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Saturday, July 31, 2021

Life's Lessons - Who taught me what? (6)

 My special older sister: (Nagammal) She taught me what love for a younger sibling is and how to show it.

My children (Bama, Hari and Sheela)

My children taught me to loosen up, although I probably did not come to their expectations. I was somewhat rigid and orthodox in my thinking about many things. They changed me with Ramaa’s help and through her.

Teachers in School, College etc

There were many teachers in my school (Rajah”s High School) who were simple gentlemen from my hometown. They showed me what dedicated teaching means and why one takes this profession for such meager salary.

My time at Loyola College was essential for my further development and entry to medical school. Other than quality broad education, what I learnt during those two years were about life in general and growing up into an adult. I learnt about taking care of my own needs. I learnt to play sports. The most important experience was that of making some life-long friends (Peter Fernandez, “Rangs”, Chandra and Meenakshisundaram). They are still friends after 60 years. 

Medical School (Madras Medical College)

Who were some of the most influential people in medicine and how?

Top on the list is Dr.K.V. Thiruvengadam (affectionately known as KVT by all his students) with whom I was in contact until his death, sadly one of the victims of the COVID pandemic. I learnt from him what it is to be a clinician, how to be compassionate, and how to be soft and gentle with people. For bedside manners, he was my role model.

For social justice, Dr.K.S.Sanjivi set the standard for me.

Dr.S.T.Achar was responsible for creating in me an interest in pediatrics. He was another role model for my clinical skills.

While at Wadia Hospital for Children at Mumbai known at that time as Bombay, Dr. S.M. Merchant showed me how to make observations, interpret them and use clinical logic.

Above all, these role-models of mine treated everyone with compassion and kindness. They treated the rich and the poor with equal respect.

One other great experience while at the medical school was probably responsible for sowing the seeds for my interest in scientific inquiry. This was a visit by a WHO team who taught at my medical school for several weeks. I was fortunate enough to attend talks by Sir Alexander Fleming and Dr. Heymans (Both Nobel Laureates), Dr. Samuel Levine (Bellevue Hospital, Neonatology), Dr.Charles Aub (cardiologist, Harvard) and Dr.Leo Rigler (radiologist, University of Minnesota).  

Saturday, July 24, 2021

Life's lessons - Who taught me what? (5)

 Father (Hariharan)

My father was not as influential in my life as my elder brother was. The most important lesson he taught me, and my mother was the importance of forgiveness. (Rev. Thich Naht Hahn taught me the “how” - namely “how to forgive” - through his guided meditation on forgiveness)

Two other lessons he taught by example are: keeping promises and keeping trust.

My father’s mother had a much greater  influence on me and taught me more. That was my grandmother.

Paternal Grandmother (Chellathammal)

My paternal grandmother was an amazing lady who became a widow when she was very young and raised her two sons, one of them my father. She was a tough task master. But she was also full of love. She used to say: “The hands that punish you will also hug you”. That was true of her.

She showed me that wisdom has nothing to do with formal education. She did not have any education. But she was able to make wise decisions. How else could she have raised two boys as a very young widow and a single mother in the late 1800’s and early 1900?

Another lesson she gave me:  “Just because you are poor, you do not have the rights to take someone else’s belonging”.

She was old-fashioned enough that she did not encourage educating my sisters. But she insisted that “the only out of poverty was education” and supported the boys in the family – her sons, me and my brother.

She taught us Honesty. People in my street trusted her to do what she said she will do.

Although she was orthodox in her ways as a Brahmin, she treated everyone warmly and giving them due respect.  By her actions she taught us how to treat people with dignity whatever their social status. Here is one great example.

During the war, when rice was rationed, she will ask some of the poor folks to come at night (we were not supposed to give food?) and she will feed them. Therefore, I have seen them being loyal to her and come any time to help her, if asked. One such person was a poor lady who used to live selling yogurt. My grandmother will feed her every day.Therefore, the yogurt-lady was a loyal family friend. She was so loyal that when my middle sister became sick and was alone, that lady came from her village, stayed in our house and took care of my sister for a few days till someone else from the family could take over the care.

