Thursday, 26 February 2015

Swine Flu Saga

Tragically swine flu seems to be the flavour of the month in India once again. Or should I say fragrance of the month since the virus is inhaled, not ingested? The Indian news channels on television are screaming out the death statistics and the Indian newspaper we buy here repeats more of the same. Multinationals selling hand wash soap are making the most of the opportunity by taking out half page advertisements on the front pages of leading Indian dailies. My phone is continuously beeping as one swine flu update or the other is delivered across many What's Aap and Viber groups. People are advising each other to wash their hands very frequently, avoid crowded areas, use hand sanitizer, use washable cloth masks, sniff ground cardamom and camphor (really?), use homoeopathic medicines and hang Neem leaves over their doors and windows in a bid to purify the air! Of course all the above advice has to be taken along with a pinch and whiff of the ever evolving swine flu vaccine! This time the states in Northern India seem to be the worst affected unlike those dark days of 2009 and 2010 when my home state Maharashtra, bore the major brunt of the epidemic, recording the highest number of deaths in India.
We had experienced all this first hand, half a decade ago when, for some inexplicable reason, the Girls' Section of our children's school became the epicentre of the virus with the maximum number of cases detected. All schools and coaching classes in my hometown were shut for many days at the height of the epidemic but the positive cases in my daughter's class continued unabated even when the situation was almost back to normal elsewhere. So her division was shut down again and we came to a point when every single girl who sat around my daughter's desk came down with swine flu, barring her and her immediate partner. I was reduced to a point where I was taking her temperature every couple of hours. Since the first devastating death due to swine flu in our city had been a young teenage girl, just a couple of years older than my then eleven year old, the schools had warned parents to be extra cautious.
We came out of it unscathed in 2009 by the grace of God and fantastic immunity! 2010 rolled around and June heralded the advent of our monsoons. With it there was a rise in swine flu cases again in our much beleaguered city and all schools were on stand by in the eventuality of another massive outbreak. We were told to rush our kids to the nearest paediatrician at the mere hint of a cold or a fever. All in all, it wasn't a very happy beginning to a fresh school year.
The day began as a normal one. The kids came back from school, ate, did their homework and rushed for their Tae Kwon Do class. Bath, dinner, more homework and bed and then a soft voice asking me to wake up. The time was 4:00 am. It was my daughter who came into our room complaining of a throat ache and apologizing for waking me up! This is a really funny habit she has had even as a tiny tot when she used to apologize to me on the rare occasions that she threw up! I had to always reassure her that it wasn't her fault if she was unwell! She had some fever too so I gave the necessary medicine and put her back to bed.
That morning she just had mild fever with a slightly achy throat so we roped in my mother to keep her company while my husband and I rushed to keep our appointment with our chartered accountant for the much deplored and complicated task of filing our tax returns. It was there that we got a frightening phone call. Her fever just kept rising and rising and just refused to come down despite acetaminophen and cold sponging. It touched 104 degrees against the normal of 98.6, within a very short span of time. So we rushed back home and took her to our standby paediatrician close to our house ( with the consent of our dearest paediatrician described in my blog 'A Doctor Called Mami'). Having a paediatrician very close to the house had become a necessity since the swine flu out break of the previous year.
My first question to the young lady doctor was 'Do you think it is swine flu?' She replied that none of the symptoms were present - there was cold, no cough and the throat seemed fine so it certainly wasn't swine flu! Even the fever seemed to be under control. So we would just wait and watch. Over the next couple of days the fever continued on and off and the doctor was puzzled and ordered extensive blood tests, urine tests and even an ultrasound! Everything came back as normal! My regular question: 'Is it swine flu?' I always got a negative answer just like all those tests she underwent!
Finally, almost a week later, my daughter remained fever free for forty eight hours and the doctor said she could go back to school the next day. My husband who was then working in another city and  had taken leave to stay on in Pune till she recovered, bought his bus ticket to report back to work. I dropped him off at the spot close to our house on the highway from where the inter state bus would pick him up in less than fifteen minutes. As a final precaution, I checked her fever as soon as I got back. It read 99 degrees! I called up the young paediatrician without wasting another minute and she told me we needed to get a swine flu test done first thing the next morning!
I then called up my husband, sure that he must have left in the interim. Now this is the strangest part of the whole saga. My husband told me the bus had come and left without him! It just did not stop at it's regular halting place despite my husband holding a confirmed ticket! It wasn't as if it was the first time he was being picked up from there! I strongly believe God wanted him to remain in the city that night so he would be with us during the most worrisome time of our lives that was to start that night. And so the bus driver never saw him that night...God works in strange but perfect ways...
By next evening the swine flu test came back positive and though my daughter never had another fever spike nor any symptoms ever, both she and my son (as a precaution)  had to take Tamiflu, the drug to combat swine flu. I had to inform the school that we had one positive case and we had to report it to the municipal cooperation authorities of our city as well.
A week of wait and watch later, the whole saga was over. No other family member got infected and it was as if we had all become immune. It must have been the strangest and most symptom free and least contagious case of swine flu our city had ever seen! Having been there and done that, I would suggest that all those living in India should use the most practical parts of all the advice that is being doled out through our phones. Better to be safe than sorry! Else all those glorious free words of wisdom would be like casting pearls before swine, right?

