Thursday, November 24, 2011

Water for TN and Safety for Kerala: Resolving Mullaperiyar Dispute

Much has already been said on the history and geography of Mullaperiyar issue.  I do not intend to repeat those aspects here.  I would like to merely state the facts that are not in dispute and concentrate on the way forward to resolve this issue in a win-win spirit from all concerned.

First, let us list the facts:

Mullaperiyar River and the dam are situated well within the state of Kerala, unlike other rivers involved in similar disputes, like Kaveri that flows through multiple states.

The claim of Tamil Nadu on the waters of Mullaperiyar is based solely on the lease treaty that was entered into between the King of Travancore and the Government of India under British rule, in 1886. The lease under the treaty is valid for a period of 999 years.

In 1970, Both Kerala and Tamil Nadu Governments have signed a new agreement virtually adopting the entire provisions of the 1886 treaty.  In effect, Kerala government accepted the terms of an agreement that was widely believed to be thrust under duress by British masters on a hapless Indian King. 

With this adoption by respective State Governments, no further scope exists for debating the basis of the original agreement.  It is a legal obligation binding on all parties.

Today, the water from this dam is the lifeline for a large area of Tamil Nadu with people depending on this project for drinking water and irrigation of over 3 lacs acres of land.   Denial of water would be disastrous for people and agriculture of these areas.

The dam was constructed with lime and surkhi, which is considered not to be an efficient mode of construction today. Studies have shown that up to 30 tons of surkhi was being lost from the dam every year.  This has been endangering the safety of dam.  Even though reinforcement work was carried out by providing concrete cover, the frequent leaks and losing of surkhi continued to cause fear in the minds of downstream people.

Since 1979, there were many instances when minor to medium intensity earthquakes happened in the area.  Various studies by independent bodies have maintained that the dam in its present condition may not withstand an earthquake that measures 6 on the Richter scale.  

Since March, Idukki district where dam is situated has felt 22 mild tremors.  An earthquake that read 3.4 on Richter Scale took place in the last week, which has caused panic among the people of Kerala.   (To dismiss this panic as a mass hysteria stage managed for release of a movie named Dam 999 is adding insult to injury!)

The Dispute

When in 1979, there was a minor earthquake in the dam area and that caused panic among people.  On State of Kerala’s request, State of Tamil Nadu agreed to reduce the water level to 136 feet from 142 feet till completion of strengthening of the dam with reinforcement of concrete cover etc.

Post completion of reinforcement work Tamil Nadu wanted to increase the water level back to the original 142 feet.  However, continuing tremors in the area caused concerns among people living downstream that this lime and surkhi dam of such vintage may not survive a major earthquake. This is when the present legal disputes originated.

Not going into details of the long legal battle between two States, let me come straight to the present dispute.  The major issues that really affect people of either state are as follows:

Will Tamil Nadu continue to get water in the same manner as it was agreed to in the previous treaty/agreement?

Should Kerala Government be allowed to ensure safety of millions of its people who are living in the thickly populated downstream districts, by constructing another dam to replace the present one?

Way Forward:

In my view, no Court or Government can afford to neglect the genuine concerns of people. When I say this, I mean the concerns of both people of Tamil Nadu and people of Kerala.  Therefore, the Highest Court (including its Empowered Committee) which is currently seized of the dispute must take this up on priority and complete the hearing on day to day basis and give an order that addresses both the concerns.

Kerala can be allowed to go ahead with the survey and other activities related to constructing a new dam without touching the existing one. The cost of construction of new dam can be shared between Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Centre in whichever ratio as court deems fit.  Once the new dam is completed, the old one can be decommissioned. 

Kerala must be put under an obligation to continue ensuring the same level of supply of water to Tamil Nadu as exists today. 

The operation of the new dam can be entrusted to a joint team of officials from both sides so that the adherence to the terms of Supreme Court Order can be ensured, with or without supervision of an independent agency or central Government. However, these are all peripheral issues that can be tackled once the two fundamental issues are resolved.


The new slogan coined by Kerala after its all party meeting on the issue, WATER FOR TN AND SAFETY FOR KERALA must be adopted by Tamil Nadu as well in its true spirit and formed the basis for a just order by the Supreme Court. 

