Monday, July 26, 2010


I feel contaminated. That tight embrace, that laughter, that pleasure, that mischief in her eye, which I could not see yet sense; that betrayal, which I saw and yet could not look at - all unwelcome, yet all are keeping on returning to me. Why? Why the fuck are they returning? My acquaintance with this dirt is so new; I never knew it even existed to contaminate me, yet now that it has touched me, bathed me in itself, she is being so loyal. Bitch! I don't know what to do with it. Can I get rid of it? Would it ever be possible for me to forget all that? Or would it be easier to forget she is my mother of 27 years? Twenty seven years, of which 26 I had lived with both of them - mom and dad.

She seeped into her past, and the past equally eagerly gobbled her up. That night, a truck, its driver and the 50 milliliters of alcohol in his body had decided, her dad had had enough of this living business.

Since that day, mom and I were united by grief, relation by blood was merely incidental. On so many occasions I had felt that tinge of happiness. But no, I had denied it to myself on all occasions. All! How could I have allowed ... allowed myself to be happy? My dad. Yes, my dad is no more. The truck, the driver, and the alcohol were mere excuses. I was responsible for his death. And mom was.

Her dad was in Nashik, to seal one of his bigger contracts. He was to stay overnight and return in the morning - the morning that was to be the one following her birthday. But she and her mom had insisted that he return to celebrate their daughter's birthday. When he had refused, they had used their ultimate weapon that had seemed innocuous to them till then - "Dad, when will you stop running after this money? Your daughter is not important for you?" Her mom had winked at this put on act. They had had a hearty laugh when she ended the call, and that was that; they had never laughed again. Till today, that is. Her mom had breached that unwritten, unstated contract.

My mother is a whore. Yes, why am I shying away from that fact. She is a whore, so what if she is my mother. She is a whore, a depraved woman. A woman belonging to the gutters. So what if she is my mother. How the hell did she fuck my uncle? Her brother-in-law? Since when all this must have been going on? How could she do that? I should have always suspected. He's a son of a bitch! I should have anticipated this. His wife had died 2 years back, and he must have been on look out of some easy-going pussy. Bastard! How could he do that? Did he not think of his deceased brother? Had dad been alive today? Ah, dad is dead. And so... and so my mom... She became available. How is it his fault. He saw an available pussy and...

No! I can't take this. She's such a professional. Such an accomplished whore. She had made 'kheer' for the lunch! She was humming. A god-damned r-o-m-a-n-t-i-c song! As if nothing had happened. As if dad had never died! As if dad had never lived! Why did I not spit in her face? Why did I not scratch it? Why did I not punch her nose into a pulp? Whore! Yes, why did I not call her that ... in her face? What did I fear? Why did that whore have to be my mother?

She had done none of those. But had cried, cried and cried. Still, her tears had not washed away her dirt. She was contaminated. She had taken an off from her work as she was not feeling well. And when she had returned unknown to her mother and the uncle were... what she saw returning to home made her even sicker. She had to return to her clinic. Yet even here, that scene, that depravity, betrayal all - kept on returning to haunt her. They played in her mind, and on it.

Having freshly completed her dermatology diploma, she was posted in the STD (sexually transmitted diseases)-clinic of her hospital. Rest of the staff was surprised to see her back. She took it upon herself to clear the backlog of patients. But the memory of what she had seen that morning would not leave her. Her next patient was a 30 year-old elderly lady. Syphilis! She saw the white patches on her palm with reddish rash sprinkled over them. She had got bored of seeing so many syphilis patients. The 30 year-old elderly lady was accompanied by her son - not elderly, barely 15. "Secondary syphilis, it must be", she thought. Must have acquired from her unfaithful husband. Bastards!

"Kab se hai inhein yeh?" [Since when is she suffering from this?], she asked the son who was visibly at the helm of affairs.
"Do hafton se, madam." [Since two weeks, madam], he said with a gaze that betrayed pain as well as hope. Hope, that his mom would get well, be cured of her pains.

Somehow she felt touched. She could feel her mind developing an aptitude for things other than anger, viz., sympathy and a sincere urge to help.

"Tere pitaaji nahin aaye saath mein?" [Your dad did not accompany her?]
"Mere pitaaji nahin hai" [My dad is not there]. "Maan dhandha karti hai" [My mom is a prostitute]

That hit her like a barb!

These whores, they are everywhere! This bastard, he must not even know who his dad is. Oh, fuck! I can't stand this.

She sighed. She could not speak out all that. Every unformed word she was keeping inside of her was now banging against her ... from within. The pressure was building. Suddenly, she wanted to get it done with as quickly as possible.

"Is ke pehale is ko koi dawaai di thi" [Was she given any medication for this before], she could not keep the contempt out of her voice. She was not sure if she was trying extra hard to instead poison her conduct with as much contempt as possible.

He opened his wallet and started searching for the old prescription. It was taking some time, and she was getting irritated.

"Rehane de. Tum jaise log ek parcha bhi nahin sambhaal sakte." [Leave it, people like you cannot even preserve a scrap of paper]

He panicked, searching a bit more frantically.

Bastard! He must not even know who his dad is. His mom must have made it out with countless pigs. Some random fucker impregnated her, she got pregnant and raised this basta...

