The Good Earth

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It was sometime during my high school days I read a Malayalam translation of the classic novel The Good Earth by Pearl S Buck. And, this could probably be my first world literature read followed by Brothers Karamazov of Dostoevsky. I got The Good Earth delivered again by Amazon during the year 2011 to read the English version for the first time while I was down with Malaria. This book, talking about the village life in China during the first few decades of the twentieth century, is still one among my personal favorites. Since my parents are also from an agrarian background, I could relate a lot to this novel and its characters. I saw my father in Wang Lung and my mother in O-Lan. Though we don’t own much land, my father’s love for the little stretch of land he owns is incomparable. He even got some more land leased from a rich landowner in our village out of his interest in farming. However, unlike Wang Lung, he has not succeeded in becoming a rich landlord 🙂

During a recent visit to China, I got a friend who is equally interested in books. When my fellow travelers were busy shopping in Wall Mart, we spent hours over some coffee at a local café talking about books, politics, and cinema and so on. Even after returning from China, we continued to talk over WhatsApp about our latest reads. I suggested him to read The Good Earth since it is about China of the pre-first world war period. To my surprise, he told me that it was not as popular in China as it was with the rest of the world.

A few days back, my friend happened to be in the city where I live. We decided to catch up over dinner. I really wanted him to carry something back to China but there was not much time get anything delivered online nor was I free to go out and look for something due to some busy schedule at work. So, I dug into my book collection and traced the 2011 copy of The Good Earth. Normally, I don’t prefer giving away books from my collection. Still, I thought there is nothing better I can give to a friend from China. And, his smile upon seeing the book proved the same 🙂

Of late, I have come to know that The Good Earth is the first book in a trilogy that includes Sons and A House Divided. While my fried will be busy reading The Good Earth, I have decided to go behind the remaining titles in the trilogy.

Early birds catch the train!

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I witnessed this scene at the South Railway Station in Ernakulam last week. The Kozhikode – Trivandrum Shatabdi started moving from the station. Suddenly, a young girl with a shoulder bag rushed down through the stairs of the footbridge and started running along the platform trying to get into the train which had already gained speed. Passengers on the platform yelled at her to stop the adventure. Still, she was not willing to give up. Somehow she managed to catch hold of the handrail of the door but slipped from the step and was about to fall in between the moving train and platform. There was a great panic among those who were watching it. Suddenly, there came a hand from inside and pulled her in. All those who were witnessing the scene sighed in relief. For the rest of her life, I am sure, the girl will refer to that hand as the ‘Hand of God’.

Please start early and reach on time for your flight, train bus etc. Sometimes, circumstances beyond your control might prevent you from doing so. Still, don’t resort to such adventures. Just give up because reaching late for everything everywhere is an accepted practice in India. So don’t worry. After all, what is more important in life than being alive?

Does it really mean the end of everything?

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I met her in the early 2000s during a three-day a journalism workshop in our city. We were in the same group for all activities and became great friends by the time the workshop got over. We realized that, between us, there are a lot of common interests as well – books, movies, music, travel etc. At that time, both of us had completed our high school and about to enter the Pre-University Programme. I was seriously thinking about journalism as my future career, inspired by some movies I had watched. She was not quite sure about what next. She said she had no option but to listen to her parents.

Anyway, after returning from the workshop, we started writing letters to each other about life in general, the movies we watched, the books we read and so on. It was, of course, before the advent of mobile phones. We were not having a landline at home. Though she had one, I never tried to ring her up. The letter writing went on for almost two years till I packed my bag and left home to live the life of a gypsy which I think I continue to live even today.

After a few years, she found me when Orkut became the order of the day. She was pursuing final year of MBBS in a prestigious medical college at that time. After a few months, I happened to be in the city where she studied. We met again after so long and, sitting in the railway station, talked to each other for hours about the developments in our lives during that period without any communication. After that, there was hardly any communication between us though both of us possessed mobile phones by that time.  When Orkut died its natural death, she added me as a friend in Facebook. We have always been connected without any communication ever since we met for the second time in the railway station.

Today, my work brought me to the same railway station again which, of course, took me down memory lane. It was a shocking realisation for me that I had not seen any FB update from her for quite a long period of time. I searched for her in the list of my friends. The account is still there but I could not find any update after mid-2015. And, unfortunately, the intro section in her timeline which earlier talked in detail about her background, academics, career etc. has now been reduced to just one line – ‘Married to Mr. X’

(The photograph is of the railway station. It has nothing much to do with the story)

Who is your SOS?