It is also a fact that there are forces and individuals who try to cash in on any conflict so as to spread their nefarious agenda.  I was surprised to note that there were efforts to convince people that the whole Mullaperiyar controversy is generated by Church to reduce the flow of pilgrims to nearby Sabarimala temple.  I am glad that people have by and large dismissed such efforts and refused to give credit to Church for having so much of miraculous powers as to invite earthquakes in support of their so called strategy!

The agreement to give water for survival of a large area of Tamil Nadu is good neighbourly/brotherly act.  Let all parties continue that spirit and make Mullaperiyar an example for others to emulate rather than fishing in the troubled water!  Let us hope leaders from both sides and the Apex Court will be able to live up to the expectations of people.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Teachers Vs Teachings


This famous Mantra is probably world’s topmost salutation to a teacher.  The Sanskrit Mantra translates as:

The Teacher is Brahma, the God of Creation; 
The Teacher is Vishnu, the God of Sustenance;
The Teacher is Shiva, the God of Annihilation;
The Teacher is the ultimate God;
My Salutation to such a Teacher

This Mantra is often cited by teachers and parents alike to instil respect for teachers, in the minds of students.  Teachers are placed at an equal or even higher position to one’s parents in Indian culture.  This Mantra goes further and equates Guru, the teacher, to the ultimate God, Para-Brahma.

At the outset, this looks like an ideal concept.  Teacher is the one who collates knowledge and provides it to students. All the achievements of a student, as a student, primarily depend upon the quality and efforts of his Guru.  In other words, Guru creates the very human being in his student.  In that sense, Guru is not less than any God!

However, if we look at this concept more deeply, we can perceive the danger of such a position.  One is not expected to challenge God. God is not about enquiry, experimentation or logic- God is all about unquestioning faith.  When we reduce the student- teacher relationship to that of faith, are we knowingly or unknowingly destroying the very teachings of the teacher?  Yes, in my opinion, we are doing precisely that!

What is the importance of a Guru? His function is to gain and then share the knowledge with his student and thereafter help him in enhancing the very knowledge. In that sense, a teacher is performing a function like any other sections of the working force in a society.  We cannot say that one section of the society is more important than other sections.  For example, the farmer, who generates food for our survival is as important as the teacher who provides food for our thoughts.

Let us consider the example of a book.  We often see elders teaching us to respect a book.  By mistake, if a book is fallen from our hands or we touch it with our feet, we are asked to show respect to that book by touching it to our forehead.  During the Saraswati Pooja, books are given an equal status to Gods and worshipped for three days. 

While agreeing to the importance of a book, when we convert it into an on object of respect or worship we are (at least in practise) neglecting or forgetting its very objective.  Shall we be respecting a book or shall we respect the knowledge contained in that book?  My vote is to the knowledge and not to the book.  In any case, we don’t show the same respect to a CD or a Pen drive, even though they may contain much more knowledge than in a book!  That means, we are reducing the respect for knowledge contained in a book into a mere ritual of respecting the book, the medium.

Same is the case of a Guru.  When we place the Guru at such an exalted position, we are goaded into blindly following him and giving up the very inquisitive mind that the teacher struggled to awaken in us.  We forget no teacher has become a great teacher by merely following and worshiping his own teacher.  It is when he went beyond his own teacher and sought the truth that his teachings became valuable to human societies.  In spite of that we fall into the same trap as his fellow students, in blindly following this new teacher.

No teacher is as great as his teachings... When we worship teachers, we lose the essence of their teachings; replacing knowledge with mere faith!

Nowhere else is this apparent as in religious teachings and social reforms.  Take the example of Sri Buddha; in my limited knowledge, the best thinker and teacher in the history of human beings.  His teachings were radical and yet simple and commonsensical and had the potential to change the humanity forever. But his followers, instead of inculcating his great teachings in to their own lives, chose to convert Buddha into a God and worship him!