Just then a small black-and-white photograph fell out of his wallet. She was holding him, hugging him, kissing him on his cheek, totally unconscious of the camera. And she did not look elderly. She was a girl, then. A child-mother. Her son picked up the photograph from the floor. Just a moment back he was panicking, but the moment his gaze fell on the photograph, there was certain steadiness about him. That photograph, the shared memory of a shared life... it was the anchor to a puny boat tossing in a tumultuous ocean that he was. A light smile played on his lips, and he placed the photograph back.

How could this bastard smile?!! What right has he got to smile. His mother is a fucking whore! Is he not ashamed? Is he not contaminated?

His smile too hit her like a barb. This bastard... Her mind jolted to a halt mid-thought. I have called so many men bastards in real life, yet they were all legitimate. But, this guy, he's truly a bastard and... And, I don't know what is wrong! Why did he smile? Why does he not hate his mother? She's a fucking whore? How could that be?

In the meantime, he produced the old prescription. Relief was writ all over his face. As if producing the prescription was the most important thing to cure his mother. In a way it was. That was the best he could do. Her head was now spinning faster. She had never known ambivalence could be so hard to bear. She had got so used to judging people! 'Good', 'bad', 'ugly', 'cruel', 'nice', 'interesting', 'asshole', 'whore', bastard'... But this guy, her contempt did not just touch him! Her judgment felt flat before his smile, That guileless, proud, smile. A smile with knowledge of an anchor to smile for. A smile for a reason. A smile with no reason. A smile, simply for existing, and being proud of that existence. He lived on an entirely different plane. And so must his mother, a fucking whore. By now, she was not even sure if 'whore' and 'bastard' were any longer vehicles of contempt. Oh, they were just... they were just a mode of existing - external trappings, conveying nothing about the beauty of the soul within.

So, this guy he does not even know who his father was. His mother brought him up with utmost dedication. He kept on loving her like any child would. What the world thought of his mother was not important to him. He knew what his mother meant for him, and what he meant for her. She is everything for him. He is everything for her. They are happy! Save this minor inconvenience of syphilis. Fucking bastards!

She smiled. She had somehow fallen in love with those words now. Her mind returned to her mother. And her uncle. Replaying everything right from the time of her dad's death. In her attempt to keep herself from being happy, she had replayed everything a countless times. She had not come to terms with it. Actually, she was afraid that she might.

Uncle, a widower since two years, who had been on very good terms with dad and us, helped us out of that chaos. He too was grieved. He had run around to get so many works done. Mom and I were incapable of doing that. We never realized, how many hassles must have been there to claim insurance money, the property papers and what not. We were just busy grieving and wallowing in our self-pity. Just like mom and I, mom and he too were united in their grief. They spent lot of time together, trying to pick up the threads of their life. I had my studies, my job to keep me busy. I had other things to look forward to, to plan ahead. What did they have? They both had a vacuum to fill. They both could fill a vacuum. That's it! They fell in love! Why the hell did I get so much bothered? I jealous of mom's happiness? How could I be? What kind of pathetic child I am? Had I accepted the society's terms that someone's death means eternal grieving. That feeling happiness is a sin? Why did I so eagerly embrace the guilt, the melancholy that the society is ever willing to distribute? Oh, fuck! What was I doing? How could I think that way about my mom? Yes, so what if she wanted to feel happy? What's wrong with the sincere warmth they both are sharing? Why should I let our contractual guilt and grief come in between?

"Yeh injections hain, jo pehale diye the wahi hain. Aur do hafton tak lagaane honge. Aur, aur kahin mat jaana, mere paas hi dikhaane aana" [I'm prescribing the same injections she had been taking before and will have to be used for two more weeks. Come to show me after that, and do not go to show any other doctor], she said as she handed over the prescription. "Woh photo dikhaana" [Show me that photo (please)!]. He was somewhat taken aback, but gave it to her. She looked intently at it, and recalled days from her childhood. "Bahut pyaari photo hai." [A very lovely photo!].
"Thank you, madam!" The mother-son duo obviously, a bit surprised at her sudden turnaround, shuffled out of the room.

She reached back home. She did not know how to face her mother. A most wonderful mother for whom her filthy mind had thought the most degraded thoughts and had engendered so much hatred. She realized, they were not united by grief, but were instead grieving in unison. Grieving was as an end in itself. Because... because, she had no answer. Because perhaps, she had accepted happiness to be a vice. Guilt and grief were virtues. Ha!

She looked at her mom, who had just asked, "how is your headache, beta?". She started crying! She was a sinner. She had sinned against her mother. Would she ever be able to confess. Would she ever be able to forgive herself?

She jerked off her mother's loving hand that was on her shoulder.

"Don't touch me, mom! I'm contaminated."

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Counterintuitive Ideas on Career-Choice

Do not make that you are most passionate about, your source of livelihood

That is what I have told many people who I interact with online. A few disclaimers are in order, though. I have not yet practically begun my career, so great portion of my analysis is purely conjectural. Also, the above idea if taken as an advise would apply particularly to those who are faced with the prospect of making a career-related choice (in India). Of course, others who are already into their careers, and armed with the benefit of a hind-sight can provide their feedback.

I will begin with an anecdote.


