Monday, April 14, 2014

Vishu Greetings


This photo of kani konna (Cassia fistula) byJ.M.Garg is reproduced under

                                                        GNU Free Documentation License

  Also read

Vishu: Did God Create Earth on This Day?


Friday, April 11, 2014

Memories of Yercaud

This post is written at my request by Mrs. Teresa Bhattacharya IAS (Retd.), former Chief Secretary of Karnataka. Some of you might remember her taking over the position when her husband Mr. BK Bhattacharya IAS retired as Chief Secretary.

Teresa’s father, Mr. P.C. Abraham Pallivathukkal, was one of the top industrialists and plantation owners in Kerala. In the 1940s he bought the Hunsden Group Estates  in Yercaud from the family of the late Commander H.F. Carey, which he then renamed as Waterfalls Estates . Teresa and her siblings had their schooling at Sacred Heart Convent (SHY) and Montfort mainly as boarders and for a few years as day scholars after the family shifted there.  


‘Do you remember…?’

Evocative words reaching out unexpectedly from the past through school alumni websites and family chat pages, jolting the memory with a rush of nostalgia for persons, places and events that shaped our childhood.

I grew up in Yercaud in the 40’s and 50’s, and for me and many others of that shared time and space Yercaud has been a deep and enduring influence on our growing years, and a warm, sustaining force in our psyches thereafter.

There’s never been any place quite like Yercaud,  modest Cinderella among the Southern hill stations  lying for many years un-noticed and undisturbed up in the Shevaroy hills 5000 feet above the plains of Salem. No malls or stately buildings, no manicured public parks or gardens.  Just a few gentle hints of a colonial past – a little clubhouse below the old Protestant Church with a tennis court, a small library and a card room.

Life revolved around the dozen or so coffee estates on the upper slopes of the hills, and the two large old boarding schools Montfort & SHY set up in the mid nineteenth Century which, with their stone halls, long low dormitories, extensive playing fields and serene chapels, were a dominating and reassuring presence in the little hill town.

It was a time of transition. Many of the estates were in the process of changing hands from departing British owners to incoming Indian planters from the plains. The two schools, which had just around four hundred odd students between them, had started to gradually take in more Indian children in place of the departing British and Anglo Indians.

But the general pattern of life in Yercaud stayed more or less unchanged for a while, or maybe it was changing so imperceptibly as to be barely noticed. A handful of elderly British planters had chosen to stay on in their old familiar homes and estates, and most of the European nuns and brothers in Montfort and SHY remained in India and continued to run the schools. There was also a large, lively Anglo-Indian presence in the schools and in the town itself. So there was still something of a residual colonial social life in the Yercaud of the 50’s.

Barring occasional day-trippers from Salem visiting popular tourist spots like the precarious rocky perches of Lady’s Seat (scene of several dramatic movie shoots!), the little population of Yercaud  lived in a self-sustaining, fairly well integrated  world of its own, with the two schools acting as major catalysts. The local gentry (for want of a better word) – that is, the planters, teachers and other residents -  met regularly for  whist drives at the club and for the weekly free English movie in the Montfort Hall. And all residents were there at the various school events - sports, fetes, cricket matches with Salem Club and so on - be it as staid seated guests or as appreciative, voluble spectators at the outer edges of the school fields.

The Alumni websites are full of stories and photographs from the past posted by schoolmates from all over the world, and old memories flood the mind in all their innocence and charm.

There’s so much that comes back to mind – our walks, for instance. The undemanding rhythm of school life allowed for many outdoor activities and the double file of chattering SHY schoolgirls winding its cheerful way to Big Lake, Bears Hill, Aeroplane Stream and other scenic spots was a familiar sight on the vehicle free roads of Yercaud.  Walks to Rookery for picnics were longer and more leisurely, slowing down briefly in the market place to pick up bulls-eyes, stick-jaw, kamarkats, egg sweets and other alluring ‘delicacies’.

