as the helmsman to help not to deter from their path and also redress the problems of their countrymen suffering under the British Raj.

His growing discontent with the British rule led him to surrender the knighthood in 1919 four years after he received it as a “protest against the Massacre of Amritsar, where British troops killed some 400 Indian demonstrators”.

The evening facilitated reorientation with some of Tagore’s ageless songs. Born in an affluent family, Tagore completed most of his education at home as he could not adjust himself to the formal system of school.

Later, he went to England for his law degree but left it halfway to return to India to pursue his literary aspirations and to be with his people. He wrote about “3,000 songs, thousands of poems, and hundreds of short stories, novels, plays and essays, apart from painting thousands of pictures in his later years.

In spite of his rich background he remained rooted and involved with the common person’s cause. He influenced many youth. “Tagore had a great influence on me. I was brought up on Rabindranath’s works. The second best book in my life was his ‘Sahaj Path’,” said A Chatterjee, an editor with a publishing house.

As the days proceed there will be more events to remember Gurudev and his genius to capture various aspects of life and create magic through words and music. He revolutionized Bengali art, literature and music and opened its treasures to the world to experience.

Striking a chord with Life

STORY: Two years ago three year-old Rishi Bhanushali was extremely anemic. He was suffering from Beta Thalassemia major, a genetic blood disorder. He had to undergo blood transfusion every month since he was four months old.

But now it’s a different case. The cheerful tot, from Bilimora in South Gujarat, runs around, plays and eats well. He has grown taller by few inches and put on some weight as well.

He will not have to go through the ordeal of regular blood transfusion anymore for the rest of his life. Thanks to cord blood banking. Preserved stem cells extracted from umbilical cord blood and placenta saved Rishi’s life.

“We bought exact 6/6 match of Rishi’s stem cells from Reliance Life Sciences (RLS). Dr Sandip Shah transplanted the cells in him at Gujarat Cancer Research Hospital in Ahmedabad,” says Rishi’s grandfather Bhimji Bhai Bhanushali over the phone.

Rishi was hospitalised for about one and half months and for the remaining nearly two years the Bhanushalis had to remain in Ahmedabad “for the child’s regular check up.”
The entire treatment cost the Bhanushalis Rs15 lakhs (US$35,000) including Rs2.5 lakhs (US$5,672) for buying stem cells. But they say “it is worth it” to have their “child back as normal”.

For two-year-old Harshil Nanda, stem cells transplant is a “gift of life”. It’s been eight months since he got the transplant to cure Beta Thalassemia. “For six months we haven’t had the need to transfuse blood in him,” said Ravi Nanda, Rishi’s uncle when contacted through a phone. The Nandas, who have come from Jamnagar to Ahmedabad for treatment, also bought 6/6 stem cells match from RLS.

In both cases getting stem cells from bone marrow was difficult to cure the disease as it’s rare to find 100 per cent match of bone marrow stem cells between the donor and the receiver, which is not the case with cord stem cells.

The chance of finding matching bone marrow stem cells is just one per cent in 11,00,000, says Aasim Ghazi, marketing head, Cryobanks India Private Limited, New Delhi.

The difficulty in finding an exact match of bone marrow stem cells is making the usage of cord blood stem cells an attractive and effective alternative.

Umbilical cord until recently was considered a medical waste which used to be thrown away once the baby was born. But various researches establish that umbilical cord and placenta could supply “the same kind of blood-forming (hematopoietic) stem cells as a bone marrow donor”.

Stem cells are master cells from the donor which are transplanted into the child who is ill and these cells manufacture new healthy blood cells and enhance the child’s blood-producing and immune system capability. These cells have far lower chances of rejection by the receiving body.

Cord blood cells are useful in curing diseases like leukemia, thalassemia, blood cancer, anemia, lymphoma, immune deficiency and other disease which can not be treated with medicines alone. And research is on whether these cells can be used in treating Alzheimer's Disease, Cardiac Disease, Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's Disease etc.

