Sunday, December 20, 2009

Let it snow...

Oh, I know, I know... I usually reserve my blog space to rant about stuff I see... But occasionally, even I am taken in by unplanned diversions, such as the spectacle of a snow storm from our window. It was brilliant - particularly since I was indoors, inside the warm cozy room...

But a part of me couldn't help wondering what happens to those unfortunate people that don't have a roof over their heads; I have seen so many of them in NY city and in Baltimore as well. A heartening report from the New York Times says that the city of New York Reaches Out to Those Who Won’t Come In, where the Department of Homeless Services outreach workers keep checking on homeless people - who refuse to be taken to a shelter - for frostbites and hypothermia, and provide access to medical care if necessary.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sensationalist Hyperbole from the NY Times, Re vaccine adjuvants

Andrew Pollack is an MIT-trained engineer, who has covered the business and science of biotechnology for the New York Times since 2000. I don't know how qualified he is to comment on aspects of biology and medicine, or indeed how far he understands the topics that he speaks about. But it irritates me greatly when I see sensationalist tripe, such as, "Are Americans obligated to use an unproven vaccine to help protect people in other countries from the flu pandemic?" with which Pollack opens his commentary in yesterday's NY Times - curiously titled, 'Benefit and Doubt in Vaccine Additive' - on the use of adjuvants in vaccines in the United States.

The question is, or rather is meant to be, a loaded one; note the use of the key terms - 'obligated', 'unproven vaccine', and 'protect people in other countries' - that are guaranteed to rouse the rabbles and sit well with the proponents of anti-vaccination lunacy in the US. Let me first take the words that were surely utilized to engender a sense of outrage, and tickle the xenophobia inherent in many of that lunatic fringe: 'obligated', and 'protect people in other countries'.

As far as vaccines are concerned, there is no 'obligation' for the people of this country - but it does make eminently good sense. Consider the case of the influenza virus, which has been has been one of the major causes of morbidity and mortality, especially among young children, since 1918. The commonly circulating strain of the virus (the seasonal 'flu') is not virulent enough to cause mortality, but the virus is able to mutate at a very high rate leading to the emergence of highly virulent strains, which have a range of hosts, including humans, horses, pigs, sea mammals and birds, and more importantly, some of which are able to cross the species barrier (for example, bird to human, avian influenza A H5N1). When a new (mutated) influenza virus appears against which the human population has no immunity, it has the potential of causing a pandemic. Pandemics caused by influenza A viruses in the past have been associated with high morbidity and mortality, as well as loss of livelihood.

It does not take great intelligence to understand that geographical barriers are largely meaningless nowadays, what with the tremendous increase in global travel, urbanization, as well as overpopulation; any epidemic, particularly the ones due to the hypervirulent new influenza strains (including those crossing over from animals) is likely to disseminate globally rather quickly, leading to disease and deaths in large numbers, as we have seen several times in the past few years, making the occurrence of the next pandemic just a matter of time. Therefore, the 'protect people of other countries' argument does not wash at all.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It is a sad, sad world...

We read this stuff - it is always someone else's problem - we feel an appropriate moral outrage and then jump back into our own individual ponds. Life goes on. But some time, some day, I would like to see this atrocity end; some day I would like to find the perpetrators of such atrocities brought to justice, unable to claim clemency in the name of that great facilitator of all social evils, namely, 'culture and tradition'.

A 12 year old Yemeni girl, Fawziya Ammodi, died during a painful childbirth in Amman.

A pre-teen of 12! Just a time when she would have stood at the threshold of high school in India; a time when Indian parents would tell her to be careful about the boys around, when she would enjoy - but not say anything, beyond a look here and a smile there, about - the first attentions of the shy, nerdy boy in her class, when she would giggle with her friends about the gawkiness and immaturity of most the boys around, when she would still be enthralled with tall, dark and handsome heroes and, of course, Nancy Drew.

It would be a very similar experience for a 12-year old vibrant, vivacious girl anywhere in the civilized world. Apparently not in Yemen.

Born into an impoverished family in Hodeidah, Fawziya Ammodi was forced to drop out of school, and married off to a 24-year old man last year. More than half of all young Yemeni girls are married off before the age of 18 - many times to older men, some with more than one wife, a study by Sanaa University found. Marriage means the girls are no longer a financial or moral burden to their parents.

Fawziya struggled for three days in labor, before dying of severe bleeding at a hospital on Friday, the September 11; her baby did not survive either - which is not surprising because 12-year old girls usually aren't physically developed enough to cope with childbirth, at least not with the relative ease of a grown-up.

UNICEF issued a statement Monday saying: "Child marriages violate the rights of children in the most deplorable way. The younger the girl is when she becomes pregnant, the greater the health risks for her and her baby... Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s. Child marriage denies girls of their childhood, deprives them of an education and robs them of their innocence... More must be done to address the underlying causes in order to prevent tragic deaths like those of 12-year-old Fawziya and her baby."