                                     Never been gladder to see the last of any drug than this one!

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Very Yucky Plasticky





A few weeks ago as I peeped into the bag of groceries my husband had just brought home, I saw exactly what you can see in the picture above. I was rather surprised as bread is the one thing that none of us eat regularly. I prefer giving the kids home cooked Indian breakfasts with chocolate cereal thrown in just once a week! I do not know how to bake bread nor do I want to learn to, since it isn't a staple part of Indian cuisine. Plus that list of ingredients on store bought bread scares me. Anti oxidants, emulsifiers, stabilizers, permitted colours and flavours and what not! I grew up eating white bread with eggs for breakfast in those days of yore when the concept of brown bread had not been introduced in India. The Indian Army doled out a fixed quota of bread every week for the officers and families and we dutifully munched our way through the rather hard, uncut loaves every morning. And since I'm still alive and kicking, this dislike for bread may just be a quirk of my mind. Also somewhere in my mind bread smacks of colonial domination of our taste buds and that is enough to put me off it, unless I have lots of left over cooked vegetables. Then, once in an odd while, my children do get grilled sandwiches as a snack! The only people who eat bread in our household are our house help and my husband's driver. And those loaves are delivered by our bread and milk man at an unearthly hour every morning. So what was this that he had bought?
I looked at the loaf closely. Then I burst out saying that this was exactly how factory made bread used to be wrapped up during my childhood! In wax paper, not the environment damaging plastic that is the norm these days. My husband beamed at me and said that is exactly what that loaf had reminded him of - the bread of his childhood - and that is why he had bought it. I was so thrilled to see something I haven't seen in India for more than twenty years that I actually ran my hand over the wrapped loaf and waxed eloquent about it!
We recalled the days when everything was wrapped using card board or paper, which, instead of being discarded into the bin, was then sold to the scrap paper vendor and was recycled, thus reducing garbage literally by the tons. Those nasty acidic, sugary soft drinks came only in glass bottles which were returned to the factory and sterilized (I hope!) and reused, unlike the plastic two litre monstrosities of today. As if the original two hundred millilitres weren't bad enough! We all carried giant bags to the grocers for groceries and to the green grocers for fresh vegetables. They did look horrendous and hideous - no big brand names there- but definitely helped the environment.
I remember my grandmother buying rice, wheat and lentils for the whole year and this used to be delivered in large gunny (jute)  bags which, once empty, were used for various purposes but never trashed.  One use that stands out in my mind was their strategic placement outside the front door for wiping muddy shoes during India's plentiful monsoon showers. Today, of course the environment is no longer conducive to no holds barred rainy days. We have managed to destroy the pattern of  the life giving  cycles of rain too! Now, my grains come in pre packaged, sealed plastic bags every month which promptly find their way into the kitchen bin, once empty.
Some efforts are now being made in India to stem the unchecked flow of plastic but it feels like too little, too late. All the big brands now charge a measly Rs. 5.00 if you do not have your own bag while shopping at the mall. Since this is the equivalent of roughly one twelfth of an American Dollar people just go ahead and buy them and cram shopping worth hundreds of dollars into them!And then those bags soon find their way onto already overflowing city trash heaps...because every one wants to keep their own house trash free. Who cares about Mother Earth?
For the last few years my mother and her friends have been making cloth bags at home with scraps of cloth and distributing them to fruit and vegetable sellers in and around various neighbourhoods in our home town, in order to prevent them from giving super thin, horrible-for-the-environment type of plastic bags to customers who come bag less to buy a week's worth or more of veggies! They are also segregating dry and wet trash very dutifully. But they remain a minority...
Corinne Hoffman, Swiss- German author of the book 'The White Masai' writes that when she first came to Kenya in the late eighties and travelled to the Samburu region, there wasn't a bit of plastic to be seen in the African bush. When she returned to Kenya at the start of the millennium, she says in her book 'Reunion At Barsaloi' that every single bush and tree in the interiors was adorned with colourful plastic bottles and plastic bags! The green could hardly be seen for the plastic. The plastic scrouge had finally hit this continent too..
Around the time I saw the bread in waxed paper, my daughter returned from her compulsory Cultural Field Study trip that the school organizes every year. As she unpacked her bag, she pulled out a curious looking packet. She said she had bought some red chilly powder at the local market to add to the rather bland food that is served in rural Kenya. What fascinated me was the very eco friendly way of packing the powder. Instead of a small plastic packet that is now the norm the world over, a piece of dry bark had been used along with some reusable twine. What an ingenious way to avoid plastic! Despite all my misgivings about plastic ruling the roost, maybe there is hope for our environment yet?

