Train Diary 4

The last of my beloved train diaries. For now.

Train diary No.4: strangers and friends

There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert
Shoba Narayan

There are two types of people who travel on Indian trains: extrovert and introvert. Every compartment usually has both. There are the silent types who stare unblinkingly as you enter their compartment. There are others who smile and make room; and just when you are thinking of them as good prospects for sharing the night’s dinner, they ask you to exchange their upper berth for your lower one. That is when you look at the strong, silent type and wish you’d followed his example.

Indian train compartments are beautifully designed for the most part. There are hooks from which to hang the odd plastic bag filled with fermenting black bananas that are bursting with what seems like pus. There are electrical plugs to charge your mobile device; metal rods into which you chain your bag or suitcase in case midnight robbers make off with your belongings; and seats that fold out into sleeping berths.

Although we like to pretend otherwise, human beings are deeply attuned to pace and proportion. To go from Bombay to Britain in 8 hours is possible by plane, and we do this all the time. We get off feeling groggy and disoriented and attribute it to melatonin and jet lag. What we don’t talk about is the psyche and its adjustment—or lack thereof– to air travel. It is only when you travel by trains that you notice how their speed and size are suited for human beings: fast but not disorienting; cozy but not cramped, at least in the air-conditioned coaches. The one defect has to do with height: train berths are designed for dwarfs. Sit up and…well, you can’t sit up particularly in the upper berth. You have to scrunch in a foetal position, both when you sit and when you sleep. As a teenager, I scrunched so much that I fell off the top berth. True story. Apparently, I didn’t even wake up. From then on, my mother repeated this exploit as if it were an achievement. “She got 97% in her Unit Tests. And you know, she fell off the top berth and didn’t even wake up,” my Mom would say, flexing her muscles in a way that would give the Phogat sisters a run for their medals.

Sometimes the train stops, as mine does– at 9:15 on a dark night, in a field before Dharmapuri. After a few minutes, I walk to the door. There are a couple of men smoking cigarettes. It seems civilized to blow smoke-rings into the great wide open. In contrast, smoking booths in airports look like cages in a zoo. The smokers inside speak on the phone as they hold their lights, as if the phone conversation makes them look and feel less alone. Here, the two men speak desultorily about why the train has stopped. Something about “shunting,” and an inter-city train crossing ours.

Inky blackness envelops the sky. No homes; no lights save for those from the train, and no dwellings. I climb down the steps—the only woman amidst a few men. My family would have had a fit if they saw me alone in the middle of nowhere, with darkness all around, waiting outside a train with a couple of strangers sharing a fag; beside a train that could take off any minute. The thought is thrilling. The light turns green. We all climb back as the train pulls away. There is something about a running train (or bus) that makes climbing in an adventure. Perhaps it is matching your body to a moving object; Newton’s law of physics and what not.

The train picks up speed. The toddler in the next compartment is fussing. She walks down the corridor, anklets jingling, followed by a smiling, adoring Dad.

“She has a cold,” he explains to us.

We make clicking sympathetic voices. “The only thing that works is Waterbury’s Compound,” he says. He pulls out a tiny Johnny Walker bottle, opens the cap and pours the fluid down his toddler’s mouth. Nobody blinks. Instead, we fan ourselves with Maalai Murasu, Dinamalar, and Kalki, Tamil publications all.

At the next station, the gruff pharmaceutical executive who shares my compartment meets his family. They stand away from the crowd milling at the entrance of the compartment and catch up. I know what they are talking about because I have done this so many times with relatives while growing up. Some uncle or aunt would take the time to bring us food at random stations and we would have a few minutes of conversation. But what can you talk about really amidst the tension of a train that could leave any minute? Mostly you ask questions without waiting for answers? “How is Farida/Charles/Baby aunty? How is your health? Did Ahmed/Unni/Fatty write his exams? When are you coming to Delhi?” Connection through questions, as a way of saying thanks. Indians of yore didn’t say thanks. They viewed it as an insult almost. “You can put your thanks in a parcel and send it to Honolulu,” my Mami used to say loudly when we sputtered thanks, thanks to a convent school education. It was easy to imagine a line of thanks winging their way through the oceans to sunny Honolulu. It is these vignettes of life that make travelling on Indian trains a memorable experience. Minister Sadananda Gowda should capitalize on this collective affection that Indians have for train travel by making some improvements: cleaner toilets and stations that reflect and sell local food specialties would be a start. But first, he has to sort out the mess at home.

Shoba Narayan loves train travel.

Diwali Food for BA

My editor from British Airways magazine emailed with this commission.

We’re after a piece on how different regions/cities in the country celebrate Diwali with food – this could be anything from street food in a big city like Delhi or Bombay to regions that might be influenced by other cultures (e.g French influence in Pondicherry).

The tone should speak very much to a local audience as opposed to someone, say, living in the UK.”


What shocked me was how little I knew about foods in other regions.  Not the broad “Bengalis love fish” type thing but details.  Phone calls to friends/chefs, etc.  The result is here.