On St. Patrick’s Day every year there was an adventurous annual Tracking event when Girl Guides searched the roads (with helpful hints from bemused local bystanders) for cryptic signs and hidden messages laid by an advance party, and then ‘tracked’ their way to  an undisclosed destination, usually the neighbouring village of Craigmore. And who doesn’t remember trudging up the steep final stretch of ‘Purgatory Hill’ to the school gates at the end of every walk!

Bus trips to Salem were also jolly occasions with loud cheerful group singing of popular favourites such as: 'Driving down from Yercaud in the Salem bus', 'She'll be coming round the mountains when she comes,' and so on.

Some memorable local personalities deserve special mention:

Mr. Jacques, strict Montfort music teacher with a side occupation making ‘Jacqueline’ ink, candles and pomade; ‘Tiger’ Nat Terry, erstwhile champion of the ring in Madras, who taught boxing and tap-dance in Montfort , and Marcus Bartley the talented photographer who was the cinematographer of the famous Malayalam film 'Chemmeen'.

Then, who can forget Mother Bernard, one of the best principals SHY has known, competent and strict, but also watchful and perceptive of each child's welfare, and Mere Margaret Mary, SHY's  mercurial music teacher and refectory supervisor who vigilantly ensured that nothing interfered with piano lessons and choir practice; Mrs. O’Gorman and Miss Rabbit, two sweet old Irish sisters who looked after the Parish church and guided us Legionaries every Saturday in arranging flowers, polishing the brass and dusting the altar rails; Arthur Cissey, happy go lucky, casually dressed Frenchman (of rumoured aristocratic descent) who could be seen in the market streets accompanied by admiring urchins who clustered around him for sweets and snacks; and many others too numerous to list out.

I remember above all the sweet natural beauty of Yercaud, the quiet hills, the serene waters of Big Lake, the wild roadside plants with their bounty of tart, sweet lantana berries, rhubarb stems and shamrock leaves for hungry schoolchildren, fallen ‘jumblums’ with their tell-tale purple stains, the juicy fruit of forbidden pear groves, the precariously poised rocks of Lady’s Seat from where we gazed down entranced at the lights of Salem twinkling far below…

Time of course moves on as it must, and after High School we took our first big step out into the world. And what a change it was! College life in the big, bustling city of Madras was fast, exciting and adult. We blended in quickly with our new peer group: wove jasmine into our long plaits, lined our eyes with kaajal, picked up the lyrics of Tamil movie songs and were enthralled by the wave of Dravidian pride that was sweeping through College campuses at the time.

Over the years, as the compulsions of adult life took over, Yercaud settled into the recesses of memory and we lost touch with old schoolmates and friends. And then one day in the mid seventies, I went back to Yercaud on a holiday. The ghat road wound its way up the wooded hill slopes and finally looped around the last hairpin bend at the top to run flat and level along the last stretch into town. Then as the coffee bushes and their sheltering silver-oak shade trees fell away, a curve in the road took us alongside Big Lake with its sloping grassy banks _ the familiar quiet waters that had greeted generations of incoming school batches year after year as they drove back in from the long Winter holidays.

In an unexpected surge of nostalgia, deep rooted associations of childhood took over our minds and senses and we were back in an enchanted world suspended in time, our own special ‘land over the rainbow, way up high’ surprisingly untouched by any noticeable change.

Somehow, while the landscape and lifestyles elsewhere in the country had been evolving into the new patterns of modern India, Yercaud continued for several decades to remain as she’d always been, with her peaceful country roads, quiet haunts and picnic spots, and of course our old school SHY standing reassuringly ‘snug on the green hillside’ with the dear nuns we’d known since childhood waiting to greet us ‘with arms around us all’!   