                                      She just tapped out the chilly powder as and when needed!

                                  How the 'daily bread ' is wrapped in India and Kenya. Waxed paper seems to be on the wane!

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Against Impossible Odds

One of my personal rules is that I am ALWAYS at home when my children come home from school. They are away for nine hours from the time they are picked up by the bus till they are dropped off home. A lot happens to them and with them during that extended period of time and they are at their most talkative as soon as they are back. Later on they get busy with homework and reading and in my son's case 'going down to play'. So I cherish this 'golden hour' that I get to spend with them. A lot of nuggets of information pop out during this time and they keep our communication channels well polished and flowing!
Long ago when my daughter had just begun school, I used to teach in a college in my hometown and I would be back just forty five minutes after my daughter had been picked up from her school by my mother. The minute I would step into the house, my otherwise charming and well mannered little angel, who by then had been changed into play clothes and served food by my mother, would say 'Please go back to college, we do not need you here!' This was her way of conveying that she wanted her mother to be there when she was back after just three hours in kindergarten. As a result of this experience I made it a point to accept all future commitments only during the time my children would be absent from home, either for extra curricular activities or for school.
Sometimes if I have wound up my afternoon on line classes and have already finished making their hot home made snack, I stand at the window when I hear the bus. Simply observing the children when they do not know they are being observed, teaches me a lot too! The slump of my son's shoulders tells me he has a couple of heavy text books in his bag. Not at all usual in this education system where text books are kept in school everyday for the Elementary classes. So that translates to slightly more home work for that day! My daughter frantically scrolling through her Snap Chat, Viber and What's App messages on her phone the minute it connects with our wifi even though she is three floors below, signifies that she ran out of mobile data during the course of the day - again!
That long ago late October day in 2011 was no different. We had just moved to Nairobi and were getting used to living in Africa again. The children came home from school and the first thing my then seven year old son shouted out when he saw me was ' A teacher from our school was kidnapped!' I closed my eyes for a fraction of a second. 'God had we left our one hundred and forty six year old school in our home town only to bring our children to a school where teachers got abducted?' was the first thought that crossed my mind. My daughter immediately guessed my thoughts. She hastened to clarify that this was a former teacher from their school who had got married and moved to Somalia with her husband. She worked for an NGO there and had been kidnapped by land pirates during the course of her duties along with a male colleague. She added that a number of her classmates had been taught by this lady when they were in Elementary School and many of the current teachers had been her colleagues so the whole incident felt very close to home. Too close for comfort, actually!
Over the course of the days that followed my children kept updating me about the lady. How the whole school was frantically praying for her release, how her health was deteriorating because her captors denied her essential medicines which her husband kept sending to what he guessed was the closest town from the place where they were being held and how negotiations for ransom had failed yet again. I also followed the news on the international media. I remember listening to President Obama saying such atrocities against American citizens would not be tolerated and vowing to get her back safe and sound!
Finally came the news of her rescue three long months later, in a daring midnight operation, by a team of top notch American Navy SEALs. My son very cheerfully brought home the news from school. I remember he was so excited that day as if he had personally been part of the rescue! All was well that had ended well, by the grace of God, the brave men in uniform and of course the American President who gave the command for the rescue operation.
The book 'Impossible Odds' by Jessica Buchanan and her husband Erik Landemalm was published in August 2014 but I got it from the school library and read it only a couple of days ago. I guess all the people she had known personally in school had laid first claim to it! I was so riveted by this book that I broke my own cardinal rule and stayed up reading it up to 1:00 am on a school night and got only five hours of sleep as a result! Imagine my surprise and excitement when the FBI agent mentioned by name in the book, who was coordinating with Jessica's husband after the kidnapping, turned out to be my daughter's former teacher's husband! And a favourite teacher, I might add. I have read about FBI agents in books earlier but never about one that I am acquainted with and whose family I know really well! Strange things happen in Africa! Then I remembered that the kids had told me all those years ago  that he was actively involved in this case! The book just proved it.
Jessica talks about having no access to a bathroom since they were living in the open dessert with their captors. She and her colleague had to share two bowls and two spoons with a whole horde of heavily armed pirates, there was extremely limited access to drinking water and she had no feminine hygiene products at all. She had to use dirty pieces of cloth with the result that she had severe urinary tract infection and then was denied medication and antibiotics to combat it. It was the fact that she was slowly dying that compelled America to attempt the raid to free the two of them. I saluted those twenty four brave hearts who were air dropped into the Somali dessert on a moonless night in January 2012 and who had put their lives at stake. I also felt immensely grateful for sparkling bathrooms, water when I want to drink it and the means to have as many showers a day as I want.
It also raised a pertinent question in my mind. Unless you are an American citizen, would your government care enough to attempt this kind of rescue for you? Would my government attempt it for me if, God forbid, I am ever in such a situation? Against Impossible Odds?
      Do read it! It will make you appreciate the high comforts levels you enjoy that much more! It will also make you realize the true value of family and friends! As she says, 'Who wants to die without saying Good Bye?'
 I returned the book to the library this morning. As the assistant librarian checked it in, guess what she said? 'Oh Jessica's book? She is a good friend of mine!' 

