Wednesday, 26 April 2017

‘BAPU’ STAMP AND OTHER STAMPS SELLING FOR A FORTUNE


 
Bapu stamp sold for $855,000!

Bapu was in the news Down Under …..not exactly for austerity. A mystery Australian collector paid $855,000 for four Bapu stamps at auction last week. This collector has set a new world record after paying a small fortune for one of the world's rarest and most-mysterious stamps. The collector bought the strip of four 1948 Gandhi 10-rupee purple-brown 'SERVICE' stamps and it is said that only 13 of these stamps exist in private collections around the world.

The price paid is a new high-water mark for Indian stamps. This is the most sought-after stamp in Indian collection. Only two sheets of 50 were ever printed in 1948, with one sheet held in a museum in Delhi. Of the remainder only 13 have been located, four of which are held in the Queen's royal collection. It is not known what happened to the rest of the stamps, with rumours abounding they are being secretly held in private collections, or have been sold by Indian government members or simply lost! The stamp's rarity, combined with an explosion in interest in Indian stamps, underpins the price paid. So you see even after they are long gone Gujaratis fetch a lot of money!!

In the world of high-end stamp collecting, the most valuable stamps are those that have been used on an envelope – known as "on cover". None of the 13 existing Bapu stamps is an "on cover", and most of the collecting communities do not believe any exist.

Penny Black
Postage stamps have facilitated the delivery of mail since the 1840s. Before then, ink and hand-stamps (hence the word 'stamp'), usually made from wood or cork, were often used to frank the mail and confirm the payment of postage. The first adhesive postage stamp, commonly referred to as the Penny Black, was issued in the United Kingdom in 1840. The invention of the stamp was part of an attempt to reform and improve the postal system in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, which, in the early 19th century, was in disarray and rife with corruption. 

There are varying accounts of the inventor or inventors of the stamp. Before the introduction of postage stamps, mail in the UK was paid for by the recipient, a system that was associated with an irresolvable problem: the costs of delivering mail were not recoverable by the postal service when recipients were unable or unwilling to pay for delivered items, and senders had no incentive to restrict the number, size, or weight of items sent, whether or not they would ultimately be paid for. The postage stamp resolved this issue in a simple and elegant manner, with the additional benefit of room for an element of beauty to be introduced. As postage stamps with their engraved imagery began to appear on a widespread basis, historians and collectors began to take notice. 

The study of postage stamps and their use is referred to as philately. Stamp collecting can be both a hobby and a form of historical study and reference, as government-issued postage stamps and their mailing systems have always been involved with the history of nations. Stamp collectors are an important source of revenue for some small countries that create limited runs of elaborate stamps designed mainly to be bought by stamp collectors. The stamps produced by these countries may far exceed their postal needs. 

Stamp collecting may seem a bit old fashioned. But with 20million collectors in China alone, you may want to shake the dust off the family albums. Rare stamps are selling for hundreds of thousands of rupees / dollars / Euros/ pounds. A stamp becomes rare when it is really old, when it has a history attached to it, when it gets printed with an error and so are in limited numbers.

Penny Red
The most expensive stamp Stanley Gibbons has sold is a British Penny Red, for £550,000 - not bad for a piece of paper. It’s in really poor condition, but there are only nine in the world. The Post Office decided the printing plate was not up to scratch, so they destroyed it. But one sheet got into circulation.

The Penny Black is one of the world’s most iconic stamps. Because it’s the world’s first stamp, it’s very valuable. Rare Penny Blacks are valued at tens of thousands of pounds and have increased in price for decades.

The British Guiana One Cent Magenta is only one left in the world. At the time, all the colonies had to wait for stamps to arrive from the UK. The boat was delayed, and the postmaster created his own collection of stamps. This stamp was auctioned in New York for $9.5million (£6.4million). It’s in
Guiana 1 cent
appalling condition and it was not even printed on proper Royal Mail stock. The postmaster of British Guiana produced the stamp, which measures at 1" x 1.25", in 1856 as part of a contingency supply while he awaited a shipment of stamps from Great Britain. He created two varieties of stamps: Four-cent stamps and one-cent stamps. While several four-cent stamps from this supply still exist, only 1 one cent stamp exists today from this batch. It was rediscovered in a collection by a 12-year-old boy in 1873, then sold to numerous collectors over the years. It accrued in value until the infamous John Eleuthère du Pont bought it for $935,000 in 1980. Du Pont, a wealthy heir to a chemical fortune, was convicted in 1997 of murdering Olympic wrestler David Schultz. He was sentenced to 13 to 30 years in prison, and died there at the age of 67 in 2010. In his will, which was contested several times by his family members, du Pont designated 20% of the stamp's proceeds to the wildlife foundation he funded, and 80% to former wrestler Valentin Jordanov Dimitrov.

Inverted Jenney
The Inverted Jenney is an American stamp was of a stunt plane and they printed it upside down. Then they realized what they had done and recalled it. The Tyrian Plum was issued in the reign of Edward VII, but it actually came out the day he died. It was immediately withdrawn, but a tiny handful got into the market and is valued at over £100,000. The Roses error was a stamp from 1978 which was worth 13p and is now worth £130,000. The quirk about the stamp is the 13p did not get printed for some reason. There are only three in the world. The Queen owns two. The Whole country is red- This modern stamp was commissioned by Chairman Mao to represent communism over the whole of China. But by a complete error, the designer left Taiwan in white. This was massively controversial - he thought he would be going to prison for treason. The stamp was hurriedly recalled.
Rose error

The Whole Country is Red....but Taiwan is white!


So such errors make a stamp rare, rare enough to fetch a fortune! But honestly, did the loin cloth clad Bapu ever dream of the day when his 10 rupee stamp would fetch $855,000 for a strip of four! Great going Bapu!!

