Sunday, 11 July 2021

The Greatest Fan

Disclaimer: This is purely a piece of fiction. Any resemblance to a person living is purely coincidental

Lionel Messi and la Albiceleste are crowned the new holders of Copa America. A long wait has come to an end for their diehard fans. Argentina, for some reason is one team with a huge fan following in our state, Kerala in India. No one knows the exact reason for the fascination the team holds equally for a septuagenarian Communist leader and a school kid fan of Leo Messi. One major reason for this fascination for the older generations must be adulation for Diego Maradona and the series of unforgettable games played by his team at Mexico in 1986. Diego, highly emotional, immensely talented was inspiring his group of gifted players to give their best as a team. Valdano, Burruchaga or Pumpido, members of Carlos Bilardo’s world champions became household names after the World Cup that we saw in colour on TV. We have one great fan of la Albiceleste in our close friends circle. Forever loyal, emotional like him, he even had a striking resemblance to his idol, the great Diego from a certain angle. Although we watched and played many games together, he was always guarded when it came to games featuring Argentina. This became the norm after one unforgettable night 15 years ago when Argentina played Germany in the quarter finals of the 2006 World Cup. With his team progressing from the “group of death” as the toppers, he had made all arrangements for us to watch the game together at a leading club in the city. He arrived at the venue quite early and reserved the seats in the prime location within the hall. His entire family, including his Mother was to be seated on a rear table. Confident of his team doing good on the night, he was very cheerful and saw to it that everyone was comfortably seated to watch them play. Both teams were well balanced and evenly matched with Argentina developing their game around their midfield general Juan Román Riquelme and Germans led by Michael Ballack had, in their ranks, the lethal striking duo Klose and Podolski. With Riquelme commanding the midfield Argentina dominated the first half, rarely letting the ball reach the German strikers. First half ended goalless and he was very cheerful as we analysed the match during the interval. Argentina continued to press forward after the break and in the 49th minute, Riquelme delivered in a corner pin-pointing Roberto Ayala, who merely had to put his head on the ball, giving Argentina a 1- 0 lead. They appeared well on course for more, when abruptly, to our astonishment, Jose Pekerman substituted Riquelme with Esteban Cambiasso. An uncertainty or confusion descended on his face as the Germans pounced on the opportunity and suddenly started counter attacking. With Argentina falling back to defend, Miroslav Klose equalized for Germany in the 80th minute, moving him to the edge of his seat.  Without Riquelme, Argentina was nowhere near the team they had been for the initial 72 minutes. Teams could not break the deadlock after the extra time and the match went into penalty shootout. With tension mounting and pressure building up, every German player successfully converted whereas the scorer of their goal in the regulation time Ayala and the substitute Cambiasso, failed for Argentina. He sat silently, heartbroken, inconsolable, refusing to get up from his seat. After much persuasion, he came out of the hall but with his family waiting for him to return home, he felt reluctant to face his family. Finally, the supporters of Argentina and Germany and the neutrals somehow managed to send him home. We have never before or since seen someone so devastated by the defeat of his favourite team, from a faraway land across the world that he had taken to his heart. Today, as Messi, and team brought down the canaries at Maracana on the back of an Angel di Maria strike, to lift the Copa and end a nearly 3 decade title drought, he celebrated alongside the several diehard Argentina fans from our place who burst crackers and distributed sweets. And we, his close friends and fans shouted “vamos la albiceleste” and said three cheers to their greatest fan.

Sunday, 25 April 2021

The "Gold Maker" and the Unlikely Triumvirate

Human race is in the middle of one the most widespread global pandemics in history. Interdisciplinary and international teams of scientists and multinational conglomerates have embarked on a race against time for developing ways to immunize people against many, if not all, coronaviruses. Without downplaying the the gravity of the crisis, it may be noted that while some of the pandemics that ravaged humanity in previous centuries particularly affected young children and babies, for some reason or the other, the coronavirus has mostly spared them. We were at college when another deadly pandemic appeared to make a re-entry through Surat, India in 1994. Immediate intervention, in the form of prevention and treatment avoided the spread of the disease far and wide and fewer than 1,200 people were diagnosed with the plague, which was contained in 2 weeks. Tetracycline had hit the headlines then, as the life saver, just as Covishield and Covaxin now. Panic stricken people thronged medical stores and tetracycline tablets were sold out in no time. The 325-crore Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited, which had accumulated huge losses and had been contemplating stopping production of the antibiotic, had to run three shifts in its two plants to meet the public demand.  