This is not the first incident of this sort in Yemen. Child brides are commonplace in Yemen, especially in the Red Sea Coast where tribal customs hold sway. In 2008, 10-year-old Nujood Ali was pulled out of school by her own parents and married to a much older man who beat and raped her within weeks of the ceremony. To escape, Nujood hailed a taxi - the first time in her life - to get across town to the central courthouse where she sat on a bench and demanded to see a judge. After a well-publicized trial, she was granted a divorce. But in Yemen, she is still fighting to reclaim her life from official apathy and her parents' greed.

I felt incredibly sad at the misfortune of this stranger, a 12-year old who would not walk, talk or run around ever again. Child marriages still take place in many parts of northern India, despite the best efforts of many non-governmental organizations working in conjunction with the central government. Poverty, illiteracy, and of course, 'culture and tradition' are the excuses proferred in all these cases, while female children continue to be abused and die.

The CNN article (linked above) ends with a factoid of the kind that makes my blood boil: "The Yemeni parliament tried in February to pass a law, setting the minimum marriage age at 17. But the measure has not reached the president because many parliamentarians argued it violates Shariah, or Islamic law, which does not stipulate a minimum age." Incidentally, it is the same Shariah, by which Nujood's ex-husband had to be compensated, not prosecuted! Nujood was ordered to pay him more than $200 - a huge amount in a country where 15.7% of the population lives on less than $1 a day, according to the UN Developments Program.

I wish for a saner world, where the so-called 'culture and tradition' and that wellspring of ignorance and abuse called religion do not exist. Fantasy, I know. And it hits closer to home than you think.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The meaning of life, and all that jazz...

I am in a strange mood today...

There has been a death in the family - in my extended family. Earlier this week, my father-in-law's elder brother, who lived in Hyderabad, passed away in his sleep from a massive myocardial infarction. He is survived by his wife, daughter and son.

From all accounts, he appears to have lived a complete life. Moving from Guwahati in Assam, he gradually settled down in Hyderabad. The daughter, my wife's cousin, is well-placed in Bangalore, while the son is studying for a degree in computer applications. Though I did not know them very well beyond exchanging occasional pleasantries with the daughter through the social networking sites, I do share my family's bereavement at this sudden, and somewhat unexpected, loss.

Another part of me, however, moving beyond the obvious grief, is considering the manner of the death. In this world of war, famine and pestilence, countless individuals die every day violent and gory deaths - completely needlessly, more often than not - over petty politics, apathy and callousness, nationalism, fanaticism, accidents, random acts of violence, and even over utterly inconsequential stuff such as religion. How fortunate, then, one is - having lived in that same world - to be able to pass away peacefully in one's sleep. Of course, death rarely arrives in a manner of one's choosing, but I should be so lucky when it is my time to go...

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A wave of nostalgia...

Who woulda thunk? No, really - who would have thought that I would be so awash with nostalgia in a - wait for it - fish market?

No, this is not your friendly neighborhood Unhygienix the Gaul speaking from exile... I had to visit India in order to deal with an urgent family medical crisis. In course of all that, I accompanied an aunt of mine to the local marketplace for the weekly procurement of groceries, rice, pulses, vegetables of varied descriptions, and of course, fish. After all, where would the Great Bengali be without the staple of their lives - fish?

In most such local marketplaces in my city, Calcutta, the fish market occupies its own niche in a secluded section. It is eminently understandable, of course. Though there are no physical boundaries between the 'Have fish' and 'No, thank you' sections, the moment you step into the piscine area, your nose is assailed by a variety of odors wafting towards you from the glistening piles of fish. To the less discerning 'fishless' shopper, it smells - well - fishy. To the discerning and sensitive epicurean gastronome, it is but a mixture of the salty tang of the sea, sweetness of the water of rivers and estuaries, gentle breeze blowing the East as the sun rises, and the blood and sweat of the simple fisherfolk who toil day in and day out regardless of the weather to bring us the gifts from the water gods. One has to enter that zone for the commencement of the daily ritual of fish procurement - the first step being haggling over the price.

No self-respecting Maachhwalaah (fishmonger) would ever dream of quoting you the correct price right at the first go. That sort of thing is just not done. Uh-huh. It is not - as they say - cricket. When asked about the price of a particular type of fish (sold by weight), they would start usually at one and a half times to twice the actual price. There is a fine balance at play here. The Maachhwalaah, being good a judge of human character, would never quote a price that is designed to irritate or disgust the prospective customer. The price is adjusted to just beyond the buying habit of the individual customer, so that the customer would find it worth his/her while to haggle over, eventually arriving at a compromise that would satisfy the customer's primal urge to get a deal and pay less than asking price, and leave a margin of profit for the seller as well.

