Marathon runner

A marathon runner has been,  for me,  an un-understood entity ;  and there was a time when I used to think it was something Ethiopians did.  Anyway, I didn’t give a thought to the prospect of ever meeting  anyone who did 26.2 miles  in one go.  This was till I met Dr Srinivas  a couple of years back.  But then I first knew him as a research scientist (at Berkeley) before I got to learn about  his marathon exploits.

A research lab,  I would have thought,  is the least likely place to nurse a marathon runner.  That Dr Srinivas averages a 14 hour-day at his lab, seven days a week,  makes him even  a less likely candidate to be in this business of long-distance running.  What makes his case  all the more baffling is his  ‘fairly complicated’ domestic life.  Didn’t I say  I couldn’t understand marathon runners ?

I can’t say I still do,  after reading Dr Srinivas blog post describing his latest marathon at Sacramento earlier this month.  His narrative about a mindset and fighting spirit that kept him going,  against a body in revolt made  engaging read. After reading him Dr Srinivas struck me as someone capable of  invoking a mental stamina that triumphs over a battered body.

As he put it,  marathon running, was for most part,  a mentality,  as it became evident to him early in the race . At Mile-10  he already started feeling  his ‘body  falling apart’. And there were 16 more miles to go. It was  at this stage Dr Srinivas  decided to ignore his body that kept telling  him to slow down, eat,  and replenish his electrolytes.  This would have been good for  his body;  but,  would have at the same time,  made him feel a loser.

This was when  Dr Srinivas  did what his book prescribed  for marathon runners,  at the mid-way point. Determined to stay on track, he pushed himself beyond physical parameters for extreme stress.  But then he had also to contend with an   ‘ego in tatters, and a  sense of self-loathing’.  His book didn’t tell how to cope with this.

It was at this point – Mile-19 –  that Dr Srinivas had a call from wife  Maya on his cellphone.  She wanted to know how he was doing ;  and he could hear his little daughter Ila on the phone. He couldn’t  be telling them about the state of battered ego. Dr Srinivas doesn’t  tell us what he told his wife.  But her phone call did seem to work wonders on him. He swallowed some salt tablet,  ate and drank as  much as he could, and focused on making it to the finish line – still over six miles  away.

On his final mile Dr Srinivas felt his body rebel against his sprits –  he could sense his  abdominal muscles going in spasms,  calf-muscles  contracting,  and toes curling into his  shoes.  Spirit was still willing  – “If  I had to crawl the last mile, I was going to finish the bloody marathon”.  And he did – all 26.2 miles of it, in four hours.  Which was 30 minutes more than the timeline he had set for himself. But Dr  Srinivas had gained 54 minutes over his previous performance in  San Francisco.

Where would it be next, Dr Srinivas ?  My hunch is Baltimore.  Maya mailed me they are moving there  early in the new year.   Johns  Hopkins  would soon have a marathon runner on their faculty.


Bhopal, before 24×7 media

Todays’ media people,  fed on 24×7 news channels,   may find it hard  to imagine that there was a  24-hour delay in the Bhopal gas tragedy  making media headlines.   TV those days was limited to a few hours  of evening telecast.  Bhopal 1984 was in B G era (Before Google) ;  and the gas leak that killed over 2000 overnight  happened on a  Sunday night,  well past the  newspaper  deadline (time at which an edition  goes to print) .

I was then The Times of India (TOI) correspondent;  and the English  print media of  that time  meant a  handful of dailies –  Hindustan Times Indian Express and The StatesmanPatriot of Delhi, and  The  Hindu ,  Madras ,  didn’t even post full-time correspondents in Bhopal in the 80s ;  a media outpost,  to which no senior TOI reporter from New Delhi  was happy  to be  posted.  I went to Bhopal, as staff correspondent,  from the Delhi news service desk.

Bhopal  was a city of  ‘stringers’,  in media parlance.  Stringers are locally influential reporters retained by major dailies to file news reports for them.  And then we had carbon-copy hacks, reporting for several media outlets.  They are paid by the column inches they get published. The  complaint some outstation newspapers had was that they got from their stringers  fourth or the fifth carbon-copy  that was barely visible to the naked eye.

