Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai disaster: a need for centralized and coordinated crisis management

While watching for hours together on TV the latest terrorist attack on Mumbai, I was thinking, on the basis of a study I had done earlier, that the management of the crisis could have been different and more effective if a proper system was in place. This statement is not meant in any way to be critical of the brave and committed efforts by the police, National Security Guards (NSG) and the Defense Forces in fighting the terrorists.

A few years back I had submitted a project profile on National Disaster Management, which also briefly covered terrorism, to the Government of India. The then Cabinet Secretary convened a meeting at Delhi to which I was invited and given the opportunity to speak first. This was followed by discussions.

It was a disappointing exercise for me. Most of the people who attended could only see localized situations, say, like cyclones on the East Coast, and not the total picture. However, I understand that my suggestions including the name for the organization were given due consideration when the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) was formed under the Ministry of Home Affairs. I am not aware how effectively the NDMA is operating.

The world runs on meticulously prepared systems, and dedicated and qualified men who implement and run them. Was such procedure available and followed when the terrorists struck Mumbai on November 26? I do not know.

If such a plan was in force, a unified command would have taken over immediately when the magnitude of the attack became evident. The top officials would have been in the War Room to help the crisis management with their experience, expertise and genius.

Perhaps our intelligence system requires a revamp. It seems to be based more on traditional concepts. And there are so many agencies involved, coming under different ministries and states. Sometimes they cooperate with each other and at other times each proceeds alone. A centralized coordinating mechanism seems to be the answer.

One of the points that I had stressed in my report to the Government of India was that VIPs should stay away from disaster sites. Their visits distract people who are engaged in critical assignments and overburden the police with their security concerns.

And lastly – the people who are agitating to keep non-Maharashtrians out of Mumbai would be doing a great service if they instead focus their energy and efforts to sanitize this great city from terrorists. Those who are so bravely fighting the invaders include many non-Maharashtrians. They come from several parts of the country and belong to different castes and communities.


Also see:

Religion, terrorism, and politics

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Life without computer


Let us spare a minute to pray for the victims of the latest horror episode in Mumbai – the dead, the injured and the hostages, and their families. There is nothing communal about those who are suffering, those beyond suffering – all human beings like you and me.


‘No work on the computer’ was the medical advice after a plaster cast was put on my left foot which had a fracture. That was earlier this month. The leg, I was told, had to be kept up all the time.

I was quite upset about this. Felt that the doctors were making unnecessary fuss. But they had a point. At the age of 75 one has to be careful about such things.

The first impact of the restriction was that I realized I could still write with hand after depending on computers for about ten years. I acquired a writing board which can be kept on the armrest of my easy chair. I could keep my feet up and write. My daughter keys in my handwritten manuscripts.

In that manner I could keep my blog going, concentrating on posts that did not require research. But emails pose a problem. Don’t know how long it would take me to catch up with the backlog. Hope that no one would be offended by the delayed response from me.

One good thing that came out of my enforced computer holiday was that I could get on with my reading. Currently I am on to Empires of the Indus – The Story of a River by Alice Albinia. It had earned Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award for work in progress.

This fascinating book combines history with the experiences and observations of the British born author’s travels along the Indus River. Considerable amount of research has gone into the beautifully written work. It is good reading as well as a reference book.

The next one lined up is India’s Unending Journey by MarkTully who had a long stint in India with the BBC. He is a world famous radio personality. You might have read his earlier work, No Full Stops in India.

I was also able to watch some good movies, mostly Malayalam. It is amazing how the two actors, Mammootty and Mohanlal, continue to dominate the Malayalam cinema, something that they have been doing for quarter of a century. At one time Prem Nazeer was known as the evergreen hero. Now it is the turn of these two versatile artists.

But the best thing that has come out of the enforced rest is that I spent more time with my family, particularly my little granddaughter. She tells me about her school, friends, ideas and so on. That is great.

The plaster cast on my foot was taken off yesterday and a bandaged applied in its place. Two more weeks of rest. But I am starting selective use of the computer. In fact this post is done all by myself.

Also see: How I write Blog posts

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Photos: A coffee mug and two ashtrays

Photos by me. Click to enlarge.
Also see:

Kerala kitchen – some implements of the past

Photos: Flowers from Peermade

Monday, November 24, 2008

Kerala snippets

Tipplers unite.

It seems that there are several associations organized by the alcohol consumers of Kerala. A prominent one among them is ‘Forum for Better Spirit’. I like the name. It has several positive meanings, except perhaps the alcohol connotation.

In union is strength. And Kerala has so many unions.