To be obsessed with meditation seems like defeating the purpose. My problem is that I still haven’t conquered this. How to sit “simply” and stare into space aka unfocus your eyes? How didn’t all those rishis that I read about in the Amar Chitra Katha books do it? To the point where anthills grew over them? Crazy stuff.

Reading and loving Haruki Murakami’s “What I think about when I think about Running.” Sejal Gulati, if you see this post, that book is for you.
Reading Sunil Menon’s translation of Mahabharata. Matsyabhangi– now that’s a name.

Mindful wanderers
When we think of meditation, the image that often comes to mind is that of the Buddha, or ministers with their eyes closed in the Lok Sabha. A Western spin on this is to use the word “mindfulness” as a way of approaching this practice. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer says that mindfulness is to make a concerted effort to notice something new in every situation. When you go back home and meet your spouse, she says, try to actually see five new things in them. That is a brave goal. What if you don’t want to see new things in your spouse?
We Indians have a far more laid-back approach. The yoga sutras instruct you to sit with your back straight and allow your mind to focus on one point. The Sanskrit word for this is dharana or concentration, which leads to dhyana or deep meditation. Of late, Western researchers have used meditation techniques to improve the performance of not just monks and mere mortals, but also soldiers and athletes. Take psychologist Amishi Jha of the University of Miami psychology department and director of contemplative neuroscience for the UMindfulness Research and Practice Initiative (yes, you can study these things in American colleges).
Born in Sabarmati to a Hindu family, Jha grew up watching her mother chant and pray. She studies attention, working memory and how to improve resilience in high-stress situations. She has received funding from the US department of defence and the US army to figure out how mindfulness training can help army troops improve their resilience and reactions to high-stress situations; to develop a mental armour as it were.
Her lab gives soldiers training in mindfulness so that they can cultivate discernment; so that they know when to NOT pull the trigger, as Jha calls it, instead of mindlessly turning a machine gun on perceived targets. Mindfulness trains soldiers to be present and take control of the moment so that their actions don’t result in “psychological injury” to themselves or others.
Children could potentially be the last frontier in terms of meditation. On the one hand, it is easy to argue that meditation techniques will help them focus and calm down. Certainly, several schools have tried this, with mixed results. Often, what happens is that a teacher walks around teaching the children to keep their eyes closed and breathe deeply. The minute her back is turned, a child opens his eyes and starts shooting paper rockets at his current arch-enemy.
One exercise, however, is easier on children than others. It is called trataka or trataka yoga kriya. A simple way of saying it is “candle gazing”, although this phrase does not do it justice. Trataka is about focusing your eyes on a particular object. It could be a candle or it could be your shoulder.
There are four types of tratakas. Dakshina jatru trataka is when your head remains straight and your eyes focus on your right shoulder. Try it. The effect is that of a a dancer who looks to the right. Vama jatru trataka is the same practice, except that the eyes are focused on the tip of the left shoulder. Namikagra trataka is when the eyes are focused on the tip of the nose.
Bhrumadhya trataka is when the eyes are focused on the spot between the two eyebrows. Another method is when you sit at arm’s length from a candle that is placed in a spot where the flame does not flicker. The goal is to stare at the tip of the candle without blinking your eyes. What happens typically is that your eyes begin watering after a few minutes. Then you shut your eyes and relax. You bring your closed-eye gaze to the spot between the eyebrows.
Trataka is an especially good practice if you have a young daughter who has not achieved puberty. This practice delays the onset of puberty, according to yoga practitioners. This is because trataka nurtures the pineal gland, which René Descartes called “the seat of the soul”. In yogic philosophy, the pineal gland is located in the ajna chakra or the “third eye”. When the pineal gland weakens, it stimulates the sexual hormones leading to puberty. This is my broad and rather non-expert interpretation. There are many essays on this topic.
Making your daughter do trataka is an easy way of improving her concentration and delaying the onset of puberty. A simple approach is to keep a candle by the bedside. Ask your child to lie on her side and gaze at the candle just before she goes to sleep. This will get her into the habit and knock her out in a few minutes. Even Western medical doctors concede that the endocrine system responds to mind-body practices such as yoga and meditation. Hormones have powerful effects on the body, and they can be managed through ancient techniques such as modulating the breath and focusing the eye. This can also open the seat of the soul, leading to soul-stirring ideas.
Ancient India was known for its approach to spirituality and the self. Today’s India is known for its software companies, analytical skills, and business process outsourcing (BPOs). One way to merge the ancient and the modern is through these yogic practices. The West, particularly the US, has become the seat of innovation.
India can jumpstart its innovation by focusing on creativity and imagination among its workforce—by allowing the mind to wander mindfully; to see the world in a little boy’s open mouth; to activate the third eye; to sit still and follow the mind on all its various tangents and trajectories; to “sniff the winds” like Apple’s Steve Jobs did, and sense what lies ahead.

