Wednesday, January 29, 2014

And so, we learn something new every day.

Laser Surgery Conference, 2014.

I am writing this at the end of a long and tiring day, a Sunday when I could have been at home resting after the rigors of last week although I must say that the mental exhaustion is far more than the physical tiredness. But I guess you can’t avoid it when you spend all day on screen- talking to a live audience watching you perform on giant screens placed all around a stadium sized auditorium with everyone hanging on every word of yours from morning to evening- so what in effect I am suffering from is performance fatigue as familiar to every showman.

Now before you imagine any naught things about me, let me assure you that the live show I am talking about here relates to work- doing surgeries live on the big screen for the audience to watch and learn- an audience I might add who has spent quite an hefty amount for the privilege of watching me teach them how to do laser surgery. And it would all have been well and proper if I had been previously prepared and mentally ready to give the performance of my lifetime- but i was not- which is the story i am going to share now. 

Last week all of a sudden I got a call from one of the local organizers of a prestigious state level laser surgery conference who sounded desperate on the phone. He asked me if I could do him a little favor and when I asked him what the favor involved he told me that they had arranged a grand laser surgery conference for the coming Sunday and had lined up eminent speakers and famous surgeons to do demonstration surgeries to teach the conference attendees and now when everything was ready and all the invitations were printed and sent out weeks ago, they were suddenly one person short for the surgery team as one of the ladies on the panel had pulled out citing some unavoidable circumstances. They had six surgeries lined up for the day - six difficult procedures to showcase how lasers can be used- and now they had just five surgeons and he wanted me to pitch in at the last minute as a personal favor.

Now regular readers of this blog would remember me bitchin’ often about how unless you are well connected (second generation or so) or prepared to spend all your time ass-kissing you cannot expect to be invited to these conferences which run purely on patronage and quid pro quo. So even though I would be a nameless, faceless entity at this surgical workshop for someone else had already had her name plastered all over the invitations as the surgeon who would do the demo- I agreed to step in at the last minute in the hope that at least now they would recognize my talent and at least next year they would invite me as one of the recognized speakers and not as a temporary stop-gap. But what really happened there was quite the reverse.

So this morning when I reached the venue for the conference I was quite surprised to see the magnificent arrangements made by the local organizers- the host university. The auditorium was quite large by normal standards of scientific conferences and the operation theater set-up was first class. The first thing I did was go down to the wards and check in with the local people on the types of cases- the patients and their diseases- they had made available for the demonstration surgeries. The post grad students in charge of preparing the cases told me that one of the patients had suddenly taken a turn for the worse so the anesthetist had refused to give fitness for surgery and hence they were down to five patients. Which sobering news suddenly made me realize that I was now superfluous- my entire journey had been made in waste.

Well, left at a loose end I just went back to the auditorium and settled down to watch the conference with a free mind- after all my whole day had just become free. So when the welcoming ceremony and the felicitations on stage started I was surprised to note that all six of the original invitees were on the dais - surprise, surprise -including the unavoidable circumstance lady. Now I felt like a double idiot. Why did they call me at all? And for what purpose had I made the long journey on an early Sunday morning? Was it just to watch people who are second best to me muff up their surgeries? While I who was a kick ass surgeon sat among the watching audience. but the story was not done yet and there were still twists to come.

After all the dignitaries on stage had made their speeches, accepted their mementos and certificates from a grateful conference host team there was a lull in the proceedings. It was right about then that one of the organizers- the one who had called me originally- sidle up to me and tell me that they still needed me to do the surgery I had promised to do as one of the other surgeons had a sudden family emergency and had to leave early- right after getting her memento. And he asked me which surgery I would like to do? Nonchalantly I told him that anything would be fine with me- I was equally competent at all surgeries. And that’s when he told me to go down to the theater and start off the conference as the first surgeon – which he put it to me as a marquee post and a great honor. So happily I traipsed down, changed, put on gloves, mask, head-cap and the heavy duty black goggles we put on for laser surgery to avoid damage to our eyes (the retina is very sensitive to laser beams and so all laser surgeries require black goggles) from the powerful laser rays and looking like a space suited astronaut I was ready to start the surgery.