Bhopal reporters on media junket to Sagar. The face under the strawhat is Tarun Bhadhuri of The Statesman

This was the media scene in Bhopal 1984.   There was  camaraderie among reporters of major outstation dailies.  We moved together on assignments,  often pooling information,  while respecting  the right to ‘exclusives’  a reporter was obliged to put out now and  then to please their editors.

Reporter at work in back-seat of a car

Barring a few major newspapers that maintained an office with teleprinter connection,  reporters  relied on Post Office telex to send  news reports.  I have once sent a report to New Delhi from a post  office in remote area that still used Morse Code telegraph.

Our teleprinter operator in Bhopal worked four hours daily, from 4 p m ; and stayed beyond 8 p m on request, but rarely more than an  hour or two.  I could phone in  brief reports,  but  you can’t expect to  get too popular with the steno at the news desk  in New Delhi,  if you  phone in your reports too often. Besides, there was STD cost to be
considered.  The phone bills you submit to New Delhi for  reimbursement were liable to be sent back with query as to why and what-for certain phone calls were made,  and if they were  necessary.

Bhopal gas leak happened late on a Sunday night. I was woken up from sleep by a phone call from N Rajan, a media colleague and neighbour who edited local daily Hitavada, and also filed news  reports for Patriot, New Delhi. He had heard from a contact about a  major gas leak from the Union Carbide pesticides factory. The gas  had already drifted our way, though our  Professor Colony residence  was about 5 km from the factory.

As I looked out  from our first-floor balcony I saw residents in our  neighbourhood out on the street, fleeing from the gas spread.  Rajan  and I  – with my wife, son and our dog –  joined the crowd.  It ddidn’t  require a reporter’s nose for news for one to realise that we were amidst a major developing story. Our frustration was we couldn’t report it to our New Delhi offices at that late hour.  No cell phones then.

Our priority was  survival ;  making it  somewhere away from the gas,   which had by then spread to much of Bhopal . We spent the night  with Narasimhan in Arera Colony.  He is a relative and was then a  Bhopal bank official whose house was on  higher ground and unaffected.  On our way up to Narasimhan’s  place we found several gas victims  who collapsed on the street after inhaling the toxic gas  methyl isocyanate.

The morning after the gas leak I started phoning colleagues and contacts, but found them equally in the dark on details. The 8 a m  radio news wasn’t much of a help, by way of hard news. Meanwhile our colleague in The Statesman Tarun Bhadhuri (Jaya Bachchan’s  father) phoned to say he heard from a Union Carbide factory official  that the gas leak was under control and the casualty figure was five deaths.  This was what a Union Carbide official would have us believe that  morning .Anyway we still had the entire day to work on the news report.  That night TOI news desk kept open the Page One lead slot till 11 p m.

At Bhopal, when Rajan and I went to the government hospital – Hamedia – around 10 a m we found a spill-over of gas victims from hospital wards,  to the corridors and scores more were being brought in to the casualty in vans,  three-wheelers and even push-carts. Many of the victims collapsed right on the drive way.

Driving through the town later that day we found dead cattle with bloated belly lying on the street,  waiting to be disposed of.  The army had moved in  and their trucks helped disposal of the dead.  We still  had places to  visit, and contacts to be tapped – at the railway  station (where gas victims, dead and dying, were being taken out of  platforms and waiting halls), at  the police headquarters,  the P R  office,  and the hospitals.  I made a final round of phone calls to other  reporters to exchange notes before filing my news report for the day.

In the absence of an officially declared tally of the gas victims, reporters  worked out a consensus on a figure  –  500 dead .  But then the  headline writers sitting in Delhi  had other   calculations. Upshot was that no two newspaper headlines carried the same figure. We in Bhopal based our guesswork on a  report that all nine cremation grounds in town worked  round the  clock during the  24 hours after the calamity struck.

This was how the Sunday night gas leak in Bhopal made it to  print  on Tuesday morning.

Related write-up –  The night Bhopal turned into a gas chamber

Bhopal 1984 and the Anderson saga

The Hindu op-ed piece that marks  the 25th anniversary of the Bhopal gas tragedy,  makes the point : The powerful can always count on official helpVidya Subrahmaniam writes about the refusal by the then Union Carbide chief Warren Anderson to answer summons from an Indian court ;  and its ruling declaring him as  ‘untraceable’ and a ‘fugitive from justice’.  While reality is  that   Mr Anderson,  now 88,  has all through these years been leading  a ‘life of luxury’ in his private estate in New York state.