Shoba Narayan is shooting paper rockets at the pigeons on her balcony while trying to meditate. Write to her at


Leap before you think

Before he began Apple, Steve Jobs spent seven months in India, something that is described in his biography by Walter Isaacson. In it, Jobs talks poetically about the difference between intellect and intuition. “The people in the Indian countryside do not use their intellect like we do,” he said. “They use their intuition instead, and their intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world. Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect in my opinion.”
Jobs was not a fan of India. If he identified intuition as the one Indian thing that he wanted to emulate, that is worth considering. There are a few Sanskrit words for intuition: pratibha being the most common one. Developing intuition, discernment (or viveka) and wisdom (vijnana) have been Indian preoccupations for centuries.
Different cultures are obsessed with different things at different stages in their evolution. Japan, for instance, is obsessed with refinement and perfectionism. Singapore is obsessed with systems. China, with scale. The US, with innovation. Ancient Indians were obsessed with self-cultivation; to figure out “how God thinks”, as Albert Einstein said.
In a quote attributed to Einstein, he said: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honours the servant and has forgotten the gift.” Notice that this scientist used the word sacred—proving that the rational and the intuitive are not as disconnected as we make them out to be.
Intuition is something that every religion knew about. Jesus, as the story of Lazarus (and the fish which had a four-drachma coin in its mouth) illustrates, was a man of intuition. As was Mohammed the Prophet. In today’s world, we call these intuitive thinkers visionaries. Religion teaches us that the way to develop intuition is through prayer and meditation. As Jobs says: “If you just sit and observe, you will see how restless your mind is. If you try to comment, it will only make it worse. But over time, it does calm down, and when it does, there is room to hear more subtle things—that is when your intuition starts to blossom.”
Typically, flashes of insight that are the result of intuition occur at dawn. This is the time when the free-flowing, loose, flexible stillness of the mind gives rise to solutions that are fully formed. During the day, the mind is a wandering beast. Typically, when you try to sit still and meditate, the mind wanders to knotty problems that need to be solved: who said what to whom and how to resolve unfinished business. But if you can still your mind and keep it loose, you increase the chances of insight; of the muse sitting on your shoulder and allowing your imagination to flourish.
Focusing on the moment is the gift that prayer and meditation afford. There are many things that civilizations use to centre their mind. Tibetans use bells. In Aldous Huxley’s novel, Island, which recreates a utopian land, parrots fly over people screeching, “Here and now, boys. Here and now.” They were reminding the islanders to focus on the present; to live for the here and now. The anklets that Indian women wear serve a similar purpose. Try it. The rhythmic jingle of these anklets when you walk serves to bring your mind back to the musical sound; to the here and now.
The ability to voluntarily bring back a wandering mind again and again and again is what we call meditation. American psychologist William James said that this ability to focus was the root of judgement, character and will. The wandering mind is also the root of imagination and creativity.
Paradoxically, it is the controlled kind of wondering that elicits the best results. Think of a kite—rooted to the earth and yet bobbing in the sky. That is the kind of mind-wandering that we need to create. In a famous Time magazine cover that appeared decades ago, Hollywood director Steven Spielberg said, “I dream for a living.” Daydreaming creates the kind of associations that lead to blockbuster movies—and companies, I might add. The trick then is to allow the mind to fly and figure out how to rein it in. Indians have numerous tools for this. We have anklets, for example.
Neuroscientists ask people to close their eyes to see how much the mind flits around. When the eyes move behind closed lids, so does the mind. Bharatanatyam has a famous saying that is taught to every new dancer. It is from the Abhinaya Darpana (Mirror Of Gesture), by the redoubtable Nandikeshvara, often spoken of as a rival to Bharata Muni, who composed the Natya Shastra, the foundation of dance and other arts. In Sutra 36-37 of Abhinaya Darpana, the author talks about how to focus the mind and create rasa or emotion. This famous verse goes: “Yatho hastha thatho drishti. Yatho drishti thatho manah. (Where the hands go, there the eyes will follow. Where the eyes go, there the mind will follow)”.
You want to meditate? Hold your hands in a certain position (mudra, according to Buddhists), and focus your eyes on an object.

Shoba Narayan’s favourite mudra is “bhoomi sparsha mudra” or “caressing the earth mudra”. Write to her at

Indian Wine

The wine club that I belong to is informal and wonderful. We meet, drink good wine and talk about life.
Below is a wine we drank recently.


Just kidding. That was a gift from my wine-collector brother-in-law. At the Oberoi Bangalore, we tried this and it was amazing.