They hooked me up with a mike, they positioned three powerful video cams for the live feed to the auditorium and when the cameraman said we were live, I introduced myself (my only chance to have at least someone know who was the real surgeon) to the audience explained the procedure and started  doing the surgery. Immediately there was feedback from the auditorium that I was going too fast for them to see properly and they requested me to make my cuts slower which i reluctantly accepted for I am usually a very fast worker. As I was working and explaining I kept getting questions from the audience in the auditorium who were questioning my every decision during the surgery and I had to keep convincing them as to why my decision was best.

There was the usual assortment of cranks among the audience who kept asking questions just for the limelight. One of the questions was why plastic surgery was at all necessary- it is of no actual benefit to human health. For answer I asked the old gentleman what kind of smart phone he had- whether an i-Phone or a Galaxy something or the other and then hectored him with the knowledge that as long as any basic phone can make and receive calls why go for smart phones? Why pay extra? Because the smart phones add value beyond making calls. Similarly plastic surgery adds value to basic health and makes a healthy life happy. And I then reminded him of Steve Jobs dictum on the first “i-Phone” as an “aspirational device" which everyone would value and taking the analogy forward told him that plastic surgery too is an aspirational specialty as everyone wants to look good and was there anyone, anyone at all in the audience who had not looked at the mirror before coming out of the house that morning? By then I had completed the surgery and I told the PG student assisting me (a nice looking girl) to call up the organizers and inform them to send down the next surgeon for the subsequent surgeries.

So after washing up I was getting ready to go back up to the auditorium when the organizers as a group came up to me and started fidgeting. I could see that something was up but did not guess how far they had screwed up things. After a little hemming and hawing the chairman of the scientific committee said that the others had all left. As I stared flabbergasted at them they said that the other surgeons on the panel had one family emergency after another, had relatives visiting, had children crying and all sorts of excuses to give and they had all left the place leaving me to hold the can. I felt like asking them how stupid they could be to let all those “experts” escape like that and how all these emergencies had suddenly developed only after the welcome function and certificate (memento/shawl) distribution. To me it looked clearly like a case of cold feet. They had come expecting something else but having taken a look at the large and hostile audience they had quaked and run away on flimsy excuses and the organizers had allowed them to leave without holding them to account.

Anyway the organizers were now requesting me to complete the rest of the surgeries- all five at a stretch single-handedly. For a minute I thought of screaming at them, throwing a temper tantrum and just walking away like everyone else had done. After all who could stop me?  I had taken no payment from them and made no firm commitment beyond one case. But when I looked around everyone especially the poor students from the host institution were watching me expectantly and I could see they were thirsting to learn something from me today.

And there were also the patients to think of, the poor patients who had all been told they would get to have their surgery today and had been waiting for days for the surgery. After that, I just didn’t have the heart to walk away and leave them to stew on their own juices. So I agreed like the sacrificial goat to do the rest of the surgeries on my own and went on to do the first three before lunch and hurried away to eat a couple of spoonfuls of curd rice (I had to avoid sleepiness) before getting back to the theater to finish the remaining two surgeries. Late in the evening, after wrapping things up I accepted the organizers empty thanks and then started back home.

As I came back home this evening, all the way back I was thinking of what had gone on today. I had spent an entire Sunday working like a donkey doing case after case for free. I had spent my own money on petrol to travel to and fro from the university venue situated outside the city limits. For the price of two spoonfuls of curd rice I had done five surgeries and had answered question after question (while doing the surgery too) leaving my throat dry. And all the while no one knew that it was I who was doing the work. My name was nowhere on the invitations- the ladies who had run away had got all the name fame and certificates for doing a splendid job. All I had was back pain, a stiff neck, a raw throat and mental fatigue. So what did I actually achieve?