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I was on the way to meet a close friend in the evening after office. As I entered an Ola Cab, the local Uber, and shared the password with the driver to start the trip, I noticed a red SOS button flashing in one corner of the application. Though I had seen it in the past as well, I never bothered to share an emergency contact number. That day, I had a sudden intuition to do that. I don’t know why. The next question was, of course, who will be my SOS? In this big city where more than Twenty Million people live, who will run for my rescue? I did not have to think much. Something guided my fingers through the phone book to the right person. After registering his number in the App as my SOS, I leaned back on the seat. Why he? There are not many similarities between us. He is from a different geography, speaks a different language, born in some other religion and does not subscribe to my political ideologies. Still, why he? For me, it was a great realisation that our faith in human beings transcends cultures, caste, colour and creed that apparently divide us. It also reminded me of a quote of J Krishnamurti, ‘When you call yourself an Indian, Muslim, Christian, European or anything else, you are being violent. Because you are separating yourself – by belief, by nationality, by tradition – from the rest of mankind. This breeds violence.’

Let me come back to the friend I was going to meet. She is from the Eastern Region of the country while I am from the South. We have been friends for more than five years. We normally catch up once in three-four months over a drink or dinner and chat for hours. During the intervals between our meetings, there is hardly any phone calls or messages. When I got her call the day before, inviting me for dinner at a Thai restaurant, I had a sudden realisation that we had not met for more than six months. In this fast-paced life and rat-race, it is so difficult to keep a track of such things. While I was lost in all such thoughts, the cab reached my destination. She was waiting there for me. She looked weary and pale.

As we sat down for dinner and placed orders, I asked, ‘where were you lost for such a long time?’ She drank a glass of water and started narrating the ordeals she was going through. After our last meeting, she had gone home for holidays. It was during those days, she started experiencing some discomfort in her throat. The medical investigations that followed diagnosed her as having thyroid cancer. It was, of course, a great shock to everyone in her family. Preparations for her wedding were also underway. The doctors assured her a complete cure through surgery and a few rounds of radiation as it was detected at an early stage. The surgery was carried out. She left the hospital after spending a few days in the ICU and undergoing the first round of radiation. Everything was fine for a few days. Suddenly, one day she started having spasms. There were some other complications too. She was taken to the national capital, where both of us live and work, for better medical care. Further investigations revealed that the surgery had caused some damage to her thyroid gland. It was yet another shock! Still, the doctors promised her the best possible treatment and a total recovery. Her second round of radiation will start in a few days. In the meantime, she started attending to her duties.

Two days back, while going to office in a cab, she felt that she was going to faint. Immediately she alerted her aunt and asked the driver to take her back home. By the time the cab returned to her residence, she was almost unconscious. She was taken to the hospital immediately. This incident created a lot of panic at her home. She was asked to stop working till she would be completely alright. But, she is not in a mood to listen to anyone. After hearing all these, I just said, ‘you are more courageous than what you think’. She just smiled and said that she would take me to her hospital to orient me about the procedures related to her treatment there. Why? I asked. She leaned forward, looked into my eyes and said, ‘because I want you to be my SOS, you may have to rush me to the hospital if something happens while I am away from home.

Who is your SOS?

Plane-spotting

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While I was in 4th standard, our teachers took us for an excursion to Kozhikode town. The cost of the trip was fifty rupees. I still remember it because of the struggles to arrange that amount. The most memorable experience of that outing was the visit to Kozhikode airport, where I watched the landing and take-off of an aircraft for the first time in my life.

The post-reforms era had broken the monopolies in the air space and brought the dream of flying closer to the common man. Some time in early 2010, I too purchased my first flight ticket for Delhi – Kochi sector in an Indigo flight. Later, my work made me fly a lot.

Still, I love sitting somewhere for the entire day and do plane-spotting!