The first tetracycline antibiotic was the Aureomycin. The drug has an interesting history behind it. A team of most unlikely triumvirate had collaborated in the development of the drug. A reclusive immigrant who was refused citizenship, had recruited the son of a Confederate officer for the discovery and the most famous black doctor in America, the son of a freed slave, to conduct the clinical trials in the development of the drug, one of the major milestones in disease control and eradication in human history. 

Circa 1942, Dr. Benjamin Duggar, an American plant physiologist, received a call from the Chief of Research of a small pharma company in New York, Lederle Laboratories, enquiring if he would like to take up a role in the research to develop the next broad-spectrum antibiotic. The 70-year-old had been advised to go into retirement by his University as he was “too old” and because his specialty was no longer needed there. The Chief saw “experience” in what others judged “too old” and thought that in Dr. Duggar he might have found Lederle’s “antibiotic hunter.” One day in 1945, while extracting molds from soil samples, Dr. Duggar noticed one with an unusual gold-color. With the Chief overseeing his work, he tested the mold he had labeled A-377. To the elation of the team, A-377 proved effective in halting the growth of both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, including the microbes responsible for bubonic plague, tuberculosis, typhus, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The quest for the first broad spectrum antibiotic since streptomycin had been realized. However, with the limited manpower and resources available, it took them another three years of testing, before Duggar was confident enough with his finding to publish a paper. In the paper the antibiotic organism he discovered was given the name ‘streptomyces aureofaciens’, the “gold maker.” His colleagues liked the name and gave the drug its brand name, Aureomycin (Aureo is Latin for gold). The paper notified Lederle’s much bigger competitors that they had lost the race to find the first post-war broad-spectrum antibiotic. If Fleming's pencillin was effective only against gm +ve bacteria and Vaksmann's streptomycin was effective only against gm -ve bacteria, it was the Aureomycin which was the first to counter both. 

Lederle Labs did not have an agreement with any top testing hospital or medical school for conducting the human tests. The Chief and Dr. Duggar decided to approach Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright, a New York based Surgeon and Civil Rights Activist, whom they considered eminently qualified to conduct the tests. He had by then published nearly 90 papers in leading scientific journals, 35 of them about antibiotics. Dr. Wright, who had just returned to work after a three-year leave of absence to recuperate from a severe bout of tuberculosis, was enthusiastic about undertaking the trials. He started his trials of Aureomycin on patients with infections that had resisted all other treatments. He went on to publish more than 30 papers on his trials with the antibiotics and his research paved the way for the drug to earn FDA approval for manufacturing and widespread use. 

However, tragically, by the time Aureomycin was ready to go on sale in December 1948, Lederle’s Chief of Research was no longer alive to celebrate it. He had passed away in August, at the age of 53, unheralded and virtually unknown beyond a small group of researchers. His colleague Doron K. Antrim paid a touching tribute with the following lines: "You've probably never heard of him; yet because he lived you may live longer". 

Millions of people around the world live a longer and healthier life because of folic acid vitamins, tetracycline antibiotics, and anti-filarial (the drug Hetrazan which was used by WHO against filariasis) and anti-cancer drugs (Methotrexate is still in widespread clinical use today), developed under the tutelage of this wizard of wonder drugs. Besides the conquest of many illnesses that had troubled mankind for centuries, he had contributed to the understanding of life processes such as muscular contraction which gets the living world's work done. He was in the Harvard tradition "the brain" and could perhaps have claimed that the boys he had guided and inspired were just so many "hands". But that would have been unfair to them as it would have been so unworthy of himself. "The victories of science are rarely won single handed," he insisted. "No one man should get the credit." His last expressed wish to colleagues was: "If God will spare me another couple of years, maybe we can cure another disease." 