Well for one, I got my lesson. I gained firsthand knowledge about how things actually work in the real world. How people can get others to do their work for them in the background while they bask in the limelight getting all the recognition. I also realized that I am not as clever as I thought I was- it was a wake-up call for me to be more streetwise and not fall a prey to such tactics again.  I learned that I still had a lot to learn about life - even if I knew a little about surgery - that there are umpteen numbers of excuses to get out of firm commitments. I learnt that giving our word is no longer sacrosanct and people don’t always keep their word.  I learned that organizers of conferences who go after famous names are at their mercy and have to beware of being tripped up by those very same big names. And I learned that when push comes to shove I don’t have the heart to abandon a challenge but am ready to bear the cross of others failings too.

So at last I came away filled with equal parts contentment and equal parts chagrin. The chagrin because once again I was the nameless faceless entity working hard behind the scenes for others success. The contentment because- all said and done- minus the affront to my ego and my envy at the well connected few- I got something out of this experience that I had never imagined I could get- I got to strut my stuff on the big screen, live, all day long, with my own dialogues and no one to say cut or action or to edit me. Even the biggest stars get just 3 hours on the big screen and here I was a rookie- with thrice that screen time. And so I have finally made my big screen debut and all the pain and fatigue finally sounds worthwhile. And in the end the take home message- damn I love the big screen. Plus- I have arrived- a new star is born. Take that, you guys.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

If You Can’t Praise, At Least Don’t Criticize.

If You Can’t Praise, At Least Don’t Criticize.

Last week I was part of an examination panel to decide the winner of a fellowship/medal for undergraduates. From the 250 or so students who turned up to write the written exam we judges (5 of us) narrowed the field down to 25 candidates for the practical exams out of whom only 5 students survived for the third and final round of vivas. We recommended the winner and runner up to the director of the department who announced the results in front of everyone. He started his speech with these words – “Although I was watching only the final part of the selection process, I feel that none of you deserve this award but as we have to give it to someone, I am selecting so and so candidate as a formality though there is not much difference between all of you” and after such a gracious announcement he went on to lambast modern day students and their perceived lack of knowledge and hard work. 

I who was part of the audience had to mightily suppress a very strong urge to get up and ask the director a couple of questions from his specialty – maybe a classification and a definition to see how he answered as a proponent of olden days education. In my view (maybe biased) kids these days are no better or no worse at studying then what our elders were. This fact is conveniently forgotten by professors and HOD’s who are at the fag end of their careers. They always judge the present with a rosy remembrance of the past.  I am not defending any idiots here, the guys who got through the three rounds of examination genuinely deserved the prize in my opinion. And even if they weren’t as knowledgeable as the professors- as undergraduates they are not expected to be- to apply the standards required of a specialist or a postgraduate student to an undergraduate kid is not fair. As a student in the not so recent days I can sympathize with the kids who have to read for multiple papers and write all those exams in one go. Being hard on them is counterproductive and apt to discourage even enthusiastic kids from liking the subject in future. 

On the contrary whenever I go as an external examiner for undergraduate kids I try to encourage them by not failing anyone deliberately. I try to give a 100% pass result and despite that if anyone fails they do so by their own efforts. As long as the student knows the basics or at least to recognize when he is over his head and knows to refer to a specialist- I try to pass them. I have seen too many specialists who can write pages of notes discussing every possible reason for a fever but in the end cannot (or dare not) commit to a single diagnosis- but instead insist on a diagnosis of PUO- pyrexia of unknown origin which is fancy jargon for- fever I cannot guess the reason of. Even some undergraduate kids make the diagnosis immediately- sir it is malaria fever…how did you decide? Look at all the mosquito bites on the patients face sir…that’s the kind of ingenuity (and capacity to improvise) I appreciate when I try to pass the student despite his obvious lack of knowledge of the signs/symptoms of malaria. At least he knows it is malaria, will send the patient for a blood test and get it confirmed that way and by then would start treatment for malaria – instead of thinking over a hundred different diseases and treating for none of them in the end.