This is true for all the religions.  Jesus Christ, Prophet Mohammed, Sri Krishna- the greatness of all these teachers is in their teachings as deduced in the Bible, Quran and Gita.  If we look into those teachings, we will see that these Gurus went beyond the existing knowledge and beliefs of their respective times and gave us new thoughts.  Yet, we gave more importance to these teachers than their teachings.  We converted them into Gods or semi-Gods and made anything that questions their teachings into blasphemy, thereby shutting down the doors to further refinement of the very teachings. 

Forget such extreme cases. We have any number of religious teachers turned Man-Gods amongst us.  Sai babas, Ammas and Sri Sris abound in our society even today, transcending their own teachings and attaining the Godly status among their students/followers!

Another example is that of the single most important social reformer of Kerala, Sri Narayana Guru.  The Guru, who successfully challenged the caste system in Kerala and gave wonderful one-liners that contained the very essence of good social behaviour and equality among human beings, has now been reduced to yet another God and a communal Leader!

Sri Narayana Guru gave us thought provoking pearls like:

One Caste, One Religion, One God for Man”

“Ask not, Say not, Think not caste”

“Whatever may be the religion, it suffices if it makes a man better”

“Liquor is poison - Make it not, Sell it not, Drink it not

Narayana Guru even went on to install Hindu deities, though such an act was reserved only to the highest caste among Hindus, i.e., Bhrahmins, till then.  He not only broke the existing glass ceilings but even revolutionised the very concept of temple worship by installing a simple mirror in one of the many temples that he consecrated. 

Today, the Guru is reduced to a leader of one of the backward castes in Kerala, namely Ezhavas.  The leaders of the organisation that is supposed to spread Guru’s teachings are known for their activities in liquor business! His fight against the very caste system in now reduced to a means for organising and strengthening one of the castes, in the society!  Today, in every corner of Kerala you find temples with Narayana Guru’s own busts as the idols!

This tendency is also prevalent among the political class.  We do not worry any more about what is Gandhism or Gandhi’s teachings; but we worship Gandhi and get easily offended if anyone questions, even slightly, his semi-God status.  In almost all political parties, anyone who questions the established positions of the existing leadership is considered as rotten eggs to be thrown away at the earliest opportunity.

In this background, I think we need to inculcate among us and our children, an attitude that questions the teachers and their teachings.  We must respect teachers like we must respect any other human beings.  But we must not worship them or blindly put our faith in them.  Human beings can only make progress, spiritual or material, with an uncompromising quest for more truth.  We must remember the ultimate truth has not yet been spoken.  We must not sacrifice our quest for the larger truth in our eagerness to worship our teachers!

Finally, a word to teachers.... Please do not expect to be worshipped by your students.  Do not fall for the temptations to attain status of a God or to continue the hegemony of the ideas that you preach/teach.  Instead, teach them to question the very ideas that you are teaching them.  That is when you will become the real creators of a progressive society and better human beings.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Some Anniversary Thoughts

15 years....!

Finally when it arrived, I did not even realise that the day was 8th of November.  It was an e-card from one of my friends that alerted me, even though for some reason I was under the impression that the day was still 7th of November.   I called my wife and asked her, “Do you remember the significance of tomorrow?  It is our 15th anniversary”.  She was surprised too, but then she corrected me and said that it was the same day!

Well, not so much of a romantic anniversary, right?  We had a good laugh about it.  But it made me thinking.  Why did we forget the significance of the most important day of our life together?  Then I realised that it is nothing but a positive sign in the married life.  At least neither of us needed symbols and occasions like anniversary to reinforce our relationship.  Also, we both have taken our marriage for granted and so intimately a part of our life that we have lost track of the vey status.

As they say, when we have eyes, we don’t realise their significance.  One day if we are not able to open our eyes for some reason then we realise how tough the life is without them.  By and large, the same goes for marriage too. 

I remember reading an anecdote in Fali S Nariman’s autobiography, where he quoted a judge who in his speech on the occasion of his 50th marriage anniversary said; “Well, like in all marriages the first 49 years were the toughest”.  

Well, not first 14 years, but definitely first few years were the toughest in our marriage too where we (as we both confessed later) had not expected the marriage to last for long!  
When I was growing up I too had many idealistic plans about my marriage. I wanted to contribute to national integration by marrying outside my religion and outside my state.  But, even best plans are only plans and often remain as plans, having overtaken by the hard facts of life!