He is not famous, he had an extremely difficult childhood, he passed his matriculation examination in his third attempt, and overall, he had a tragic life worth a biopic like The Man Who Knew Infinity. But the contributions of the Chief of Research of a that small pharma firm in New York, Dr. Yellapragada Subba Rao, in biochemistry and medicine keep performing a million good turns for mankind each day, around the world. And his rather unlikely team reiterated the fact that scientific collaboration knows no boundaries other than those of knowledge itself.

Monday, 18 May 2020

Eleven Books by Eminent Lady Writers for Every Man (and Woman) to Read

“One must always be careful of books," said Tessa, 
"and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.” 
Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel 

Good books take us to the places we have never been to, to the times in history we have never imagined, to meet, love or loathe the characters we have never come across in real life. I have not included any book from lady authors on my earlier list only because I thought, it will be better to give a separate list. I admit that it is not the best eleven available, the list is made up of my favorites which I feel will give one a reasonably good idea about the perceptions of the lady writers. So here goes my list of the ladies, being released as a gift to my wife on our 4th wedding anniversary :)

1. I would like to start with a book I had read when I was in primary school, that left my young mind confused, bruised, and astonished. "Uncle Tom's Cabin was a small log building. In front, it had a neat garden-patch, where, every summer, strawberries, raspberries, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, flourished under careful tending. The whole front of it was covered by a large scarlet bignonia and a native multiflora rose, which, entwisting and interlacing, left scarce a vestige of the rough logs to be seen. Here, also, in summer, various brilliant annuals, such as marigolds, petunias, four-o'clock, found an indulgent corner in which to unfold their splendors."
It is said that the Russian revolution was in fact started by the Mothers who took streets as they had nothing to feed their children. A similar story says that when he met Harriet Beecher Stowe at the start of the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln declared, "So this is the little lady who started this great war." Published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, thus had a profound effect on the war of another type, that on slavery. Hence the first on this list is the best-selling novel of the 19th century and in fact the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible.

2. Then comes the female version of David Copperfield, my favorite heroine from fiction. “I was dazzled, stimulated: my senses were excited; and being ignorant, raw, and inexperienced, I thought I loved her. There is no folly so besotted that the idiotic rivalries of society, the prurience, the rashness, the blindness of youth, will not hurry a man to its commission.”
Charlotte Bronte's beautiful rendering of the life of an orphan girl who struggles through her nearly loveless childhood and grows into a passionate and strongly principled young lady who values freedom and independence revolutionized prose fiction by being the first to focus on its protagonist's moral and spiritual development through an intimate first-person narrative. Jane Eyre is not only one of the most famous romance novels of all time, but also considered by many critics to be ahead of its time in its treatment of class, sexuality, religion, and feminism. The eldest of the Brontes is considered as the literary ancestor of writers like Proust and Joyce who are in my earlier list.

3. The very fact that the first-ever science fiction was told by an eighteen-year-old girl who wanted to get even with her friends who used to tell her horror stories to amuse her during their trips across Europe, merits its position high up in the list. Mary Shelley crafted the story of a scientist who created a live monster using modern experiments in the laboratory, to compete with her future husband Percy Shelley and their friend Lord Byron to see who among them could write the best horror story and she won the contest hands down with her creation of Frankenstein.

4. At different periods in time, women have been denied education, acceptance, and access. Their works were labeled as light, inconsequential, too romantic, or without intellectual merit. The kind of status women was accorded is best exemplified in Mary Anne Evans' decision to publish her works under the name, George Eliot. Set in the fictitious Midlands town of Middlemarch, her magnum opus follows a vast, sweeping narrative that encompasses subjects of religion, idealism, and political reform.

5. Ashapurna Devi's expression of the great clouds of protest that had accumulated in her mind over the years, Prothom Protishruti, the First Promise is the first Indian book in this list as the personal favorite of the lady I had known longest in my life, Amma. Set mainly in a remote village of Bengal, it tells the struggle of childbride Satyabati against family control, mental violence of the polygamy system, superstition, injustice to women, and social prejudices in a patriarchal society. She continues her fight into adulthood and rebels against the people who wanted to keep women in their traditional place of inferiority.

