Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Costumes in the North-East

In North-East India, how easy is it to guess tribal affiliations through costumes?

While driving up the Guwahati-Shillong road, one of the first things that strike you is the toga-like dress women wear while they go about their lives. Vendors seem to prefer a more utilitarian combination of skirt + blouse + toga while the younger ones seem to prefer jeans + t-shirt + toga. 

At first I thought all these ladies were all Khasis. The only other matrilenial community in India, apart from the Nairs in Kerala. However, after a visit to the amazing Don Bosco Museum in Shillong it was quite plain that there could be no simple generalizations. 

Khasis traditionally wear a covering garment across both their shoulders while the the Jaintia women prefer to tie-up on one side. 

Now, some women prefer to have the knot on the left, while others have it on the right. Does it mean anything? I don't know...

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Guwahati - Notes

At 8:30 in the morning we found ourselves in a big traffic jam in Guwahati. Our vehicle was on a road leading up a metal bridge across the Brahmaputra river. Traffic crawled on this narrow, single-lane bridge. "Why don't we try the next bridge?", I asked the driver.

He gives me the are-you-making-fun-of-me look. "The next bridge across this river", he says blandly, "Is 200 km away, in Tezpur".

As we finally get to the bridge (built after the 1962 war), I see that efforts are on to build a wider, concrete bridge. Work seems to be moving a lot slower than the traffic. They have been at it for the past four years...

This just about sums up Guwahati for you - a sprawling, shabby town with a municipality that seems pretty much dysfunctional.

This is, of course, not the city I expected to see. Impressions gathered from conversations, satellite maps and history notes had created a picture in my mind of a great city on the banks of the Brahmaputra river. A metropolis, a hub, a gateway to the seven colorful states of India's North-East.

All my expectations began to crumble as soon as we drove out of the airport, towards the city. Empty, uncertain plots of land line both sides of the road. As darkness sets in we drive past the old, crumbling buildings of Guwahati University.

There were hardly any street lights, pavements or place-boards anywhere. Lights from hundreds of little shops lit the roadsides where people parked their bicycles and cars wherever randomly. Despite the apparent greenery and availability of water, there were no grand trees to be seen. Instead, the byepass was lined with famished, scrawny Ashoka trees, planted just two feet from each other...

Is this the city which sent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the Rajya Sabha? Is this the state that has had a "stable" government for the past 13 years??

Monday, April 14, 2014

Parasites Controlling Host Behavior

An amazing window into the influence wielded by parasites in the animal kingdom:

A tapeworm infection on Artemia (brine shrimp) turns them into red-colored swarms that are easier for the Greater Flamingo to spot and devour. The flamingo, in turn, helps in spreading the tapeworm eggs across a much wider range.

The Gordian worm (horsehair worm) infection makes a type of cricket suicidal. It changes their brain circuitry so that whenever they are close to a pool of water, the crickets just dive in, and die. Once in water, the worm emerges...

Ampulex compressa (emerald wasp) stings its venom into two specific neuron clusters in a cockroach's brain. Now this allows the little wasp to lead the big roach, with its antennae, like a doggie, to a nest where it can lay eggs on it. The larvae that emerge eat up the docile cockroach alive, and the cycle continues...

A single-cell   parasite, Toxiplasma gondii makes mice run towards cats!


* Transcript of the TED Talk --

Soldiers Old & New

In early 2002, I was stepping out of my hotel room in Mumbai when I noticed an elderly, carefully dressed, hunched gentleman in the foyer. "Hello, boy!", he said, in response to my greeting, "stepping out for the day's business?".  It was Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw.

The first thing that struck me was how different he looked in civilian clothes. The old black-and-white photos always showed him in a certain understated grandeur. Handlebar mustache, light eyes and ready repartee ("If a man says he is not afraid of dying, he is either lying , or he is a Gurkha!").

