Monday, March 22, 2010

The night Ghulam Nabi Azad arrived in Chennai, and the city airport resembled a war zone

It’s hard to get back to blogging once you take a long break, and I’m feeling quite miserable, frankly. Anyway, this blog was prompted by none other than a Union Minister and his entourage. Well, I was at the Chennai airport with my wife and we were hanging around the international terminal arrival gate, waiting for the Emirates flight from Dubai to arrive.

The approach to the arrival and departure areas at the Chennai airport are chaotic to say the least, with parking space difficult to find, drivers, bearers and attendants of all sorts swarming the place, tea and coffee sellers dong business, and a particularly enterprising one managing to sell bondas as well, right outside the domestic arrival gate. Boy! Welcome to the Gateway of the South, as my dear old mentor and former colleague Mr S. Muthiah, the city historian, would have said.

I spotted a woman breastfeed her baby, a two-year-old being fed curd rice on the floor, cups strewn at places, and hardly any space to walk – we had to edge our way through. At Chennai airport, there seem to be more people waiting outside than passengers who arrive. And that ‘waiting outside’ number keeps increasing all the time.

Well, let me get to the point quickly. As we parked our vehicle and moved towards the arrival area, we didn’t miss seeing a line-up of security personnel that announced to the world that there was a VVIP arriving or leaving. There were Chennai cops, commandos with AK-47s (or perhaps a more advanced version), SPG or men from the elite Special Protection Group, complete with bullet-proof vests…

We entered a coffee shop and waited for the coffee to arrive. It was hot and humid, Chennai summer as ever. And Café Frappe took a long time coming. While some of the security guys glared, others stood expressionless, almost bored to death. In the middle of all this was a police inspector with a walkie-talkie trying to flout his importance, waving visitors aside and directing them into a huddle. The SPG guys hardly cared. They must have gone through this kind of waiting and accompanying a million times. I just wondered how their collective energies were being wasted.

So, who was the VVIP, we were curious to know. My wife and I never got to see HIM but eventually we learnt that it was none other than Mr Ghulam Nabi Azad, the Union Health and Family Welfare Minister. It was a Sunday and apparently he had arrived ahead of his convocation address at the Jawaharlal Institute of Post-Graduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER) in Puducherry the following morning where he would present awards and medals to students. Azad was earlier J&K Chief Minister and has the distinction of being a part of the Congress Working Committee for a record 18 years and a powerful general secretary of the Congress nine times. No doubt he is a VVIP and probably deserved some security, but surely not the kind that was on display.

I was speaking to a visitor and we both agreed that despite all the security bandobast for VVIPs like Azad, it would be quite easy for any terrorist or suicide bomber to infiltrate and do as he or she pleased.

I wondered whether Azad himself knew how many policemen and commandos and SPG guys were out there trying to protect him from the invisible. Would he, if he had known, told the cops to go home and said that one or two would do. How many politicians are willing to do that anyway? Jyoti Basu was one person who hardly had gun-toting security personnel around him. There are others like him, I suppose… perhaps Mr Antony, the Defence Minister, known to be simple and clean in all his dealings. You never find pictures of people guarding the Basus and Antonys.

If there were so many policemen for Azad, I thought to myself how many would be on duty when Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi are travelling. Do the numbers help? Can’t the security apparatus be reduced, made lean and thin, and not as loud as it usually is? And can’t most of them be deployed for what they should really be doing – protecting the common man and woman and child?

Indira Gandhi was killed by her own guard and nobody could have stopped him. Rajiv Gandhi fell to a belt-bomb-woman. No SPG could have saved him either. And to think there were politicians in yester years who probably didn’t even having one policeman trailing them and who preferred to walk alone… It’s still like that in most of the developed world. In England, Germany and Austria, for instance, you hardly know who is the VVIP or politician, simply because they do not behave like VVIPs. They prefer anonymity. There are even ministers who cycle down to work or simply walk with a briefcase in hand.