It was in 1995.  I was on a short leave, but staying back for taking exams.  One day, when I came back after the day’s exam, a message was waiting for me- that my uncle had expired.  He was the only brother of my mother and a person whom I had immense respect for.  A writer, director and lead actor in dramas, a very good volleyball player and a known social worker- my uncle was one of the most respected individuals in our locality.

For me the decision was a no brainer.  I immediately extended my leave and left for home, giving up rest of the exams.  Three days of train journey, delayed further by the diversion due to floods in many parts of South India, brought me home on the fourth day of his death.  When I reached the place it was already 1.30 in the night and I decided to go to my home for the night, rather than going straight to my uncle’s house. 

Only my Father was at home, as Mother and Sister were staying at uncle’s place, taking part in the 11 days’ rituals.  I went to sleep at once but not before noticing a letter addressed to me, in my father’s handwriting, waiting to be posted.

Next morning, I got up and was getting ready to join others at Uncle’s place.  Meanwhile, I again saw the letter and just out of curiosity decided to read it.  When I started reading it, I was shocked!  The letter was written on 13th of June, i.e., one day prior to Uncle’s death.  Before it could be posted, the news of his death reached home and then it was never posted.

The letter was about a meeting that my Father had with Uncle. Uncle, who was confined to bed after undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer, had sent message to Father for this meeting.  When Father met him, Uncle told him that he was feeling better as the treatment was progressing but never knew how it will all end and therefore, when things were still looking better  he would like to complete the last major duty of his life, being the marriage of his twin daughters.   He continued and asked Father’s opinion about considering marriage between me and one of the daughters.  He said if that was OK with us then he will have to look for only one more boy for the other daughter.

My Father was taken by surprise.  It was not abnormal; rather it was the custom, in our community which used to follow the matriarchal system, for children of a brother and sister to marry each other.  One’s uncle’s daughter was considered as the first choice for wife, and was known as ‘Murappennu’, something that can be translated as ‘customary girl’!   However, there was no talk about any such proposal or even any consideration from any side and hence the surprise (Later I was told that the proposal got initiated on the suggestion from a friend of my Uncle, who was also my teacher in primary school.  I must have been a nice kid in his classes?!)

Father replied to Uncle that he had no problem with the proposal but could not say anything until he sought my opinion.  He promised to write a letter to me the same day and to ascertain my opinion at the earliest (those were still the days before the telecommunication revolution when telephone was still a luxury).  That was the letter in question that I was reading!

Well, for me it came like a last wish of my Uncle and that put me into thinking.  Of course, I couldn’t find any negatives about the proposal except that it went against my own plans about my marriage.  Then, I never was a man stuck to his plans.  Therefore, I decided to fulfil that wish.

It took another 18 months for the wish to be fulfilled.  In fact, the proposal was finalised only just 4 months before that and only then I came to know that I will be marrying the elder of the twins.  To cut the story short, we got married on 8th of November.

For someone whom I have known since her birth, surprise of surprises, I soon realised that I hardly knew her.  The marriage has changed the way we looked at each other completely!  Soon my leave got over and had to go back to Chandigarh, leaving her back at home.  It was only in next March that she could join me in Chandigarh, as it was not easy for a junior solider to find a house and start a home. 

Within 3 months of joining me, she had to rush back home as she was asked to join her new job, in the revenue department of Kerala.  Even those 3 months were really difficult.  Problems of finance, differing interests and expectations made the life a pain.  I was used to the life alone, having left home at the age of 17.  I still believed that one can’t be alive without reading a book during all the free time that one can afford. To add to that, soon I joined evening classes for my LLB and it was a rush against time, managing office and classes together, leaving not much time for being a doting husband!  Looking back, now I can imagine how frustrating it must have been for her in those early days of marriage, that too in a new place without any friends around.

Thereafter, it was generally away from each other.  It was only two times during these years that we lived together, for one year or more continuously.  Other than that, it was never more than one month at a time.  Now, for the last two years I have arranged my career in such a way that I am at home with her and kids, for a week, every month.