A local Priest (Sri. Narayana Bhattar)

Sri. Narayana Bhattar (we used to call him “bhattar mama”) taught me Sanskrit when I was 5 or 6 years old. I resented going to the class at that time. But am glad my family insisted on it. I did not know how much that Sanskrit knowledge will help me when I grew up.  Fortunately, I kept it up and now can boast of having read several passages from the Vedas and Upanishads in their original and even some Sanskrit classics such as Sakuntalam and Malavikagnimitra.

That experience taught me something about curriculum-setting in schools. There are some subjects which students would not like to learn because the subject is “dry” or they cannot see any point learning it. For example, in medical school, many students will not like anatomy or organic chemistry or statistics. That is  because they do not know of their usefulness in the future. People who have gone through the training and who are in practice should insist that some subjects should be learnt even if the student does not “like” it. The idea of students setting their own agenda/curriculum or taking all subjects as optional is questionable.

Srinivasa mama (“Dr”. mama)

Srinivasa mama was responsible for motivating me to become a physician. I need to write a few words about him so that the context (medical care in India in the first half of the 20th century) is clear.

He was NOT a doctor. He went to medical school for a year or two and was forced to leave for family reasons. He took a job in a Government Office. But, at a time when there were extremely few doctors and most of the care was provided by indigenous practitioners and ayurvedic doctors, it was common for “compounders” to practice medicine. Compounders were laymen who made up “mixtures” and “powders” (there were no prepackaged medicines in those days. Doctors mixed various medicinal chemicals in proper proportions. These were called the “mixtures” and “powders”) and ointments for doctors who practiced western or allopathic medicine.

During my high school years, I became sick with typhoid. There was no antibiotics in those days. I was so sick one night that my mother thought I will not survive as she told me that several years later. During recovery I was taken care of by Srinivasa mama. This was a defining experience because, this to my memory, was the beginning of my interest in becoming a doctor.

He not only sowed the seed for a desire to become a doctor, he also set a model of a compassionate physician for me to look up to.

Srinivasa mama worked in that capacity as a compounder with the limited knowledge he had acquired during his time as a medical student. But he was considered a full-fledged doctor by the community. More important, he was a compassionate human being who practiced the noble qualities of a physician better than many other doctors I have known. He listened and understood the needs of the people. He took care of “the entire person”. People consulted him on every aspect of their lives, from choosing a college to choosing a bride. Most important, he knew when to send them to a bona fide doctor. (May I add, he played a major part in my marriage too!)

He certainly inspired me to become a doctor. I learnt humane approach to medicine from him and, also how to take care of the whole person with a disease, not just the disease. 

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Life's Lessons - Who taught me what? (4)

 Brother (Nagam Athreya)

What did I learn from my elder brother (anna)? A better question will be: “Is there anything I know or was inspired to know which I did not learn from him?” None!

To write about my elder brother and his influence on me will take a book. He was my “father-figure” since he was older than me by 12 years. He was my Upadhyaya, acharya and guru. If I want to give him a Western-style designation, he was my Mentor, true to the definition of the word. He was one of my role-models.

He stimulated my thinking in every way. He taught me about the pleasures of reading and also techniques for reading with a purpose. He taught me how to read rapidly and still get the essence of a book.

He stimulated my interest in writing. I still remember his support when I started a “hand-written” monthly magazine when I was in High School. He suggested I name it “engal thottam” in Tamizh. (In English it means Our Garden). (Although the following lines are not related to the Title of the series, they are part of my memories of childhood in Ramanathaapuram. My brother wrote for this journal and made one or two of his friends to write also! Gurumanickam, a classmate, was the scribe. His handwriting was better than any print. The artist was “Chari”, grandson of Ramnad Srinivasa Iyengar, the famous composer known in the music circle as “Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar”. He was not a classmate but a school mate)

My elder brother taught me “How to listen?”. I learnt that skill from attending a course he gave to executives of companies in India. We discussed this topic whenever we met and exchanged notes on how this skill is applicable in medicine and in management (He was one of the Founding Fathers of Management as a discipline in India).