But this is India…

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Dr Deepa Jayaram - she provides the healing touch of ayurveda

There is a picture of her posing with the Rajnikanths in the visitors’ room of her clinic. There are other VVIPs she has treated, including a government head whom she does not want named. But she says she is hardly excited by all that. What motivates and inspires her is catering to the common person who cannot afford expensive ayurvedic treatment. And that is perhaps reflected in the picture that hangs just above where she usually sits in her clinic – of Sushruta (1000 BC), the father of surgery, performing plastic surgery of the ear of a commoner.

It was at a meeting of the Zonta Club that I first met Dr Deepa Jayaram, the chief physician who runs the Pranavam Ayurveda Chikitsalayam. There, she was talking to an all-women audience about the benefits of ayurveda. It was her way of spreading the message of relying on the Indian system of medicine for treatment of simple and complex diseases. She evinced interest in talking to more such groups of people and, impressed by her enthusiasm, I have offered to spread the good word.

It was the entrepreneur in her that prompted Dr Deepa to establish, with the help of a bank loan, the unit in Sait Colony, Egmore, which offers consultation, treatment and has a pharmacy. Pranavam, Dr Deepa says, offers traditional ayurvedic treatment for all chronic diseases, including skin diseases. She has found success in the treatment of bone and joint, and auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and ulcerative colitis, as well as degenerative diseases such as osteoarthritis.

“I have seen patients wheeled in, walk out after treatment. I feel good when seemingly incurable diseases are cured. We also offer rejuvenation therapy using detoxification methods. For example, there is Abhyanga, a general massage for pain relief. Nasyam gets rid of problems related to the throat and diseases above the neck; it’s useful in treating paralysis. Sirodhara is a good therapy for sleeplessness, anxiety or stress. We specialise in Kerala panchakarma therapy. There are oils that give you instant relief after application,” she explains.

Dr Deepa then welcomes a mother and her daughter, the latter holding her newborn. They had come to show her the baby. It was her treatment that helped the young woman conceive. It is a happy day for Dr Deepa. Earlier in the morning, she had received information that a few children with cerebral palsy she was treating were doing well.

Born and brought up in Thiruvananthapuram, Deepa studied at the Cotton Hill Girls High School and completed her pre-university at the Government Women’s College. Her father, Nirmalanandan, was a professor of Sanskrit and the Vedanta. Her mother, Uma, was the principal of Victoria College in Palakkad. Deepa began studying Sanskrit at the age of 10. Quite a few of her family members were drawn towards ayurveda. Her great grandfather, for instance, was a vaidyar or ayurvedic doctor. Her uncle and aunt were superintendents and heads of departments at the Ayurvedic College in Thiruvananthapuram.

An average student, Deepa wrote short stories, participated in literary activity and won prizes for her essays in Malayalam. After pre-university, she joined the Ayurveda College in Thiruvananthapuram to obtain her Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery degree, which she did in 1997, after five-and-a-half years of hard work, including a year of internship. Immediately thereafter, Dr Deepa joined the Arya Vaidya Pharmacy in Coimbatore as resident medical officer. Her first posting was to Tiruvalla, at the Sudarshanam Netra Chikitsalayam.

Marriage in 1999 to R. Jayaram, who now heads P.L. Shipping & Logistics, brought her to Chennai. “We were in Tiruvanmiyur. I found the climate too hot; it was tough. But I learnt Tamil and continued working for Arya Vaidya Pharmacy, at its Royapettah branch. I soon found people accepting me wholeheartedly,” she says.

From branch physician offering consultant services, Dr Deepa became the branch head, overseeing treatment as well as administration at the treatment centre. She was spokesperson for the centre, was on the panel that interviewed doctors for Ayush (a Unilever brand) therapy centres, and a consultant for Kalakshetra Foundation.

Dr Deepa is all for increasing awareness about the benefits of ayurveda. “People don’t recognise it as a science,” she says. Over the past few months, she has been conducting free medical camps and talking to small gatherings. Earlier, she had tutored nursing course students on anatomy and physiology at the Indian Red Cross Society in Thiruvananthapuram and held first-aid classes for St. John’s Ambulance there.

In Chennai, Dr Deepa has started a six-month therapy training course for boys and girls – Pranavam will offer a Diploma in Ayurvedic Therapy. Approved by the central government, the certificate will be issued by the Bharat Sevak Samaj.