Seeing the increasing use of this ‘medical waste’ more and more parents to-be are opting for cord blood banking.

Jyoti Kaul in New Delhi is one such parent who has banked her son’s cord blood cells with Cryobanks. “We don’t know whether we will need it or not. It’s a medical insurance we may need. It’s a future investment in health. This medical waste can save someone’s life. It’s not only that we will use it for us, god forbid. We can also donate it,” reasons Jyoti for opting cord blood banking.

Today she propagates it to other would-be-parents even though it’s an added expenditure. Another strong reason for her to go for it was the expensive lifestyle which discourages having a second child.

“So when we are more or less one-child oriented, it’s important that we do such kind of medical investments. In today’s time there are so many life-threatening diseases and one can’t become mother everyday. And to secure your child’s future health if this is one option I would go for it,” says she, adding that the way medical science is growing stem cell securing will be a common thing.

“If we collect residual blood and extract stem cells from the umbilical cord, they are 100 per cent match to the donor and 75 per cent match to the relatives.” says Aasim.

The main reason of banking newborn’s cord blood is that parents have a child or a close relative with a family medical history of diseases “that can be treated with bone marrow transplants.”

There are rare chances of needing the cord blood for a child in a family without history of diseases. But parents can still donate it as it would add to the pool of stem cells which can help any person in the world to find a suitable match.

Cord blood banking can especially benefit India as it is “home to the highest number of Thalassemic patients in the world. Treating them through cord blood cells can be an easy answer as the country with the highest population has the highest number of deliveries,” says Aasim.

One can get cord blood banked for a period of 21 years and for a price
tag ranging from Rs59,900 to Rs1,19,000 depending on the scheme and
the bank one is opting for. To make payment easy, these banks have
introduced installment schemes.

Seeing the potential of stem cells in curing prevalent diseases in India, cord blood banks are increasing their operations in the country.
“According to analysts, Indian stem cell banking market will reach $540 million by 2010, contributing 17% of the world market. It is reported that there are about 10 players in the Indian market who have been increasing their storage capacity since 2007 to meet the increasing demand,” says KV Subramaniam, President and CEO, Reliance Life Sciences, Mumbai.

Mumbai-based RLS, New Delhi-based Cryobanks India Private Limited, Chennai-based LifeCell International Pvt. Ltd and Kolkata-based Cordlife Sciences are among other cord blood banks in India which are seeing a steady growth in their operations.
In India, the concept is now picking up pace. “In just five years LifeCell have close to 25,000 clients, while the overall market penetration is growing almost at around 50% growth year on year,” says V. Ravi Shankar, General Manager, Corporate Communications & Marketing,LifeCell International, Chennai.

LifeCell with over 60 centres across India has around 25,000 samples preserved with its lab. However, it has a capacity of preserve up to 1,00,000 samples. Ten clients from LifeCell have used their babies’ stem cells for treatment.

The US-based Cryobanks with 85 branches across the country, has 15,000 parents storing their children’s cord blood cells with the bank.

“There are more than 5,000 cryopreserved cord blood units in the RLS cord blood repository in Navi Mumbai.” RLS says it has set adequate storage capacity to deal with the rising demand for cord blood banking services in the near future.

To enhance awareness, RLS conducts programmes on cord blood banking and gives free counselling sessions to parents-to-be, which includes a tour of the cord blood repository. Parents can register for these programs online at
Apart from India, RLS has set up operations in the Middle East and parts of South East Asia. Cryobanks too will be available in these countries.

Cord blood is not collected from “mothers-to-be whose deliveries are associated with certain neonatal and/or maternal complications. Also when the expecting mother is tested positive /reactive for any infectious disease marker cord blood collections are avoided,” says Sbramanaiam.

Cord blood stem cells, which can be preserved life long, are proving life saving panacea—an attractive alternative to bone marrow cells.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Chamba Rumal

A handkerchief is a handkerchief. But it’s much more than that for people in Chamba town of India’s northern Himachal Pradesh state. It’s Chamba Rumal (handkerchief) —
an integral part of local heritage and art and craft.