Bindhu Talkies

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Seen in the picture is the local cinema talkies in my village, named Bindhu. After, almost a decade, recentlty while holidaying, i went to catch a matinee there. This is a C class talkies. There are A Class centres in urban areas where new movies are released, followed by B class ones in semi-urban areas where the movies go from releasing centres. C Class centres in villages used to get a movie almost one year after release. Now the situation has improved and we get to see a movie at the local talkies within three months from its release.
My connection with Bindhu Talkies started at a very young age. My father used to take me there when i was a primary school student. After moving to upper primary, i started bunking classes to go for mattinees there. One movie was so good that i watched the morning show and mattinee on a Sunday. There are many such fond memories with this talkies. When i watched ‘Cinema Paradiso’ recently, I felt that it’s my story.
We had to wait for a year to watch a movie from an A Class theatre. Every year, in October, my father used to take us for the feast ot St. Theresa of Avila, in Mahe which was a French Colony and now under the Union Territory of Puducherry. It’s around fifty kilometres away from my home. Once we are done with the ritauls in the church, he would take us to the shore of the Arabian Sea to spend some time and from there to a famous restaurant to have some good fish and paratha which was not so easily available in our village. The last item in the agenda was, of course, a new release. So, there used to be a long wait from one October to the next.
After moving to high school i started going for movies in the nearby B Class theatres and finally to the A Class ones to watch new releases. The local talkies was somehow ignored as i started catching all movies before they reached my village. After completing high school, i left the village.
Of late, most of the B and C class theatres have been closed down due to the wide spread of television, upcoming of a lot of private and dedicated movie channels and piracy. Cinema and its themes have become more urban-centred. Around 1600 cinema halls in my state have been reduced to nearly 600 in the last decade. Our local talkies has so far withstood all these challenges. I shared these concerns with a familiar staff at the talkies. He said a few years back they had very less crowd for the movies but the situation gradually improved and now people again started coming out of their houses to watch a movie in a talkies ambience. Ocassionally, they run house-full shows as well. I was so happy to hear this. Let it continue to be so in the years to come!
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ഏതാണ്ട് പത്തുവർഷത്തെ ഇടവേളയ്ക്ക് ശേഷം പഴയ തട്ടകമായിരുന്ന തൊട്ടിൽപ്പാലം ബിന്ദു ടാക്കീസിൽ പോയി ഒരു സിനിമ കണ്ടു, പൃഥ്വിരാജിൻറെ ‘ഊഴം’. എനിക്ക് ഈ ടാക്കീസുമായുള്ള ബന്ധം പൃഥ്വി ജനിച്ച കാലത്ത് തുടങ്ങിയതാണ്, കാരണം ഞങ്ങൾ രണ്ടും ജനിച്ചത് ഒരേ കാലത്താണ്. വീട്ടുകാരുടെ കൂടെ പോയി കണ്ട ‘കടത്തനാടൻ അമ്പാടി’ ആണ് ബിന്ദു ടാക്കീസിൽ നിന്നും കണ്ടതിൽ ഓർമ്മയിലുള്ള ആദ്യ സിനിമ. വീട്ടുകാരെ പറ്റിച്ചു പോയി കണ്ട ആദ്യപടം മമ്മൂക്കയുടെ ‘ജാക്ക്പോട്ട്’. ഉൾപ്പേടി കാരണം അത് ഇൻറ്റർവെൽ വരെ കണ്ടിറങ്ങി വീട്ടിൽ പോയി. ‘ദേവരാഗ’ത്തിൽ കീരവാണി ഈണമിട്ട പാട്ടുകൾ കേട്ട് മയങ്ങി ഒരു ഞായറാഴ്ച്ച മോർണിങ് ഷോയും പിന്നാലെ മാറ്റിനിയും കണ്ടത് മറ്റൊരു ഭ്രാന്തൻ ഓർമ്മ.
വീട്ടിൽ നിന്നുള്ള ഒളിച്ചോട്ടങ്ങൾ, സ്‌കൂളിലെ സ്പെഷ്യൽ ക്ലാസ്സുകൾ, കാവിലുമ്പാറ അമ്പലത്തിലെ ഉത്സവം, സമീപത്തെ പള്ളിപ്പെരുനാളുകൾ അങ്ങനെ എല്ലാത്തിൻറെയും ലക്ഷ്യസ്ഥാനം ബിന്ദു ടാക്കീസായിരുന്നു ഒരു കാലത്ത്. അന്നൊക്കെ ഒരു റിലീസ് പടം കാണണമെങ്കിൽ ഒക്ടോബർ മാസത്തിൽ മാഹി പള്ളിയിലെ പെരുന്നാൾ വരാൻ കാത്തിരിക്കണം. പള്ളിയിലെ പരിപാടികൾ കഴിഞ്ഞു തിരികെ വടകര വന്നാൽ ഐക്കൂറക്കറി കൂട്ടി പൊറോട്ട, പിന്നെ ഒരു റിലീസ് പടം, അതായിരുന്നു പതിവ്. അങ്ങനെ മാഹി പെരുന്നാളിന് പോകാൻ ഓരോരുത്തർക്കും ഓരോ കാരണങ്ങൾ ഉണ്ടായിരുന്നു.
പിന്നീട് ഹൈസ്‌കൂളിൽ കയറിയപ്പോൾ എൻറെ സിനിമാലോകം കാവിലുമ്പാറ പഞ്ചായത്തിൻറെ അതിരുകൾ കടന്ന് പുറത്തേക്ക് പടർന്ന് പന്തലിച്ചു. സിനിമകൾ എല്ലാം കോഴിക്കോട്, വടകര, തലശ്ശേരി എന്നിവിടങ്ങളിലെ റിലീസിങ്ങ് കേന്ദ്രങ്ങളിൽ വച്ച് തന്നെ കണ്ട് തീർന്നു. അങ്ങനെ ബിന്ദു പതിയെ അവഗണിക്കപ്പെട്ടു. പിന്നെ എപ്പോഴോ ഞാൻ നാടും വിട്ടു.
സിനിമ കൂടുതൽ നഗരകേന്ദ്രീകൃതമാവുകയാണ്. നാട്ടിൻപുറങ്ങളിൽ ഉണ്ടായിരുന്ന പല ടാക്കീസ്സുകളും അടച്ചു പൂട്ടി. തൊട്ടിൽപ്പാലം – വടകര റൂട്ടിൽ ഉണ്ടായിരുന്ന കുറ്റ്യാടി മാതാ (പണ്ട് ഉപമ), കക്കട്ടിൽ അമൃത, കല്ലാച്ചി സുന്ദർ, നാദാപുരം ജ്യോതി ഒന്നും ഇന്നില്ല. കേരളത്തിൽ മുൻപുണ്ടായിരുന്ന ആയിരത്തിയറുനൂറോളം ടാക്കീസുകൾ ഏതാണ്ട് അറുനൂറിനടുത്തായി ചുരുങ്ങിയതിനെപ്പറ്റി ഈയിടെ എവിടെയോ വായിച്ചതോർക്കുന്നു. ബിന്ദുടാക്കീസിൽ ജോലി ചെയ്യുന്ന ഒരു പഴയ പരിചിതമുഖവുമായി ഞാൻ ഈ ആശങ്കകൾ പങ്കുവയ്ച്ചു. ആളുകൾ ടാക്കീസിൽ വരുന്നതിൽ മുൻപ് അൽപ്പം കുറവ് വന്നിരുന്നെങ്കിലും അത് പതിയെ മാറിവരുന്നുണ്ടെന്ന് മൂപ്പര് പറഞ്ഞു. ഇപ്പോഴും ഇടയ്‌ക്കൊക്കെ ‘ഹൌസ്ഫുൾ’ പ്രദർശനങ്ങൾ ഉണ്ടാകാറുണ്ട് പോലും. ഉണ്ടാകട്ടെ!
(തൊട്ടിൽപ്പാലത്ത് പണ്ട് ‘വിനോദ്’ എന്ന പേരിൽ മറ്റൊരു ടാക്കീസ് കൂടി ഉണ്ടായിരുന്നു)