Also see:

Merry Mallus and mosquitoes

The cradle of priests and nuns.

Meenachil Taluk in Kottayam Disyrict is a stronghold of Syrian Catholics. Pala (or Palai) is the headquarters of the Taluk (Revenue Division) and the Pala Diocese. Sr. Alphonsa, the first Indian woman Saint of the Catholic Church is from this diocese which has a membership of about 3,50,000.

Pala area has produced more Catholic priests and nuns than any other place in India, and perhaps the whole world. The number of bishops from Pala Diocese in the Catholic Church has exceeded 30.

Also see:

Vedas, Syrian Christians

Sr. Abhaya Case.

The CBI investigating team wanted to question Mar Kuriakose Kunnasserry who was the Bishop of Kottayam when Sr. Abhaya, a young nun was found dead 16 years ago. The aging prelate, who is leading a retired life, went to the CBI office for recording his statement.

The CBI has also requested for an appointment to meet the present Archbishop of Kottayam. In the meantime an Encyclical exhorting that the truth must be brought out in the Sr. Abhaya case was read out yesterday after Sunday Mass in all churches of the Kottayam Diocese.

Also see:

Kerala: The arrest of two Catholic priests and a nun for murder

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Photos: From the local florist

These are the first attempts I made with a new phone camera. Being rather immobile with the left foot up almost all the time,
I had to choose objects within the house. These flowers are from a bouquet that came for me. The results are not too good even with some editing. Anyway, please do have a look.

Also see: Medical ethics: Fleecing the patients

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Kerala photos: A man sized taro plant

Click on photos to enlarge

I took these photos (copyright reserved) of ‘chembu’ (Colocasia) at the residence of Mr. AL Thomas at Cochin. I wonder how big its roots would be when harvested.

The leaves and roots of this tropical tuber are widely used for culinary purposes in many parts of the world. According to UN statistics, Nigeria, Ghana, China, Cote d’ lvoire and Papua New Guinea are the major producers with a combined output of 9.2 million metric tons in 2005.

Taro leaves are a good source of vitamins and minerals. They contain Vitamin B6, Vitamin C, Niacin, manganese, potassium and copper. The corms contain high portion of starch and dietary fiber.

The range of recipes using taro is vast – from snacks to curries to burgers. Some of the sites which provide details are given below:

Taro root.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Also see:

Photos: Vegetables for Onam

Kerala photos: Butterflies of Olavipe

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Kerala: The arrest of two Catholic priests and a nun for murder

In the last two days the CBI has arrested two senior Catholic priests and a nun for the murder of another nun, Sr. Abhaya.

Sixteen years back the body of Sr. Abhaya, a Pre-degree student then, was found in the well of the convent where she was staying. The investigation into the incident, first by the local police and subsequently by the Crime Branch, lasted ten months. The finding was that the young nun had committed suicide.

Abhaya’s relatives and the Action Council that had been formed to ensure justice in the case did not accept this conclusion. The Kerala High Court endorsed their view and referred the case to the CBI.

The CBI officer who handled the investigation was of the opinion that the nun had been murdered. Shortly he resigned from the service alleging that he was being pressurized by his superior officers to accept the suicide theory mooted by the Kerala Police.

Since then, several CBI teams have investigated the Abhaya case. The two priests now arrested were subjected to modern tests like narco-analysis earlier. Nothing conclusive emerged from that. A few times the CBI approached the Kerala High Court for permission to close the case stating that the evidence
was insufficient to proceed against the suspects.

This move attracted severe criticism by the Court, which directed that a new team be entrusted with the investigation of the Abhaya case. This was done on the 28th of last month. The new batch of sleuths made the arrests within three weeks claiming that they had gathered sufficient proof against the accused.

Several questions arise from this development. Does the new group consist of super detectives? They seem to have unearthed clinching evidence within a few days. This is something their predecessors could not do in nearly fifteen years!

Or, was the evidence suppressed for unknown reasons all theses years and the new batch of investigators merely went ahead boldly and acted on it? A third possibility is that the CBI team has knocked together a weak case. If that is so, the accused would walk free.

The answers to these questions should be available in the near future.

In the meantime, there is, apart from the legal angle, an important aspect to the Abhaya case. In Kerala the Christian community is strong and influential. But, by and large, the attitude of the community seems to be that the law should take its own course no matter whether god-men and women are involved or not.

So far no political party seems to have attempted to take mileage from the new turn in the Abhaya case.

Also see

The Kerala Scene: Girls forced to join convents?