6. "Even today there may be parents who would doubt the wisdom of allowing a girl of fifteen the free run of a large and quite unexpurgated library. But my father allowed it. There were certain facts – very briefly, very shyly he referred to them. Yet "Read what you like", he said, and all his books . . . were to be had without asking." said Virginia Woolf about her father.
For someone who had suffered from regular mood swings, and struggled with the illness for much of her relatively short life, she appears to have made the best use and achieved the best understanding, she could of that illness before surrendering to it as her remarkable literary output would testify. One of the most intelligent and remarkable lady writers in history, this pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device had been acknowledged as an influence by Margaret Atwood, Michael Cunningham, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Toni Morrison. In her monumental work, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir counts, of all women who ever lived, only three female writers - Emily Bronte, Woolf, and "sometimes" Katherine Mansfield - have explored "the given." An iconic writer with no parallels, more postcards of Woolf is sold by the National Portrait Gallery, London than any other person. Her image is ubiquitous and can be found on tea towels to T-shirts.
It's difficult to select one work, but To The Lighthouse, described by the author herself as ‘easily the best of my books’, should be the obvious choice. A novel with little regard for the rules, with no consistent narrator, little dialogue and almost no plot - it reads more as a breathtaking and lyrical meditation on womanhood, relationships, nature, and the folly of perception.

7. Harper Lee's warm and humorous bildungsroman To Kill A Mocking Bird has to be in this list for its truthful handling of racial injustice, the destruction of innocence and the issues of class, courage, compassion, and gender roles all of which had a significant influence on arising the consciousness of a nation.

8. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand's philosophical fiction caricaturing fascism, socialism, communism, and any state intervention in society, as allowing unproductive people to siphon off the hard-earned wealth of the productive, deserves a place for throwing up a totally different perspective on industrialists and their value to the society. Rand put forth the view that the outcome of any individual's life is purely a function of their ability and that any individual could overcome adverse circumstances, given ability and intelligence. And the book effectively advocates the author's philosophy of ethical egoism or rational selfishness, whereby all of the principal virtues and vices of a person are the manifestations of the person's basic tool for survival. The virtues such as productivity, independence, integrity, honesty, justice, pride are all applications of the basic virtue, rationality enriching the life of reason, purpose, and self-esteem.

9. The holder of the Guinness World Records for the title of best-selling fiction writer of all time, having sold over two billion copies, Agatha Christie can not be ignored from any list of lady writers. Again, it is difficult to pick one from her books, hence I would go with the author and recommend And Then There Were None described by her as the most difficult of her books to write. It is the best selling crime novel of all time, the one that gives her the record of the best selling novelist. With more than 100 million copies sold; it is also the world's best-selling mystery and one of the best-selling books of all time.

10. Baroness Emma Orczy's smooth reading, romantic, suspense thriller Scarlet Pimpernel has been included a personal feel-good favorite. Nevertheless, Orczy's portrayal of a daring hero who cultivates a secret identity disguised by a meek or ineffectual manner proved enduring and had been reenacted by several later heroes Zorro, the Shadow, the Spiderman, the Phantom, Superman, and Batman 

11. I had read Svetlana Alexievich long before her Nobel Prize. In her books, she uses interviews to create a collage of a wide range of voices. With her "documentary novels", she lightens the boundary between reporting and fiction. She may not be as talented and as creative compared to the other ladies on this list. But her real-life stories of ordinary men and women who endured one of the most gruesome tragedies resulting from an Engineering failure in mankind's history is a must-read for all of us living under the increased threats from technological disasters. We may not have known about the sacrifices of those brave young men, Telyatnikov, Kibenok, Pravik, Ignatenko, Khodemchuk... Vladimir Pavlovich Pravik died a few days before his 24th birthday in 1986. His remains rest in a sealed zinc coffin in a cemetery in Moscow because it is more dangerous than a COVID19 coffin. He posthumously received the medals of the Order of Lenin and Hero of the Soviet Union. But it is said that he preferred to live and he fought hard to stay alive.
Lt. Vladimir Pravik was the duty chief of the firemen on that April night when catastrophe struck the fourth unit of the Chernobyl Atomic Power Station. He was at the forefront of his team to battle with fire and carried on as long as consciousness permitted. He received a massive dose of radiation, yet lived on for sixteen days. Only his mother was allowed to be with him in quarantine. He was in immense pain, 'nuclear' pain - atrocious, unbearable, and ruthless, bringing frequent fits of shock and unconsciousness. Lt. Pravik stoically endured the pain and would have won the battle for life had his skin not been killed in its full depth. He died one night, leaving his wife and a daughter, just a month old. He also left a final letter for them, apologizing for not doing his bit in raising his little one.