Haggling at the local fish market is easily a performance art. One has to step back and enjoy the back-and-forth. It is not all dry business; the affair - lasting for several minutes - is invariably replete with pithy comments and clever repartees. One common theme is to ask the fishmonger how his multi-storied place of residence is coming along - the implication being that the money he gets from fleecing the customers is spent to fix him a palace. He may reply with a forlorn face, saying that he has only a single-story dwelling place. At this point, the neighboring fishmonger - perhaps a tad jealous that his neighbor is about to make a sale, or perhaps just enjoying the good-natured banter - would jump in and remind the customer to ask the previous fishmonger how many single-story houses he has had built and where. Such questions would be met with a cryptic, yet disarming smile, and the topic would be quickly changed to how to cut the fish - whether into large sizes or small, whether to de-scale or not.

While they speak nineteen to dozen, and easily handle a steady stream of customers with aplomb, their hands or the hands of their assistants are constantly moving about an extremely sharp instrument, termed a 'bnoti' ('bow' with a nasal twang, plus 'tea'), a curved scythe-like implement fixed on a flat piece of wood. The same bnoti is used for descaling and cutting the fish into pieces, and is constantly washed with a splash of water. A moment's carelessness can cost someone a finger or cause a gash, but that never happens. Through the banter, their concentration is unwavering. It is kind of mesmerizing to watch. My mind hearkened back to the flamboyance of the fish-handlers in the Pike Place market in Seattle, but would they stand a chance in this magical mêlée - not at this scale!

We got our fish and walked away, promising to return in a few days, looking for more varieties of fish that would be made into different delicacies. I was reminded, not without a twinge of sadness, of the sterile environment of our local Indian/Pakistani/Bangladeshi grocery stores in the East Coast, of the fish imported from Burma or Thailand, neatly cut into pieces and frozen in slabs of ice, and price-marked - completely devoid of life, of character, of that feel of having won a prize at the fish market through a battle of wits.

The price we pay...

Saturday, August 1, 2009

What is it with Indian men and rape?

Yet another statistic, yet another dark splotch on the sheet... Today's Times of India (August 1, 2009) reports that a 22-year old newly-wed woman was gang-raped in Thane by five as-yet unidentified young men. The police suspect that local thugs may be involved. Who knows when (or rather, if) they will be ever apprehended and brought to justice.

Also reported in today's Times of India, a twenty-something woman was gang-raped by four persons at Savitribai Phule slums in Nagpur in front of two kids in the early morning of Friday. Gagged with a cloth and threatened with sharp weapons, the victim could do little to help herself or her neighbor's two kids, who were sleeping with her, and cowered in one corner of the room during the incident.

This past Wednesday (July 29, 2009), Indian Express reported that a 30-year-old kitchen help in the hostel of Central Government-run Navodaya Vidyalaya was gang-raped and later set on fire by her co-workers in Belora village of the district in Gujarat. The victim is struggling for life in the government hospital here with 95% burns.

Three reported rape incidents in just a matter of a week. Also on Wednesday, a Times of India report conferred a dubious distinction on Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal; India has been recording a rise in the number of rape cases during the past five years with states like Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal registering maximum number of them, the parliament was informed Wednesday.

According to the National Crime Record Bureau, an astounding 20737 rape cases were registered in 2007 alone. And that is just the tip of a huge iceberg. Rape in India is largely a safe crime to carry out as it is plagued by very poor reporting levels due to the stigma involved. Delhi-based psychologist Rajat Mitra, who is active in this issue and even counsels imprisoned offenders, says: "People from the upper class and the middle class do not report rape cases. It is mostly the people from the lower class that come out to seek police intervention." It is estimated that as many as 90% of the rape cases actually remain unreported.

What is it with Indian men and rape?

Is it about sexual gratification in a country where, inexplicably, sex is still a taboo subject and the Indian male is a lustful, prurient, sex-starved lot eager to carry out rape to fulfill a sexual fantasy whenever opportunity presents? Is it about power and control over certain individuals, or a group of people - an uncontrollable urge to dominate? Or, is it a violent response, a lashing out, of the patriarchal societal establishment to the increasing economic and social emancipation of the Indian women, whom it finds it cannot subjugate any further?

In India, it probably is all of the above. Rapes are often not crimes of opportunity carried out in the spur of the moment, but in most cases are well-planned and a considered act. The rapist actually enacts the rape in his mind for many times before he actually carries it out; the opportunity in most of the cases is created by manipulating the situation carefully or casing out the vulnerabilities of the intended victim.

Perhaps a lot of it has to do with the traditional Indian male attitude towards women. "streeyaashcharitram devaa na jaananti, kutoh manushyaah" - Rajasthan deputy chief minister Hari Shankar Bhabra quoted a Sanskrit shloka in the State Assembly, no less, to say, "Why talk of humans, even the gods cannot say anything definite about a woman's character..." when commenting upon Bhanwari Devi, a low-caste victim of gang-rape by upper-caste thugs, in 1998. The comment sums up the prevalent general Indian attitude to sexual assaults, carefully couched behind an appropriate Sanskrit shloka to render some legitimacy to it. Rape is assumed to be the woman's fault and a test of her character.

Holy cow! When did we become so utterly insensitive and inhuman?