Sunday, 23 April 2017

LIVE SURGERIES IN SURGICAL CONFERENCES – EDUCATIONAL OR SENSATIONAL?






There is no doubt in my mind that it's vital to share knowledge and experiences with peers in the medical fraternity. Live surgeries offer educational value and live surgical workshops have become very common throughout the span of the surgical field. However, are we not making this look far more sensational in its 'live' avatar? Why shouldn't the same surgery be presented as a properly edited video, taped while the operator was operating in his own operating environment? Will that not be far safer for both patient and the surgeon? Will that not be far more value for time for the viewing trainees and delegates and lastly will that not be far more ethical for the surgical fraternity? Are we on to something more educational or are we promoting something more sensational?

Using web conferencing as a tool, beaming live surgeries has become one of the most attractive and efficient way to demonstrate, explain and teach surgical or medical techniques to an audience of peers watching it from various locations, often continents apart! In a country like India it is argued that this opportunity brings the rural surgeons closer to their urban peers. This exercise provides a dynamic educational platform for the audience through which knowledge is shared by the experts performing these surgeries with first hand visuals of the operation and the two-way communication with the participants during the live procedures. As participants get an opportunity to observe the live procedure with decisions taken on real time, they are also exposed to unexpected challenges and other unforeseen intricacies of a surgery. However, it is from these unforeseen and unexpected challenges that my objections to these live surgical workshops take birth. The value of video images in disseminating surgical knowledge is immense and unequivocally true, but why 'live' broadcasts? Supporters for these programmes argue that a live telecast somehow brings energy, honesty and the drama and teaches the audience to deal with unexpected complications. However, at the same time this brings sensationalism and thrill at the expense of the helpless patient.

The conference organizers today make the 'live demonstration' the main focus to promote a meeting and create a lot of hype around it. The audience is promised 'a visual treat' and the delegates come with the main intention of watching surgical feats on a big screen. The entire focus of a conference often shifts to the live workshop sessions and there is hardly any audience for the panel discussions and papers. In fact, it is not uncommon for conference organizers to cancel other events when the live operative sessions overshoot the scheduled time. However, it is time to ask a pertinent question - is this visual treat doing any good to anybody? There are three parties involved in this interaction - the visiting surgeon, the learning audience and most certainly patient. Let us analyse with a cool mind who is being benefitted.


 The Visiting Surgeon



He/she has come from a distant land tired and jet lagged he often sees patient for the first time in the pre-operative room, although if he was delivering a prior lecture, he might not be even that lucky and the patient may be anaesthetized well before he arrives in the operating theatre. So the pre-operative planning is discussed on still photographs or on a sleeping patient lying supine with no inputs from him/her. Even if he has an opportunity to interact with patient due to language difficulties, he has very little chance of making a clinical assessment of the indication for the procedure. In the OR, an overseas surgeon invariably finds himself in an alien environment, with an unfamiliar bunch of assistants, inexperienced in assisting the proposed surgery and a less than optimal set of instruments, simply because they are not his own. Talking while operating can divert the attention of the surgeon, but this is what he plans to do throughout the surgery! He knows that the physician in him should avoid situations that put patient at risk of harm, but does he have a choice? If multi-tasking is prohibited for mundane tasks like driving, why should it be allowed for more demanding tasks like surgery? It has already been proven that accidents are often caused while talking over a mobile phone. How is a microphone different from a mobile phone in this context? Is sensationalism not overtaking professionalism here?

If a suitable patient or implant was not arranged by the organizers even then the visiting surgeon is under pressure to 'deliver' because he has been touted as an expert and that is exactly what the audience is expecting him to do! He also has his own set of pre-operative preparations and post-operative instructions and he knows fully and teaches repeatedly that both are vital for the success of his surgery, but chances are that he will not be around to monitor either! How many experts have declined to do a procedure because they cannot see a good indication when confronted with patient on the table and an expectant audience? How many experts check on key environmental factors that they take for granted at home - such as local practices for disinfection, antibiotic prophylaxis, sedation and monitoring. If it appears that the local practices are different, should the surgeon insist on his own standards or bend them for the benefit of 'the show'? Can a teacher and an expert afford to make these compromises? Again are all decisions in live surgery workshops taken in the best interests of patient? It is possible that the operating surgeon feels compelled to continue with an operation as it has been advertised by the organizers. So is this live surgical workshop good for the visiting surgeon?


 The Audience



The argument that such workshops fill the void created by the inability of postgraduate training programmes to expose students to new operative techniques has its limitations since these workshops are a poor alternative to structured teaching. The planning session with patient in these workshops is either missing or unstructured and anaemic and a detailed discussion on the indications, pre-operative preparation, investigations, post-operative care as well as complications is hardly ever taking place.

Walker and Peyton
 of the Royal College of Surgeons  [Walker M, Peyton JW. Teaching in theatre. In: Peyton JW, editor. Teaching and Learning in Medical Practice. Rickmansworth, UK: Manticare Europe Ltd.; 1998. p. 171-80] have popularized the four steps to effective learning of procedural skills:


  • Demonstration: Trainer demonstrates at normal speed, without commentary
  • Deconstruction: Trainer demonstrates while describing steps
  • Comprehension: Trainer demonstrates while learner describes steps
  • Performance: Learner demonstrates while learner describes steps.


This four step approach ensures that the teacher breaks the process into manageable steps and progress is made from one stage to the next as each step is mastered. Watching a master surgeon demonstrate his/her art is only one step in the process of learning. Divorcing the first step from the subsequent three, whilst may be useful for the few experienced senior surgeons in the audience, can have disastrous consequences for the more junior inexperienced surgeons and their patients. There is a serious danger of some degree of oversimplification of the operative process as, often in well-organized workshops, well-selected patients are operated upon by the best surgeons with the best of equipment and back-up. It is not uncommon therefore to hear of how surgeons try to emulate a certain procedure they have recently observed in a workshop and how the first two post-workshop weeks become most disaster prone for a young and impressionable surgeon. And finally, who all are sitting in the audience? Are you sure tomorrow you will not complain that after a weekend workshop on liposuction your neighboring dentist has now become a body contour specialist? So is this experience good for the training audience?