What about his extradition ?  India can’t be faulted for not making a formal request in  2003,  some 19 years after the event.  And it took the US government yet another year to reject India’s request.  The latest is  that  a fresh warrant of arrest has been issued by a Bhopal court ; and  CBI ordered to produce Mr Anderson in court.
I happened to have preserved The Times of India report  on Mr Anderson’s   arrest,  25 years ago,  when he landed in Bhopal in the wake of the gas tragedy that claimed at least 2,000 lives and left physically impared thousands of others.

Mr Anderson and two other company executives were picked up by police from the tarmac  as their plane landed at Bhopal,  driven off through a side gate ( presumably,  to evade a bunch of  waiting news reporters) ; taken  to the Union Carbide guest house,  where they stayed for a couple of hours before being put  on the state government plane  to be flown back to New Delhi.

The media,  effectively kept away from the visitors,  were handed out,  as Mr Anderson was safely airborne,  a press statement that said  1) Mr Anderson was charged with 304 IPC (culpable homicide not amounting to murder) , and Sections 304(A),  120(B),  278,  284,  426 and 429;  and  2)  released on a bond of Rs.25,000,  on the surety furnished by a company official.

Those figures  cited from the statute book relate to offences  such as causing death by negligence,  committing mischief,  criminal conspiracy,  making the atmosphere noxious, negligent conduct with respect to poisonous substance and mischief by killing or maiming cattle.

The charges looked pretty stiff in cold print.  As the then chief minister Arjun Singh noted in a his statement,  the government could not remain  ‘ a hapless spectator’  to the tragedy….and the power of the state was  ‘committed to fight for its citizens’ rights’.  Mr Arjun Singh has never been short of fitting words,  tailored to suit a given  occasion.

As for Mr Anderson’s comfortable   ‘house-arrest’  in his company  guest-house, well  protected from media media menace;  his release,  and the trip back to Delhi in the state plane,  an official spokesman came up with this explanation:  ‘Mr Anderson’s presence (in Bhopal) might provoke strong passions against him…and  (he was released) also  because we do not consider his presence in the country desirable’.

So much for the Arjun Singh  government’s  commitment  to fight for the rights of its citizens.

Bhopal gas: A lethal trade secret

The Times of India,  December 1984

Twenty-five years after the Bhopal gas leak,  I still wonder if we are any wiser on an antidote to Methyl isocyanate.  Wikipedia doesn’t have an entry for MIC antidote.  Presumably,  it still remains a  trade secret of Union Carbide  (now owned by Dow Chemical) – a secret that killed thousands in Bhopal and left thousands of others physically impaired.

Doctors in Bhopal on that December night in 1984,  clueless and left to their own devices, administered drugs for cyanide poisoning, as victims who inhaled the gas poured in at Hamidia Hospital  only to die  by the hundreds. I recall,  reporting in The Times of India, ‘ all nine cremation grounds in town were kept busy round the clock’.  And all that Union Carbide could be persuaded to say,  in the face of such calamitous gas leak,  was that methyl isocyanate ‘had nothing to do with cyanide and  that the two substances had entirely different effects on tissues and human health’.  They weren’t being very helpful, were they ?

Postmortem indicated that the deaths were due to respiratory failure following pulmonary oedema (fluid in the lungs).  It was found that the lungs of gas victims contained 250 cc of fluid and weighed 900  grams against the normal lungs weight of 400 to 500 grams.

Sourced from my article : The night Bhopal Turned a Gas Chamber.

Outsourcing R&D holds the key

It is all very well for US politicians and the media to blame the country’s job loss on Bangalore.  But would a cut-back on Bangalored jobs and a freeze on outsourcing improve the employment situation? Bangalore-ing is no longer in vogue; it is a disincentive for companies seeking Obama’s stimulus package. But job losses are reported still. 

It is not because of the concern of the rich for the uplift of the developing world or the benovelence of corporate America, but because of their enlightend self-interest that so many jobs got Bangalored, for so long,  till some time back. A pity,the US can’t bring  the Bangalored jobs back to Boston. Instead, the US recession  has had a seismic impact on India, by way of loss of high-paying jobs, notably, in the software industry. Economists reckon the end of recession is in sight, but the six million plus lost jobs won’t be re-created anytime soon. In earlier recessions, they say,  the US economy had managed to bounce back  because of a steady stream of  tech innovations that gave impetus to economic growth with   high-value jobs creation on a large scale.  The current recession appears to have drained innovative juice out of the entreprenuerial America.