Almost the same thought crossed my mind yesterday when we went to see the Change of Guards at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. A few days ago, the Jammu & Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI) Regiment had replaced 28 Madras as the Presidential Guards and this was the first time JAKLI was doing the formal, weekly change-over on their own. 

Once the ceremony of over, the mounted guards rode away into a dusty, reddish haze. As everybody was stepping out to take photos, an army officer called out to his guests. "This is Subedar Major Bana Singh", he said, standing next to an avuncular Sikh gentleman with a dyed beard. 

The Bana Singh?? I looked carefully at the man, trying hard to imagine him leading a small team in 1987, scaling an ice cliff  6500m up in the Himalayan Saltoro Ranges, in the face of stinging winds at minus 45C, to capture a ridge held by Pakistani commandos. Somehow, my imagination failed me.

Just as it was difficult to think of the elderly Sam standing in a hotel foyer, as the General who won the Bangladesh War, it was impossible to think of Bana anything other than a friendly, cheerful shopkeeper who had just driven down from Khan Market.

Now, this was something to think about:  Does this not show that behind almost every unremarkable face we see around us, there lurks a will power, capable of the most incredible acts of heroism?

Major S. Rathore of 8 JAK LI inspects the Guards

The President's Bodyguards trot back to the barracks

* YouTube - Indian Army on Siachen Glacier (1/3) --
* Siachen Hero - Bana Singh --
*  The Fight for Siachen --

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

Guha on Import Dependence

"Almost all elected members of GRC are SSB prize entry into this club means that you have arrived"

In the world of Indian sci-tech GRC and SSB are acronyms even a novice would know. The former stands for Guha Research Conference set up in the name of B. C. Guha, and the latter, the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize.

This makes it all the more strange that a Google search on GRC would only get you a long list of Indian scientists who are proud to call themselves "elected members" without any publicly accessible information on how this club functions. There was no Wikipedia page on Guha Research Conference, until today.

According to Parthasarathi Banerjee, affiliation to GRC, "acts as the token, assuring easier access to prizes of several sorts."  The SSB Prize is one of them.

As far as institutions go, GRC presents an interesting case to all those who are curious to know why India's output is so sad when it comes to applied S&T. The organization is named after Prof. Bires Chandra Guha (1904-1962) who is referred to as the 'father of modern Indian biochemistry'.

Guha was, no doubt, a person of many interesting dimensions. He was a freedom fighter, an artist and a scientist who worked closely with many Nobel laureates in UK and USA. After independence, he returned to India and helps establish many a national institution like CFTRI, Mysore.

Way back in 1956, he made a sharp observation - "It is undesirable that practically all fine instruments of measurements should have to be imported. Biochemical researches in these days are greatly dependent on such instruments and biochemists in this country should make a special plea for the manufacture of these instruments".

Half-a-century later our labs continue to be helplessly dependent on foreign manufacturers for nearly all their equipment and reagents.

It would be interesting to know that the eminent members of GRC have been doing to solve this long-standing problem..


* Wiki on GRC  (created 7 April 2014) --

* Biresh Chandra Guha: Father of Modern Biochemistry in India --

Monday, April 07, 2014

Mangrove Puzzles

"Pettah" or "Pettai" is a village or suburb located outside a fort in South India or Ceylon.

About thirty kilometers east of Chidambaram, the ancient temple-town in South India, is a village called Parangi-pettai. Located on the mouth of the Kaveri river delta, it was, no doubt a strategic location for the European Franks (Ferenghi / Parangi) who once established trading stations all along the Indian coastline.

The unusual thing about this Pettai is that it sits next to Pichavaram, one of the largest mangrove forests in peninsular India. The place is big - and beautiful!

According to the Puranas, it is in these mangrove forests (Thillai Vanam) that Shiva acquired many of the accessories depicted in popular iconography -- serpents as necklaces and waistbands, a tiger-skin shawl and the little demon, Muyalakan, on whose back he dances the Ananda Tandava.