However, our relationship has undergone tremendous change.  We both have gained certain maturity in our expectations and understand the realities of life far better.  We have realised the need to give up egos in a marriage and also the need to give space to each other to pursue their own respective interests.  She has taken over the complete control of my domestic affairs- taking care of our kids and my aged parents- something that she enjoys, completely freeing me from any concerns on that front. 

May be, the very fact that we have been away and were able to pursue our respective interests has also contributed to this improvement. In fact, one experiment that we tried out when she took leave for a year and joined me in Bangalore, I have seen the uneasiness in her life.  I could see how she missed her office and job and how she felt like a fish out of water having to sit idle at home.  That was the reason why I agreed to their going back and settling down in Kerala for good.

When we decided to marry, it was not for love.  It was purely based on practical considerations.  With all the conflicts, it was about hanging in there with the determination to make it work.   However, the sharing of life, together and away, in a give and take spirit succeeded in generating the love. Today, I am sure we are as much in love as any other couple (to be fair to others, maybe we have the advantage of not having enough time together so as to get bored of each other!).

15 Years is reasonably a long time in life.  Kids are growing up, with son at 12 years and daughter at 6 years of age.  We are a complete family now.  For us, it is not a relationship anymore. We are just one and time stands still. The anniversaries have lost their significance!

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Never sell your eyes...

Often we come across quotes that make us smile and think at the same time.  I used to collect them in my diary.  When I stopped writing diaries, with that went away the habit of collecting quotes too.  I gave up both for the same reason- I realised that it is a waste of time and effort to chronicle one’s thoughts and activities on a day to day basis. 

What we consider very important today would turn out to be very insignificant tomorrow.  A thought or incident which we consider as life shattering will not even be remembered in a couple of week’s time.  So why bother recording them all?  Let the process of churning in our minds continue unhindered and what is worth remembering be remembered and others merely forgotten.

Same is with the quotes.  Many of them that we consider as essence of wisdom at the time of reading/hearing will turn out to be irrelevant as soon as we are out of the context.  But some of them that really match with our thoughts will linger on and refuse to be forgotten.  We might even forget the source and the exact words, but the idea and the wisdom remain in our consciousness.  It is not the ones that we consciously collect over a period of time that matter, but those few that refuse to leave our thoughts.

I have a few quotes that essentially guide me in my life.  I don’t know who said them or where I picked them up. I only know they have remained with me and will probably remain forever.

One such quote is ‘Never sell your eyes to buy a painting; howsoever beautiful it may be’.  I don’t know if these were the exact words of the original quote (I searched the net to find the origin when I decided to write this post, but to no success.  May be I should have continued the habit of recording them!).  But this is the way I have assimilated the wisdom. 

Now back to the quote; how profound it is!  If we remember and follow the message of this quote in our lives, it becomes much simpler and easier.  We realise living life is all about setting priorities.

Today, when I read this tweet from a friend, “@sdsanddunes: Bhanwari case has highlighted, once again, the rot that has spread in our society! Lust! Different types....but lust all the same...” I could not but agree with it.  I was instantly reminded of our quote.  

Well, Bhanwari case is still under investigation. I wouldn’t dare to prejudge any one’s culpability or otherwise in that case, more so when we don’t even know if the lady in question is really dead or alive.  But for the purpose of our discussion, let us look at the allegations.  It is about a powerful Minister of Rajasthan getting involved in relationship with a midwife and then getting caught in a sleaze CD with her.  It is alleged that when the CD came out in public domain, the lady was kidnapped and possibly murdered so as to save the Minister and the Ministry from any embarrassment.

Just look at the stupidity.  A person who is in the position of a Minister, advanced in age and having a wife and family succumbed to the temptation.  I am sure he is (assuming that he is guilty as accused) not the only person who has ruined his life for similar reasons.

Look at the case of Rajarathinam and Rajat Gupta.  They had everything- money, prestige, success- going for them.  Yet they succumbed to the temptation of greed.  Knowing very well that their actions were illegal and unethical, they went ahead and tried to make some extra changes by taking advantage of insider information.

Same goes for allegations again Suresh Kalmadi or A Raja.  Anyone would envy their success, yet they were not satisfied with it all.  Instead, they went ahead and tried to make some extra money by doing something that they knew was blatantly wrong.