There it goes, the list of ladies, as promised. And I am sure these great writers will open before you a world as colorful, as diverse, as cruel, as compassionate as the ones you have witnessed in the books on the earlier list.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Eleven Books for Everyone to Read under the Lockdown

The COVID19 enforced lockdown has unexpectedly given many once upon a time bibliophiles a chance to engross themselves in their lost habit. If you are that bibliophile disheartened because you never had the time for those long, stories inside stories types of epic masterpieces, you must be happy with the lockdown. Because there never was a better time to blow the dust off that bulky book in the back of your shelf and finish it off at your own pace.

Here are my lists of eleven books for different types of readers. Why eleven, well because 11 is a beautiful number, there are 11 members in a cricket or soccer team, there are 11 months with at least 30days, we had a five minutes break at 11am, while at school and the list goes on. Of course, these books are all acclaimed as classics and I have taken care to include only one book by a great author in one list. Yes, I have multiple lists: for those who have a lot of time, those who prefer shorter books, for kids, for those who read world literature, for those who like Indian literature, for the lovers of lady writers; yes I have lists of eleven to satisfy all which will be published in the coming days. I am also giving an approximate duration one may require to finish the book, courtesy Reading Length. It is assumed that your reading speed is 50 words per minute on average. And yes, you can check it yourselves by clicking on the link. So to rewind your reading life, here is my list of epic novels first; those big, massive 1,000-page giants that will keep you busy for a while.

1. The world is at war now, the war against the virus and we hope to achieve peace of mind as soon as possible. Hence I prefer to start with the War and Peace. First published in 1869, it has everything: history, romance, military battles, family drama, and philosophical essays. The novel also demonstrates how people try to find their way forward in a time of crisis and social upheaval, which makes it a worthy companion for your days under the lockdown. About 1300 pages on average, Count Leo Tolstoy's seminal work might take one about two to three weeks to complete at a leisurely pace.

2. “So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine, with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age, the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of woman by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.” says the Preface to Les Miserables. If you want to develop a new philosophy for your life post lockdown, there are few better choices to spend your 2 weeks on. Victor Hugo's magnum opus is my personal favorite.

3. If you have a month to spare or if you are a fast reader you can go for In Search of Lost Time, Marcel Proust's massive masterpiece running into more than a million words. Completed in 1927 and regarded as one of the most influential novels of the 20th century, the work is narrated to you by a sensitive young man who wishes to become a writer dwelling on the profound musings on art, the elusive nature of memory, and the melancholy passage of time.

4. We can't be blamed if we perceive the efforts of politicians to claim the credit for fighting the virus, "quixotic", the word originating from the protagonist of the Spanish novel The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes. Published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615, the novel is considered as one of the foundations of modern literature having found direct mention in many a classic novel that came afterward, notably in Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers (1844), Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). Its central ethic that individuals can be right while society is quite wrong and seen as disenchanting has always been a reassurance over and above the tragedy wherein Don Quixote's idealism and nobility are viewed by the post-chivalric world as insane and are defeated and rendered useless by common reality. The journey with Quixote on Rocinante will take a week for you.

5. Searching for Charles Dickens' longest novel, I had a pleasant surprise. Dickens’ David Copperfield was always one of my most favorite heroes from fiction for his optimism, diligence, and perseverance in the face of heavy odds stacked against him. And yes, in terms of words, his eighth novel, published in 1850, The Personal History, Adventures, Experience, and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to Publish on Any Account) edged out the more philosophical Dealings with the Firm of Dombey and Son: Wholesale, Retail, and for Exportation by 5 words! David Copperfield: the Unabridged edition will take you less than a week.