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Fragrance in the air, medicine on the ground

Ylang Ylang (cananga odorata) is a nice tree to have near a house. The fragrance of the greenish yellow flowers is so rich and deep and exotic and lingers in the air for a long time.

Ylang Ylang is considered to be a native of Malaysia and Indonesia, but one can find them at many places in the tropics. We have one at Olavipe which is on coastal Kerala. It is a spindly tree that grows very fast and reaches a height of 40 ft. or more. Propagation is by seeds.

The ylang ylang flowers are widely used in the cosmetic industry. They also have an important role in aromatherapy because of the medicinal properties. The range includes use as aphrodisiac and treatment of sexual problems, stress reduction, digestive problems, palpitation and abnormally fast breathing, healing wounds, emotional stability and so on. It is a long list.

The image reproduced above is from Wikimedia. Here are some photographs of Ylang Ylang I took at Olavipe. Copyright reserved. Click on them to enlarge.

Also see:

Jasmine (Jasminum): Flowers for beauty and for money

Health, Gardening: Periwinkle, a wonder plant

Ixora coccinea (Rubiaceae) - flowers that gods and men love

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Draw your family tree

The records of each family form a part of the history of the country.

For some reason, the practice of maintaining a family tree has not been prevalent in India. Usually, information is passed down the generations through oral tradition. In the process some details could be lost. Perhaps it is time that you draw your family tree, if it has not been done already, with the information currently available to you

The image of a classic family tree is given below:

It is a beautiful work of art by my brother Anthony Tharakan, on a wall at Thekkanattu Parayil, our ancestral home. Our earliest known forefather is marked at the base of the tree. As it branches out, the descendants come into the picture.

This example of a family tree is difficult to follow, unless you are artistically inclined and have a lot of free time. There is a much easier way – make a simple chart, a kind of upside down family tree. The requirements for starting the work are large sheets of good quality paper, pencils, eraser, pencil sharpener and ruler. Keep all these along with your notes within easy reach on a large enough table.

Tell your family members what you are up to. Even better than that would be to have the children actively participate in the project. It would induce them to develop a sense of history.

At the top of the first sheet, write the name of your earliest known ancestor in the center. Under that enter the dates of his birth, marriage, and death (b.— m. — d.—). Next come the name, dates of birth and death of his spouse. Underline the last line of the entry or encase the whole entry in a box.

Draw a short line, say half an inch, from the center of the first entry and link it to a horizontal line for the second generation. If the first ancestor had three children, draw three short lines again from the horizontal line and enter the details, starting with the eldest in the left. Repeat the process till you reach the present generation.

In the process, you will have to make a decision as to whether you want a comprehensive family tree or one that is confined to your line of descendants only.

The final product would look like a corporate organization chart, with the CEO at the top. This would be a basic family tree. A sample of males only genealogy chart is given below:

You can make it more elaborate by giving codes for each family member, symbols (say for male/female) and historic notes. Leave blank spaces where relevant information is not available. Finally, overwrite the chart with indelible ink.

It would be much easier to make the family tree on a computer. Free software for the job can be downloaded at and similar sites.

Images: Top, KO Isaac. Copyright reserved. Bottom, Wikipedia commons.

Also see:

Senior citizens

Friday, November 14, 2008

More Kerala flowers

Photos by me from Olavipe. Copyright reserved.
Click to enlarge.
Also see:

Photos: Flowers from Kerala again

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Medical ethics: Fleecing the patients

This story is about what happened to me during the last few days:

- Nov 6. At a relative’s house I take a step without noticing the difference in floor levels and lose balance. I turn sharply on my left foot and avoid a fall.

- Next day. Slight pain and swelling on the left foot.

- Day 3, Saturday. Heavy swelling and pain. I go to a major hospital in Chennai. The top ortho doctor not available. A junior takes a look at the foot and says the ankle is fractured and/or twisted and it has to be in a cast for three weeks. Then he sends me for an X-ray.

- The (Rs.500) X-ray does not show any fracture, says the doctor. He adds that ligaments must be torn and that would show only on MRI. He does not insist on a scan but decides to go ahead with the cast.

- We buy the materials the doctor wants and the cast is done. Actually it is a ten minutes job for a good paramedic.

- The doctor prescribes some medicines and tells me to buy a pair of special boots from a particular shop.

- I am billed Rs.2500 for the Chief Doctor’s time. That man was not present!

- On Tuesday I meet a leading Ortho of Chennai at his new hospital. He looks at the X-ray and points out to what appeared to be a fracture. It was at a corner of the image. A new X-ray (Rs.150) confirms the fracture at the base of the small toe.