It couldn’t last, of course. By the late nineties, Yercaud was well and truly discovered by the growing world of Indian tourism. Gradually, hotels and guest houses sprang up in lovely scenic spots, high stone walls appeared around newly built holiday homes and the once quiet roads were invaded by trucks, buses and cars from the plains. Today, Yercaud is a popular holiday destination and there are tourists everywhere – sightseeing, trekking, or just hanging out at the amusement park near the lake. Montfort had already transformed into an imposing Super-School some years ago, and SHY too has recently dismantled the main school building with its old world classrooms and dormitories to make way for a new, modern structure.

Which, I suppose, is as it should be. Yercaud has finally taken her place in the India of today.  Cinderella has become a princess, finely gowned and feted. However, as the old saying goes: ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same’. Our little town with its modest trappings of modern life sits lightly on the surface of the Shevaroys, that sturdy range of peaks and valleys that sustains and protects the dwellers on the hills: the town residents, the mynahs and bulbuls, the jackals, wild boar and occasional bears that move through the outer slopes, the fruits, flowers and trees that grow in great abundance! 

These hills with their abiding tranquility stand firm and unchanging, ‘alive with the sound of (their own intrinsic) music, with songs they have sung for a thousand years!’ _ songs that we carry in our hearts with the memories of a very special childhood,

(Photos of school by KO Isaac and flowers by Ronnie Abraham.)


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Fiction (Flash): The Wait


I’m sure that I fell in love with her only after my death.

As the end was nearing I was afraid – the dread of the unknown. She was also in the room along with a few others, standing apart in a corner. Her eyes, which often met mine, gave a silent assurance that she would be there to see me off to the place I was going. That helped.

She was crying quietly as I left.

There was no wall, no door, and no veil to go through. I was in one world and a moment later in another. It was a surprise that I could still see humans and kept watching what was happening on earth. She was at the funeral as well, dignified, even beautiful, but I knew that her inside was lacerated. I wanted to reach out and sooth her.

Was it then that I fell in love?

We had been schoolmates in our small town. Later I became a travel journalist and a globetrotter. She stayed back, became a teacher, and went through a marriage that ended in divorce within two years. We met occasionally on my rare visits home. That was always enjoyable.

What struck me about my new home was the emptiness that stretched out to infinity. I was alone. From time to time translucent images moved in the distance, some in a hurry, others slowly – spirits like me. But we had no communication between us.

Sometimes I wondered how she would like my present abode that would be hers too some day. I watched her on earth regularly. She looked different – sadder, older, so lonely.

I had no physical wants. Days and nights did not exist where I was. All that could be seen was the woolly nothingness. But time was aplenty. Not in units. Interminable.

My entire earthly life was on show frequently. At each viewing new revelations emerged – the wrongs and rights I did, matters that I could have handled better, my failures, weaknesses, and so on. I was capable of much more good. And questions came up. Why did I hurt people? Why didn’t I help others as much as I could have? Why did I carry grudges?

There was no feeling of guilt but only realisation, disappointment that I had not performed as well as I could have, and a sense of sadness. The greatest regret was that I failed to recognise her love for me. We could have been married happily, had a home, children.

Then I started visiting her at night. I would sit silently on her bed watching the woman I loved. Some times I communicated without words. I knew she understood because of changes in her expression and the rare smiles. In the morning she perhaps forgot what had happened in her sleep or dismissed it as a pleasant dream.

During one of my nocturnal visits she fell sick, suddenly going into a fit of coughing. She was perspiring profusely and clutched her chest, gasping. My inability to help was frustrating. I returned, praying that her death would be painless, and waited.

I was unaware how long it took, but finally she died.

Shortly, an image flashed past me. Was it her, looking for me? She didn’t know where I was in that vastness of space. Then it sank in – a soul had no visual identity without physique.

What next? Rebirth? Resurrection of the body?

The wait for my beloved continues.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Kerala Medicare – good nurses, doctors, hospitals

Three hospitals were involved in treating my recent medical problem. My good blogger friend ER Ramachandran has suggested in a comment on Life without computer - 2 that I write about my experience, particularly about the hospitals, the doctors and nurses.

