Friday, October 5, 2012

Birds in the backyard

A peahen and a grey hornbill seen this morning in the woods behind our house in Bhopal.

Monday, September 24, 2012

not poor?

Kalibai, pregnant for the third time, weighs 35 kg at term. A resident of Manpur village of Udaipur district in Rajasthan, she is among the many women in this region whose husbands migrate to Gujarat to work. These women headed households survive on remittances sent back by the men. Living on a diet mainly of cereal (rotis of wheat or maize), with little pulses and oil, and almost no vegetables, it is no wonder that Kalibai is severely malnourished. A lone buffalo provides a liter of milk daily, which suffices for tea and for the children to drink in her joint family of five (eight when the men are back home). She gets to drink one small cup of milk daily as she is pregnant. Yet with her husband sending back nearly Rs. 3000 per month, the Planning Commission would probably consider her family one of the privileged rich of our country, as they get to survive on more than Rs. 26 per capita per day.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Bus Ride

“Cigarette pi kar,” the prominent sign in the bus admonished, “ aage wale seat par butana mana hai.” It is forbidden to put out your cigarette on the seat in front of you.
That is the sign that greeted me one dark winter morning as I boarded a bus at the Co-operative Colony bus stand in Bokaro. I was on my way to Dhanbad to take a train to Calcutta, and then another train to Madras. (these were the days before Kolkata and Chennai, or even Bangaluru and Mumbai). From there it was a third train journey to Katpadi to reach Vellore where I studied. 

The bus started at 4 in the morning, in time to get the Coal Field Express to Calcutta that started from Dhanbad at 5.45 am. At that time in the morning and in winter, it would be pitch dark and miserably cold, my father’s scooter light barely able to pierce the thick fog that enveloped us. It was a tense few hours for my parents and me as I would travel alone to Dhanbad, then the heart of the coal mafia in south Bihar. But we could not afford the price of two tickets to Dhanbad and to Howrah for my father to put me on the train south, and the cost of his return journey. Our friends thought my parents were crazy to let us travel alone in Bihar, especially in this area and at this hour of the morning. But necessity is the mother of nonchalance, and we all pretended there was nothing to it. 

The bus would have other passengers stamping around, or standing around the inevitable fire where the driver and conductor warmed themselves, their faces hidden beneath a “monkey-cap” and a gamcha tied across the nose.
I would pray for at least one other woman passenger on the bus to sit next to me: often these prayers went unanswered. But the comforting thing was that conductor was most particular about the sanctity of the “Ladies’ seats” – no matter how crowded the bus, he would not allow a man to sit next to a woman even if a vacant seat was available. This rule was relaxed if the man was related to the woman. 

As I settled into my seat in the front row having given up my suitcase to be stowed on top of the bus, I was grateful for these rules. I was the only woman on that early morning ride, and the bus was not full, so everyone had a place to sit. The lights in the bus were always dim but the sign in the front was specially lit and showed clearly.
In deference to the early hour, music was not played as usual, and as the bus rolled out on to the road, we settled down to a 90 minute ride to Dhanbad. 

What made this bus special was that all the window panes were intact, the rexine on the seats was not slashed, the bus had a door that could be pulled shut, and the floor of the bus was complete- one did not have a close view of the road beneath the wheels as one drove along. Besides, it also issued tickets. Mine said – Maa Durga Bus Company, Bokaro to Dhanbad Ticket Rs. 20.00. and on the reverse, in small print, was the disclaimer “Management is not responsible for loss of life or luggage”. Well, I thought, so much for inspiring confidence in the passengers – only that this notice was in English which not many could read. I kept that ticket with me for many years till the ink faded away and I could no longer read it. 

With the windows shut against the cold air and with the dim lights, it was quite cosy inside the bus, except for the slowly accumulating cloud of bidi smoke under the ceiling (I assume no one had reached the stage yet of  putting off their bidi butts either on the seat in front or elsewhere). The bus did not move very fast, as the Bokaro – Dhanbad road is notoriously bad, but even so, it lulled most of us into a doze. Including the bus driver apparently, since in a short while we came to very loud and sudden halt, accompanied by the sound of breaking glass. I cracked my head on the grill in front, and scraped my knee, and could hear other passengers cursing as they too were flung forward. “Koi baat nahin”, assured the conductor, “saala truck wala gaadi khadi karke peeche ka light nahin jalata” (Nothing is the matter. The damned truck driver parked his truck without putting on the rear lights). We had driven right into the back of a stationary truck. Thanks to the bad condition of the road, we had been driving slowly. 