- The doctor tells me to keep the cast anyway because it was already on and happens to protect the affected part also. His charge is Rs.250.

What the glamour hospital did was criminal. The young doctor was incompetent and negligent. He was signing in the name of his boss. I was charged for the services of the Senior Doctor who was not even there. The amount was exorbitant.

I have to keep my feet up for a few days and no computer work. My mailbox is piling up. For publishing posts I have to take help from others. Really, I feel the need for a laptop now.

Lessons learned: 1. Always find out the charges before agreeing to a medical procedure. 2. With some hospitals and doctors making money seems to be the primary objective. Healing is incidental.

Also see:

The greatness of human nature – a true story

Medicine men of Olavipe

Monday, November 10, 2008

Karnataka: Two places of worship

Srirangapatna (Srirangapattana) is about 13kms from Mysore City. In modern history the town is mostly known as the former capital of Hyder Ali and and his son Tippu Sultan. Tippu was killed there during the Forth Anglo-Mysore War in 1799.

Sriranganathaswamy Temple

The place is named after the Sriranganathaswamy (Lord Vishnu) temple which is believed to have been built by the Ganga Dynasty in the 9th century CE. Subsequently the Hoysala and Vijayanagara rulers made improvements to this famous Vaishnavite shrine.

Carvings on the temple rath.

Maharaja Mummadi Krishnaraja Wodeyar had built a church for his Catholic subjects in 1843. As the congregation grew with the passage of time the need for a larger building was felt. Therefore, it was decided to construct a new church at the same location.

The foundation stone for the present St. Philomena’s Church was laid by the then Maharaja of Mysore, Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, on October 28th, 1933. The church was consecrated in 1936.

St. Philomena's Church

This shrine is believed to be the only one in the world which has the relic of St. Philomena. It was obtained for the church by Thambu Chetty, Secretary to the Maharaja of Mysore.

The photographs were taken by Binita Kuruvilla last month. Copyright reserved.

An addenda:
The image below is Temple near Bangalore (Mysore), with Savandrug in the distance. – a pencil, wash, and water-colour drawing by Thomas (1749-1840) and William (1769-1837) Daniell. Source: The British Library, Asia, Pacific and Africa Collections, reproduced from Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

All the pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them.

Also see:

Vedas, Syrian Christians

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Mumbai taxi stories

One Sunday evening, 1957. I was entering the gate of the guest house where I stayed in Colaba. Suddenly there was a shout from behind me. Turning around, I recognized the taxi driver who had taken a friend and me to Silver Sands Beach that morning.

The man got out of the vehicle holding up a tiny but very expensive camera and I got a jolt. I had borrowed it from a friend for the outing and had left it behind in the taxi without realizing it.

It was such a great relief when the driver handed the camera over to me. He explained that he had been waiting for me for a long time and I should pay him the meter charge. That was about 40 rupees. I gave him 100 rupees.

1970. I engaged a taxi for the whole day. The vehicle was spic and span. The driver was a well groomed elderly person with a cultured voice. On the way back to the hotel at night we got to talking.

What he told me about him was so fascinating that years later I wrote a brief short story based on it titled A Tyreseller. It won a prize in the Unisun-British Council short story competition. Click on the link below to read it.

Now, the 21st century.

Five years back my wife and I reached Mumbai by train. Because of a communication muddle the vehicle for us waited at Dadar and we went on to Chatrapathi Shivaji Terminus (formerly Victoria Terminus).

We took a taxi for the long haul to Ghatkopar. After about a hundred meters the car stopped and a goon looking chap got in front. The driver said the man was his brother.

After a while the non-driving brother pulled out a bottle from under the seat. The contents could have been water or colorless alcohol. They started drinking, passing the bottle from one to the other. I felt uncomfortable but kept quite. I had no mobile phone to contact anyone.

After Bandra the driver took us east, driving trough some remote areas for about two hours. Finally he dropped us off about 5kms from our destination saying the car had run out of patrol, and demanded Rs.2000. He settled for Rs.1400 which, I told him was all that we had. I managed to note down the taxi number though the goons tried to prevent me.

A passing autorickshaw driver had stopped by and was watching all these. While taking us to the address where we were staying he told us that the fare from CST would not have been more than Rs.400. He insisted that we should complain to the police.

Mumbai had changed so much!

The story had a satisfactory end, though. I contacted somebody I knew in the government. Within twenty four hours the goons were apprehended and the entire money was returned. Out of that I entrusted Rs.500 to the policemen and told them to give the taxi driver what was fair.

Well !

Also see:

A Tyreseller.

Memories: Shoeless on suburban train.