A stroll down memory lane!

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Last week I had an opportunity to welcome a group of third semester MSW students from Kristu Jayanti College, Bangalore; my alma mater, at my office. They had come for an exposure visit. We oriented them on the National AIDS Control Programme and the work we do. It was a great experience and took me for a stroll down memory lane.

Ten years back, around this time, I was a first semester MSW student at KJC. Our professors used to take us for exposure visits to various organisations working in the social/development sector. We also visited few care homes for People Living with HIV (PLHIV) during those days. It was my first exposure to such an environment and the sufferings of people infected by the virus and progressed to AIDS. Most of them were critically ill and at the final stages of their life. Those were the times we were losing so many lives at their most productive age to HIV. Though treatment was available in the private sector, it was not affordable to most of the affected populations. NACO had just started a treatment programme in 2004 at a few government hospitals in the country and it was being scaled up. However, all those who were in need of treatment were unable to access it due to the distance to such facilities, financial crisis, lack of awareness, and lot of other issues. Getting a positive HIV report was still treated as a death warrant and we came across many PLHIV waiting for their last moments at NACO-supported hospices/end-care homes. Those co-infected with TB were kept in isolation. As the treatment programme expanded and started showing positive results, these end-care homes evolved as centres that supported treatment literacy, adherence and retention.

After completing MSW and working in Bangalore for some time, I joined the National AIDS Control Organisation in Delhi in 2009 and became part of the team that handles treatment, care and support for PLHIV. While visiting the care centres during college days and interacting with the people who suffered, never in my wildest dreams I thought that I would be part of the mission to provide solutions to their afflictions in the future.

The last ten years have seen sea changes in India’s response to HIV/AIDS. Treatment facilities have been scaled up. Our mission was to ensure at least one facility in every district in the country to provide treatment services. More than 500 treatment centres have been established. By December 2016, the national programme aims to put a million PLHIV on treatment. End-care homes have become part of history. They became Community Care Centres during the third phase of National AIDS Control Programme providing treatment support and evolved as Care and Support Centres during the fourth phase, taking care of the holistic and comprehensive care and support needs of PLHIV. HIV related morbidity and mortality have come down, with treatment people started living longer and healthier lives and HIV has finally become a manageable health issue.

And, being part of this journey is, of course, a matter of pride!