He taught me Human Relation Skills. I learnt these skills from him both seeing him in action and by attending some of his seminars. In our personal discussions, this was also a recurrent topic.

He taught me about Helping Skills and about the “Client Centered Therapy” of Carl Rogers. We used these ideas in our respective professional lives and exchanged notes.

He taught me what the word “Excellence” means. In one of our discussions, we tried to define that word. We agreed that when managers evaluate employees on their job-performance, they look at the knowledge, attitude and skills of that person. My brother used the following words during the discussion: “Evaluating people is devaluating them”. We learnt together that the word “excellence” should include two other components in addition to Knowledge, Attitude and Skills. Those two are: Values that underlie the performance and Creativity. 

He is one of the people who taught me the importance of life-long learning.

 Vow! That is a long list of things I learnt from him. There is so much more…………

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Life's Lessons - Who taught me what? (3)

 Ramaa - Life-partner

It is impossible not to learn somethings from one’s partner in life.

My mother gave me life. Then came someone who gave “her life” to the family, our family. That is Ramaa.

Sacrifice is the value she taught. I know that she sacrificed her life’s ambition to be a top-level surgeon, so she can be a mother and wife. I could not have accomplished as many things as I did in my profession and the children would not have thrived as well as they have done without her sacrifice.

On family values, work ethics, professional values, and other matters of importance, we were one solid unit. We had common goals and values. That required give and take. She had her own views which she expressed with passion. She was also open to new ideas and for discussion on important matters. That is a valuable lesson.

She taught me love for Nature and particularly for plants and flowers.  She made me go with her to some of the well-known flower gardens and flower shows such as Philadelphia Flower Show, Chelsea Flower Show in London, Keukanof Gardens in Holland, Brindavan Gardens in India,  Butchart Gardens in Canada and more.

She was a voracious reader and pushed me to widen my field of interest and to new authors. She taught the pleasures of reading good books to our children. 

She loved to learn and try new things and new ways of doing things. Her usual question to children was: “Unless you open the door how do you know what is on the other side?” 

One other major lesson she taught me is best expressed in her own words: “ When you do something for someone and when you make some donations, do not diminish their value by announcing them to the world”. 

She taught me the difference between “classy” and “showy” (she called it glitzy). She taught me and the children that good quality is more important than trendy things and brand names. She used to say that “if Nike wants me to wear a shoe advertising their name, Nike should pay me”.

She was quick to say “Sorry, I was wrong”. That is an important lesson.  Towards the end of her life, she also said: “I could have done a few things better; but have no regrets.”

Above all, she taught me that a mother’s life is always one of sacrifice. How else can I explain that an intelligent and highly motivated woman who aspired to be a world-class surgeon, leave that goal and work in a different field (radiology) on three days a week only so she can spend time with children on matters of importance to their growth and development. When she was offered a full-time work with plenty of monetary incentive, her answer was: “ You keep the money and I keep my time”.

Some quotes on Learning

“To know what you do not know is the beginning” – Confucius

“As long as you live, keep learning how to live” – Seneca

“It is what you learn after you know it all that counts” – John W. Gardner

“Go, learn what you need to know; then, practice what you learnt” – A Sanskrit aphorism

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Life's Lessons - Who taught me what? (2)

     It seems proper to start this series with my mother, my first teacher. She taught me so many things without my knowing until her death at the age of 99 with her fairness, forgiving nature, curiosity, and life-long learning.

Mother – Meenakshi

She lived to be almost 100. She did not have much “schooling”, but she was an “educated and wise” lady. I interviewed her for close to 6 hours when she was 99 years old and recorded our conversation. When I summarized her message to the younger generation (she lived long enough to see the 5th generation) for a monograph, these were the lessons she taught:  Forget and forgive; Adapt to time and place; Be straight forward; Practice compassion; Use kind words and Be flexible.

She was a life-long learner. She used to read till her final days. At the age of 92, she found an error in an article published in a local journal. She wrote to the editor and the editor published the correction!