 The Patient



Is the patient clearly told that she/he will be the subject of a 'live' demonstration by a visiting faculty in front of a large audience? Does he/she know that the operating surgeon is unlikely to be available to deal with post-operative complications if they arise? How often does the visiting surgeon himself explain the procedure to the patient and family? Are the principles of a proper informed consent respected in the setting of such live workshops? Is the patient made aware of the fact that the surgeon may be tired after a long flight, harassed by a new band of assistants, hassled by unfamiliar set of instruments and constantly talking to an ever eager audience while operating upon him/her? Is it all right with him/her that he/she is not getting the surgeon's 100% attention, which he/she deserves?

In live surgeries, patient details are announced and patients seen by more people than they may be comfortable with. Often, a patient may feel coerced to consent as otherwise a foreign surgeon/expert may not operate, but is he/she prepared to share his/her medical condition and grief with a hall full of aliens? I have seen overseas surgeons purchasing drills and bits from hardware stores in developing countries and using them in surgery the next day. Was the patient informed about such innovations while obtaining the consent for surgery? So are these live workshops good for patients?

It is also no coincidence that this boom of live surgical workshops has come at a time when technology has entered surgery in a big way; the best examples being the fields of implantology, endoscopy and laparoscopy. A huge and ever-growing medical equipment industry provides the main funds for these workshops as for them it is a ready-made opportunity to display and promote their gadgets and wares. Often, the unwritten trade-off for such funding is the promise of subtle promotion through the medium of the workshop. It can also not be denied that these workshops are essentially a part of a grand marketing strategy for many 5 star hospitals and corporate institutes. Thus, the form and content is often designed to promote the host institution or a particular procedure or equipment or even an individual, rather than representing a well thought out scientific and educational activity. There are a variety of factors that create the background for a certain compulsion on one hand for the organisers and on the other, for the visiting surgeon to 'perform' the procedure in front of an expectant audience and it takes a great deal of courage and conviction for most people to resist such pressure, which has the potential of transgressing both science and ethics.

So what is a better alternative? Edited videos - it would be better for the procedure to be recorded and replayed frame by frame. The surgeon will be in a better position to explain the procedure after it has been completed. However, in edited videos, most experts would gloss over mistakes or difficulties and there lies the human factor in a teacher. Telemedicine, with operations performed by persons in their own environment, is an excellent option but may be beyond the reach of many institutions today. Too often, live surgery contains endless stretches of technical details that have little educational merit. Technical difficulties, delays in the procedure itself and problems with audio-video signal feed add to the chaos. Isn't a well-edited surgical video, with narration and figures, added later by the surgeon, after thoughtful review, a far better alternative. It saves time and teaches more and protects both the surgeon and his patient.

Monday, 10 April 2017

ATITHI DEVO BHAVA – GUEST IS GOD





There is verse from the Taittiriya Upanishad, Shikshavalli I.20 that says: “matrudevo bhava, pitrudevo bhava, acharyadevo bhava, atithidevo bhava”. It literally means “be one for whom the Mother is God, be one for whom the Father is God, be one for whom the Teacher is God, be one for whom the guest is God.” Atithi Devo Bhava, it is not just a catchy line to promote tourism but is a beautiful tradition that is deep rooted in Indian culture. The host-guest relationship in India is truly one of the most revered relationships. The unique practice of giving utmost importance, respect and preferential treatment to the guests is certainly not a practice monopolized by we Indians but we do have a way of going pleasantly overboard and do somethings the guests remember all their lives.  ‘Atithi Satkar’ meaning to welcome the guest with warmth and respect is a practice seen in all villages and all across our socio-economic spectrum.

In our attempt to treat guests like God no distinction is made based on the guests’s nationality. caste, colour or creed and he/she is showered with all love, care and affection the host can think of. Despite high degree of cultural and geographical diversity in the country, these sentiments towards the guests stay the same throughout the vast expanse of our country.

But Atithi Devo Bhava, has lost its true essence and spirit over the sands of time. Today trade globalization that has helped modernize India, but this process has also begun to erode our culture. Today where everything travels the fast lane, how much time do we devote towards our rich, age old culture? Do we truly lead our lives in this spirit? Atithi Devo Bhava, is an important part of the Indian culture which may soon be lost with time and a country with a lost culture is simply without an identity.

Today culture and morality are not going hand in hand and so tourists often don’t find India a very welcoming destination. Whereas 99% of the tourists love what they see and feel, the odd tourist is often left disillusioned by the corrupt and the immoral. Thus India holds a conservative approach towards many issues unlike western countries and also a tendency of taking things for granted, be it a matter of cleanliness or crime, nobody seems bothered.  Theft, robbery, cheating, molestation and roguish acts against tourists were unheard of once upon a time but are tainting our tourism industry today. Promoting your business is one thing, but asking for 10 on 1 is nothing else but cheating. Do we treat our God in this way?

A tourist is not just a tourist; he/she is an ambassador for  spreading a good image of our country's warm, soothing hospitality, culture and safe environment. How shameful for us it would be as an Indian, when western countries issue security warnings for their people visiting India, to remain alert and safe, especially women, as they can be molested in India!

But we must not confuse mindset with culture. Though both supplement and complement each other, yet both are different from each other. The culture claims the concept of "Atithi Devo Bhava", that means the Guest is like God, but mindset is built on a hypocritical approach, where the cultural concept of treating guests like god becomes meaningless.