During my MBBS-days, I had come in close contact with my psychiatry teacher. I would rate him as one of the best teachers I ever had. In a seminar a group of students was to present, it became apparent that even two years after the completion of his postgraduation course, he was remembering the respective functions of alpha-subunits (click) of various G-proteins (click). Those readers to who this statement won't make sense, suffice to say that his study was very detailed and he must have really loved his books and the field of psychiatry to have remembered all that. In short time he had become my idol. I had really started loving psychiatry, yet something was holding me back from thinking of it as a serious career-choice. Of course, he never nudged me into trying to take up psychiatry as a career, but on taking a stock of my own feelings, I concluded that my reservation was owing to the fact that despite knowing in great details the causes of many conditions at even molecular level, we as clinicians cannot do much to correct the 'root' causes!

This because, we cannot make the right molecule reach the right part of the brain to act on it. Molecules of any drug will reach even those parts of brain where nothing is wrong, and cause undesired effects. This in turn is because, brain actually uses a very limited number of molecules (called neurotransmitters [click]) to carry out the countless functions it performs. What brings specificity are not as much the particular type of neurtotransmitter released or the specific receptor for it, but more so the way the neurons are 'wired' to each other. E.g. a nerotransmitter 'M' when released by neroun '1' when acting on receptor 'R1' present on neuron '2' can activate it. In turn the neuron '2' activates neuron '3' by releasing molecule 'N' acting on receptor 'R2' present on the latter. Thus, final effect of release of M by neuron 1 would be the activation of neruon 3. But what if, instead of 'R1' present on neuron 2, we have receptor 'R3', which inhibits its function instead of activating it? Obviously, release of M by neuron 1 would cause inhibition of release of N, and neuron 3 would tend to remain inactivated. So now, think of a disorder wherein neurons in one region of the brain produce less of M. To counter this deficiency, if we deliver an oral dose of a drug that would enhance availability of M to neuron 2 it can compensate for the deficiency, right? The drug molecules upon crossing the blood brain barrier (click) will reach the fluid bathing the glial cells (click) that surround the individual neurons. The glial cells in turn would modulate the amount of drug reaching neuron 2. Now, the problem is that not all regions of brain are deficient in M! So the regions with normally functioning type 1 neurons will also receive additional amounts of M (because the administered drug would be supposed to do that). So, obviously depending upon whether neuron 2 in other regions inhibits or activates the 'downstream' neuron 3, this situation would result in derangement of many functions. Plus, not to mention the difficulty in making most drugs cross the blood brain barrier.

Of course, I did not have to explain what I wrote in the preceding paragraph to my teacher. It was only for the benefit of the reader. So our means to target specific disorders of brain (prominently, psychiatric disorders) are very limited. And that would remain so for the foreseeable future. This limitation would lead to imminent feeling of helplessness and frustration. The bottomline is: I had decided against being a psychiatrist. Some days before that, to look up something he had shown me one of his texts on psychiatry. It was a two (or three, I don't remember for sure)-volume set (easily over 3,000 pages in all), and it must be said that he had read each and every page more than once. I was surprised and impressed with his dedication. I mentioned that to him, so he smiled and showed me yet another textbook a with one volume more than the previous one, and which he had similarly 'ill-treated'! ;) Also, as a clinician, he was gentle and empathetic with patients. I realized, it takes a lot for a psychiatrist to not get emotionally involved with the patients. They cannot afford to do so. So, they take refuge in humor. But despite that he had never been contemptuous of patients and used to take great care in maintaining confidentiality despite the fact that most patients coming to that hospital were poor and quite uneducated, so there would be little chance of litigation; I was left with little doubt that this person just loved psychiatry. A lot. And that he was also a very suitable to be a psychiatrist.

He was to quit the college job to start his own practice in one of the bigger towns in Maharashtra. He had this fascination to have his own practice. He made his intentions clear that he would like to lead a comfortable life and earn sufficiently for that. His wife is a dermatologist. So, I could not make out how much would he have liked to earn! Anyway, for many people, private medical practice is enticing not merely because it would offer them chance to earn more (which by the way, does not happen in many cases), but also because it satisfies their entrepreneurial urges. At that time (in 2004-05) his and his wife's monthly salary had been Rs. 18,000 each. And he was 30. Obviously, it was a very low pay. But he explained that the situation was much the same in any college (now pay scales are better owing to implementation of the sixth pay commission).

So off he went to the town he had chosen. A few weeks later, he had returned to the college for some work. And as we were having a chat, he mentioned in passing that he had joined the local laughter club in his town. I was amused. I asked him if he indeed believed in the purported health benefits of such laughing. He told me, he had joined the club not for any health benefits, but for networking - to come into contact with more people, which in turn would bring him more patients (and more money)!

I was shattered.


Here was a man, perfect in my eyes to practice as a psychiatrist, also quite ethical, who loved psychiatry, and yet he had to resort to such dishonorable means to get patients to earn money? To me it was like his cheating on his love - the field of psychiatry. I cannot yet describe how I had felt listening to him say that. Did he care any longer for psychiatry? Would he still try to remember the G-protein subtypes? Would he still be curious to understand what was wrong with the patient or would he be more interested in getting the patient to come back to him only to dry the patient's pockets, or earn money from 'cuts' (anecdotally, the 30% commission) received by referring the patient for other (needless) investigations and consultations? I want to clarify here, that what had shocked me was not his eagerness to earn money, or even some of the unethical means that he might have come to use in the process, but what had happened between him and psychiatry! He had loved it. And, now?