Once patronised by the rulers of Chamba, embroidering famous squares and rectangles of 2 to 4 square feet with ‘do-rukhi’ or double satin stitch was at its zenith. The ‘do-rukhi’ technique “ensured exact duplication of the image on the reverse”. Noble or upper class women with their adept fingers would embroider muslin, malmal or plain cotton cloth with intricate motifs, designs of nature, wild animals, hunting or mainly Hindu deity Krishna and his dance with milkmaids with impeccable finish.

These ‘rumals’ were used to cover platters as gifts for auspicious occasions, offering to a deity or to exchange them as a token of goodwill during weddings.
As kings were gone, so were the patrons of the art. With no available market to sell these pieces of art, artisans turned to other professions or did it only when occasions arose. In free India common public was neither much aware of the uniqueness of the art nor had interest in paying big amounts for the craftsmanship.

Rumals were still ubiquitous but they lost their artistic fineness and, as a result, appeal. They were now cheap pieces of cloth with low standards of colourful patterns on them. The art of doing Chamba rumal was dying a gradual death until Delhi Council of Craft (DCCC) stepped in.

The DCC began a regeneration project in the late 1990s. One good thing while reviving the art was that people still knew how to do the ‘do-rukhi’ stitches. All it required was to retrain artisans, raise the quality of embroidery to acceptable standards and improvise patterns to make it once again a signature art of Chamba.

“Thus, the DCC first collected masterpieces of Chamba ‘rumal’ and reproduced 16 of them. For that the centre traced local women embroiders, retrained them and worked on patterns and their colour schemes to enhance their standards to be able to be sold in the market,” said Poornima Rai of the DCC.

Chamba ‘rumal’ embroidery was unique as it would need to replicate or draw pahari miniature paintings on a piece of fine cotton cloth first then embroider upon them with silk floss dyed in natural colours.

“It was an amalgamation of painting, thread and the technique of the needle,” added Rai. It was this sense of uniqueness which had to be put into the context in order to popularise this exceptional art.

The revival process graduated to opening a centre, Charu, in Chamba in 2001.Women would come here to train, build on their skill and make Chamba ‘rumal’ on order.
Over a decade long efforts have seen the dying art springing back to life. New Delhi is getting a taste of it as the DCC has put up an exhibition at Indira Gandhi Centre For Arts.

The exhibition called ‘The Chamba Rumal: Life to a dying art’ has on display recreated masterpieces, each one unique in its art composition and colour combination and of course to the artiste. Yet, most of them have a similar base of unbleached muslin cloth and the theme based on the legends of Krishna.

“These artistes have combined beauty with everyday life. I really liked the painting of animals. They have used vibrant colours and created a joyful life. It’s a feast to eyes,” said Prabha Chand, who had come to visit the exhibition

Commending the efforts, Padmini Vipin, a visitor said, “It’s outstanding to revive the art. This is an exemplary work. I think all it needs is to be marketed really well.”

Five women embroiders and a miniature painting artist of Charu have also come down to Delhi from Chamba to show what it takes to make a ‘rumal’. Masto Devi, 40, a state award winner, has been associated with the revival project for 15 years. She was among 29 craftsperson who were retrained. The trainees would get a stipend of Rs500 each.
“Later, I was appointed as a teacher at the centre. I now teach and make Chamba ‘rumal’,” says she. The project is also directly helping women to earn their living through this traditional art.

Masto joined the centre when her husband passed away and had three little kids to look after.
“Initially I used to work in my spare time from home. I used to earn Rs1,000 a month to begin with then it gradually increased to Rs2,000 to Rs3,000 a month. Now my children are grown up. I get my salary of a teacher at the centre and apart from that I’m paid for whatever individual ‘rumal’ I make. So in a way I earn Rs10,000 a month on an average,” said Masto Devi while putting her needle through a handkerchief.

For Indu Sharma,28, opening of Charu was a blessing in disguise. She joined the centre in 2002 as a trainee when the responsibility of looking after her family fell on her after the demise of her father.