It is not limited to these celebrated cases alone. Even in our lives, we regularly fall prey to lust and temptations.  We forget the value of the eyes that we already are blessed with and lust for that beautiful painting.  Our lust prevents us from all rational thinking and compels us to give up even our most valuable possession, our eyes, merely to get that painting!

In the process, we don’t even realise that devoid of our eyes we will not be able to enjoy the painting as well.  Without our eyes what beauty is there in a painting?  Without our family, our children, our social status and many other things dear to us, what will that forbidden fruit mean to us?  Once again proving how stupid human beings are in reality, we still go ahead and chase those very things that can destroy our lives.

Let us all understand our priorities. If we are not satisfied with the spouse that we have, there is no guarantee that we will be satisfied with another (wo)man  for whom we risk our marriage.  There is no guarantee that we will be able to enjoy those extra billions if we are caught and jailed in the process of cheating. Instead we would lose the ability to enjoy even the millions that we already have.

Life is all about learning to prioritise our requirements and to enjoy what we have than chasing what we don’t.  It is the basic common sense that we should protect what we have while striving for more. If in the process of striving for more, we end up losing what we already have, then our life will never know satisfaction and contentment.

Monday, November 7, 2011

To Son, From Father, Through Tears...

Dear Son,

I know I will never post this letter to you... Yet, I want my feelings of today to reach you some day, when I gain enough courage to overcome my ego. Hence I write this to you!

Let me start by saying, you are the one in this world whom I have always loved to the core.  Don’t you see how ironic it is for a dad to have to declare his love toward his son?  But such is the way our lives develop in this world that we often can’t follow what is obvious but are forced to carry on with the unthinkable.

Like any other father, I have followed your journey of the last one year through various stages of this reality show.  At the beginning it was the pride that you have at least inherited the aptitude for singing from me! But soon I realised that your gift was something much more than what I can claim on the ground of inheritance. It was sheer God’s gift to you my son, for you have got such talents that can take you to the very heights.

Obviously, I was very proud to see you being declared as the winner of the contest and I had no doubts that you simply deserved it, being a class above your competitors.  I could hardly see you receiving the trophy and the symbolic key to that flat (worth Rs 1 Crore!) because the swelling tears would just not allow me to. 

How I wished I could be there, with you and your mother, on stage, while you were at that defining moment of your life!  But you simply shocked me when you took the mike and addressed me through television cameras, beseeching me with the request to join you and mom, to begin a new journey.

I don’t know if you have realised it, my son.   That was the first time you spoke to me since you were 5 years of age, when I lost that bitter custody battle after the divorce.   Each time I tried to reach out to you, your mom stalled it and my hurt ego would not let me to beg before her, after all that took place between us.

I have always nurtured this feeling that in spite of all that took place, one day I would be able to patch up with your mom and join you both.  A true selfish man that I am, I always thought your mom would reach out to me at least for financial help to meet the increasing expenses of your education and that would be the time for me to attempt reconciliation. But now that day seems even more remote. 

In spite of your public call, any effort to reach out to you or mom will only be seen as my effort to claim a share in the 1 crore bonanza that you just received.  I can perceive it even now, the potential reaction of our relatives and neighbours (and possibly, even your mom’s)- that I am coming back not out of love but out of the greed for your new wealth!

I know your mom, even more than you know her.  We have loved each other most intensely and we have fought each other even more intensely.  She always valued her independence.  With all her financial difficulties not once she considered approaching me to share the cost of bringing you up.  Now you have won all this wealth, she has even less motivation to compromise.  While I commend her for having done a great job in bringing you up, I do not expect any concession from her at this moment of victory.

No, my son; your dad is a coward.  I will not have the courage to face the derisive comments and looks of people and still come to you.  I have learned to live with my losses with the help of my ego and pride (even if false).  I hope I will learn to die that way too.

My blessings (if they are of any worth) will always be with you.  I will keenly watch your growth and success, more easily now, as you have already become a star.

Last but not the least; my son, having seen enough of this world and its ways, I hope and pray that your call to me from that stage was not out of any arrogance of having won such a huge wealth, but out of genuine wish to see us all together. 