I concluded that what we are most passionate about is like a romantic relationship. We hold highly idealistic views of our objects of love. We hold them in high regard. We reserve the best we could be for them, otherwise we would be afraid of defiling them. Imagine, having to lie on some very vital matter to someone you love and respect, how difficult is it? A lot, at least for me. But making that passion a means of sustenance is like marrying it! The attraction gradually dies. The small things we dislike about it amplify and start grating on our nerves. The compulsion to earn using what we are passionate about makes us hate what we had loved to begin with. This compulsion also compels us into making 'adjustments' in how we do what we do with our passion. It starts seeming like we are prostituting our skills and abilities and the passion that would have gone in acquiring them only to earn damn money!

To say the same thing in somewhat different words, when you earn, you are the supply, your client is the demand. More often than not owing to market forces, it is the demand that shapes the nature of supply. The supply cannot be arrogant to say, "hey dude, here's what I got. You want it? No? Sorry, look elsewhere", because our dude would indeed look elsewhere! As an obvious corollary, the supply has to mold according to what the demand is.

Of course, 'reasonable' compromises can be made with our passion. Really? Remember, wasn't your passion your Divine? If it was not, it was never passion in the first place. Wasn't it something that you had held dearest to you, always maintaining its sanctity, never defiling it? Wasn't that passion, the manner in which you let it unfold, an embodiment of what you were, what your deepest values and aspirations were? Now you have come to this, that you want to make reasonable compromises with it, eh? So, now your Divine is no longer Divine, but an agreeable neighbor who you could approach in times of need, or much worse, your 'host' who you parasite upon like a leech?

To give my example, I love to: observe; make sense of what I get to observe; think; organize my thoughts and articulate them in the most precise fashion possible through words. It is one of the greatest passions of mine. What would happen if I make a career out of it? E.g., if I have a mechanism for receiving donations on my blog, and each time I write something humorous I get Rs. 200, but each time I write on religion and god - criticizing the two, I get nothing. What would happen if my survival were to depend on how much money I make through blogging? Each time I feel like blogging on atheism, would I be able to do it with same passion and honesty as without any concern for how my write up is received?

Think of a school science teacher. What if she enjoys teaching concepts by giving analogies, and also likes to enlist the applications of such concepts? What if she enjoys making students think, and see their eyes fill with wonder on understanding something novel about something ubiquitous? But as you know, that is not what our education and exams are about! They are about mundane facts, or how to underline the most important "points" while answering; how to best convince the evaluator that you know the answers (irrespective of whether you actually know)! What if students do not want to learn what she teaches? Then our teacher might come down to the level of merely dictating notes. Or, if the students are to appear for entrance exams, and if the said teacher would be teaching in some 'coaching institute' then she would share 'tricks', 'shortcuts' and mnemonics with them. What would happen to science and her love for it; that would get buried somewhere? Can you imagine how miserable would she feel?

This clash between demand and supply has been very well exemplified by Howard Roark (click), the architect from Ayn Rand's (click) novel - 'The Fountainhead'. Though a great fan of Ayn Rand and her vision, I am stating here something almost contradictory to the 'moral' of her story. In her story, Roark triumphs against his adversaries. His complete antithesis - Peter Keating (mentioned in the same Wikipedia article on Roark) - initially succeeds a lot as an architect. Keating's only drives are approval by others and money. In the process, he loses everything - including the only one thing he had truly loved in all his life - his friend of childhood - Catherine. While, what happened to Keating is very likely to happen in real life, Howard Roark was plain lucky! Also, he had this incredible amount of tolerance. Tolerance of contempt, tolerance of physical hardships, tolerance of deceptions, tolerance of slow rate at which time passed (in other words, patience he showed in waiting for Dominique Francon to understand that he could not allow 'others' to dictate to him what he did with his life, and that what others thought of his work was not a determinant of whether he should do it), tolerance for failures. The only thing he did not have was tolerance for derision of his Divine, i.e., his vision of what buildings should be like. His Divine was intensely personal to him - he could not tolerate others' touching his building-designs, more specifically, the functionality behind them (Rand had sought to use functionality of building designs as the counterpart of 'truthfulness' in one's way of living). His vision of his Divine was sacrosanct to him. Others' visions, if not backed by the same passion, were mere contaminants for him. All this might make him seem arrogant, to be so unaccommodating, but what endeared him to me was his frank admission of the same! He had one true love - architecture - and he stayed loyal to it. On many occasions, by trading off his comfort and prospects of fulfillment of other desires. Thus, Howard Roark for me became the perfect human being that could be envisioned! He was my Divine (click), and still is. But I am not trying to emulate him. I know I do not have it in me to live the way he had. In fact, Ayn Rand had herself alluded to the fact that her (exemplary) characters are not to be found in the real life, but were extreme idealizations of traits that could be found in some extraordinary humans.To paraphrase her (and in turn, Aristotle), she had wanted to present characters, not as humans are, but could be and ought to be. And she had juxtaposed those perfect characters with the contemporary imperfect world, which was quite adversarial to perfection (as envisioned by Rand). She wanted to highlight the conflicts that perfection had to engage in to be able to survive in its purest form.

