Saturday, September 30, 2006


An inspiring story I read recently was about a teacher in Patna, Bihar (the poorest, most illiterate and one of the most populous states in India) who trains students to take the entrance examination to IIT, the most prestigious institution in India. So what’s new about that? There is already a well-thriving industry that coaches you to ace the test. There’s probably one in your neighborhood too. Well, this one’s different. Maths teacher Mr. Anand Kumar started the ‘Ramanujan School of Mathematics’ to help fulfill dreams that he himself never managed to realize in his life and career. He selects 30 of the most eligible students from over 5000 applicants. And eligibility depends not only on their intelligence and talent, but importantly on their family background and financial status. One place in today’s world where your monetary assets don’t boost you undeservedly. These brilliant brains come from some of the most impoverished families, who without guidance may never have achieved what they are capable of. They have truck-drivers and daily-wage workers as parents, and bunch of siblings who have never dreamed of going to school, let alone excel in academics. Here, they're given food and shelter, some superlative training and insight, and the platform to become role models for their families and community. Each year since its inception, the number of students ranking in the top of the list has been increasing, and a significant proportion come from the lower castes. To me, this is a glowing example of what needs to be done on a larger scale to bridge the caste system in our country and to give the best possible opportunities to those lacking access to them. But where do we find more motivated and selfless humans like Anand Kumar?

Reading this makes me feel trivial and insignificant. What am I doing? What am I contributing to the world, to my country, to my society? Everything was offered to me on a platter: the best clothes, the best schools and education, the best of vacations. Am I utilizing my opportunities to the maximal extent? There would be many who trade their right arm to be in my position of fortune. To some extent, I do think we all tend to become complacent with our work, with our goals. Someone said: 'Always be satisfied with what you have, never with what you are'. I try never to forget that.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Better Safe Than Sorry

My friend recently wrote one about sex education in his widely-read blog, based on personal experiences and state of present day schooling in his home state. We were all gently poking fun at his ignorance and immaturity about those things during his growing years, when all of a sudden, I was drawn into delivering an impromptu lecture on related matters, not at the level kids at seventh grade get it, but at a more contemporary level, a more practical discussion of the arcane topic. I was the only erudite doctor amongst these talented scientists and engineers and felt a natural responsibility to take the lead in what could be called my expertise. Soon, I was drawing charts of the female hormonal cycles and talking about 'safe' days and the 'rhythm method', options of abortions and emergency contraception pills (ECP). Talking to them, I felt that someone our age cannot afford to be insouciant about the biology and its practical ramifications for any eventuality that may arise.
Earlier today, I was looking to update myself with the state of ECP in the US, since everything associated with abortion and life-issues is huddled with so much controversy. ECP are nothing but high doses of the regular contraceptive pills (combination of the hormones estrogen and progesterone) that should be taken after unprotected sex or a failed form of contraception like the tearing of a condom or in case of a sexual assault, to prevent pregnancy. In recent years, the popularity of the progesterone-only pill (known as plan B in the US) has grown mainly owing to its fewer side effects. These have to be taken within 72 hours of intercourse and they work by preventing or delaying the implantation of the egg in the uterus, whether or not it is fertilized by the sperm. To some, it might seem like a form of abortion since the ovum may already have been fertilized, but in reality, there is no growing fetus until it is implanted successfully. In fact, the majority of natural abortions (or miscarriages as they are known) are due to chromosomal abnormalities or improper implantation of the embryo. These will occur irrespective of any intervention. ECP, however, should not be confused with Mifepristone, a drug that is given in high dose to abort a first-trimester fetus, well after implantation. Whereas pro-life groups consider hormonal contraceptives immoral and abortion-like (that it prevents pregnancy), the pro-choice factions fear that soon, breast-feeding could be considered an abortion method (that it renders the woman temporarily sterile) and immoral!
Of the 300,000 sexual assaults occurring in the US annually, 25,000 result in pregnancy and 90% of these are preventable had there been better awareness about and easier access to ECP. Also, nearly one half of America's 6.4 million annual pregnancies are accidental! It was only on August 26 this year that the FDA approved the universal sale of the
'morning-after pill' over-the-counter at pharmacies to girls aged 18 and above, whereas those underage still need a doctor's prescription. Some controversial questions, however, remain. Like does encouraging the use of emergency contraception lead to increase in unprotected sex and hence, to increased incidence of STI (sexually transmitted infections) in the community as a whole?

Monday, September 11, 2006

Of Heroes And Idols

Today was the final day of the last Grand Slam of the year in tennis: the US open at Flushing Meadows, New York City. I have always been a tennis enthusiast, and have also been playing it for the past few years. To me, this year's event was noteworthy for a number of reasons: a crowd favorite for two decades, Andre Agassi playing his last singles tournament; a super-stunning and equally talented Russian blonde Maria Sharapova winning her first US open major; the continued domination in the game of the one man who has all the answers, Roger Federer adding one more to record books; and a legend and an enigma in herself and an inspiration to millions, Martina Navratilova, 50 years young, winning a record 59th slam.
I am no fan of Andre Agassi, and could not bear to hear his emotional rant after losing his 3rd round match repeatedly telecast as part of a promotional advertisement all the way through the tournament. But the fact remains that his career in tennis over two decades has been awe-inspiring. It tells the story of a man with a passion for his sport, who has been at the No.1 ranking as often as he has been ranked below the top-100. Though his match-winning streak may have waxed and waned throughout, his popularity with the game-lovers never once abated. They always believed he would bounce back. And he did, to be the only one of his time to have won all 4 major slams. His tenacity, never-die attitude and the unique camaraderie is something that can only be appreciated.
Then, you have this 6'3” tall Russian teenager, who enters the court with a look on her face that gives away nothing, and a dress that would give any top-notch model a run for her money. If you saw Maria Sharapova in her Audrey Hepburn-ish black costume, you'd know why everyone, Russian, Indian or American were rooting for her. But not for that reason alone. She had the requisite tools to eliminate, rather annihilate the top 2 players in the world before rightfully holding that winners' cup over her pretty head. And when you hear that her parents migrated to the US when she was 9 only so that she could get the best training possible while still trying hard to make ends meet, you realize why her success story is so special. And today, it is not about the 1.7 million dollars she took home with her. Its about her sheer hard-work and single-minded determination to succeed.
Roger Federer is an unbelievable player. He is the one everyone loves to love. He is the best the sport has seen in a long while, probably be the best ever. He has clearly dominated men's tennis for the last 3-4 years, amassing 9 majors so far, 5 short of Pete Sampras' record 14 titles. When I watch him play, what amazes me is his calm demeanor as he hits the most effortless-looking cross-court backhand I have ever seen or as he varies the pace of his shots so superbly that his opponents look on rather stunned. I wonder if he has ever banged his racket in despair or shouted expletives in anger. Not that he would never have experienced it. The guy seems so unaffected by all the adulation and expectations and so very modest and humble about his tremendous achievements. In this era of power game, his opponents consider themselves fortunate to have taken even one set against him! For instance, he lost only 2 sets on his way to the crown, one set each to Americans John Blake and Andy Roddick. And did you know he can speak in 5 languages: French, German, English, Italian and Swiss?
Finally, if there is one tennis player who deserves a standing ovation for a sterling career, its Martina Navratilova. I remember watching her when I was five, winning her favorite Wimbledon title, one that she won a record 9 times. Today, she won her 59th overall Grand Slam title (10th mixed doubles) partnering Bob Bryan when she is just one month shy of being 50 years of age. She had previously announced that this tournament would be her swan song. Here's raising a toast to some exceptional athleticism and spirit that one may never see again in one's lifetime.