Do not curse me... My heart will be with you always...

Yours through tears,

Unfortunate dad

PS:  This post is my reaction to a real life incident when the winner of a children’s reality show made a similar call to his estranged father, from the stage, through the TV.  I know nothing of the protagonists except for this public call.   All the contents of this letter are therefore, pure fiction, and not attributed to any living persons.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

When I Got Ready to Die!

They say it is the experience that makes a man what he is.  They also say that wise men learn from others’ experiences (or mistakes, if you prefer).

Let me narrate a couple of incidences that I believe have modulated my outlook towards life and death; for whatever they are worth.  I will start with the later incidence first.

It was immediately after I got released from Indian Air Force.  19 years that began when I was still 15 days short of my 18th birthday, had finally come to an end. Such a long period in a protected and regulated environment is enough to make anyone complacent about his existence.  One starts to take life’s necessities such as food, housing, healthcare for granted.  Then, finally when you walk out into the bad world, one is easily lost!

Within a week of my release, I joined the legal profession; beginning a life that alternated between court visits, research and ghost-writing of legal books.  For the first time since I left my home, I was staying in a rented house, all alone! With no more timely meals from the Air Force Mess; I was forced to eat out. 

Merely after a month of this new life style, I developed a pain on the left side of my chest.  Initially it was a nagging pain which I refused to acknowledge.  However, one night the pain became so unbearable that I was convinced it was nothing but a heart attack. I was sweating profusely; not sure whether it was due to the pain or the stress. 

If it had still been my Air Force days, I would have merely reported to the Sick Quarters and then it would have been their headache to do all that was necessary.  But the one month made a huge difference.  I was tensed about having a heart attack within such a short time of leaving Air Force and that got me thinking about the implications on my fragile finances, budding family and a career that is yet to take off!

Having rented the new house in a new locality of a metro city, I had nobody to seek help from (Even now making friends out of strangers offline is not one of my strong points).  As the night progressed the pain became more and more unbearable. I was worried and that only added to the stress.  Then, I remembered an earlier incident of my life (which I will describe in a short while) and some promises that I made to myself at that time.  That changed the whole situation.

I was calm... ready to die peacefully... left the door unlocked... chose to sleep in the hall, close to the main door so that anyone who opens the door will see me lying down... in all probability dead and gone! 

I was no more worried about dying at all. I was only happy that my death was coming in this manner.  Believe me, in about 15 to 20 minutes I was fast asleep, with all that pain!

However, I survived the night. Next day, I went to office and from there to one of the finest diagnostic centres, using our office connections (we were into medico-legal practice).  Got all the checks carried out and the doctor informed me that my heart was very fine and the pain was only due to acidity caused by the quality of food that I was eating of late.  Doctor prescribed some tablets but insisted that I stop eating out.  That advice forced me into experimenting with cooking and to my surprise; I found that cooking tasty food is not that tough a job as it is made out to be.

What caused this sudden change? Well, I spoke about remembering a previous incident when I had thought of death.

It was some three years earlier.  One Friday I was in the office, busy clearing all pending jobs as I was scheduled to go home on a vacation, that evening.  At about 10 o’clock, I received a call from the nearby Air Force Hospital, asking me to report to their blood bank immediately.  Couple of days ago, I had donated blood there on the request of a colleague whose wife was to undergo a surgery. 

I reached the blood bank and met the in charge who incidentally was a friend of mine.  He said there was some problem with my blood sample and would have to draw more blood for further tests.  After much cajoling he agreed to divulge the secret that the problem was my blood had tested positive for HIV.  He reminded me that he was not supposed to share that information with me before further testing but he was still doing so because of our relationship and his confidence in me. 

However, his confidence in me was rather misplaced (though I managed to continue showing a sort of nonchalance in front of him). I felt devastated.  In spite of his assurances that 3% of the test results are statistically proved to be wrong and therefore I don’t have to worry, I couldn’t help worrying.  Should I have more confidence in 97% or the 3%?  Well the answer seemed very obvious.