So, what is the solution? Should one abandon what one is most passionate about, and totally forget it, only for the fear of the difficulties that the world would pose?

In a way, yes. But of course, not totally. It is not as bad as it might sound. I think it is best to pursue what one generally likes but also has a few misgivings about as one's vocation (for income). This will ensure two things. First, you would be sensitized to the possibilities of disappointment and frustration. If your fears indeed turn out true, you would be emotionally prepared for that. Also, as you would not have invested all your emotions in the 'also-liked' activity, you would still have lot many things to look forward to in your life if your career does not shape up exactly the way you had wanted. The second thing that this would ensure is that you will still have fascination for your passion. Your romance with it can continue on the side. You can pursue it as your amateur interest, doing exactly what you want, exactly on your own terms, without any care of who says what or how much you get to earn from pursuing it. Additionally, one can use that amateur hobby as a source of supplementary income (e.g., photography, painting, writing, etc.). Another related idea is to try to save sufficiently in the early parts of your career, and when you have requisite financial security, you could try making a career out of your passion.

Of course, not all career-options are open to amateur pursuit. E.g., joining the army or being a civil engineer or a doctor. But if one looks at such choices carefully, it must be asked, how can one develop passion for them without any exposure to the actual work involved in those fields? I have seen many adolescents/children get fascinated by the white coat, the stethoscope and the respect that doctors command. But that is not what medical practice is about! Fascination for such things hardly amounts to passion! And I'm afraid, quite a few teenagers harbor wrong impressions about what a particular field of work entails.

Also, despite my never having been to any western country, I feel people there do not need to be as much apprehensive while selecting their career for many reasons. First, there seems to be lesser competition for college 'seats'. Second, work ethics are better, so it is easier to like one's work there (whereas, the situations seems to be quite the opposite in India!). Third, the society is more accepting of various kinds of career choices. There would not be neighbors or relatives gossipping about an unconventional career choice one makes. Also, they are more accommodating in general of choices people make. E.g., someone aged thirty-five making a career switch would not be ridiculed by his 15 years younger class mates, but in all likelihood would still be respected for exploring new things. Fourth, owing to greater availability of college seats it is easier to make a career switch. Fifth, on the whole less effort is required to be able to afford the basic amenities for living. Meaning, even if one makes a bad career choice, and income would be less, their existence would not be 'hand-to-mouth' so to say. Whereas in India, vast majority of employed people have to struggle real hard for even basic survival.

So basically through the preceding paragraph, I just wanted to point out that the extreme paranoia that forms the backdrop of my entire argument, would apply only to India or few other countries with comparable social milieu and economic condition.

I am aware that given the extremely loud message conveyed by the media (in form of career advise in 'educational' supplements) and movies like 3 idiots (click) of to go for career involving one's passion, my arguments to some might seem extremely wacky or deliberate attempt to be stand in opposition to common sense. However, that of course is not the case. :)

Your thoughts are welcome!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ethics in Tangents: Part 1 - Lessons on Inequity of Risks and Benefits

In a lecture on radiation safety, the teacher had veered a bit into the ethics of peaceful uses of nuclear energy. He explained that it has to be ensured that those working at nuclear establishments for larger good of the society (e.g., energy production, diagnosis & treatment in medicine) despite facing risks to health & life, must be adequately compensated as not all the benefits that arise off their work go to those working. A logic similar in line has been laid out by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (IRCP) [click] in their (PDF) document on their History, Policies, Principles (click to download):

For equity reasons (because those who are exposed are not necessarily those who gain by a practice) some dose or risk limitation is necessary to prevent the optimised situation from being one where a few individuals receive inappropriately high doses.

It was agreed between the teacher and the students that that compensation to the workers is in the form of the salary they draw. But that got me thinking: is that really so, more so in the government-controlled nuclear establishments in India? Do those working at high-risk places get higher pay as compared to those doing the same work in low-risk environments? Does for instance, an office clerk working in precincts of a nuclear establishment draw a larger salary than one working in a college administrative office? Answer, as of now is “no”. Why is that so?

My above thoughts were tangential to what was being discussed in the class (though, I would return to them later). The teacher went on to assert that if nuclear establishment worker gets monetarily compensated for the risk he/she takes, then the converse must also hold true, i.e., all those who derive benefit from existence of such establishments must face a non-zero quantum of risk. Well, that made perfect sense to me. And that is how he justified the risks posed to the general public by the operation of facilities with radioinuclides [click] (those forms of elements that emit ionizing radiation, which have potential for health hazards). As an aside, I came across this (click) blog post, which explains how risks posed by waste routinely generated from nuclear power plants have been overestimated by many [note: the article does not cite many sources, moreover, it does not cover risks posed by nuclear accidents, but to the best of my knowledge is quite correct].