The products at the Pranavam pharmacy are sourced from Kottakal Arya Vaidya Sala, Ashtavaidyan Thaikkattu Mooss Vaidyaratnam Oushadhasala (Thrissur) and Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (Coimbatore). They range from herbal hair wash to herbal tea to Sugandhachurnam (a body scrub), apart from the many formulations for therapy.

Pictures show Dr Deepa administering the Nasyam therapy; a patient undergoing steaming for body pain; and a view of the pharmacy.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

At Tirumala, 'Sheegre Darshan' ticket and all, but 'rotting inside the queue sheds for hours together'

Our group was fairly large, perhaps made of about 60-odd people. There were newborns, toddlers, adolescents, couples, middle-aged men and women and the elderly. We followed the guide, walking for more than a kilometre, up and down various pathways. I overheard a teenager telling her father that she could not keep pace and that she’d prefer to amble along slowly. I dreaded to think what would happen if each person thought the way she did. Eventually, for all the guide’s talk of walking together and being together, the group was quickly split into families and smaller units even as we arrived at the tail end of the queue that ended right on the edge of the road.

The TTDC fare included the ‘Sheegre Darshan’ (quick darshan) ticket amount of Rs 300. Most of us had thought that such a ticket entitled us to some forward position in the queue, at least from the ticket counter. However, to our utter disbelief, that was not to be. The queue apparently dragged on for kilometers, and we had just joined it. This we learnt when an elderly gentleman on his way back after darshan was voicing his disgust at the goings-on – of having stood in the queue for more than seven hours without anything to eat or drink and no toilet facility. He was, of course, spewing forth his anger and frustration, but for all those in the queue who heard him, his words fell on deaf ears. What he said turned out to be true.

The queue meandered ever so slowly, most often grinding to a long halt. As 1pm approached we all knew that the guide’s promise of lunch was just meaningless talk. He and the other guide in the second bus had by now disappeared. So, on we went, a few steps at a time, ascending and descending steps, squeezing ourselves around corners, straining to see what lay ahead, hoping that every corner would bring us closer to the deity, the Promised Land. That never happened. Not until well past 6pm when we were hopelessly lumbering past the famous Tirumala ‘cages’, empty for some strange reason.

A young woman had swooned right in front of me. I splashed water on her face and that brought some semblance of revival. There was nothing that could be done; nowhere could she have taken rest. For, if she left the queue, she would never be able to get back in and there would be no darshan. Her mother and sister helped her on her feet and even as I and the others were pushed forward I strained to catch a glimpse of her, hoping she had recovered. But lost sight of her soon thereafter.

Finally, we arrived at what looked like the Destination. The queue had suddenly branched into two, formed on either side of a gated entrance where a man, with a Yul Bryner look, stood. Clothed in a starched cream mundu and shirt he held a walkie-talkie. Perhaps he was one of the top cops here, but by his looks and demeanour it was obvious he was SOMEBODY. Soon, some VVIPs emerged from inside. The lead man looked every inch a politician. There were others behind him, including women and children, and a tall man clad in T-shirt and jeans. I wondered what ticket they had all taken, if they had at all!

Shouts of “Govinda, Govinda” rent the air as we struggled to beat the press of bodies and moved forward. All along the way, right inside the temple, very close to where the deity was, were strewn cartons of ‘Frootie’ the drink that has made Tirupati home. Although the MRP (maximum retail price) marked on each carton is Rs 12, it is sold for Rs 20. And people buy. I had to pay Rs 6 extra for a small pack of Britannia biscuits outside. Talk about cost of living in Tirupati! But what about the Frootie packs lying squashed right inside the temple? How could they ever allow such a thing? Outside, I noticed such packs and other rubbish being cleared. But nothing of the sort was happening inside. I wondered what many devotees would have done if it were not for Frootie, Probably they would have all swooned and created panic. Thank God for Frootie.

As they always say, you hardly get time to see the image of the deity in Turumala. As the crowds surged forward and we were pulled and shoved aside by the volunteers at every step, all most of us could do was to try and keep our eyes focused on Sri Venkateswara. Amidst all the chaos, words hardly came to the fore and I was hoping that the benevolent Lord would understand all that. So, after less than 30 seconds of straining to get a good look at the deity, I and the others were pushed away to the periphery and outside, left to carry on with whatever was left. One of it was to join palms and pray, looking at the resplendent golden gopuram; the other was to get to the hundi to deposit whatever money we carried.