“I was the eldest among my five siblings. I thought if I take training I can support my family as I would get stipend. Later, I started earning Rs1,500 to Rs2,000 a month as I was very slow in embroidering. But later I started earning Rs 4,000 a month,” says Indu who is still associated with the project after getting married and having a son.

Parikshit Sharma, a miniature paining artist, skillfully draws on fine handspun and hand woven unbleached muslin for women to embroider upon those ‘compositions using untwisted coloured silk floss’.

While here in Delhi they are willingly imparting their skills to anyone who is interested in the art. Arudhana Jain is one such who is learning the long and short of the stitches. She has already got paintings drawn on a piece of cloth she has got with her.

“I like this style of embroidery very much. I’m learning the basics of the embroidery,” says she but wonders if she’d be able to finish her handkerchief in a year or so?

But those seasoned artisans who are quick to complete a ‘rumal’ in two-three days time are waiting for a bigger and specialised market to reach the connoisseurs of Chamba ‘rumals’ known as “paintings in embroidery”.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Womb on Hire

After IT outsourcing, it’s now ‘pregnancy outsourcing’ which is on the rise in India. Childless couples and singles, especially from the US, Europe and south East Asia are looking to India in a hope — to become parents.

Indian surrogate mothers are in big demand. A surrogate mother is one who gets paid for carrying babies of other couples who can’t conceive on their own either due to health constraints or age. Surrogacy is the process where an embryo (fertilized egg and sperm of the couple) is transferred to the surrogate mother’s womb through in vitrofertilization or IVF.

There are others like working women who don’t have time or can’t afford to become mothers or who simply don’t want to go through physical changes and health issues that come with becoming pregnant but strongly want to have babies.

Single women and men are also finding surrogacy the best way to have their own children with the help of either a donated sperm or egg as the case would require.

Surrogacy is developing into a kind of profession albeit for a short term as no woman in India can opt to be a surrogate mother more than thrice in her lifetime. A surrogate must not be over 45 years and should test negative to life threatening and genetic diseases including, HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis B and C and thalassemia.

Mahua Dutta is a new entrant to surrogacy. The 33-three year-old from Delhi is helping a Frenchman by lending her womb to carry his child. Her baby bump has started showing. She is little over than two months pregnant and has come for a regular check up at Delhi IVF & Fertility Research Centre in a posh area of Indian capital New Delhi.
In this case, the parent-to-be is a single Frenchman. His sperm and a donated egg have been used to in the embryo which was planted in Dutta’s womb through IVF.
Dutta will receive minimum Rs 3.5 lakh for becoming a surrogate mother. But Dutta says she has not gone for surrogacy for an outright financial reason. For her, who has a nine-year-old son, surrogacy satisfies her emotional needs.

Her husband, who works in an IT company and at present is on a US trip, had straightaway said no to second child due to increasingly expensive lifestyle in Indian metro cities. “But the itch for becoming a mother was growing strong in me, especially when I came to know I had a bleak chance of conceiving after I went for a fibroid surgery in my uterus. By becoming a surrogate mother has reassured me that I’m not barren,” says Dutta.

Moreover, she feels second time pregnancy would make her feel important and get full attention and care of her husband as she got when she was expecting her first child. “Also, I’m bringing happiness to someone’s life,” quips she.

For Dutta opting for surrogacy maybe to quench her quirky maternal instincts, but for Preeti Singh (name changed on request) from a northern town of Allahabad it is a solution to lessen her poverty.

She delivered a child for a British couple in September last year. Six months after she had come to the IVF research centre again to donate her eggs that would fetch her Rs 25,000. She is thinking of going for surrogacy once again to ease her economic pressures and secure her children’s future.

Thirty-year-old petit Singh has two children. Her husband is a driver and earns Rs2,500 a month. “It was difficult to eke out two meals a day for the family,” quips Singh.