The Indian Government's "Atithi Devo Bhava" campaign is certainly an appreciable step and very effective one as well, especially for the younger generation. But people with sick mindset seldom watch and heed to such things. Sensitization is certainly important, but strict punishments and timely execution of them is need of the hour.

Let me now introduce you to a perfect example of our "Atithi Devo Bhava" culture. Recently Neeta and I  were in Hyderabad for our elder son Ananya'a convocation in Indian School of Business after the completion of his M.B.A. We arrived the day before the convocation and had an evening off. I was reminded of the fact that three of my friends who went to Kailas with me in September last year were staying in this city. So I picked up the phone and called our friend Bhaskar who, if you can remember from my Kailas blogs, can move mountains and nothing seems impossible for him. As it was expected we were picked up from the hotel in 20 minutes by his nephew Harish and then were driven 60 Km from Cyberabad to L. B. Nagar. It was evening; the sun had set when we entered the locality where he stayed.  We saw a group of musicians playing the drums and Nadswaram, a very difficult wind instrument. We naturally thought it was a baraat (a wedding ceremony where the groom is accompanied by a band of musicians and his friends who keep dancing to the tunes) but to our utter surprise Harish told us that this was an arrangement only for us! He showed us Shyamsundar’s house as we went past it. The musicians led our car to our host's home where we were given a traditional reception with garland, tilak and a warm hug, which will be difficult to forget in this lifetime. 






The musicians sat down and played for us as each member of the two families of my two friends welcomed us. This was followed by a traditional drink, tari, which I most respectfully declined. Tari is a palm wine - an alcoholic beverage created from the sap of various species of palm tree and its inflorescence and is collected drop by drop in an earthen pot as a frothy fluid, which is strained through a piece of clean cloth and served fresh or stored as a cloudy liquid for future use.

Bhaskar, me, Shyam's father, Shyamsunder, his wife and Neeta
My tari was however  replaced by a second beverage, which was more like a herbal tea - coriander, pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, and many other stuff from Shyamsunder's collection. Shyam is Bhaskar's neighbor and we were given a conducted tour of his beautiful home with gorgeous pine wood interior! The dinner at Bhaskar’s place that followed was predominantly millet and was very tasty. We even received a call from our third Hyderabadi friend Venu, who was with us for the Kailas trip. He was caught up in a family function and he apologized profusely for not being present.

With the two families
The families of both Bhaskar and Shyamsunder were very loving and caring. Children were in different stages of education employment and the joy of living together could be felt easily by us who were visiting them for the first time!  4 generations were staying together and language was no barrier as I found Neeta engrossed in discussion with everyone from the elders to the youngest bride to the fantastic children. Shyam's son is a swimmer with Olympic dreams and we hope he brings glory to us all one day!.


What was most impressive about this interaction was that here were two families which have not given up on their traditions, remained in touch with its roots and yet has prospered tremendously and is planning to touch the sky! May God bless them! May God bless our country and may we, despite all odds of modernization, keep the culture of "Atithi Devo Bhava" close to our heart as Bhaskar and Shyamsunder have done so successfully.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

HEALTH INSURANCE – MY FATHER’S WAY






In the race to excel in our professional lives and provide the best for our loved ones, we sometimes neglect our most important asset - our health. As days go by, with increasing levels of stress, decreasing physical activity and a deteriorating environment due to rapid urbanization, our vulnerability to diseases keeps on increasing at an alarming rate.


Evidently, as taught by my teachers in medical school, lifestyle diseases are set to rise to distressing levels in days to come. This results in increased expenditure and also contingent expenditures, being jolted by a financial shock when we least expect it. In many cases, people are forced to borrow money or sell family jewels, farmland and assets to cover their medical expenses and this is something which I have seen on so many occasions during my residency days in King George’s Medical College in Lucknow.


I know the opinion of a Plastic Surgery registrar regarding how disruptive sudden medical expenditures can be on the financial future of a family is no more than a bunch of not so happy patient anecdotes but when one looks at the WHO statistics that about 47% and 31% of hospital admissions in rural and urban India, respectively, were financed by loans and sale of assets, one is forced to understand the enormity of the problem. WHO says, 3.2% Indians will fall below the poverty line because of high medical bills. About 70% of Indians spend their entire income on healthcare and purchasing drugs. As a young registrar in 1988 this was an issue which bothered me all the time.


I was ready to strive to provide the best I can to my loved ones. Being from a reasonably well off family, not much was expected of me, but I felt it was my duty to take over the mantle of the provider from my father. Looking back today, I know I was being childish because all the while my father was around there was no confusion regarding who was most comfortable on that pedestal. Still I had the foresight to appreciate that unforeseen medical emergencies may not only stress our immediate cash flows, they would also adversely impact financial commitments towards regular savings thus impacting achievements of many of our long term financial goals. Add to it the burden of any loans that one may take to pay for medical expenses that might become too hot to handle!


So, I decided that I need a medical insurance for the family to ensure that no matter how critical the illness, it does not impair our financial independence. We were newly married and staying with my parents and so we started looking for all the available health insurance plans. It was pre internet era and so I had to drive from office to office to talk with the insurance guys and pick up the reading materials and flyers from their shelves. I soon appreciated that the cost of medical care was constantly increasing due to inflation and advancements in medical technology. At the same time the longevity was improving thus forcing us to consume more medical care. All this was reflected in the offers that we received.


It dawned upon us that the health insurance plans fell into three categories: commercial health insurance, which was provided by many different companies; private noncommercial health insurance, which was provided by Blue Cross and Blue Shield; and social insurance, which should be provided by the government and which was horribly anaemic in our country. So commercial health insurance was what we planned we should opt for. Armed with this knowledge and research I thought it was time I talked to my father.