The drama was not quite over, though. Right outside the hundi, three young men, with shaven heads, muscled their way in and tried to grope. I saw the hands of one behind a woman. Another had pushed another woman. She almost fell. They were up to no good, it was clear. I quickly told the women in our group to let them pass. And thankfully, they did, because they had no other option. They were pickpockets and had cleverly disguised themselves as bhaktas. I remembered the guide warning us about pickpockets. He must have meant fellows like these three. No wonder they were there right outside the hundi. Of course, there were other valuables for the taking – I saw quite a few had managed to smuggle in mobile phones too. This is, after all, India!

Interestingly, the Tirumala Web site ( says that “long winding queues and Tirumala are synonymous” and admits that it “wants to get out of this dubious distinction”. But when, is the million dollar or ‘crores of rupees’ question. There is also the phrase on the site that mentions “rotting inside the queue shed for hours together”. Ha! How appropriate!

Monday, March 01, 2010

At Tirumala, to get a glimpse of the Lord of the Seven Hills

It was after more than two years that I was heading to Tirupati. Not that I had planned to myself; my sister in Calcutta (not Kolkata for me) was after me the past two months, urging me to schedule a trip to the Tirupati Hill. So, finally the day arrived. It was a Sunday, the last day of February, and we were up at 4am to get ready and be at the Tamil Nadu Tourism Development Corporation (TTDC) office on Wallajah Road before 6am when the bus, an air-conditioned Volvo, would leave.

When we arrived, we saw the office closed and there were only stray dogs to greet us. The outer area looked like it was shelled in an air raid. The boundary walls were gone; there was a huge dug-up area all around resembling a moat, which made it impossible to people to get into the office without balancing steadily on make-shift plywood boards nailed together. All this thanks to the construction of the new Secretariat complex (one wonders what will happen to Mount Road once it is inaugurated and the meetings begin). Some of the staff were asleep inside. We got to know as the lights inside suddenly came on and a person was putting on his trousers and shirt.

Breakfast was at a wayside motel, or so the guide announced. But we were shepherded into a large mandapam where tables and chairs were arranged as is done for weddings and the like. There were idlis and vada, pongal as well, and a small cup of coffee. Quite filling then, but not quite enough considering that all of us had to do without the promised lunch and almost starve till late in the evening.

Our guide (Alvin was his name if we heard him correctly) I’m sure knew exactly how it would be at Tirupati. He did announce that the rush was so huge the previous day that people had to wait in queue for seven hours. However, to comfort us, he said that the rush might not be as much on Sunday. How wrong he was! Perhaps it was only to be expected – after all, it was Holi, Pournami day, and Monday was holiday for many in the north. All this we learnt only much later. As a good guide, he should have told us clearly what to expect, but perhaps, looking at it from his point of view, it was best to make the travellers feel easy. My sympathies are, of course, with Alvin. Managing a group of tourists and taking responsibility for their welfare is not easy at all.

Well, things went according to plan till we reached Tirumala. The only unexpected thing was a change of bus – from the Volvo to an ordinary Andhra Pradesh State Road Transport Corporation bus. The change-over indeed jolted us to reality. As we always do in India, everybody rushed to get inside. There were even some who threw handbags and kerchiefs inside to bag places. I managed to find a place at the rear, sandwiched between a relative and two Bengali men with hardly anything to hold on to. The driver seemed to be in a tearing hurry and the bus swayed from one side to the other as he manoeuvered the bends. I was hoping I wouldn’t get nausea and puke. Luckily, I didn’t.

At Tirumala, we were asked to head to one SN Cottage. The first floor that had two rooms and bathrooms were for us, one for men and the other for the ladies. I almost burst out laughing as the queue formed to get into the toilet. Reminded me of the chawls in good old Bombay. Ablutions over, we followed the guide to the temple barefoot. He had our mobile phones (switched off) and cameras locked up in one of the rooms. Little did we know how long it would take before we got back!