And with a nonchalance that did them both credit, the driver and conductor disengaged the bus from the back of the truck, removed the loose bits of broken glass from the windshield, and within ten minutes, we continued on our bumpy way to Dhanbad, the passengers and the driver wide awake now.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


faithful, devoted, gentle. salma is all of these, and more. chews up everything in sight, drags me on the leash morning and evening while i attempt to walk with some dignity instead of rushing along in the neighbourhood, cries like her heart is breaking when we leave her behind and go anywhere.
a timid puppy who was bullied by other dogs in the street, she took a while to come inside our garden gate to eat. then more regularly when she was pregnant, till she had her litter. wet weather and no shelter gave her pneumonia and she almost died. we moved her and the puppies to our verandah and looked after her. that was in january this year, and she has lived with us ever since. when we moved from bilaspur to bhopal in may, no one in the street was keen to keep her. if she was a pedigreed dog we would have, but why care for a street dog? they said. so along she came with us.

though she looks forward to her daily walks on a leash, hers is a free soul, and she loves nothing better than to walk free when she can race ahead, come back to meet us, then dash away again.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It makes a difference.

Picture of Choitram Baiga of Bahaoud village, taken last week. He is on treatment for multi-drug resistant tuberculosis. I had written about him here six months ago. I can hardly believe it is the same man. Shows what food, rest and medicines together can achieve. 

Thursday, May 3, 2012

i first met Lakshmi Sabar in 1994. i had suspected her of having tuberculosis in the small village clinic i ran at Koinpur in the Mahendratanaya hill range, and when her sputum was negative for TB, i sent her to government district hospital at Parlakhemundi for a chest X-ray. she made three visits there - the first time there was no electricity, the second time there was no X-ray film available, the third time the X-ray technician was on leave. 

Lakshmi Sabar with her second baby, 2006
each visit required a walk down from the hills to the nearest bus stop three hours away across the border in Andhra Pradesh, then a bus ride to Parlakhemundi, and then the journey back if she caught the bus in time. given the demands of trying to eke a living on the deforested patch of land they lived on, and her own poor health and lack of money to make the bus journey and to pay at the hospital, each visit was made at an interval of two or three months. 

her 2 year old son, who had also started coughing and becoming thinner and sicker, died in the interim. she took him along once to the district hospital where he was prescribed expensive tonics which she did not buy. on her fourth visit (a month after her son died) she was finally started on anti-TB drugs. 

three weeks later, i got a frantic call from the field staff - lakshmi sabar had gone mad, and was running around the village shouting and tearing off her clothes. could i come and see what could be done? 

i realised this was INH pyschosis (a drug reaction sometimes caused by one of the anti-TB drugs) and persuaded her husband to bring her back with me to the main campus outside Berhampur where we had a small dispensary with in-patient facilities. there were three other patients admitted, recovering from severe malaria and from pneumonia. i was a bit hesitant to introduce this woman with an acute psychosis in their midst, but told them that her behaviour was due to the medicines she was taking. 

the other patients were surprisingly welcoming and considerate of Lakshmi. one day she would lie all day underneath the cot. the next day she would manage to climb on top of the medicine cupboard and sit there most of the day. she took about ten days to return to a near-normal state of mind, but it did not seem to disturb the others at all. they empathized with her. anyone who lost a baby would be mad with grief they said. if she wants to hide under the bed all day, how does it bother us? let her be. you may say that this is due to medicines, but we know the grief of losing a child. 

there was a lesson for me there. 

Lakshmi became completely normal in a few weeks' time and we re-started her anti-TB medication. she recovered completely, and i followed her through her second pregnancy the following  year. 

i wonder how Lakshmi Sabar and her family are now. 

Sunday, March 25, 2012

fellow creatures

returning from a field clinic on friday, we spotted these deer on the roadside inside the Achanakmar sanctuary, almost merging with the brown of the falling leaves in this season.

and this fox kept us company for over a kilometer before running away into the forest.

my photography, of course, leaves much to be desired.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

the scourge of hunger and tuberculosis

Raja Baiga is 9 years old and weighs 10.8 kg. That is the normal weight of a two year old child. He has tuberculosis, as do both of his parents. His father has completed treatment, the mother was only recently diagnosed to have sputum positive TB, and weighs 27 kgs herself.

A passive and sad looking child, Raja spent three weeks at Ganiyari with us. At discharge he weighed 12.4 kg, his appetite had improved, and he was more active and cheerful.

He and his mother will not go back immediately to their village Kurdar which is on top a mountain and inaccessible, but will stay at the foothills in the village of Karhikachar where his grandmother lives. There he will be enrolled in a day-care centre run by JSS (normally only for children between 6 months and 3 years of age). His diet at home will be supplemented by daily eggs and khitchdi with oil, as well as sattu.

We hope that the anti-TB medicines and the improved diet will help him overcome this infection. Is there some treatment for his chronic hunger as well?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

hungama over hunger

the recently released hungama report tells us what we already know: almost 50% of children are underweight, which means that nearly half our children go to bed hungry every night. a national shame, if there was one.

seen here is shiva of chaparwa village, grinding garlic to make a gruel to give his younger brother vishnu who was crying with hunger. there is nothing else edible at home, and both parents have gone out to work. shiva, 5, is confident he can wait till the parents earn, buy some food, and come home in the evening. he hopes the garlic and water gruel will help vishnu, 2 years old, to stave off his hunger pangs for a while.