The route to Napa is through Nashik
Making a case for encouraging domestic production and consumption of wine in India
Shoba Narayan Mail Me

I am on the phone with Xavier de Eizaguirre, whose name is less consonant-ridden and hard to pronounce than a self-respecting south Indian name (Venkataramanan, for instance). Eizaguirre is the chairman of Vinexpo, a trade fair for the wine and spirits industry. He is in Mumbai to drum up support for Vinexpo Asia-Pacific 2014, which is to be held in Hong Kong from 27-29 May.
As someone who drinks wine in the fond hope that its tannins will make my complexion look as radiant as Catherine Deneuve or at least Charlie Chaplin, I am as good a candidate as any for a discussion on wine.
So why is Eizaguirre here? After all Indians drink abysmally low quantities of wine. We probably drink more Woodward’s Gripe water or Safi blood purifier. The answer lies in the numbers. According to a new survey commissioned by Vinexpo, Asia is where the markets are.
Though we drink very little wine compared to China, the growth in still and sparkling wine expected in India between 2008 and 2017 is a whopping 68%. We are still low on the totem pole, below Thailand, the Philippines and even Vietnam in terms of quantity, but we are expected to make the biggest gains. The top 10 wine-consuming countries are the US, France, Italy, Germany, China, UK, Argentina, Russia, Spain and Australia. Going forward, wine consumption in most of these countries is expected to stay the same or fall a little. Only the US, and to a much greater degree China, are expected to substantially increase the amount of wine that they imbibe.
India starts from a low base but we have a young population that is discovering new lifestyles. Even though there is huge debate and disagreement about whether our spicy cuisine goes well with wine, it has become more a matter of managing our cuisine and wine pairings, rather than doing away with one or the other. Indians have discovered wine, no doubt about it. Some say fruity white wines pair well with our spicy food while others say we need big bold reds to stand up to the spicy heat of our food.
The Indian wine market is probably where the US was 40 years ago and where China was a mere 15 years ago. In the 1950s and early 1960s, Napa Valley was still farmland, and Americans were drinking jug wine. Today they produce 350 million cases. In three decades, they have become one of the top five players. Local wineries have increased not only the production of wine but also the consumption of wine.
China’s story is a little different. The Chinese market didn’t involve moving from jug wine to Bordeaux and Burgundy. They went straight for the jugular as it were, finding and buying the finest vintages and driving up prices in the process. China consumed over 155 million 9-litre cases of red wine in 2013, a figure nobody would have dreamt of in 2008. From 2008-12, Chinese consumption of still wine went up 136.8%. Compared with that, the expected growth there from 2013-17, of 33.8% (for still and sparkling wine) and 33.17% (for red wine), is paltry.
This is why India is interesting. The question is whether it will follow the US or China model. The US treats wine the way Indians treat jewellery. We are savvy consumers of jewellery, buying it for personal use and enjoyment; and yes, to show off during weddings. China treats wine like a branded good—an Hermès bag, for instance—something to buy for effect and to impress; to show off. My hope is that we will follow the US model.
The best way would be to encourage domestic production and consumption, according to Kripal Amanna, publisher of the Food Lovers magazine; an assessment I agree with. For us, the route to Napa is through Nashik. Or Bangalore. If local wineries thrive, more Indians will drink wine.
Some part of it has to do with pricing. Indian wineries are selling products at ridiculously high prices. “The monthly Indian per capita income stands at $85 (around Rs.5,100). An average wine bottle costs between 12-16% of this,” says Amanna. This worsens when you move from retail to F&B establishment. “And therefore, most Indians find their spiritual solace in other beverages.”
It is in everyone’s interest for the prices to come down. Only when the Americans began drinking $10 wines did they develop a palate and then buy more expensive bottles. Pricing an Indian wine at Rs.750 and above makes little sense if you want to build a market. The sad part is the government policy views low-alcohol wine as a luxury product with equivalent taxes while high-alcohol toddy is not accorded the same stifling penalty.
Wine clubs are proliferating all over India. The time is ripe for local producers to capture and grow this interest. An informal club I belong to served some nice white wines recently: an aromatic white from Château de Fontenille and a 2008 Aussières Blanc Chardonnay from Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite). The members of this club travel frequently and bring back wines. They do give Indian wines a try but prefer to pay two-three times more for wines of guaranteed quality. They are the market.

Shoba Narayan is willing to lobby for lower prices for Indian wines.
Also Read | Shoba’s previous Lounge columns
Comment E-mail Print 39 First Published: Sat, Apr 05 2014. 12 17 AM IST

Maternal Mortality Rates

Maternal mortality interests me because it seems preventable and is a problem that is at a confluence of medicine, society and culture. I recommend (highly) the latest State of the World’s mothers report.

If giving birth is natural, why do so many mothers die?
Shoba Narayan

April 1, 2014 Updated: April 1, 2014 17:43:00

A small item in the news caught my eye. It is something I track, and something I worry about. The technical term for it is “maternal mortality”: dying while giving birth.

Tribesmen in Pakistan and villagers in Darfur have expressed concern over rising maternal mortality rates (MMR), according to the news report. A high MMR comes about through a complex set of circumstances and they are not all medical. This is why it interests me. After all, women have been giving birth for centuries, well before hospitals were established. My mother still remembers a time when poor women in her village used to retreat behind shrubs, give birth and then come back with babies.