And finally if a student is on the verge of failing I always have a bonus question for grace marks- “Do you have a girlfriend? Does she distract you from studying?” If the answer is yes- he gets the two marks to push him over the pass line. For I know firsthand what it is to sit there in your room with a boring big book in your hand and keep thinking – what the hell am I doing sitting here when by all rights I should be in Udayam theater watching a movie with my girl. For making that supreme sacrifice in favor of studies the students deserve those two grace marks don’t they?
I would appreciate your views dear readers on the sticky issue of –whether the seniors are right when they always claim they studied better than the current generations. Are they? What do you think?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

ஒட்டுக்கேட்ட சில உண்மைகள்

ஒட்டுக்கேட்ட சில உண்மைகள்

ஒரு சில மாதங்களாக நான் உடல் எடை குறைக்க முயற்சிப்பது உங்கள் எல்லோருக்கும் தெரியும் இல்லையா? அதனால் கடந்த ஞாயிறு மாலை நான் நம்ம மறினா கடற்கரைக்கு  நடக்க போயிருந்தேன். நடந்து கொண்டே என் முன்னாடியும் பின்னாடியும் நடக்கும் சம்பாஷணைகளை காதில் கேட்டுக் கொண்டே நடந்து கொண்டிருந்தேன். அதில் கேட்டவைகளில் ஒன்று :

மச்சி அவள பார்த்தியா? சூப்பரா இருக்கா இல்ல?

ஆமாம் மச்சான்...அதுக்கு என்ன பண்ணனும்னு சொல்ற?

இல்லடா....சும்மா ஒரு பேச்சுக்கு சொன்னேன்.

சொல்லி முடிச்சுட்ட இல்ல, அப்போ மூடு.

என்னடா? என்ன ஆச்சு உனக்கு? பாக்கற ஒரு பிகர்ரயும் விட மாட்டியே? உடம்பு கிடம்பு சரியில்லையாடா?

அதவிடு, உன்னக்கு என்ன வேணும்?

இல்ல மச்சி, அந்த பொண்ண பார்த்தோமே, அவள போடணும்டா.

அடப்பாவி, அவ என்னடா பண்ணா உன்ன? நல்லா அழகா இருந்தா. அவள ஏன்டா கொல்லனும்ன்னு நெனைக்கற?

இதான் மதுரைக்காரன்ட்ட தமிழ் பேச கூடாது போல......

புரியாதவர்கள்ளுக்கு :

போடறது : சென்னை தமிழில்- உடலுறவு/ மதுரை தமிழில்- கொலை.

தமிழின் பல பரிமாணங்கள் நம்மை மிரள செய்கிறது அல்லவா?

For those who didn’t get the joke :

Podaradhu : In Chennai Tamil – To have sex with/ In Madurai Tamil – to murder….dialects differ from region to region and cause confusion, don’t they?

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Is The Idea Of Having Intelligent Rulers An Anachronism in Indian Democracy?

Is The Idea Of Having Intelligent Rulers An Anachronism in Indian Democracy?

A friend of mine narrated a recent experience of his on a private long distance transport bus-he had booked a ticket to travel from Chennai to Tiruchi overnight; when he went and occupied his allotted seat he was informed by the conductor his ticket had been changed to a later time, as a well heeled party had booked up half the seats .All single passengers had been changed to a later time: without informing anybody at all. My friend protested to no avail, as the management was not inclined to offend the well-connected party. Sadder but wiser from the experience; my friend travels in government buses only nowadays. The conductor who gets a fixed salary does not care who gets what seat as long as he is not disturbed – a perfect example of the unexpected efficiency of a govt. department. Which goes to show that many private firms in India far from being efficient and responsive to customers are actually only interested in making exorbitant profits even to such an extent that they are willing to risk alienating the majority of customers for pampering a preferred few. So much for the efficiency of free-market reforms in India.

The reason for this post is the number of editorials and opinion pieces on newspapers and television lambasting the recent influx of middle class and educated persons into politics professing to serve the nation. They would rather perpetuate the myth that someone who worked as a manual laborer with no education would make a better leader- the salt of the earth- then anyone who drifted into school to learn the basics of R & R. I agree that electing leaders who have come up the hard way is the right way to follow. But is it wrong to expect a minimal level of intelligence (note: I am not equating education with intelligence after watching the performance of economists in power) in someone who aspires to lead a nation of billions? That why I feel that the experiment of the newly elected delhi government is going to mark a very big change – we are going to see first hand whether we can cajole people along (as a mob) on governance or we only follow orders given from the very top. 