When I returned from the hospital that evening I told my father that I had been enquiring about health insurance from various sources and it seems ICICI has the best offer Rs. 60,000 per annum for the full family with kids and dependent parents. My father, who retired as manager from Life Insurance Corporation of India, was pleasantly surprised with my newly found sagacity and said that we will talk about it at dinner.


So later when the family sat across the large dining table my father told everybody about our previous brief communication. “So you have decided to keep aside Rs. 60,000 every year for the health of your family. That is Rs. 5,000 every month. Good! It is nice to see that you are becoming responsible. But your family also includes your younger brother and sister. They are not included in your plan. You will have your children. It is silent about unborn children too. So this is not a good deal. Then again try to understand the concept of health insurance. You would feel cheated if you give Rs.60,000 and no one falls sick, and you will not like anyone to get sick. The company too will not like anyone to get sick and will try its level best to avoid paying you. So this business of health insurance is satisfying neither party. And you can take it from me, if anyone is satisfied at the end it will certainly not be the consumer."  Then how can I prepare myself for future health emergencies, I asked. "Future.........that is the catch word, future" my father repeated. "So tomorrow you will go and meet your bank manager. You will tell him that you want to open a recurring deposit of Rs.5,000 payable at monthly intervals automatically from your salary income. This will your health insurance. Your money stays yours all your life, you do not feel cheated if you don't fall sick and you are in charge of your health expenditure. You don't have to inform anyone about your ill health and can get treated by the doctors of your choice, in the hospital of your choice, in the room and bed of your choice. Whether in India or overseas your own money is the best insurance”


Needless to say, the next day this account was opened and till date we have never withdrawn from it. After keeping it a purely recurring deposit for 15 years we made just one change - increased our monthly contribution to Rs. 8,000 and directed the bank to pass on Rs. 5,000 every month as a systemic investment to a particular mutual fund of the Unit Trust of India. This has acted as an accelerator fund to take care of the still rising healthcare costs. We were instilled the fiscal discipline of not touching this fund for trips, holidays, fun and frolic but courtesy my father's advice, we have never paid a single paisa premium to any health insurance company. But there is a catch.........you have to start young and stay fit till around mid forty.



As a dear friend of mine very lucidly put it ‘health insurance is actually a philanthropic contribution to social welfare. We are paying for those who actually fall sick’. As such the companies have many catches in policy statements, all written in font size 8 which we fail to read and comprehend. One has to buy a rider for accidents, the most common cause of death, for cancer, which continues to rise in incidence as we live longer, and for other critical illnesses. Yes, health insurance is a must, but do you have to outsource it to some company or some alliance or do you choose to do it my father’s way......that is a decision you will have to take.

Friday, 24 March 2017

TRAVELOGUE – THE HILLS IN GOD’S OWN COUNTRY PART 3 – The Tea Gardens







While ours was a day filled with business and pleasure, for our spouses it was a fun filled day all the way. After breakfast Dr. Shobha, our excellent host, took them out in an air-conditioned vehicle to explore the beauty of Munnar and its surroundings. On the itinerary were trips to the Echo point, Botanical garden, Tea Museum, Tea factory, Tea gardens and, most certainly shopping! So this bit is what my wife told me after they returned.


Once out of the Pulimuttil Estate in which is located our Deep Wood Resort , they were in the midst of the mist covered rolling hills, exotic plantations, colonial remnants, panoramic views, and pristine wilderness which offered them an ideal escapade from the heat and buzzing of urban life. They were literally transported into the tranquil laps of nature. The idyllic, picture postcard hill station of Munnar was once the summers resort of the erstwhile British Raj. The town still proudly retains its old-world colonial charms in much the same way. The exotic flora and fauna found in the region further accentuates its beauty and it cordially welcomes a visitor by rolling out a plush green velvet carpet of verdant valleys laced with tea plantations.


Their first stop was Echo Point.  This mesmerizing place gets its name from the natural echo phenomenon here. Echo Point, situated on the way to Top Station, between Mattupetty Dam and Kundala Lake.  Top Station the highest point in this
Echo point
region and is just 15 Km from Munnar town.  The uniqueness of this place lies in the fact that every loud call made from a spot on the embankment  of a lake here is returned manifold by the echo from the surrounding hills, hence the name! There are several street shops where articles and chunky jewelries can be purchased at low prices. The lake near the echo point looks serene and the wind is quiet soothing and chilly. Trekking and nature walks are popular activities in this scenic destination with beautiful views of the green hills. The fresh mountain air, the mist-clad hills and panoramic view make it worthy of a visit.


Their next stop was the Botanical Garden. This beautifully landscaped garden presented a varied display of flowers and plants against a backdrop of the Western Ghats. The garden is designed to primarily serve as a visitor-friendly tourist attraction rather than a pure research facility for experts and environmentalists. Set up in Munnar
Tea plantation
Parvathy Hills by the Government of Kerala it is spread across 100 acres this is still work in progress. It is a delightful over-grown riot of colours with seats and bandstands falling into decay and slowly being taken over by vegetation. There are shops inside the botanical garden selling spices and herbs and souvenirs. For the spice lovers, this destination is a heaven –ginger, cardamom, pepper, cinnamon, coffee, clove, nutmeg , you name it! Not to miss are the homemade chocolates - white, dark, liqueur filled and chocolates with nuts. The ladies had their lunch in the cafeteria of this beautiful garden!