If birthing is so natural, why do women die doing it? Most of us take our wives, daughters and sisters to the best hospitals that we can afford at that critical stage in their lives. In Bangalore, where I now live, a 50-bed boutique hospital called The Cradle could well be transplanted to Palm Beach, Florida in terms of how it looks and the services it offers. Many of my American expatriate friends choose to give birth there rather than go home.

There is no such choice in rural Pakistan, Darfur or Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. A combination of misinformation, malnutrition and poor sanitation stack the odds against pregnant mothers and their newborn babies. Women deliver babies on hay, often in the filthiest part of the house, beside running sewers and clucking chickens, and using overused kitchen blades in lieu of sanitised medical tools. They are poor and hungry to begin with and often feed others in the family instead of themselves.

These women believe that birthing isn’t complicated; they take it for granted as something that their mothers and grandmothers have done, not realising that their health and circumstances are different. Sanitation is an issue. A burgeoning population means that with many mouths to feed, nutrition is always an issue.

So why should we care? And what can be done? One method that the Indian government is spearheading involves Accredited Social Health Activists or Asha workers. These are trained women who belong to the villages where they work. They aren’t doctors; they aren’t even nurses, but they are high-potential front line service providers. They understand local culture and dynamics and are able to translate standard scientific messages in a way that makes sense to local people, according to Muhammad Musa, the CEO of Care India, an NGO. They know what messages will work and what won’t, which is key for behaviour-change communication.

Asha workers liaise between rural women and the government and have undergone training to deliver key messages. The ones in Bihar carry mobile phones to keep track of their clients, and picture booklets that explain nutrition, sanitation and health. One page has a drawing of a nursing mother with a tick beside it to encourage breastfeeding and skin contact. Another shows a pregnant mother with a caption telling women to take the iron tablets that are distributed free by the government. There are messages about vaccination, nutrition and family planning: “Space out your children. Good for family. Good for child.”

Other countries take different approaches. Pakistani health experts have called for religious leaders and elders to come forward and help pregnant women deliver in safe and healthy situations. In Sudan, where MMR escalated by 94 per cent last year, the focus is on malnutrition and improving the health of a woman before she gets pregnant.

As has been stressed by the Save the Children Fund’s State of the World’s Mothers report 2014, helping a pregnant mother deliver a baby is the most natural thing in the world. Governments, NGOs and village elders ought to work together to make it this way.

Shoba Narayan is the author of ­Return to India: a memoir.

Maternal Deaths

This appeared in Christian Science Monitor. India’s MMR statistics are shameful, something which I didn’t know. But there is a nice report called “State of the World’s Mothers” that outlines where India stands. The process is complicated because everyone has a view on how to get women into hospitals and take care of themselves. Given the number of interviews I did for this piece and the amount of information that I’ve collected, I imagine that I will write more on this important subject.

Tackling Indian maternal deaths by smartphone
India leads the world in annual maternal deaths. Technology firms are pairing with the government’s village health program to work with rural women.
By Shoba Narayan, Contributor / March 23, 2014


A commuter talks on a mobile phone in New Delhi, July 17, 2013. In bustling New Delhi, technology firms are pairing with the government’s village health program to work with rural women.
Altaf Qadri/AP/File

Subhi Quraishi believes that the solution to the high maternal mortality rates that have dogged women in rural India starts with a mobile phone.

Standing in his bustling New Delhi offices, Mr. Quraishi shows off the mobile “lifeline channel” that his software firm has developed to send nuggets of information to rural users. The app uses rhymes, songs, and interactive games to spread maternal health tips and rudimentary but crucial information.

India leads the world in annual maternal deaths, according to a 2013 report by the advocacy group Save the Children. The report notes that in rural India – especially in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar – poor sanitation and malnutrition are rampant and women often give birth in the “filthiest” area of the house. Newborns are placed on dirt floors and breast-feeding is discouraged under the notion that it will debilitate the mother’s health.

India has made progress on its millennium development goal to lower maternal mortality rates to 109 deaths per 100,000 births by 2015. It has cut the rate by 42 percent from 1990, when maternal deaths stood at 457 per every 100,000 births, but the United Nations says rates haven’t dropped quickly enough for India to meet its target by 2015.

ZMQ Software, the firm founded by Qurashi and his brother Hilmi, developed the “lifetime channel” in 2003. It aims to apply the skills of India’s fast growing technology and healthcare sectors to the problem and reaches 500,000 women. The information is sent through visual and sound-based reminders from the company’s server to the user’s mobile phone, bypassing the Internet.

“Once a woman registers herself on our system, and she is pregnant, she will get information every week pertaining to her week of pregnancy,” Quraishi says. “It sends timely information about immunization schedules for her children and pregnancy information for her.”

As the number of mobile phone users in India explodes (the country has the second largest number of mobile phones in use, below China and above the US), more women in rural locations have access to the technology. Programs like Qurashi’s are growing. He now competes against firms like Dimagi and BBC Media Action, who offer similar platforms. Yet there are still vast challenges to overcome, including many women off the grid, skepticism of modern practices, and government policies that health care experts say are inadequate.