After delivering the baby when she was first handed in the cheque, it changed her life. It took care of all her pressing needs.
“Our worry to get the next meal for our children was solved immediately. Later, we built two small rooms, bought a bike and saved some money with a bank,” says Singh with a smile.

For her, earning Rs3.5 in nine months was a huge cache of money she could barely think of earning in her lifetime.
But for someone coming from the US or UK it’s a fraction of what they would have to pay in their own country.

“The cost of surrogacy in the US is about $80,000 whereas in India it’s only $18,000. The cost of IVF is $15,000 in the US and in India it’s $25,000,” said Dr Anoop Gupta, medical director Delhi IVF Research Centre.

It’s this relative cheap cost of medical treatment is what making India a hot spot for foreigners looking for fertility treatment or children through surrogacy.

Chui Sai Kit, 41, and his wife Zhang Zhenliang, 40, have come all the way from Hong Kong to this New Delhi clinic to have a baby through surrogacy.

Zhenliang has a history of abortions which she underwent while at the peak of her career. It was followed by multiple miscarriages. She can no longer conceive a baby. For them surrogacy is the only option left and coming to India is a “natural choice” for both of them.

“I looked up on the net and calculated the cost of surrogacy. India was comparatively cheaper than other countries and it’s nearby, just across the border,” says Kit.

The couple has already held a round of meetings with the surrogate mother. They will be at the clinic for three to four weeks until the healthy egg and sperms are extracted from them, fertilized and the embryo is transferred to the surrogate mother’s womb through IVF.

The couple is just one case. The clinic, which is always over packed with patients looking for fertility treatment, gets 20 clients on an average every month who want babies through surrogacy.

Dr Anoop has seen the trend increasing manifold in the last few years. The IVF clinic facilitated the first surrogate child in 1997. “In the beginning we did 2-3 cases a year. Now we are doing over 50 surrogacy cases a year,” says Dr Gupta

So far, the clinic has helped parents to have 4000 babies through IVF and over 400 babies through surrogacy.
About 90 percent of their clients are foreigners, including Hollywood personalities. Even though in India commercial surrogacy is legal they do surrogacy on case by case basis.

“We make our decision after talking to the expectant parents and observing their behaviour whether they would be able to take care of their babies or not. And if we feel that they won’t, we refuse them. Recently we refused a gay couple as we thought both partners didn’t fit the criteria of caring parents. Though, we do do surrogacy for gays, lesbians, single men and women apart from straight couples,” said Dr Gupta.

Apart from Delhi, Mumbai in Maharashtra and Anand in Gujarat are fast emerging as hubs for surrogate mother agencies and IVF clinics in India. The reasons for India emerging as a faourite destination for surrogacy are many.

The country boasts of best IVF services in the world and its English speaking nation makes it easy for foreigners to avail of the medical services. Moreover, it costs almost one fifth of what it would cost them in their own countries. This is giving a boost to medical tourism in India wherein foreigners can come here see around the places and can benefit from low-cost and world-class medical.

According to Indian Council of Medical Research commercial surrogacy will grow into $US 6 billion per-year-industry from its present $445 million-a-year business
The latest add-on to medical tourism, surrogacy seems to benefit all the parties involved in it—the childless gets parenthood, the surrogate gets financial benefits and the medical industry booms.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The chaiwallah writer

Brewing steaming hot cup of tea by roadside is what he does for earning his livelihood. But writing books is his passion he lives for. This writer-cum-tea-seller, 55-year old Laxman Rao, is a unique story in himself.

A graduate from Delhi University, he rides to his shop everyday on a bicycle carrying his professional and literary world together. A bag hanging would carry the copies of books authored by him and another bag would contain a saucepan, tealeaves, sugar, milk and plastic cups. Yet another bag hanging on the cycle handle would have his lunchbox.

Everyday, 1 pm is when he reaches Digambar road, near ITO in the heart of Delhi where some of India’s major English newspaper houses are located, and sets up his shop by the road under the canopy of an old banyan tree.

