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‘Viruses a crown of thorns borne for centuries’ (Book Review)



The cover of the book.
The cover of the book. Source : IANS

 It began as “panspermia”, a hypothesis that life exists throughout the Universe, that was coined by the 5th century BC Greek polymath Anaxagorus. He theorised that the first contaminants – as also other organisms – made their appearance via meteors that had loosened from large stars and plunged down to earth, carrying “seeds everywhere and thus generating life”. Aristotle pipped him at the post with the more believable theory of spontaneous generation of life on earth.

Forgotten for nearly 2,000 years, Anaxagorus was revived at the turn of the 19th century when astrobiology became a respectable science. Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe published “Diseases From Space” in 1979 that ascribed the 1918 flu pandemic to an unspecified extraterrestrial source.

“It did not go down well. After the SARS epidemic of 2003, the idea was revived briefly – as it will be now, without doubt,” Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan, doctors writing as Kalpish Ratna, contend in “A Crown Of Thorns – The Coronavirus And Us” (Context), adding for good measure that in 2009, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which has for long conducted air-sampling balloon experiments, had recovered three novel strains of bacteria from altitudes of 27 and 41 km.

Today, as Covid-19 sweeps the planet, we are panicked and baffled. Bombarded with disinformation and panic-inducing statistics, we are cowed by the enormity and uncertainty of what’s unfolding.

The narrative, so far, has been about a novel coronavirus. But Covid-19 is not just about SARS-CoV-2. It is about the virus and us.

We have coexisted with viruses from the dawn of evolution. What has changed? Is it this ‘new virus’? Or, has something changed in us? Have we disrupted something crucial in Nature?

“A Crown of Thorns” is science and history woven into the human story – the long view on a pandemic that’s consuming us. Kalpish Ratna, writing in the singular, distil their study of plagues and epidemics into a work packed with ideas that provoke and insights that illuminate.

Their previous book, “The Secret Life of Zika Virus (2017) examined the emergence of the Congenital Zika Syndrome. “Synapse” (2019) combines fiction with a heavy dose of facts and deals with crucial breakthroughs in neuroscience, and with cameos from numerous scientific luminaries; the hair-raising stories traverse time, space and the dark underbelly of scientific progress.

Covid-19 was no surprise, the book maintains.

“After the 2003 outbreak of SARS and the 2012 outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), it was only a matter of time before another lethal coronavirus struck us.

“Were we unprepared”, or rather, “Why did we let it happen again?”

“We failed to prevent it because we failed to recongnise a truth that stares is in the face.

“It would be more correct to say we refuse to recognise it,” says the book, that attempts to take the reader away from the “Hai Ram, yeh kya go gaya hai” (Oh God, what is happening) syndrome to a more rational line of reasoning.

Be it yellow fever, zika fever, chikungunya, ebola, Nipah virus or what have you, they might be different but “their landscape of origin is the same. And it is a shockingly familiar one no matter where you live. It is a landscape without trees”.

All these diseases emerged – or remerged, more virulent and dangerous – as a result of human encroachment on forests.

“Historically, we might trace them to tropical rainforests, but right now we must look closer to home. Because the forest was, till very recently, right here somewhere, in and about your housing colony, around that gated highrise and its adjacent slum,” the book says.

“Disease is driven by capitalism today: the forests of Asia, Africa, Central and South Americas are enslaved to richer nations to produce goods that serve few and bankrupt millions. The use of forests to fuel the greed of capitalism must cease. Else, a landscape without trees may soon become a landscape without people,” the book says.

What else can we do?

Noting that the standard narrative of Covid-19 is biased – the virus gets all the attention, but Covid-19 isn’t about the virus, “it is about us”, the book says: “We are a species in an evolutionary cul-de-sac. The virus is much older at this game of survival. Still, we’ve survived viruses since we emerged, haven’t we…History is the narrative of conquest, disease is the narrative of defeat” and the human race today is “poised between these two”.

So, “why not reclaim the playbook (all the pieces and parts that make up the go-to approach for getting things done)?

“Why not reconsider Covid-19 from the human vantage, from our point of view?

“And while we wait for vaccines and therapies, why not repair health?

“Whose life is it anyway?”