Pairing with government volunteers

ZMQ, along with a handful of other Indian technology companies, is working with ASHAs – or Accredited Social Health Activists, government-sponsored volunteers – who are at the forefront of India’s battle against maternal and infant death.

The program, whose name means ‘hope’ in Hindi, is roughly similar to the community health workers or ‘barefoot doctors’ of China, Iran, and Bangladesh. Instituted by the Indian government in 2005 with a goal of establishing at least one ASHA per village, there are currently about 900,000 of them. The program consists of village-based volunteers who get small monetary incentives when they achieve outcomes like ensuring that a pregnant woman delivers in a hospital.

ZMQ works with ASHAs by sending their “lifetime channel” information to the pregnant women and to the ASHAs working with them.

What do you need for delivery?

Anita Kumari is an ASHA worker in rural Bihar, one of the poorest Indian states. She works in Sigriyawan, a small village two hours outside the state’s capital. She monitors the women and children in her charge and visits the homes of pregnant women regularly.

Hina Kumari, one of her charges, is in her seventh month of her first pregnancy. She lives in a thatched hut without running water or electricity with her in-laws. Chickens and a pig run around the mud floors of the single room hut. Anita asks her to repeat all the things she needs before her delivery next month. “Clean sheet of cloth, clean blade, clean water in a clean bottle, clean change of clothes for me and the newborn baby,” Hina recites.

Anita uses her mobile phone and a health booklet to send reminders – to herself and her charges – about what health service is due to whom and when.

Evaluating success

Despite the enthusiasm for harnessing new technology, a daunting challenge still remains. India’s progress has been slow and many rural women remain disconnected from technology or urban best practices.

Developing apps will only do so much, says Professor Mathew George from the Center for Public Health at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, who has argued in papers that India’s high maternal and infant mortality rates are in part due to the failure of the state to ensure public health functions like nutrition and sanitation for the state.

“Technology by itself will not work until the structures are in place to support it,” he says.

The ASHA program has its critics too. They say that it only addresses some of the causes of the maternal mortality rate and operates in much of a vacuum. “There are multiple programs running with little coordination at the district, state or central level,” says Rama Baru, a professor of health policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Quraishi acknowledges the criticism, but maintains that using technology for a step-by-step start to the problem is a good place to start. Eventually, he hopes to add other ‘lifeline’ material to the app, including English lessons.

Wendy Doniger’s book

My friend, Mitra moved from the WSJ to Quartz, a digital initiative of The Atlantic Monthly. Their daily briefs are followed by the top brass in Twitter, and policy institutes. The production and layout quality is excellent (like Medium).

Best of all, from a writer’s perspective– you turn in a piece today, and if it is news-worthy, it is “pubbed” or published tomorrow. They have a nice photo too that accompanies the story.

My oped on the banned book.


Don’t understand Mint’s headline for this piece. What does will o wisps mean? Maybe from a poem.
But I find this notion of ancient humans communing with the heavens through wisps of smoke very touching.
Scents are fascinating.

Fragrance, will-o’-the-wisps and prayer
How do you scent your home? Do you use oriental lilies and tuberose? The best scents create memories for residents and visitors