After lunch the ladies were taken to the Kannan Devan Tea Museum, situated at Nullatanni estate in Munnar. This is the first tea museum of its kind in the country. The museum depicts the origin and growth of century-old tea plantation – from a simple tea roller to the present fully automatic tea factory of Madupatty. The entrance of the museum has a granite sundial that was made in 1913 by the Art Industrial School at Nazareth in Tamil Nadu. Several old equipment, including original tea roller of 1905, the Pelton wheel used in power generation in 1920s and rotorvane (the old-time CTC type tea processing machine) are proud possessions of the museum. Another important item on display is a rail engine wheel unit of the Kundale Valley Light Railway that operated between Munnar and Top Station. 


Kannam Devan Tea Museum
A documentary film about the history of tea plantation in Munnar and the various steps the tea leaves pass before reaching your tea pot was shown to the ladies. Once, long back in 1857, a British resident named John Daniel Munro came to Munnar. Seeing the hilly areas of Munnar, an idea of having a tea plantation here hit into his mind. Daniel approached the King of Poonjar royal family, Rohini Thirunal Kerala Varma Valiya Raja, to lend land for him. Daniel was accompanied by Kannan Thevar, the tribal chief of Anchunadu and he bought the land from the royal family. In 1879, Munro formed North Travancore Land Planting & Agricultural Society. The society members started cultivation on coffee, cardamom, cinchona etc. Later all these crops were abandoned and they began to concentrate upon tea plantations. A W Turnor was the one who started plantation in Munnar. But it was neither Munro nor Turnor, who started tea cultivation in Munnar, but was A H Sharp, a European planter in 1880. He started tea cultivation in the 50 acres land at Parvathy. Now the land belongs to the Seven Mallay Estate. There was another setback in 1895, that Finley Muir and Company bought 33 estates in Munnar. These estates were later managed by Kannan Devan Hills Produce Company, which was formed in 1897. In the year 1964 this Finley group collaborated with the Tata group to form Tata­Finley group and Tata Tea Ltd was formed in 1983. It was in the year 2005 that Kannan Devan Hill Plantations Company Pvt Ltd was formed and Tata Tea transferred all its rights to the company. Tata Tea Ltd. Today justifiably claims to be the largest integrated tea company in the world, with activities spanning the entire spectrum of the industry. Today, tea is cultivated on 24,000 hectares of land in Munnar, Peermade and Devikulam areas with an annual yield of 50,000 metric tons.


In the Tea Factory the ladies were introduced to the various stages through which the tea leaves pass – cutting, drying, sorting, and packaging. The tender tea leaves collected from the plantations are withered in hot air at the factory and then sent to the rollers. After being rolled into particles and fermented, they are fed into dries before they are ready to be packed.


Among the exotic flora found in the forests and grasslands here is the Neelakurinji a flower which bathes the hills in blue colour once in twelve years. The Neelakurinji, will bloom next in 2018. But miles and miles of unending tea plantation is what greets the eye here and one can easily miss the other hidden jewels of nature!


Spice shops
Next stop was shopping – spices, herbs, tea, coffee, homemade chocolates – normal, dark, fruit and nut …………it drove them nuts. Eventually, exhausted by this high dose of fun and frolic the ladies were transported back to Deep Wood Resort, almost the same time when we returned from our jungle trail. Today was a very special day, March 11, 2017 and the votes were being counted for the 5 State elections, but as we had no access to the internet, we were completely oblivious of the trends. So a few friends took a vehicle and drove towards Munnar till they got the first hint of net connectivity and then triumphantly returned to the resort with the news of a landslide victory for their party in U.P.


Mukund at his best!
In the evening we had been invited by the owners of this resort to the inaugural function of a six floor new building complex which will be converted into a luxury hotel in days to come. While the ladies and the seniors were offered a lift, some of us walked down to the place. The senior most matriarch of the family lighted the inaugural lamp and they all sang a prayer. This was followed by an evening filled with music and dance. My young friend Mukund Jagannathan enthralled the audience with his soulful melodies of yesteryear, punctuated with innumerable stories about the wonderland that is fondly called Bollywood. My senior colleague, who seems to be younger than most of us and simply refuses to slow down, Dr. Murugesan, mesmerized the gathering with his twinkle toes and it was his dance that took the musical evening to its crescendo! 


Now how could we just tapper off from those dizzy heights and it required the knowledge and sagacity of my friend Parag Sahasrabudhe to end this evening with a much needed workshop on Whiskey. What is this magic beverage, how is it made, what are the essential qualities that must imbibe to get this coveted name, how is it distilled, stored and packed and how expensive can it be was all conveyed to a captivated audience in 20 minutes by a very well prepared audio-visual presentation. This was followed by a practical session of tasting whiskey, how to enjoy its aroma, sip it, hold it inside the mouth, savor it taste, gulp it and appreciate its lingering after-taste was all taught in great details. So profound was the effect of this education that next morning our host Dr. Subramania was found drinking water the same way after appreciating its aroma while swirling it in his glass!


The evening ended with a sumptuous dinner. Later on we were dropped to our respective bungalows for a well deserved rest. Next morning all of us were leaving for home and as it was a 4 hours drive to the airport our friends were in no mood to take any chances. We however had other plans, we were going back the next day and we were spending the evening with my batch mate from King George’s Medical College in Lucknow, Neeta, who was staying in Thrissur. My friend Dr. Subramania Iyer, his wife Dr. Shobha were also going to Thrissur where they had a home and where their mothers stayed and so they offered to take us there in their car. We left the beautiful
The undulating roads and miles of tea plantation
Deep Wood Resort at 9 AM and soon we were in an exciting trip across the winding hilly roads with lush green tea gardens on either side, sometimes climbing up a hill touching the clouds and the very next time sloping down to another beautiful valley. Miles and miles of tea plantation were interrupted by beautiful resorts and private homes. As we were coming down the winding and undulating hilly roads we did not realize when all of a sudden the picturesque surroundings of tea plantation were replaced by the lush green cardamom hills. Further down as we reached the planes we were engulfed by the National Highway traffic.