According to Businessweek, America’s position as innovation leader is no longer unrivaled. Time there was when the country had the best of universities, the strongest corporate research, and a government that invested agressively in areas such as advance communications and space exploration. Upshot was a steady stream of world-changing innovations such as the transistor at Bell Labs, and the Internet at the Defence Dept. It was in such a scenario US companies outsourced jobs to India  for cost advantage, but a lot more high-paying jobs were created within the US through breakthrough innovations. This time, they say, the outsourced software and manufacturing jobs have largely been replaced by low-wage service jobs in fast-food and retail sectors. The trend is attributed to a dearth of  breakthrough innovations in recent years; and this is happening  at a time when millions of jobs have been  lost to recession. The point made in the Businessweek article  is that the devil is not in outsourcing.  The key to a bounce-back in the US economy may well be in outsourcing  R&D. 

IBM is already into it, with plans to set up overseas ‘collaboratories’  that match up company researchers with governments, universities and companies in other countries. IBM is looking at Saudi Arabia, Switzerland,China, Ireland,Taiwan and India. It is their enlightened self-interest that drives IBM and a few others into making deals to tap global R&D potentials for breakthrough innovations. The projects are in basic research,  the benefits of which may not be evident, or seem tangible,  for the next three to five years.  The research process  tend to  have  innovative  spin-offs  with commercial  potential. 

Companies that have strong R&D base may well see that it is in their best interest to look beyond national boundaries and their own corporate walls, and seek radical, and globalised collaboration for life-changing innovations.

Maya’s Berkeley

BerkeleyAug.26 057For the unfamiliar, and for those who couldn’t care less about its socio-political legacy/baggage,  Berkeley could be just another town. Its main street, with a string of Indian eateries, saree shops and jewellers,  can as well be in Chennai’s T Nagar or Bangalore’s Commercial Street.  Other ethic groups can, presumably, get a feel of their own home enviorns in parts of Berkeley.  

For its residents,  Berkeley is not so much a town as a lifestyle they came to embrace; a social attitude that is  not always in conformity with residents  in most other towns in the US.  Berkeley residents are mostly diehard democracy activists –  a term that could well refer to people  ‘who literally protest anything and everything, no matter how good something might be for the city and the majority of people’.

BerkeleyAug.26 122Maya Srinivas, a resident not so diehard in upholding the democracy cause,  wouldn’t however want to live anywhere else. That her husband Srinivas is a post-doc. researcher on the campus, makes her a Berkeley ‘insider’.  Maya took us – my wife and me – for a spin around ‘Berserkeley’, a town where, they say, democracy has gone berserk.  Life in berserkvile doesn’t come any cheaper, says Maya,  who pays nearly thrice as much house rent as she did in Denver, for a single-bedroom dwelling.

Telegraph Avenue on Thursday afternoon was bustling with shoppers, pavement sellers, and panhandlers who  flog ‘Street Sheet’, a tabloid of the homeless, holding out a plastic cup to collect small change. Pavement shops are one of the many un-American aspects of Berkeley. Hawking is okay here; and it is, for some,  an excuse to making a living.  According to a old-time resident,  many of them are illegals. I read  a website  comment that held it is the city’s illegals who make Berkeley what it has become –  retarded.

We move on to a more pleasant, and vibrant, sorroundings –  the UC campus. The crush of humanity on Sproul Plaza  reminded my wife of T Nagar’s Ranganathan Street, Chennai. At the start of the academic session Sproul gets crowded with activists who set up stalls to recruit freshers to student bodies with their own social and community agenda upholding causes fancied by self-described intellectuals, progressives,  visionaries, and queers.

BerkeleyAug.26 070An activist group was seen staging a street-play,  featuring detenus in orange overall,  masked and chained,  and volunteers carrying ‘say-no-to-torture’ placards. On way to the library is a massive panel displaying portraits of Berkeley alumni. Those featured were mostly overseas students,  many from India. “Berkeley has taught me the meaning of persistance,” says Sarathi Bhattacharya in his endorsement of the institution where he was able to pursue his studies through privately funded fellowship.