Mutrah Souq in Muscat, Oman, is not as large as Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, nor is it as visually interesting. Most of the bigger shops that sell frankincense, spices, nuts and attar are run by Indians. At one emporium, a delicately featured bearded, grey haired man who speaks Arabic, Urdu and Hindi is explaining the concept of bukhoor or incense that most Omanis burn in their homes to ward off the smell of fish after cooking and also to make the home smell fragrant.
Omanis use bukhoor in a far more delicate fashion than we do in India. At the home of Shawqi Sultan, a bon vivant businessman who belongs to one of Oman’s oldest families, you can barely see wisps of smoke, yet there is a lingering implacable scent. Scent and smoke are etymologically linked. The word perfume comes from the Latin word per fumus, which means, “through smoke”. Ancient cultures burned perfumed wood and resins as a sacred offering to the gods. Coptic, Greek and other orthodox churches used scented smoke created from frankincense and myrrh, which along with gold were the gifts of the Magi when they came to see Jesus Christ. The Jewish Talmud has a specific recipe for formulating the incense that would burn in Jewish temples.
Before we had vials of sandalwood and jasmine essential oils; before we had customized perfumes in coloured crystal bottles that were lined up on our mothers’ dressing tables; before we had fragrance “noses”, which is the term the perfume industry uses to describe those men and women who mix and match commercial perfumes that end up on the floors of Colette Paris, Harrods in London, Barneys New York and DLF Galleria; before we had branded perfumes with seductive names such as Angel by Thierry Mugler—one of the perfume world’s iconic scents; before we had champaka and oudh and other exotic ingredients; the way humans communed with god and comforted themselves was through perfumes or sacred, scented smoke.
Indians still burn scented smoke in their homes, by throwing a few sprinkles of benzoin resin into glowing coals. North Indians call this loban and south Indians call this sambrani. The word loban comes from the Arabic word luban, which is what the vendors at Mutrah Souq call it. The best luban, they say, comes from Salalah, where frankincense resin is harvested from bruised trees that create this resin as a defensive reaction.
It is interesting that most religions use fragrant smoke from incense and other sources to commune with God. Seeing these curling wisps of smoke go upwards to the clouds gave early worshippers the feeling that their thoughts and desires were carried up to the heavens. The other reason must have to do with what today’s nightclubs call ambience: creating the mood for religious communion. Darkness punctuated by glowing light helps this, witness the beautiful stained glass windows in churches. Temples and mosques too are designed to filter light into the prayer area. Some sort of intermediary in the form of priests helped translate human desires and wishes into the language of the Gods, be it Hebrew, Sanskrit or Latin. Elements like water and fire were used as tools to touch the sacred.
Omani bukhoor, Indian loban or sambrani are a way to return scent to its sacred roots. French perfumer Philippe di Meo does this with his new, extremely niche line called Les Liquides Imaginaires. The first trilogy is heavy with religious imagery. Sancti has bergamot and mandarin and alludes to the protective holy water that is sprinkled in churches. Forti with amber, oudh, guaiac and saffron refers to fortitude. Tumultu is sensual, according to the fragrance notes and has coconut milk, grapefruit and cedar wood. I haven’t smelled these fragrances but like the notion of returning perfume to its sacred roots. One easy way to do this is to burn sambrani or loban or bukhoor.
How do you scent your home? Do you use oriental lilies and tuberose? Or do you buy essential oils from Fragonard that smell of vanilla and lavender? Do you smoke it with sambrani once a week? The best scents create memories for residents and visitors. The Taj and Oberoi group of hotels do this. Both the The Oberoi, Bangalore and The Taj West End have a signature scent that hangs in their lobby. Smelling it elsewhere can conjure up images of these hotels. The same thing happens at home. A homesick child can smell nutmeg several continents away and be reminded of home. Scent can comfort by teasing out memories.
Omani bukhoor is expensive because it is mixed with dried rose petals, wood chips that are dipped in essential oils, and resins. The trick is to sprinkle the bukhoor with restraint, something that I have learned to do with my sambrani as well. To sit in a silent room in the early hours of the morning, and watch a wisp of smoke climb up is to experience the divine. Of course, it also happens that in India, when you are in the midst of your meditation in the early hours, aided by fragrant incense, you will hear the hungover drunk on the street give a loud, stirring, and off-key rendition of Yeh Jo Mohabbat Hai, which, too, can be divine.

The Vaishnavi Flora incense in Shoba Narayan’s home is now associated with Rajesh Khanna thanks to a song sung at one moment.

Educating Girls

This was part of a trip with CARE USA where we visited an NGO called Udaan/Join My Village.
The tour was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
It was an unexpected pleasure to meet my friend, Michael Pelletier, back in India as Deputy US Consul at the reception.
Thanks to this trip, I have become interested in girl-child education, community engagement in change, and public health (maternal mortality, infant mortality).