Friday, 6 February 2015

Happy Birthday, Child !

I wrote this poem more than ten years ago, when my son who turned eleven today, was a new born, in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. Since my original hand written copy is in India, I have reproduced it from memory as best as I could! Every single word is true though, like everything that I write!



'I have no company,' our daughter used to complain.
'Get me a sibling', was her constant refrain!
So I launched an exhaustive research,
To see what data I could unearth.
 I spoke to people with two kids and one,
And covered every aspect under the sun.
They all said,'It's tough, no doubt,
To have two kids running about.
You'll be exhausted, but you will revive,
And to tell the tale you will survive!'

But I was worried about India's population,
Should we add to an already over crowded nation?
But then our daughter grew really insistent,
And her demand became very persistent.
So my thoughts I cast aside,
And to have another child we did decide.

Soon we had good news to share,
And our daughter was happy beyond compare!
Hospital visits, blood tests and an ultra sound,
The baby was already making me run around!
Iron, vitamins and folic acid I took,
While Dr.Spock's trusted Baby Book
Was taken down from its rather dusty nook!

When at our daughter I had to shout,
Baby inside rapidly moved about.
To defend its sister, it already had the knowledge,
For it never reacted when I raised my voice in college!

A quick trip to Dar we did take,
And no trouble did baby make.
Buying baby clothes, diapers and rattles was fun,
And then the months began to run!
One, two, three, four,
Five, six, seven, eight,
And then our daughter could barely wait!

Soon from Dar my husband flew down,
All set to don the sterile gown.
But my due date went by,
And every day our daughter began to cry!
Across the world, family and friends began to pray:
'Oh God, why has she crossed her due day?'
The doctor began to talk of induction,
While I calmly waited for my contraction.

Then on the first Friday of February,
Suddenly to be born, baby was in a hurry.
To the hospital we had to rush,
And out came baby in a gush!
There it was, covered in mucous,
As the doctor snapped the umbilicus!
Our tiny little bundle of joy,
Turned out to be a baby boy!

Forty eight centimetres in length,
And eight pounds in weight,
He wasn't concerned that he was late!
With an APGAR score of nine,
Our son was absolutely fine!

Our daughter was thrilled beyond measure,
And to see the two children together,
Gave me my life's greatest pleasure.
They truly are a priceless treasure...



Knick-Knack Paddy Whack, Who Gives A Bone?

The past week has not been an easy one. The mother of a very dear friend of mine passed away in my home town, Pune, after a month long batt...