6. If you are someone with a philosophical bent you couldn't have missed any piece from Fyodor Dostoevsky. Philosophers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Jean-Paul Sartre had accepted his influence, Nietzsche even regarded him as "the only psychologist ... from whom I had something to learn". He had influenced and impressed not only later Russian writers like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Anton Chekhov but also literary stalwarts outside Russia such as Hermann Hesse, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka to list a few. Modern cultural movements such as the surrealists, the existentialists, and the Beats cite Dostoevsky as an influence and he is cited as the forerunner of Russian symbolism, existentialism, expressionism, and psychoanalysis. Russian-American author Ayn Rand wrote that Dostoevsky was one of the two greatest novelists in history (the other being Victor Hugo). Writing about Dostoevsky, perhaps the only great novelist who studied Engineering and worked as an Engineer, I almost forgot to mention his work that is in this eleven. As I have been marking books for long reads, The Brothers Karamazov, his passionate philosophical final novel set in 19th century Russia, that deeply dwells into the ethical debates of God, free will, and morality is chosen. This spiritual, theological drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, judgment, and reason called "the most magnificent novel ever written" by no less a person than Sigmund Freud shall take you a week to get over.

7. There are many great works from India deserving to be on this list. But I would like to recommend Kalki Krishnamurthy's volumes and volumes of a novel, Ponniyin Selvan, the Son of Ponni, telling the early life story of Arulmozhivarman, who later went on to become the legendary Raja Raja Chola. Widely considered by many to be the greatest novel ever written in Tamil literature, the work attempts to give an accurate account of the rise and rise of one the greatest Emperors in Indian history. You might need a month to finish all the volumes.

8. If Kalki's book tells the glory of India, the one book that will give you the story of the struggles of ordinary Indians is Munshi Premchand's poignant portrayal of the life of the downtrodden Godaan, the Gift of a Cow. Perhaps a bit like the Indian version of the Les Miserables, the book chronicles the parallel history of the times before the independence through the lives of the exploited, poor, farmers, lower castes, women, and the laborers in the Hindi Heartland of India, also known as the Cow Belt. A must-read for any student of India, the book will take you a week

9. James Joyce's stream of consciousness narration of the peripatetic appointments and encounters of Leopold Bloom in Dublin in the course of an ordinary day, 16 June 1904, is considered by many as the greatest novel of the century, so much so that 16th June is celebrated as the Bloomsday. Ulysses might take you a week or many weeks to get over, but that's your business. "Joyce was not at fault if people after him did not understand it. The next generation is responsible for its own soul; a man of genius is responsible to his peers, not to a studio full of uneducated and undisciplined coxcombs," said T S Eliot.

10. Orhan Pamuk's brilliant portrayal of the philosophical system of 16th century Istanbul during the reign of the Ottoman Empire, My Name is Red will give you a glimpse of the complex East-West relationship at an important period in history. This masterly blend of mystery, romance, and philosophical puzzles told in finespun sentences, full of passionate art appreciations and descriptions of urban scenes of the times will take a week of your time.

11. The final one week reader in the list is the novel that probably announced the arrival of its author as one of the most impactful writers among the worldwide audience. Conversation in the Cathedral, the later Presidential Candidate Mario Vargas Llosa's examination of the deep roots of corruption and failure in Peruvian politics and government during the 1950s completes the present eleven of the giants.

So here are my 11 posted at the 11th hour on 11th May. If there are no lady writers on the list, it is because another list is coming. And do not worry all the lists promised are ready to be posted.

Wednesday, 23 October 2019

A Presiding Officer's 'Diary'

As we were waiting patiently for the other polling parties from the school to board the bus, I was searching for my previous experience as the presiding officer jotted down online.

Every polling party ahead of us in the queue at the collection center was taking their time to return the articles due to incomplete forms and erroneous records, forcing us to plead with the collection officials to clear us first, only to be met with blank contemptuous stares. Finally, when our turn came, all it took was two minutes, everything arranged perfectly as per the instructions, the skepticism giving way to a studied silence.