She taught how to write. Her letters in Tamizh used to read like short stories.

She taught me to be non-adversarial in my relationships. Two of her famous statements were:     1. “do not corner people during discussions. If you do, they will behave like a cornered angry cat. They will see no escape and will pounce on you and excoriate you”. 2. “relationships are fragile like mirrors. If you break it, you can put it back, but the image will not be the same”. These two points taught me to think about their applicability to human relations in general. I learnt that “once you take a matter to a lawyer and a court, reconciliation becomes impossible”.

She also taught me to adapt to situations without being rigid.

She thought that everyone, irrespective of age, sex, economic status, should be respected and treated with dignity. She practiced it.

In responding to questions regarding the life-style of younger generation, she used to say: “ We have lived our lives. It is now your time. Do what you need to”.

There are two other lessons both Ramaa and myself learnt from her. 1. After doing any housework, particularly cooking, she will not sit and rest until the kitchen and the utensils were all cleaned up. Her reason was: “ this work has to be done sooner or later. If you let things stay in the sink, they will dry up and cleaning is that much harder and will take more time”. 2. In giving gifts and giving away family heirlooms she used to say: “What is the use of keeping those jewelries till I die when I can see my children enjoy them now?”

And her wisdom was shown in her answer to two questions during my long interview. When  asked about her view of after-life, she said: “No one who left this world came back to tell me what it is about. So, I do not have a definite opinion”. When asked about major changes that have occurred in the society during her lifetime, she said: “The freedom women enjoy now compared to when I was young is the most important one”.

I plan to end each segment with some quotes on learning. Here is the first set.

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested”-  Francis bacon (The Complete Essays of Francis Bacon. Washington Square Press, 1963. Page 130)

“A room without books is like a body without a soul” – Cicero

“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries” – Rene Descartes

“That is the thing about books. They let you travel without moving your feet” – Jhumpa Lahiri


Sunday, June 27, 2021

Life’s Lessons – Who taught me what? (1)


Dear friends, it is with great excitement I am starting to write this series of blogs.

I have been fortunate to have had great experiences in my personal and professional lives. I am fortunate to have been born in a family which gave me longevity, open mind, love for learning and great values. I was fortunate to find a partner who taught me many things and gave me “our” (my) family. Many of my teachers were not only knowledgeable in their fields but also were great human beings.  Some of them were upadhyayas (Sanskrit word meaning one who sits next to you and teaches), as in the schools. Some were acharyas (Sanskrit word for one who teaches by doing), particularly in the medical school. A few of them were my gurus (who influences you just by their presence). They were there when I needed and gave me wise counsel.  Many of my gurus were from other walks of life. I have had the pleasure of living and working with great people from whom I learned. In my work, I learned constantly from my young patients and their parents and, also from my students, trainees, and colleagues. Later still, my children taught me many things and introduced me to authors and books I would never have known.  

We can learn a lot of information from reading books. We can do so even better from the Internet. We can learn skills on any subject - from how to cut onions to how to make dangerous weapons - from watching Videos. But we can learn how to think logically, how to make wise judgments, how to develop lasting values, how to work with others, how to listen and how to communicate effectively with sensitivity and compassion ONLY from our interactions with family members, our teachers, our friends, our co-workers, and our children. In other words, we learn life’s most important lessons only by living, observing, and listening.  

That is why Gracian Balthazar (17th century Jesuit priest) said: “Spend the first act with the dead; the second with the living and the third act entirely belongs to you”. What he meant was that we should read as many books as possible (written by authors who are no more) in our early years. During the second part of our lives, we should be learning from people we live and work with. In the final third of life, we should spend time reflecting.

I feel like I have plenty to share with the future generations, which is a common weakness among  elders. What is worse for the younger folks is that we want them to listen to our stories and “wisdom” (bore them, from their point of view). I am no exception.  I will feel like a miser if I do not share what I have learnt over the years. As pointed out by someone wiser than me: “there are two things one cannot take with oneself at the time of death – money and knowledge”.