Later, the teacher also explained how the principle of ALARA (click) - As Low As Reasonably Achievable that the ICRP uses for (radiation) dose-optimization has a flaw. Why what risk (radiation dose) I find reasonable for the benefits I derive, should also be reasonable to my neighbor? What alternative does one who applies most stringent threshold for radiation exposure have if the majority in an area consent to a higher dose? This led me to think about the representative form of governance. It allows a small number of people to take decisions on behalf of a very large number of people who ironically would be influenced much greatly by such decisions. So possibly, not just a minority, but even the majority in a constituency could be opposed to construction and operation of nuclear establishment in their vicinity, and yet the government (small number of individuals) would have the legitimate authority to overrule such a wish. But this ethical predicament is taken care of by the assumption that the electorate would choose with greatest conviction (and hence, numbers) a person they trust the most to take decisions in their best interest. This was just an offshoot of thoughts in my mind, and I would not like to comment any further on this aspect of representative form of democracy.

Returning to one of the original predicaments: why would a clerk working for a nuclear establishment in India not be paid more than another clerk working in an administrative office of a college despite the former facing a greater risk to health and life? It is not difficult to answer – unemployment. Of course, there could be other reasons too for the said clerk not demanding a higher pay, e.g., ignorance of the risks posed by working there. But yet, I believe the biggest reason is unemployment. The state of employment market, even in government sector, whether we realize or not, is greatly influenced by demand-supply factors. The said clerk does not have any bargaining power. The moment he would say, “I want higher pay for the additional risk I would be facing”, the government would tell, “fuck off! Next!”. So obviously, our clerk is not going to make such a plea. Because he would know that there are many people with his kind of abilities seeking livelihood. If not him, someone else would take his place. This brings us to a somewhat intuitively obvious inference – the money that can be earned from doing a job is a function of:

1. Number of people wanting a job done. Greater the demand for a job, greater would be the pay.

2. Number of people willing to do that job. More the number of people willing to do the job, greater would be the bargaining power of those wanting the job done. Thus lesser would be the amount paid.

3. Number of people capable of doing that job. Greater the skill/training/experience a particular job requires, fewer would be the people capable of doing that job.

While, I had been vaguely aware of above factors, I was made to think more about them during one of my train journeys from Delhi to Mumbai. I had a very heavy luggage with me, mostly consisting of books - could have exceeded 100 kg. Whatever be the exact weight, I had to engage a porter to carry my luggage to the platform. I had another friend with me, and what the porters had demanded was exorbitant amount – to the tune of Rs. 800 for all the luggage. Seeing the weight of luggage, I was alright with that amount, but my friend was not. So, we engaged only two porters instead of three or four that would have been required. The arrangement obviously required us to carry quite a bit of luggage ourselves – covering a distance of about 300 m. By the time we had accomplished the task we were totally exhausted, and needless to say, a few of our muscles must have got pulled. But for me, the ordeal was not over yet! My train was scheduled to depart a couple of hours after my friend's – and from a different platform! Basically, I had accompanied him from the hostel for the sake of keeping him company. Before he boarded his train, we had engaged another porter to shift my luggage to the platform where my train was to arrive. He and I had carried some luggage so that only one porter would be required. But it so turned out that my train coach was to stop at a faraway point from where we had parked my luggage. So, I had no option but to ask yet another porter to carry my luggage from the original position to the appropriate spot on the platform - this time, just to transfer the luggage form one segment of the platform to another. Weirdly, there were no trolleys at the New Delhi railway station. I suspect, it could be because of the lobbying by porters' association as that would increase their earning. But that is besides the point. The third (and the last time) I had required porter's service, I was so exhausted (and also in pain), that how much I was paying was least of my concerns! It could be pointed out that I could have better planned the whole thing, and saved some odd hundred or so rupees, but again that is besides the point. The incident brought one thing to my attention. Whatever amount one pays the porter, it is basically less than what he 'deserves'. You might ask how?

My inference follows from one assumption, i.e., “no one likes to part with the money they have”. So, if you pay amount 'x' to the porter, you've the option of not giving that money. How? By carrying your luggage yourself. Carrying luggage is a very simple job – it does not require much specialized skill. Yes, if you are alone, then you might not be able to carry the luggage yourself, as you might have to make more than one round to carry all of it. But in most cases, people hire a porter's service because they are uncomfortable doing the job themselves. It is to avoid exhaustion and pain that carrying the luggage would cause. So, if despite having the option to carry the luggage yourself, and not lose the amount x in the process, that you agree to lose it only proves that you would have not carried that much luggage for someone else to earn amount x. Now just pause for a moment and think:

For what amount of money would you be ready to carry for someone else the same luggage that you ask the porter to carry?

I believe, some of the middle class/upper middle class or upper class persons would feel offended at being asked such a question. But that is not totally besides the point. Just kindly note the contempt some might feel for the job of carrying others' luggage or for the persons doing so, so much so that this question itself would lead to perceived offense. Anyway, returning to the point. For instance, on that day I had to pay up around Rs. 300 to the porters. Would I carry that much luggage as the porters did for me for someone else for Rs. 300? No, I will not. Yet, I felt the porters had charged me pretty steeply! Is that not weird? How much would I charge to carry that much luggage? I indeed thought about it. Not less than Rs. 2000!

My current income is stipendiary. In not very distant future, I would get to earn at least Rs. 2000 per day, doing almost totally sedentary work. Would I like to earn my livelihood the way those porters do? Definitely not. Would the porter like to earn his livelihood the way I would get to do? Almost certainly yes. Which means, the work he is doing is much more difficult than what I would be doing to earn, yet he earns significantly less than what I would. And as obvious corollary, I would earn much better than him despite doing a more pleasant and less painful job. Is something not strange about this equation?