Every struggle of the previous night was forgotten, yet another election process successfully completed, thanks to the fellow polling officials, friendly polling agents, polite policemen, and the humble machine gun-wielding commandos, all under one’s command for close to two days! And it suddenly dawned upon me, as I was struggling to step out of the collection center, that the dreaded demon has, after a gap of ten years, bitten me on my left leg!

To ease the pain, I thought of jotting down my previous election experience. My, short.....errrr....long story.....God, Providence, the Almighty, schemed everything perfectly for our team during that election. In the morning itself, our ever-reliable colleague Aparna gave us the good news that we had to deal with only 672 voters in our booth. Having collected polling equipment and materials early, we reached our bus first and waited for a long time for others. We had 272 men and 400 women as voters as per the document. Four poll teams were in our minibus; two to Anathalavattom and two to Arayathuruthu, near coastal Trivandrum, apparent left strongholds. Our bus stopped for us near a shop on way to the polling booth. A couple of rough men tried to pick up a quarrel with the driver. I took them on, just to get a feel of the local behavior. Sensing that I am a poll official, they backed off avoiding me and limiting their arguments with the driver, who immediately apologized and quenched the fire.

On reaching the booth, by walking some 100m carrying the materials, I checked with the policeman on duty about the political situation and behavior of local people. He told me that the place used to be a left bastion, but now BJP has gained significant ground. My worst fears about the polling day were coming true. But, behind my back or above my head, the conspiracy has already been hatched by someone somewhere, I realized that by late evening. We settled down on our booth and began checking the facilities around. A teacher working in the school was waiting for us and she gave us the key to the motor room for pumping water to the bathroom with the special request for safekeeping since the room was doubling up as the computer room of the school! Now that was the massive relief no. 1, for that ensured that we will be having water throughout. 

We completed our initial responsibilities, pasting posters given by the authorities around the booth. I briefed the officials about the mock poll and cleared their doubts. The sun was setting and there was no trace of any polling agent. I was beginning to get worried since the presence of agents on time was essential for the smooth conduct of the mock poll and the start of the real poll on time. I asked the policeman if he knew the local politicians and he replied that he shall try to contact some.

Sun had set and the lights were switched on around the premises. I was going through the handbook when I heard people approaching the booth. I looked out and saw some rough and tough men talking to the policeman. He came and told me that the BJP agents have come. I turned back and took out the signature reference sheet. The leader of the group entered the room and handed over the appointment letters. The letters only had the signature of the election agent of the candidate and nothing else was filled. After checking whether the signature was matching, I asked him if he is the agent. He replied in the negative and called out to his group. To my surprise, two shy young girls hesitantly entered the room. I helped them fill up the letters and told them to report back by 5.30am on the poll day morning. Massive relief 2: Polling agents of a major party are girls!!

Once they left I sat down to arrange the covers and fill up some forms. A lady came with her husband and introduced herself as the Kudumbasree head for the locality. She was given the charge of our food and snacks and she patiently took down our orders for dinner and breakfast. Massive relief 3: clean and hygienic food will be available on the table adjacent to our booth.

It was getting late and the two ladies in the team left for some nearby places for sleeping. They were asked to be back by 5am in the morning. Agents of the two major fronts were still missing. I had a shower and changed over to nightdress. Dinner arrived, chappathi and veg curry. Having finished dinner, I was checking my mail when the next group arrived. The bearded leader was calmness personified and he handed over the letters completely filled and signed by the election agent, Sri. V Sivan Kutty. Without reading the letters I asked him if the agents have come. He said yes and the agents moved from out of the darkness, astonishingly again two women!! Huge relief 4: Polling agents of the two bitter political rivals are all..... Women!!!

Congress agents came last, two college going young boys; and the most difficult task of any presiding officer, dealing with the rival polling agents within the booth, transformed into a cakewalk for me. From that moment onwards, it was just doing one's duty diligently :)

As a bonus, the BJP girl came with a male-female counter sheet of her own: which was quite handy for cross-checking with our worksheet at every one-hour interval :)