Life is a lesson by itself. Life is also full of lessons, if only our eyes and ears are open, and we are ready to learn. We must all be life-learning learners. A passage from a book called Subhashita, which is a collection of words of wisdom or an epigram, states:

अनन्तश्च शास्त्रम् बहु विदेतितव्यं स्वल्पश्च कालं बहव­­श्चविघ्नाः     This translates to state that there are so many sciences, there is so much to learn, but the time is short and obstacles are many!

So here I go with a list of several people in my life from whom I learnt and what I think I learnt from them. The list also includes some events and books which influenced my personal philosophy.

            Let me start with two legendary figures. One is Dattatreya and the other is Buddha.  I have written about them in my blog on September 18, 2010 (Time for Thought: Search results for Dattatreya).

Dattatreya is a mythical figure. He is mentioned in Uddhava Gita (Chapter II: Sloka 33-34) as one who considered 24 things of Nature as his gurus. He points out what he learnt from each of these gurus.

1.Earth taught him tolerance and patience. Earth also taught him about giving (plants, river etc.,).
2. Space is wide and limitless like our Atman, the inner self.
3.Fire burns both the good and the bad, gives warmth when it is cold outside, but burns when touched.
4. Water is nice, cool and clear and our mind should be like that.
5. Wind carries bad odor and good smell but is unaffected by them.
6. The moon seems to diminish but not really so. Similarly, our inner self is always there although the body diminishes.
7. The Sun takes in the water and gives it back as rain. We need to take and give with our hands but do not grasp and hold on to them.
8. The Ocean stays at same volume and although it receives all the rivers
9. A boat reminds us of the rafts we need to cross this river/ocean called life
10. A Child has a simple mind without pride or prejudice
11. Young girl removed all her bangles except one so that they do not make noise, teaching the importance of solitude and silence.
12. A Marksman showed how to focus on the target.
13. Elephant is very strong and yet will listen to command.
14. Dog shoed him what  loyalty is.
15. Deer (any animal) taught him how to be satisfied with what is available to eat, not worrying about tomorrow, and how to care for the young.
16. Python became a teacher because it eats only when food is available.
17. He learnt about the philosophy of mistaking rope for a snake due to ignorance, when he observed a snake.
18. He saw Chameleon’s ability to change itself to suit the circumstances.
19. Ant was a teacher because of its tireless work ethics.
20. Mosquito reminded him of bad people who are always hurting others.
21. Bedbug reminded him of people who do bad things and hide.
22. Spider spinning and drawing back its silk reminded him of how this universe manifests from and disappears into Brahman.
23. Bee collects honey from several sources and taught him about learning from several sources.
24.The two wings of birds taught him about the need for knowledge and determination.

Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, is a historical figure whose life has been well-documented. There is an episode in his history about a lesson he gave to Rahula, his son. In the passage, Buddha says: “Rahula, learn from the earth. Whether people spread pure and fragrant flower or discard filthy, foul-smelling material, she receives them all without clinging or aversion. Learn from the Water. When people wash dirty things in it, the water is not sad or disdainful. Learn from fire because it burns all things without discrimination. Learn from the air. It carries all fragrances whether sweet or foul”.

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Information - Energy Guzzler

 I have been interested in the topic of Information as a fundamental unit of nature on par with space, time matter and energy, although I am not a physicist. My understanding of Information is at a layperson's level. But my interest is deep from a philosophical point of view. It is also because of my interest in understanding how our mind works.

I just realized that our mind (brain) has been telling us something important about gathering, processing, storing, retrieving , transforming and transmitting information. Mechanistically speaking the brain is a complicated, efficient information-processing machine. The entire operation requires enormous amount of energy! Our brain uses up 20% of our metabolic energy.

This is what scientists working in Information Technology are finding. Scientists are saying that  we  require enormous amount of energy to handle the exponential increase in collection and storage of data and new technologies to analyze and utilize the data such as A I. Generating that amount of energy may even cancel out our current efforts to mitigate the rapid heating of our planet!