Well, here we go.

In spite of my wife being there I paid more attention to the nurses than I would have normally. The reason was to confirm what I already knew. You must have read recently the comment on Kerala nurses that a politician in North India had made. According to him the nurses from Kerala are dark and ugly and that a person would find it difficult to address them ‘sisters’.

In the three hospitals that I spent time, almost all the nurses were fair and good looking. Even the darker ones were attractive and pleasant. I feel that none of them would bother to give the comic politician a second look. This quote should be enough to give a clearer picture: “The high literacy rate and access to modern and progressive education help the state churn out the most sought-after Nursing workforce in the global labour market.” (Nurses Abroad,10 Jan 2013)

According to Emerging Kerala Human Development Indicators (HDI) in the State “are the highest in the country and even on par with some developed nations.” Kerala’s longevity rate the highest and infant mortality rate the lowest in the country.  The birth rate of  40% is lower than the country’s average. Even maternal mortality rate (1.3/1000) is the least in India.

According to Wikipedia, Kerala has the largest government network in India – 2700 medical institutions offering 330 beds per 100,000 population. Apart from this there is a large number of private hospitals, covering even the villages. They include several multi-speciality and super speciality ones. Almost all of them are manned by experts. As a result, medical tourism is developing into a growing phenomenon in Kerala.

Actually, this makes the choice of hospital when one gets sick rather difficult particularly in a city like Cochin. I picked the ones where I knew the doctors. That helped – comfortable rooms, best medical attention and good food!

Friday, February 28, 2014

Haemophilia - the Royal Disease, the Christmas Disease.

PA George Tharakan (1944 – 2013)

[He was the bravest man I have met. From his childhood he struggled with a crippling disease. Even while enduring bouts of severe pain there was always the charming smile that was his trademark. He did so much for patients like him and for others including the poor fishermen living along the coast. He had a large circle of friends from all walks of life.

This post about him was written by my brother PK Hormis Tharakan IPS (Retd.) who was the Director General of Police, Kerala, Chief of RAW and Advisor to the Governor when Karnataka was under Presidents Rule. I am proud to publish it.] 

When I read on Thursday morning (Feb 20) about the Haemophilia  Centre at Aluva being inaugurated by the Chief Minister, my thoughts went back to the day when I handed over a letter from my cousin , late George A.Tharakan, who can justly be called the founder of the Haemophilia Care movement in the country, to the Chief Minister's Office. I still have a copy of that letter, dated June 5, 2012 on my computer.

In that letter, George (whom we called Vakkachen) requested the Government to implement a comprehensive scheme for haemophilia care in the State. He also attached a specific proposal, seeking government sanction to start a Comprehensive Haemophilia Centre in the District Government Hospital, Aluva, where a Dialysis Centre and a Blood Bank were already functioning under public-private partnership.

I am glad that today my cousin's dream has come true. He did not live to see it happening. He succumbed to haemophilia-related problems on the 23rd of February 2013, almost exactly a year before his dream materialised. His family and numerous friends are getting to ready to honour him with a memorial service on March 1.

Haemophilia is a disease about which not many people know. As George clarified in his proposal to the Government, Haemophilia is a hereditary bleeding disorder caused by the lack or absence of one of the 13 clotting factors in blood. If the deficient clotting factor is Factor VIII, it is called Haemophilia A, or Classical Haemophilia and if the deficient factor is Factor IX, it is Haemophilia B, or Christmas disease. Though a hereditary condition, 30% of the haemophiliac cases are without previous history. Haemophilia is also known as the "Royal Disease” because it affected the Royal Families of Europe, like Russia, Spain and Germany, through the daughters and granddaughters of Queen Victoria of England.