Thillai specifically refers to a species of mangrove trees -  Exocoeria agallocha. It also goes by a more sinister name: Blind-your-eye mangrove. The plant has a milky latex so toxic that it can turn you blind.

Oddly, the particular mangrove species is native to only Tamil Nadu coastline and in North-West Australia...why is that?  And why is it that mangroves are widely seen along India's eastern coastline and not on the western side, along the Malabar-Konkan estuaries?


* TNAU - Mangroves of India -
* Kerala Forest Department -
* Wiki -

Along the Mughal Road

11 March, 2014
"Head-Lights Off; Body Lights On" 

We are in the domain of the Ace of Spades, the 25th Infantry Division of the Indian Army.  It is a three hour drive from Jammu to Rajouri, and this perhaps in the most prominent roadside sign you will see along the highway. Words painted in terse block letters mark the iron gates guarding military camps, all along a route that has long been known as the Mughal Road.

A drive like this would have been a breeze in any other Himalayan river valley, but this is J&K, a magnet to assorted, armed fanatics from across the border. If you happen to arrive at one of these gates at night with the wrong lights on, chances are that you will be shot first and asked questions later.

Having been warned not to travel after sunset,  we had  out in pre-dawn darkness, driving through un-seasonal rains, along the Akhnoor plains and the Chenab river-valley, and over hills overlooking an endless chain of sodium vapor lamps that mark the Indo-Pak border.

As the rains eased and darkness gives way to dawn, army trucks lumbered along the highway, dropping ROPs - Road Opening Parties - soldiers in parkas and assault rifles trudge up and down the roads. Places with evocative names keep coming up -- Sundarbani, Kalighan, Naushera and  Bafliaz.

The Ace of Spades is only the most recent in the long list of army divisions that had passed through these mountains and valleys.  In 1587 Jalaluddin Akbar went down this road to conquer Kashmir. He left behind large gardens and new townships. The Mughal army that accompanied his son, Jehangir, made its mark in a different way – it built a fortified Serai, and named it after the emperor’s royal intestines!

The story goes that that in the early 1600's, Jehangir, was on his way back from the Kashmir valley to Delhi when he suddenly passed away. Years of being an opium addict and an alcoholic had finally caught up with him. In any case the power behind the throne was his 13th wife, Empress Noor Jehan. Given the precarious state of Mughal succession planning, this lady decided that the only way to survive the inevitable power struggle was to act as though her husband were still alive until they reached safer areas. So on the banks of the Rajauri Nullah, she had the body eviscerated, buried the emperor's decaying innards at Chingus Fort, propped his body on a caparisoned elephant, and carried on in royal splendor, until they reached Lahore. 

Today, big changes are afoot in a region that has been racked by an insurgency spread across two decades. Despite the heavy army presence, or perhaps because of it, new institutions are slowly coming up to match the rising expectations of a new generation. Prominent among them is the Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah University.

The university is eight kilometers off the Mughal road, and a leap of faith in more ways than one. Named after a local Sufi saint, this seat of learning seems to rise from the middle of nowhere, at the foothills of the snowcapped Pir Panjal mountain range. It was started a decade ago by a retired Kashmiri police officer with a Rs.20 crore donation from local shrines. With additional public donations and government grants that followed, the university has been able to set up labs, hostels, classrooms and libraries.

The infrastructure and facilities does bring in local students in large numbers. Hostel food is not bad and cheering at cricket matches here does not attract sedition charges. However, in a state where parents are wary of sending their children to universities in distant parts of India, the biggest challenge is to attract – and retain – good professors. Local employment prospects continue to be grim.

On our way back to Jammu, a pink mini-bus zips past a hairpin bend. In hills and valley that have seen more guns and bullets than books or pencils, Simran Coach has a big banner quite different from those outside the army camps. It simply says, "O God Help Me".



Mughal Road --

Wiki -

Chingus Fort --

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Life-Saving Drugs - The Great Game

"Just as you cannot blame a dog for barking, companies cannot be blamed for seeking profits. The real villains here are governments and public servants who have betrayed public trust."