Untill a few days ago he would set up his makeshift stall just under the tree but now he has been shoved out to the margins of the road in the midst of piled up debris as a new sewer line is being laid.

The stall comprises a stove, a stone slate to sit on and a plastic sheet to spread his book titles on. For his customers, he would quickly make a sitting bench by placing a wooden plank on two bricks each on either ends.

Rao is a multi-tasking man. While preparing milky tea, he engages his customers by his jovial talks and tells them about his books on display and the ones in the offing.

He says he has written 21 books so far. But on display there are a few copies of eight titles which he himself published as no publisher agreed to take his work.

His first title ‘Nayi Duniya Ki Nayi Kahani’, written in 1979, narrates his early days struggle as a labourer or working as a waiter in a tea stall. It took him two years to write this book. It was followed by a play “Pradhanmantri” (Prime minister) in 1984. The book was an outcome of his meeting with the then prime minister late Indira Gandhi.

“It’s one of the most memorable days of my life. I wanted to write a book on Indira Gandhi but she said many books had been written on her and he should rather write on administration. So “‘Pradhanmantri’ came into being highlighting the corrupt administration surrounding a prime minister,” quips Rao.

Soon other books, including ‘Ramdas’, ‘Narmada’ ‘Renu’ and ‘Abhvyakti’, came out.

All his books are based on real life stories — what he sees around him. It was one such incident that shook the writer in him in his childhood. A young boy, Ramdas, was drowned while taking a bath. The shock was overpowering and could be dealt with only when he expressed himself through pen and paper.

“My moving story on Ramdas was liked by everyone,” says he.

It was his first brush with literary writing but reading literary works was not new to him. He was quite fond of reading while he was in school and had read already many books in Hindi literature though he had Marathi language background.

Born on July 22, 1954 in a family of farmers at a village in Amravati district of Maharashtra state, he had to leave study after 10th standard in 1973 and work in a local spinning mill and after its closure switched to farming to help his father.

But this did not last long. “This was not what I was inclined and perhaps destined to do. There was something more compelling to be done,” reminisces Rao.

So with just Rs40 in his pocket he ran away from home at the age of 21 to explore the outer world. He boarded a train but with that money could barely reach till Bhopal in central India. There he worked as a labourer without ceasing his “sharp observation of his surroundings and its people. It was his observation here of a poor girl adopted by a rich family upon the death of her parents became the subject matter of his book ‘Narmada’, which has gone for a reprint of 500 copies. In three months he had saved enough to continue his journey, now this time to Delhi.

Upon reaching the capital he survived by cleaning dishes in restaurants. “After saving a decent amount I started selling cigarettes and beetle nut leaves before I opened a tea stall in 1985,” recalls Rao.

During this period he passed his 12 class exams from Open School and graduated from the School of Correspondence from Delhi University. It’s been 25 years since he has been selling tea by the roadside during the day, writing books by night and promoting and distributing them to schools in the morning.

Money earned through the sale of books Rs300 each but given in 50 per cent discount goes into paying the cost of reprinting old books and publishing new ones through his own publishing house Bharatiya Sahitya Kala Prakashan.

The sale of his books was not very encouraging earlier. But now everyday he is able to sell at least four copies of his books in school libraries and a book a day at his roadside book ‘caffe’.

Now he has enough money to publish two more books “Ahankar” and “Gandhi”. He may not be making big money like other successful writers, but he is getting enough recognition.

A fact he is quite happy about. “All these years I was just struggling to keep my passion alive to establish myself as a writer. I think I have reached the milestone and can call myself a writer and just not a chaiwallah (tea seller),” says Rao.

After a day full of running around and work, he peddles home to be with his wife and two doting sons—the elder one is doing Chartered Accountancy and the younger son is pursuing Bcom.

With a happy family by his side, he has no qualms with life. But he does occasionally dream of having a little better and smooth life if not those of successful writers’ without having to think where his next meal would come from if he doesn’t sell tea.

Untill he strikes gold, he is determined to nurse his hobby by writing, publishing, promoting and distributing—all by himself and on his cycle.