On our return journey

This short trip to Munnar was indeed a once in a life time experience, a perfect one to re-charge our batteries. This fairy tale town stupefied us with its dazzling kaleidoscopic visions of nature.  I will urge you to come along and discover the fascinating magic of Munnar and if you have friends like me, ask them to take you on a virtual magic carpet ride to this exotic land!

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

TRAVELOGUE – THE HILLS IN GOD’S OWN COUNTRY PART 2 - The Spice trail







I got up early in the morning to the pleasant chirping and whistling of the birds. Now that it was daylight, it was time to explore the wonders this place had to offer. I am convinced that ‘Deep Wood Resort’ is an understated misnomer. If should be called Very Deep Wood Resort as we are absolutely cut off from civilization and cell phones can only work as cameras. The resort has gracefully landscaped 10 bungalows, 2 cottages and 16 deluxe rooms aptly spread across 30 acres of Cardamom plantation and deep woods. Though it offers forest environment it is just 10km away from town at Mankulam road in Letchmi Estate, Munnar. The beauty of plantations that stretch over hectares of land rich in its flora and fauna is simply breath taking. The greenery with all its splendor and natural charm engulfs us from all around and birds have made it their own abode, just letting us share their bounty for a short while!

The resort is surrounded by immaculately manicured tea gardens and a stream leading to resort is extremely refreshing. Pulimuttil Estate is a plantation of varieties of spices like Cardamom, Pepper, Clove, Nutmeg, Ginger, Cinnamon and many more. We were completely enveloped by their scent and elevated to a never-before excitement and energy. Walking trails are many and one leads to a nice stream. The surrounding jungle has plenty of elephant dung on the floor so it is safe to presume that the pachyderms too fancy this place. We discovered a new 6 stories structure which is also coming up in the property which will take the shape of a high end hotel in days to come.


A walking trail
Early in the morning I took a walking trail that after winding through the thick jungle lead to a beautiful stream tucked deep inside the jungle. The water here cascaded down in several steps, and gathered in a small pool which offered me an opportunity to take a quick dip. Assured that I won’t be disturbed so early in the day, this was a wonderfully refreshing way to start the day! Finding the stream and the waterhole was like finding a hidden treasure and this place was indeed a delightful sight.


On my way back to the bungalow I met a local Mr. Muthu (the part of his name I could understand) whose proficiency in English and Hindi was definitely better than my non-existent knowledge of Malayalam. He volunteered to show me some interesting plants in this patch of jungle and educate me about the spice trade of Kerala. Over twelve varieties of spices including ginger, garlic, cardamom, vannilla, pepper, cinnamon, coffee, tea, clove and nutmeg are cultivated in Munnar and its neighboring villages he said. 
Pepper

He then showed me a pepper plant. The pepper plant grows best in a warm and humid climate. Berries mature and are ready for harvest in about 180 to 200 days. Black pepper is produced by sun drying the mature pepper berries for 3 - 5 days after they are separated from the spikes by threshing and white pepper by retting mature berries in clean water for 5 - 7 days, removing the outer skin and drying the seed after thorough washing.


Clove
We then came across a tree with an unmistakable smell, but it did not have its fruits. This was a clove tree. Muthu told me that a clove tree begins to bear flowers 7-8 years after planting. Unopened flower buds are carefully picked when they turn from green to pink. The buds are then allowed to dry for 4-5 days till they become crisp and dark brown in colour. This is the clove which we buy in the market.


Vanilla
He pointed to a creeper which was growing in the wild around a big tree. This plant gives us vanilla, he said. Vanilla is a tropical orchid, which requires a warm climate with frequent rains. Muthu was of the opinion that it grows best in uncleared jungle areas where it can get filtered sunlight. The plant usually begins to flower by the third year. The bean takes 10 to 12 months to reach full maturity.


Curry leaves
Then he introduced me to the famous Curry leaves which are popular for being highly aromatic and are used extensively in the dishes of South Indian cuisine like Sambar, lemon rice, several chutneys as well as curries of Sri Lanka. You can call this a spice or a herb. Muthu told me that it is grown mainly in homes but on a plantation scale as well, and here we were seeing them growing abundantly in the jungle!


Cinnamon
We walked down a side trail and came to a fenced open space where he introduced me to Cinnamon plants, which were ready for harvest about 3 years after planting. Harvesting will now be done twice in a year - in May and November, he said. The bark of the cut down shoots will be split on the day of harvest itself and dried in the sun for 2 - 5 days. The dry quills or bark will then be packed in bundles for trade. Leaves and tender twigs will be used for extraction of oil by distillation.

Kerala has been historically related to spice trade and my newly found friend in the morning was a walky-talky encyclopedia of knowledge about spices!  He was feverishly searching for a Nutmeg tree but we couldn’t find one. He offered to take me to a nearby plantation on his motor cycle but I didn’t have the time. He still gave me a vivid description about this spice. The Nutmeg tree bears fruit throughout the year he said, but peak harvest season was from December to May. The nuts are split open when the fruits are fully ripe. After de-husking, the red feathery aril is removed, flattened out and dried in the sun for 10 - 15 days. The nuts are dried separately for 4 - 8 weeks till the kernels rattle within the shells.


The machan
After returning to our bungalow I took a quick warm shower and along with my wife Neeta we reached the sanctum sanctorum of the resort, the dining area, for our breakfast with the rest of the gang. We took our tea cups to a nearby machan and enjoyed the beauty of nature as we sipped the local tea. My friend Subramani was a perfect host and enquired about our well being. His better half, Dr. Shobha, who is a physician, was taking all the ladies out for sight-seeing and shopping extravaganza. They had big plans for the entire day, and I felt sorry not being able to accompany them as we were having our meeting which could continue till late in the afternoon.