"Fire in the Blood" is one of the most thought-provoking documentaries I've seen in a long, long time.

It makes you question so many things that you always considered as self-evident truths: R&D costs big money; companies spend billions sifting through thousands of molecules to discover one that can be converted into a medicine or vaccine; Indian companies produce illegal, ineffective copies of patented drugs....and in 87 minutes you realize that all this while, you've been a naive, gullible idiot.

The award winning documentary is about the battle against the HIV-AIDS epidemic in Africa. It is about the role of small individuals and small third-world companies taking on the might of global pharma MNCs. Consider these timelines:
  • The first anti-retro viral (ARV) drug, AZT came out in 1963. It was released 1985, with a patent cover up to 2005. Just as the patent was expiring, Glaxo claimed that the drug was effective only in combination with another drug, and had the patent cover extended patent till 2017. In effect, patent protection for the same drug was stretched and "ever-greened" to 54 years!
  • 1996 - discovery of the triple ARV combo against HIV-AIDS. The drug cost $15,000 /patient/ year.
  • 2000 - Yusuf Hamied of Cipla offered to sell a generic of the triple-combo ARV for $800/year/patient; He offered free know-how to manufacturers in Third World Countries and offered the drug offered free to infected mothers. In response the pharma MNCs launched a massive publicity campaign maligning drugs from developing countries in general, and Cipla in particular.
  • In 2004, Cipla brought down the cost to $360/p/y and finally once country - Uganda - decided to take up the offer to save its people. By then over 10 million more people had died of AIDS.
 Fire in the Blood is also quite instructive about USA's amazing hypocrisy and double-standards when it comes to public access to life-saving drugs..

ICMR: Undue Pecuniary Advantage

According to the WHO, more than 2.3 million children below five years of age die in India annually. Of these, about 334,000 die from diarrhoea-related diseases.

If there is one organization that is responsible for the country's abysmal Infant Mortality Rates (IMR) it must be the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR). It calls itself one of the oldest medical research organizations in the world. What has ICMR been doing all these years?

Like most other government research agencies in India, ICMR too has a web-page with a long list of achievements, much of which does not amount to much when it comes to brass-tacks.  However, having worked closely with the organization during 1998-2009, I knew for sure that they did have a large Japanese-funded project at NICED-Kolkata, specially for controlling diarrheal diseases.

The main cast of this project were Dr. Takeda of the International Medical Centre of Japan, his old friend, Dr. N.K. Ganguly of ICMR and Dr. S.K. Bhattacharya of NICED. The project had moved from 'technical cooperation' to a major grant-aid project.

Now it turns out that most of these senior S&T administrators were also using their position for "undue pecuniary advantage". According to a CBI charge-sheet filed against a number of senior ICMR officers including Ganguly and Bhattacharya, they had been using their position to help themselves with real estate worth Rs. 135 million. In June 2013, the Supreme Court granted Ganguly some interim relief, and spared him from being jailed.

What are the actual facts of the case? What does this say about S&T research in India? What happened to the original objective of creating an anti-cholera/diarrhea vaccines?

It is rather ironical that in the midst of all this ICMR continues to set up newer institutions all over the place. Once of them is actually named Desert Medicine Research Center.

I guess they deserted medical research long-long ago.

Update (23 Nov., 2015)
According to a recent news report in the New Indian Express , the Supreme Court has "quashed criminal proceedings against former Director and others in an alleged corruption case on the ground that CBI had not taken prior sanction of the competent authority to prosecute them".
While highlighting CBI's technical lapse, the report is unclear on what actually transpired. Was there a real estate scam worth ₹ 135 million?
Wonder where this case stand on the Indian Scale of Scams and Scandals -  the ISRO Spy Case, the Robert Vadra land deals, the Adarsh Society Housing Scam (Mumbai), or the Commonwealth Games Scam ? Who knows?







* Timelines --

* ICMR Achievements --

* CAG Report --