Of course, it is not difficult to figure out that this situation has come about because relatively fewer people would have gained my kind of knowledge and training as compared to the bare minimum 'skills' required to carry heavy luggage. But at least in countries like India, do all people really get the opportunity, and subsequent choice of how to earn their livelihood? So though we do largely have free job market as far as influence that demand and supply exercise on amounts paid by people in return of services is concerned, but it has got highly monopolized. It has got monopolized because acquisition of those skills that enable earning relatively easily are beyond reach of the majority of population. The porters who had carried my luggage must have never got the opportunity to acquire those skills. Their children are unlikely to get opportunity to get the education to escape out of what has almost become a vicious cycle.

The realization of this inequity of opportunities is not new for me. Apart from movies, TV programs and short stories in textbooks that had sensitized me to these harsh realities, what had brought me face-to-face with them was my stay in a hostel during my graduation. There in the mess, as helps we used to have boys – some of them could have been below the age of 14 years (which would qualify as “child labour” in India, and is illegal). That it was illegal was the least of the problems with the situation. Those who are aware of the ground realities in India would appreciate that there is no infrastructure to support such children. Their parents are usually so poor that despite government (claiming to) provide free education and mid-day meal, etc., children who do not start working are seen as liabilities by parents. It is also possible that a few of them could be orphans.

A vast majority of students (the GenNext, if you may) were so comfortable with ordering them around. Scolding them for food badly prepared by the cook. Some of the angry students would not shy from using incestual expletives (“mother fucker”, e.g.). I am not saying, ”Haww, students were so indecent as to use 'bad words'”, but what had always shocked me was the comfort and the authority with which that contempt was held. The acceptance of master-slave relationship was mutual and apparent on both sides. The idea that one set of human beings were “first class”, and another set were “second class” was so strongly ingrained in the collective psyche that I used to find the environment nauseating. I am not a very intrusive person by nature. So I hardly said anything to anyone. Yet, to some of the closer friends, I used to point out if they were to get rude in terms of ”what is his fault”? Since they were close to me, my friends would apologize to me, and correct their behavior for some time. However, what I could invariably notice was that they would do so because they would feel their behavior had not been 'proper', or because they should be 'nice' to people. In other words, even the courtesy shown (upon prompting) was an outcome of self-serving narcissism. The very fundamental idea of egalitarianism never occurred to them. It never occurred to them that the people they were putting in a mental effort to be 'nice' with, were just as much humans as them, and that they had as much right as them to live, to breath the same air as them, to just be happy! Just because they were bringing food from the kitchen for them, and carrying their plates back after they would have finished their meal does not in any way push them to a lower stratum. The work they were doing was a service, for which they were being paid. Seeing those children, some of who were only a few years younger than me (I had entered the hostel at the age of 17), I used to remain in a state of perennial guilt:

As compared to them, what different have I done to deserve these opportunities in life? How are the ways of the world such that these children are seen as inferior beings as compared to me? What is their fault? How in the scheme of things of the world, they had become the lower stratum of the society, the secondary citizens? Whatever I am today or I will be in future, as compared to these kids, would always remain undeserved - however 'hard' I work towards it.

Somewhere down the line, I had happened to read Ayn Rand's (click) two novels - 'The Fountainhead' and 'Atlas shrugged'. I had become (and still am) quite impressed with the philosophy contained therein. But I realized two things about the main characters in the novels:

1. All of them might have had to struggle, but yet the society was never such that they would be deprived of basic education. Probably, the poorest of them all - Gail Waynand and Howard Roark (both found in The Fountainhead) had at least basic education [latter, in fact, had brought such circumstances upon himself that he was expelled from one of the better American architecture schools].

2. None of the major characters themselves had children. Only one of the somewhat prominent characters - Jed Starnes had children. He had died suddenly and hence had not had the opportunity to prepare his will (recalling from memory).

Despite the fact that Ayn Rand had spent her childhood in the erstwhile USSR, it seems she had not come across the kind of poverty and utter lack of opportunities to even study and gain knowledge to become 'employable' with some bargaining power - that are seen in India. The reason perhaps her characters did not have children was because she might have not wanted them to face the ethical dilemma of how much time, money and emotions to invest in the children in case they would not turn out to be with same value system as their own. The central theme of her novels, as far as I could make out was: to value people in proportion to their attributes that could be objectively adjudged as 'valuable'. Thus, children pose unique ethical predicament. On one hand parents owe them their nurture (investment of time, effort and emotions) because, children are never party to the decision of bringing them to life, i.e., children's consent as to whether they would like to live and risk being unhappy or in pain, is never sought, which makes it obligatory on parents to try to provide them with such resources that children do not regret their parents' unilateral (parents as one party) of bringing them to life. But on the other hand, objectivist philosophy would demand that one devote one's time, money and emotions in persons only in proportion to their worth as determined by their attributes. However, children either do not possess any pervasive attributes, or if those attributes make them disfavored candidates to receive nurture, then what to do? I can imagine, Rand's characters would bequeath their property and money, not to family members, but to some capable employee or colleague. But that is so unusual in our society! Perhaps to escape this dilemma Rand's major characters did not have any children! I have not read the other works of Ayn Rand, so it is possible she might have dealt with this issue elsewhere, though I find it hard to understand how she could have resolved such a complex problem (perhaps she did not have any child despite being married for over 50 years to the same person).