After our eventful meeting which stretched out till 4 PM, with a lunch break for 30 minutes and brief interludes for sweets from Cuttack and snacks from Pune, we were invited by my friend Dr. Subramani to his bungalow for an afternoon sit together and drinks. I could then convince seven more to follow me along the jungle trail to the stream. This time the walk was not as pleasant because the sun was up there in full glory, but thankfully the clouds would come to our rescue from time to time. Once we reached the stream the chaps went crazy with their cameras. Soon they had lost their footwear, rolled up the pants and were enjoying the running stream in every way possible!


A Bhagirath moment for Raj Kumar

Enjoying the cool spring

On return we were greeted by our shopaholic spouses, who had just returned from their version of paradise, but what that exactly means will be in the next part of my travelogue.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

TRAVELOGUE – THE HILLS IN GOD’S OWN COUNTRY



The hills of Munnar with their world famous tea plantation

We stay in the northern part of India and an overnight trip can take us to a host of beautiful and idyllic hill stations, very popular destination for us whenever we are in holiday mood. So when a friend of mine invited a bunch of us from all over the country to a hill resort in Kerala, I can honestly confess now, I was not expecting much. The company would be great no doubt but how pleasant can the hills be Deep South? We would have enjoyed the backwaters, I thought. I have a long standing love affair with them and have returned to them on five previous occasions and have often punctuated them with visits to Ayurvedic spas for Shirodhara (stress buster drip on forehead), Elakizhi (fomentation therapy with herbal leaves) and Njavarakizhi (special Ayurvedic full-body massage therapy with Njavara rice cooked in milk and herbs). But Kerala hills, this was my first experience.

We reached Kochi, Cochin for the old timers, after a change of flight at Mumbai. It was 9PM and we took a taxi to the guest house of Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences, where our friend had booked our overnight accommodation. Fresh from a good night sleep and a sumptuous breakfast in the cafeteria we were taken to the Plastic Surgery department where our friend Dr. Subramani Iyer was busy taking his morning rounds. We were offered a generous conducted tour of the department by our young friend Mohit, who was with us in Lucknow while pursuing his Plastic Surgery training. Dr. Iyer and Dr. Mohit are a part of the famous team which conducted the first and the second double hand transplants in India, and we were introduced to both these patients, who are now employed in their department!

A giant statue of Sushruta welcomes patients in Amrita Institute
of Medical Sciences
Our other friends were reaching Kochi in the morning and were collecting one by one at Lotus 8, our venue for lunch, bang opposite the Cochin International Airport. We reached there with Mohit and met them and had a 9 course lunch which left us filled to the brim. An air-conditioned mini bus was arranged for our onward journey to a place called Munnar, and needless to say, we were all exited.

Munnar is 130 km from Kochi and we were expecting a 4 hours bus ride. The road was blind in some places and there were a lot of trucks and buses that seemed to whisk pass us as if they owned the road. Although the National Highway is smooth (NH 49), it is narrow, twisty and curvy. Almost halfway we reached the town of 
A refreshing waterfall on our way to Munna 
Kothamangalam and we were told that we were still 80 km away from Munnar. Between Kothamangalam and next town "Adimali" the weather started changing as we were leaving the busy cities behind. Now we were experiencing a beautiful cool drive through a natural forest. Alongside, we could see many refreshing waterfalls and we stopped at one of them for coffee/tea break. Adimali, a small town in the foothills is just 30 Km from Munnar but driving along the winding roads became slow and we took almost an hour to reach Munnar town. Around 22 km from Adimali, the scenery changed completely and we started seeing the tea plantations on both sides of the road and a panoramic view of the western ghats. As we had a clear sky this view was truly mesmerizing!.

Munnar - breathtakingly beautiful - a haven of peace and tranquility - the idyllic tourist destination in God's own country. Set at an altitude of 6000 ft in Idukki district, Munnar was the favored summer resort of the erstwhile British rulers in the colonial days. Unending expanse of tea plantations ­ pristine valleys and mountains­ exotic species of
The unique flora and fauna
flora and fauna in its wild sanctuaries and forests ­ aroma of spice scented cool air ­ welcome the visitors.  The hills, the mist, the valleys, the streams, the waterfalls, tea plantations, rare flora and fauna.... all this makes it simply gorgeous.

But we were still nowhere near our destination, and the sun was already threatening to set. We had to reach Deep wood Resort, which we were told, was just 15 minutes drive from Munnar Bus station, which we crossed as soon as we entered the small town. We were driving towards Pulimuttil Estate where the resort was located and by the time we crossed its gate it became pitch dark. Our driver craftily drove our bus along the up and down winding and undulating roads inside the estate to reach the reception. Once registered, we were transported to the dining area for a welcome drink and then to our respective bungalows by jeeps.

B4 our allotted bungalow with breathtaking greenery all around!
After freshening up we were back in the dining area for an extended hospitality session where our spouses planned their next day while we set our agenda for our official meeting. The dinner that followed was lavish – fish, chicken, pork and a host of vegetarian dishes. The owners of the resort were planning the inauguration of a very special section of this resort the next day and they too joined us for dinner. We all were invited to the next evening’s extravaganza by our gracious hosts!


Our gang on arrival

And after proper relaxation

This is a very special getaway, ideal for the stressed out travelers who are looking for peace of mind. The nerve centre is the dining area and you can take your food/drink to a nearby machan and enjoy the wilderness while eating. The individual living spaces are luxurious. We stayed in B4 and this had a common lounge room with a television, a jungle facing balcony with rocking chairs and a swing! The bedrooms are neat and tastefully decorated and the bath has running hot and cold water.

Tomorrow is going to be a busy day. We have a meeting in the forenoon and our spouses will be going out to explore Munnar on a guided tour. Will keep you posted.