Then I requested him to carry out the test immediately.  He assured me that it will be done at the earliest and the result will be made available by Monday (Sunday being a holiday!).  That was simply not acceptable to me.  I told him that I need the test to be completed on the same day as I have to decide whether to continue or to cancel my vacation.  There was no way that I will go and face my wife and my 2 year old son; with the cloud of an HIV+ uncertainty hanging over my head. 

He then promised me to do whatever best he can and with that assurance I left the blood bank.  I was riding my scooter as if in a dream or stupor; my mind having stopped working rationally.  I couldn’t make up my mind and I decided to go to my quarter which was on my way to office.  I went and lay down on the bed and started thinking.  If the result is still positive, what would that mean to my life?  How will I face my wife and family?  How will the society judge me? 

I knew there were number of reasons that could make me HIV+.  The mass inoculations at the time of enrolment (with the same needle as the disposable needles were yet to get introduced) or very primitive style of blood collection at donation centres etc were some of the immediate reasons that came to my mind. However, a biased society would definitely condemn me as guilty for promiscuous engagements.  My position as a soldier, who lived most of his young life away from family, at different parts of the country, would make it impossible to convince anyone.

Not that any innocence or guilt would matter much. But the stigma would get attached even to the family and subject them to all kind of social issues.  While we all know about the need of inclusion of HIV + persons into the society, when it comes to reality, our people have not been very much open minded.  We keep hearing about the stories of children of HIV+ parents having to go through hell, in their schools.

Then the thought of suicide came to my mind. How about just ending it all so that I don’t have to face either my family or the biased society? I considered that option quite seriously.  Then luckily I thought about the other side of the story. I can escape it all... but what about my family? How do I know if my wife is not affected by the same through me? How about my son? Do I leave them to the fancies of fate and escape like a coward?!

That thought put an end to the option of suicide.  Then I was forced to consider other options.  Do I again live like a coward hiding from the world? Or do I take whatever comes and continue to lead a life as normal as it can get?  When I started thinking along these lines, the answer was again crystal clear to me.  I have to face the life, even if it is a short one. Whatever it takes, I won’t quit at all. 

Then I decided to go back to office and be as normal as possible while waiting for further results.  When I reached office, my boss and all my colleagues were eager to know why I was called by the blood bank.  I merely stated the truth.  Did not hide anything and then went on to do my job. There was almost pin drop silence in the office. 

While trying to concentrate on my work, thoughts kept on passing through my mind.  I made a pact with myself; if the test results turn negative, I will never ever worry about my death again.  I will live my life as if each day is a gift and would accept death with open arms, whenever and in whichever form it might visit me.   I remember I was even ready to barter for blood cancer or heart attack at that very moment.

It was at about 2 o’clock when my friend from blood bank called me again.  He said there was nothing to worry and the result was fine.  He said, “Go and enjoy your vacation. You are absolutely fine”.   Then I got up from my seat and said the same to all those who had by then surrounded me. There was an immediate celebration in the office.  Everyone felt relieved and extremely happy.  Each one of them, beginning with my boss, hugged me and I started drinking water. I drank about 6 or 7 glasses of water and the muscles of my legs started aching. 

I had not realised the extent of tension that was being built up in my body, until that moment.  My whole body was aching and I kept drinking more water.  To cut it short, I went home happily.  But I guess the impact was so much that as soon as I reached home my wife knew there was something terribly wrong; that too seeing my face (usually I take pride in my poker face).   I shared the entire incident with her which in a way became therapeutic, for me.

These incidents and my reactions seem silly and laughable today, after all these years.  But they were the absolute realities for me at that point in time.  These encounters made me approach death as a subject, more deeply.  I realised we human beings take death rather too seriously.  While we all know that death is inevitable, we try to wish it away as far as possible and when finally it catches up with us, we are not prepared.   On the one hand we mourn even such deaths that are actually a relief to the person and on the other, resort to suicides even for reasons that are well within our controls to manage.  This dichotomy does not allow us to objectively look at and accept death, as a matter of fact. 

When we start taking death less seriously and accept it as a matter of fact, the life becomes more enjoyable.  It prepares us to be more responsible about our commitments to ourselves, our family and our society.  Also it makes us more courageous to face the realities of life than preferring to attempt escape, like a coward, through suicide.

Let me conclude; Know your Death so that you can Live your Life better!