Being a haemophiliac means having to endure unbearable pain all through one's life. It also means having to incur crushing financial burden because the cost of the factor concentrate needed by haemophiliacs is prohibitively and unbelievably high. I realised this only when I was trying to help with the procurement of the medicines required by George in his last days. That is why I would like to compliment the Chief Minister for having acted on George's proposal and all the others who worked to realise his dream, including Dr. Vijayakumar, Dr. Rema Pai and Dr. Vijayaraghavan of the Planning Board.

But it is important that the remaining proposals in George's  scheme, like the collection of data on haemophiliacs, provision of testing facilities in medical colleges, supply of medicines and factor concentrates at subsidized rates for emergency treatment, prophylactic care and ensuring the safety of the product of treatment are also implemented soon.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Short short story: Medicine Specialist

 (I am republishing this story in the light of the experience I had recently.)

“Pretty nasty fall,” the elderly doctor said after studying the X-rays. “On your right side, one lower rib and the little finger of the hand are broken. Some minor lacerations. But not to worry.”

Lying on his examination table a bit dazed, I tried to recollect what had happened. After breakfast I had left home to buy a newspaper. I had just been transferred to Mallai and was still in the process of getting things organized. The place was strange to me except that I had transited through the airport a couple of times.

I was walking briskly along the tree-lined avenue. The broad and even footpath was about one foot higher than the road. The locality was surprisingly clean and neat. A refreshing breeze blew in from the sea. The disciplined traffic moved smoothly. Nice place, I thought and carried on, reading the shop signs on both sides of the street.

Then it happened, all of a sudden. I tripped and fell forward. In a fraction of a second before hitting the pavement I realized that my hands would not be able to break the fall. I spun in the air the moment my palms touched the ground, like a slip fielder taking a diving catch. My right side banged against the edge of the walkway as I rolled on to the road.

In no time a crowd gathered around me talking excitedly in the local language, which I did not understand. Telling them that I was okay didn’t have any effect. I was carried to a doctor who was almost directly across the road.

While examining, the doctor had asked whether my head had hit the surface. It hadn’t. He wanted me to point out the places where it pained. After that the X-rays had been taken.

“The fractures,” the doctor said, helping me to a chair opposite his, “will take six weeks to heal."

“Six weeks!” I exclaimed.

“Don’t be alarmed. That’s normal. And you won’t be incapacitated."

He explained the line of treatment. No medicines except painkillers if absolutely necessary. The rib was to be left to heal on its own. I was to avoid sleeping on that side and lifting weights. The doctor placed a piece of dressing between the broken finger and the next one and bound them together with microporous tape. 
The hand was to be kept in sling whenever possible.

“If you like,” the doctor said, “I can refer you to an orthopedist. But really, there is no need.”

“Fine,” I agreed.

“Do you drink?”

I was taken aback by the sudden question. “Not for breakfast,” I replied.

The doctor laughed. “When you get home,” he said, take a bucket bath with some antiseptic in the water. After that have couple of stiff drinks with lunch and go to sleep.”

“Thanks for the prescription. I like it.”

“That’s for the trauma,” the doctor went on seriously. “Now, there are some symptoms you must watch out for. In case of any vomiting, nausea, or dizzy spells, contact me by phone immediately. Here’s my card.”

I had finished reading ‘Dr. Scaria Zachariah, Medicine Specialist’ when the doctor asked, “What caused the fall?”

I looked up and replied, “You did.”

“Me? How’s that?”

“While walking, I saw your signboard. It was the first time I came across the usage ‘Medicine Specialist’ and thought it rather amusing. Actually I was laughing inside me when my foot caught the manhole cover.”

Dr. Zachariah nodded. “The moral of the story is,” he said smiling, “don’t laugh at medicine men.”

I smiled back.

“Actually,” the doctor went on, “I’m a GP. In this area, the term ‘Medicine Specialist’ is used to identify physicians.” After a pause he continued, “Eye specialist, bone specialist, skin specialist and so on. Why not medicine specialist?”

“Yes, why not?” I agreed, wondering what they called the general surgeon.


Sunday, February 23, 2014