The reason I discussed the above concept was to explain, how the concept of inheritance is ethically flawed. And it is inheritance of parents' nurture (and the opportunities that come with it), affluence, social status, etc. that basically leads to monopolization of resources to acquire 'higher-order' skills that are required to gain greater bargaining skills in the employment market (education and vocational training). This concept of inheritance brings with it a strange condition, wherein, whether a person will die of hunger before turning five, or would struggle as a child laborer, or enjoy a middle class education and opportunities for 'upward mobility' through the social and economic strata, or would be born at the very top with the proverbial silver spoon in the mouth - are determined to a very great degree and in current Indian economic situation irreversibly so by just one factor - PURE CHANCE. In absolute terms, a child before even getting to commit any acts so as to display recognizable traits, which in turn would be required to determine 'what' the child deserves as a person ('good' v/s 'bad' things), becomes largely destined to one or the other social and economic stratum. All this happens without the humanity getting an opportunity to determine how 'deserving' the child is and of what!

The situation is so bad in India possibly because means to basic survival are much more difficult to acquire here than in the Western countries, which in turn, I feel are because of India's high fertility rate and population density.

Now, trying to apply all that I had inferred and speculated in this free-wheeling write up up till now, let us assume India's population density would have been less than what it is now:

1. The porter who carried my luggage would have had access to much better education. This because, the overall production of goods (needed for basic survival) would remain the same (most of the rural population currently is afflicted with high degree of disguised unemployment), but would be distributed among much fewer people. Hence, the porter's parents would not be worried about having their household income augmented by making their son work.

2. He might have become a teacher or a clerk or a doctor or an engineer.

3. There would have been much fewer porters at the New Delhi railway station.

4. Whoever would now be the porter at the railway station would have had much better bargaining power. Possibly, he would have earned more than Rs. 5000 a day instead of Rs. 500 that he currently might be earning.

5. His children would also get to study in schools and be at par with 'middle class' as far as opportunities for skill acquisition would be concerned.

6. Because there would be a paucity of porters, coupled with his good income, he would be respected.

Almost the same analysis as above could be applied to helps in the hostel mess. Likewise, those working at nuclear establishments would be able to realistically demand a higher pay for risking their lives and health.

Those who manage to read this post till the end might be wondering, what is the big deal?! Meaning, everyone knows that India's large population (density) is a liability. Apart from delineating the inferences I could draw from mundane experiences, and discussing broadly their ramifications in the field of ethics (something that we understand intuitively, but never get into the details of), one of the goals was to show how India's large population density is has implications in areas as seemingly unrelated as nature of interpersonal relationships. It is not difficult to understand that with such acute differences in rights and opportunities that arise with economic disparities, friction amongst various classes is imminent. The incentive to move to the higher strata is much stronger. The idea of social hierarchy is so very deeply ingrained in our collective psyche that we never realize that it represents something very wrong! E.g., an educated (and higher earning) boss would be entitled to humiliate a comparably educated subordinate only because we love hierarchies! So, likewise the disincentive to stay in one's socioeconomic strata is also very strong. No wonder, the worst target of these prevailing factors is ethics. Everything becomes fair in love and war. And everything becomes love and war. Upward mobilization is what counts.

To summarize:

1. Less desirable jobs should be high paying.

2. India's overwhelming population density and accompanying poverty and paucity of material resources leads children into child labor. This pushes basic education and skill acquisition beyond reach of many children.

3. These children even after growing up remain poor bargainers when it comes to compensation for the extremely physically challenging and monotonous work they do (despite the fact that I proved above that they automatically deserve much more than what they get - from the porter's example).

4. People with only very basic skills are held in contempt because of their poverty and abundance of such persons. As a consequence, sharp socioeconomic stratification emerges.

5. The sharpness of this stratification leads to abandoning of ethicality in one conducts in favor of practices that can earn one money. E.g., this leads to ills like nepotism, corruption and other crimes.

6. Children of deprived parents enter the same cycle as above and produce more children, who in turn enter the same cycle.

7. This cycle can be broken! Not so much by providing more universal schooling, but by decreasing the population density, for which fertility rates will have to come down, for which in turn better education and awareness need to be created! Ah, so it might not be that easy to break the cycle, after all.

My pessimism in this regard had been broken only once by Atanu Dey in his blog post - There’s only so Much that Needs to Get Done (click).

A small note: Given India's energy crisis, I find nuclear energy a very good means of energy production. I find the fears instilled by some environmental pressure groups to be exaggerated greatly. The solution lies not in shunning nuclear energy as an option altogether, but to improve the levels of professionalism across the populations and vocations. Directly or indirectly the high cost of energy (whether required to run automobiles and locomotives or to light our houses) is a strong contributing factor to India's being behind in manufacturing sector, and also for high inflation. Latter further perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty.

Possible conflict of interest: Area of my work is going to involve nuclear technology. But which also means, I am better aware of the risks posed by radiation exposure vis-a-vis other losses that not using this technology would entail.

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