“Berkeley has taught me to listen better,and scream louder,” says Maxime Stinnet. Says another student, “Learned here how to be a big fish in a big pond”. M S Gidda,a yet another student,  says Berkeley was for him ‘a two-year Boot Camp’.BerkeleyAug.26 027The collage of endorsements from a thankful alumni is part of a campaign to raise $3 billion for faculty, students and programmes by June 2013.

Maya took us on a conducted tour of the four-storey library;  and drove us around the university’s recreation complex with a massive gym and swim-pool, so well equipped that Olympic hopefuls get their training there. Our next halt was at the muncipal pier from where you get a hazy glimpse of the San Francisco downtown high-rises,  flanked by the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge.

Maya says the scene around has a contemplative effect on those with much on their minds –  ‘I come here whenever  in a crisis of faith’.  She has been here counless times, says Maya,adding that her daughter Ila  who went through liver transplant at five months of age had spent most of her time in hospital since birth.  The pier is where Maya comes to reflect,  to meditate and introspect – ‘the place reinforces your insignificance’.

We wound up our day-trip of Berkeley with ‘chena kulche’ at Vik’s. The desi joint functioning out of a warehouse is said to be so old and popular that long-time California residents consider Vik’s as  ‘mother of all chaat houses in the Bay Area’.  Maya sure knows her Berkeley.

I have a question – why do  they put so much haldi in chena ?

A Sunday afternoon with Ila

BerkeleyAug9 057Her parents had asked us over to Berkeley Marina to picnic with 16-month-old Ila.  On a clear day, they say, if you look hard,  and far enough into the waters,  you could even catch a glimpse of San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge from the spot where we picnicked. To be precise, the picnic  invite was for my grandsons – Nikhil,18 months, and Sidharth,three years – and I tagged along, as live-in cheer leader,  always at hand to marvel at their playfulness.

On this Sunday afternoon, however, the person I came to marvel was Ila –  her ever-smiling face, her observant eyes, indeed, her very presence among us on the outdoors.  The last time I saw her, nearly an year ago, Ila was no more than a breathing bundle of tissues and bones,  with a smile nonetheless, sustained by medicines, and sheer tenacity of her parents.Her father Srinivas attributes Ila’s remarkable recovery to  “too much fight in the little girl to let adversity, unspeakable pain, and a constant threat to life interfere with her sense of fun”. 

I had little knowledge of Ila’s medical condition till I read her father’s blog.  Last updated in April, the blog gives a perceptive account of Ila’s state of health and the state of mind of her parents.  When she was barely eight weeks old Ila was diagnosed,  and she went through a five-hour surgery for Biliary Atresia,  a medical condition pertaining to malformation of the gall bladder and bile duct. The liver fails to drain the bile salts into the intestines, resulting in cirrhosis. The surgery Ila had to go through,when she was no more than two months old, was a “frighteningly long (5 hours) marvel of medical procedure” with an intimidating name – Kasai’s portoenterostomy.  As she was undergoing this surgery Ila’s father, waiting it out at the lobby, ‘went through a thousand kinds of hell’  at the thought of her pain and heartbreaking predicament.

And a million more hells were to be endured yet,  in the coming weeks and months. I recall Meera,  my daughter-in-law and a doctor, telling me that during the weeks following the surgery Ila’s fluctuating health condition necessitated frequent spells of intensive care at the  hospital. She showed signs of mild jaundice at the age of 5 months, and also ‘a sub-optimal growth’. This was an unmistakable pointer that Ila  needed a liver transplant.

What  followed in the lives of Ila and her parents  is best described by her father:  Ila’s condition deteriorated at record speed…Maya and I were told we needed to be assessed to be live donors. Ila was admitted to the Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital.

BerkeleyAug9 031After scores of tests done on Ila and her parents Maya was chosen as the live donor of the left-lateral lobe of the liver.Dr.Waldo Concepsion came out of the examination room describing ‘how gorgeous Maya’s liver is’. Dr.Carlos Esquivel,who did the transplant,  pronounced Ila’s  ‘the sickest liver I have seen in a long time’.  Of the team of surgeons Ila’s father had this to say – “I would gladly surrender my ego to these Gods and offer them my life long servitude if I did not know it would only embarrass them”.

Memo to blogger Srinivas: Those concerned with the ongoing healthcare reform debate would benefit from your perspective on the functioning of the prevalent system.