Historically we Indians have not been known to do things of their own initiative but always respect and follow a firm guiding hand. And a democratically elected govt. dependant on votes is in the least capable position to enforce the required discipline strictly. To do so otherwise requires tact which unfortunately is a vice very few Indians profess to practice. So in this, as in most things we get by with neither offending anyone nor getting anything done- in other words status quo. What we require is guidance and not too gently either. We Indians love to be bossed around, to be put in our place, to be shown our limits and the punishment for transgressing them. There is something in our psyche, which makes the majority of us the best followers, and the worst leaders in the world. Gandhi had just to pick up a stick and walk and all India followed him regardless of the punishment to do so. But it required a Gandhi to take the first step and such men are not always available to us. Instead we elevate straw men up to positions of power and outrage endlessly when they are blown away like the chaff they are.

The only practical defense our leaders offer on their behalf is the “I am not responsible it’s the system” excuse. And we always, always find and blame a scapegoat- especially someone who risks making the first move. We always wait for that someone to be shoved in front of us so as to escape the consequences of our action on the principle that he who stands in front is the first to be beheaded. This makes for an interesting scene - everybody jostles the others to come up in front of the rat race but once there they instead of enjoying the fruits of their success are suddenly filled with an acute sense of dread and insecurity which makes them behave in ways they would normally never do. An apt illustration of the phrase “success gone to the head” only here that very success makes them fear for their head. And to retain their success they trample underfoot everyone they used to climb up there. That’s the reality of our waited-for leadership whom everyone believes will make a great change to our polity.

There is another election coming up soon- an election which will decide the fate of the nation- or so they say every five years but I still have to find that it makes any real change to our everyday struggles in life. Every year without fail they show in the papers one pathetic photo of democracy- a centurion on a bed being carried by exuberantly drunken youths to the polling booth. Pause for a minute and think: is it humanely possible for such old fossils to comprehend the basis on which that election was being fought, disspationately analyse the candidates and then make an informed decision? So who ends up voting on their behalf? And they celebrate this as a success for democracy. Ill-informed voters are the bane of a nation. The only solution to this problem is suspension of universal voting rights. And confine voting to the educated and the intelligent. Atleast until the rest catch up.

A nation's strength is reflected in her choice of leaders. Universal suffrage trips us up badly in this regard. A roster of our national leaders the past fifty years ought to convince anybody of this. A single-term Abdul Kalam showed us what a refreshing change it is when an educated man is appointed to the post of the President of the nation and not merely timeservers and political advisers rewarded the post of President, as had been the unwritten norm of our democratic dispensation. There is a palpable sense of relief when the leader of the nation does not trip over his own two feet every time he gets up or sleeps (snores) during public meetings. And we don’t have to cringe collectively every time a foreign leader meets our leaders for a courtesy call, or worry about India’s prestige abroad. So why not go the whole hog and elect a collective of educated elders? Toss in a few names you know and respect and a few I know and respect and together we ought to have a collegium of intellectuals fit enough to rule over us. And forget this nightmare of a system called democracy, which has made election of the most despicable a daily occurrence. Surely we can’t get anything worse than the current lot sitting lording over us in Parliament can we? 

As for fears of oligarchy the greatest civilizations like the Greeks and the Romans and in India, the Chola’s were primarily oligarchic and they advanced both democracy and civilization far more than we ever hope to do. Collective rule by enlightened elders is what we face daily at home; if it works there why not nationally? The prime opposition to this idea will arise from our Dynastic families as the threatened loss of their off-springs collective inheritance will make them fight like nesting mothers for ‘status quo’ for where else will their patently useless offspring get a living if not under the spreading banner of dynastic succession in the pleasant grove of Indian democracy.

And finally for those media persons who have taken on the mantle of our nations conscience keepers – a viler breed you would not find anywhere else.  They and the shady capitalists who own these media conglomerates require a well directed kick up their backsides to keep moving in the right direction or they would parcel up and sell the country in a blink to retire in Switzerland. A council of elders elected by the educated and intelligent is the one of the most interesting solutions to India’s ills in my view – something which might fail but won’t leave us worse off than we already are as a nation. Or of course we can always have martial law.