The photos are by Josh Estey

NGOs help girls in rural India tackle female illiteracy, gender inequality
The tour bus pulls into a dusty lane in rural Mewat, two hours outside New Delhi. About a dozen Americans get out and make their way into a small residential school, built under the auspices of Udaan (a Hindi word meaning fly), a programme that educates girls.
The humanitarian organisation Care USA has brought a high-level delegation, including congressional chiefs of staff, policymakers, donors and officials from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to witness grassroots-level change in India.
The visiting group shuffles into the school courtyard. Some 30 girls, 11 to 14 years of age, clad in loose tunics and salwar kameez, flash welcoming smiles. Their heads are covered with pastel hijabs. In ringing, confident voices, the girls introduce themselves in Hindi.
“My name is Ameena and I am from Biwa village.”
“My name is Mumtaz and I am from Shonkh village.”
The Mewat region where the school is located has an interesting Hindu-Muslim history. The 20 villages the school serves are inhabited by an ethnic group called the Meo. They were Hindu Rajput warriors who were converted to Islam by Saint Moinuddin Chishti about 1192AD. Even though the villagers are Muslim, they cling to their Hindu folk tales, rituals and cultural identities.
As Muhammad Musa, the chief executive and country director for Care India explains, educating girls in rural India is not simply a matter of building schools and getting girls to attend. It also involves understanding the historical and cultural norms of distinct ethnic and tribal communities and changing deep-rooted attitudes towards education and gender.
The girls express their feelings about education through a play that explains how their “bridge” school functions.
Each of the girls is wearing a paper banner displaying words that indicate her role: father, mother, teacher, outreach worker and village elder. As the American visitors sit cross-legged on the carpet, the performance begins with an outreach worker visiting a Muslim family in the village.
“Please allow your daughter to enrol in our residential programme,” says the outreach worker. “It will help her become a confident young woman.”
The father replies: “No, no, I will not send my beloved daughter to school. She will forget Islamic values.”
The outreach worker says: “We will ensure that she learns the Quran and the Urdu language. She will not forget her Islamic values. But she will also learn mathematics, science and social studies. It will help her get ahead in life.”
“Wife, come here,” shouts the girl who is playing the gruff father. Another girl – the wife – enters.
“This teacher wants to enroll our daughter in school. We will have to send her for one year into a residential programme,” says the father.
“No, no, it is not safe for her to be away from home,” says the wife. “Besides, I want her to help me at home. I need help in cooking and cleaning and taking care of the younger ones.”
“It is only one year. She will learn mathematics and science; and earn money to help your family when she grows up,” says the outreach worker.
“Maybe, but she will also learn city values and get spoilt. She won’t respect elders. We cannot get her married,” says the mother.
“She won’t forget her values,” says the outreach worker. She will continue to preserve the izzat (honour) of your family. She will continue to respect elders …”
And so the dialogue continues. The play ends with the parents consenting to send their daughter to the school on the condition that they can visit her every week.
Educating girls has become the cause du jour, not just in India but all over the developing world. Primary education for all by 2015 is one of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. According to a UN Development Programme report, India’s progress in education for all is “on track or fast, considering all indicators”, partly because India started at such a low base and partly because it seems to be an idea whose time has come.
Gender equality and educating girls havebecome priorities in India, and now countless middle-class Indians write cheques to help to achieve these goals. The Indian government and private sector are experimenting with different schemes to improve enrolment rates.
In 2004, New Delhi launched one such ambitious scheme. Named after the wife of Mahatma Gandhi, the Kasturba Gandhi Balika Vidyalaya (KGBV) was initiated in reaction to high female dropout rates in middle schools – only three out of 10 Indian girls finish school. While dropout rates for girls from primary schools is 45 per cent, the number is worse for middle and high school, where 73 per cent of girls drop out.
The reasons are manifold: some parents stop sending their daughters to school after they reach puberty; other girls stop attending because schools have poor toilet facilities; many girls have to walk long distances to reach schools and get harassed along the way; parents often cannot afford books and school uniforms; and mothers use their daughters as proxies to take care of younger children when they work in the fields.
The KGBV scheme attempts to address these social, cultural and economic factors by providing the support needed to bring back the dropouts. According to the government’s website: “The scheme is being implemented in educationally backward blocks of the country where the female rural literacy is below the national average and the gender gap in literacy is above the national average.”
The only problem is that KGBV doesn’t address the problem of primary school girls dropping out – or, for that matter, not even enrolling in the first place.
While the 74 per cent literacy rate in India is lower than the global average of 84 per cent, female literacy stands at a much lower 65.47 per cent. In HER? paper, Girl Education: A Challenge for Rural Transformation in India, Dr Swaleha Sindhi WHO IS THIS? states that parents perceive the cost of education and its future benefits differently for boys and girls. Poor, rural families who cannot afford schoolbooks or pencils have to choose between their male and female children.
This is where NGOs such as Udaan step in. They provide “bridge” education that can funnel the girls into KGBV schools.
Established in 1999 and piloted in the Hardoi district in rural Uttar Pradesh, Udaan’s programme takes in 100 girls and puts them through an accelerated learning programme.
It covers the syllabus of grades 1 through 5 in just 11 months, a testimony to the power of what an intensive educational programme can accomplish. Once the girls finish the residential programme, they are funneled into the KGBV government programme.
The goal is that through these programmes, the girls will finish high school. And they do: in the last nine years of the programme, 98 per cent of Udaan students finished their 11-month residential course, and 80 per cent continued their education.
While building new “bridge” schools is one approach to addressing the problem, strong emphasis must be put on utilising existing resources, says Safeena Husain, who in 2007 launched Educategirls, an NGO that works with 5,000 schools across Rajasthan to improve gender equality and female literacy.
With a broad base of supporters, Educategirls leverages existing village resources to create “community ownership for school reform”, says Husain.
The NGO has trained 1,500 youth leaders called Team Balikas to act as catalysts for and champions of female education. These team leaders liaise between the girls and the schools, trying to solve the problem from both sides. Even small interventions such as a installing separate toilets for girls can make a difference in enrolment and retention.
“India is at the epicentre of gender disparity in education, with almost 3.7 million girls out of school,” says Husain. “Going forward, I see more communities realising the benefits of girls’ education and increasingly seeking improvement in their own schools.” Nanhi Kali, another NGO focusing on girls’education, has adopted a sponsorship model – covering each girl’s entire education costs including schoolbag, uniform, books and pencils.
The NGO holds after-school classes and works with girls’ parents to reduce the likelihood that they will drop out.
Approaches to addressing gender inequality and female illiteracy may vary, but one thing most can agree on is that educating girls will have a broadly positive impact.
Safeena Husain says: “It is very simple. If we usher in inclusive improvement of the school infrastructure and an environment conducive for girls’ education, there is an incremental improvement in the overall quality of education across the board.”

Shoba Narayan is a journalist based in Bangalore, India, and a regular contributor to The National.