Yours and mine, Kalpish Ratna; so let’s get on with it!

'Viruses a crown of thorns borne for centuries' (Book Review)

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Delhi’s mean streets & badminton creates India’s Karate Kid




Amritpal Kaur
Amritpal Kaur

It’s all thanks to badminton that today Amritpal Kaur is India’s best known young face in Karate. And it was Delhi’s streets that pushed her to attend her first martial-arts class.

Even as her story has been optioned for a film by Sujay Jairaj, who also secured the rights for a movie on former world number one badminton player Saina Nehwal, and has started a funding campaign for the karate player on Ketto; Kaur, who won the Gold Medal in Commonwealth Karate Championship (2015) and has been walking away with the top slot at South Asian Championships for the last three consecutive years recalls that as a 13-years-old, travelling alone in Delhi’s to the badminton court from her house near Tilak Nagar was a nightmare for obvious reasons. “Self-defence was the only reason that I wanted to learn karate. However, there was something about the sport that made me fall in love with it instantly,” smiles the 23-year-old.

Training in a park near her place for the first two years and losing most of matches, the young player soon understood that there was something amiss.She then decided to save her pocket money and raid cyber cafes to watch videos of karate champion Rafael Aghayev from Azerbaijani.

“That is when I realised that what was being taught to me was something very basic. It also meant that I had to work hard on myself and devote more time to self-training.”

Of course, like most Indian parents obsessed with academics, the idea of long hours of training did not really go well with her parents. But Kaur, a topper and through-out scholarship holder during her school years managed to convince her mother of a fine balance between the two.

By the time she enrolled in the English Honours course at the capital’s Janki Devi Memorial College, the young player had already proved her mettle at the state and national levels, thanks to which the Delhi government granted her a scholarship. “And that is how I could afford my training, travelling and gear,” she says.

But with no support from the government when it came to training (“where is the infrastructure”) and flying to international destinations for qualifying matches, things suddenly started looking bleak. “Once a Sikh organisation funded me to train in Turkey. Going for qualifying matches means flight tickets, accommodating, gear, training and food….it is never easy,” this black belt in Sito Tyo Seiko Kai (a style in Karate) laments.

For someone whose day starts at 5 am — meditation, three hours of training, a break and five hours of training again before hitting the bed, the driving force has always been passion. “What else can you attribute it to,” she asks.

Despite beating all odds, the fact that she could not make it to the Tokyo Olympics left her heartbroken. “All qualifying matches that started two years back were held in Europe, how could I afford it?” she asks.

And on top of that, in December 2019, while competing at a tournament in Goa, a fall caused a torn ACL. “This translated into complete bed rest for seven months and also meant an expensive surgery.”

But the moment one of her friends tweeted about this, actor Sonu Sood’s team reached out in fifteen minutes and decided to fund the surgery.

Kaur, still hungry for more championships now wants to go to Turkey to train further. “The only way for me is forward,” she says.

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Automated fingerprint system in India by Dec 2020 (IANS Exclusive)





By December this year, police forces across the country would be able to get the benefits of a unique “real time” criminal identification system — National Automated Fingerprint Identification System (NAFIS) — which will collect fingerprints of over 80 lakh criminals in the country and put in place a robust web-based system to identify them.

Almost all the necessary infrastructure are in place to implement the Central government’s long-pending project, which will help in identifying criminals based on their fingerprints. A few pending works will be completed by November end.

A National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) official privy to the development told IANS that NAFIS will be launched in December this year after the completion of some pending installations of a finger print machine at the “district and commissionerate” level in each states to identify the finger prints of criminals.

Though the official didn’t disclose any particular date, he said the project might be launched before the third week of December.

On the lines of the Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the US, the NCRB is hosting the system and implementing it on a turnkey basis, selecting solution providers through a bidding process.

The NCRB will allocate separate space for each state at the NAFIS centre. Each state will have complete control over its data, while read-only permission will be given to the other states.

Provisions will be made for the states which already have AFIS to share their data with NAFIS using a bridge software without disturbing their operations. NAFIS will be installed at the NCRB and the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems (CCTNS) connectivity will be used to provide access to all the users.

NAFIS will enhance the ability to discern crime patterns and modus operandi across states, and communicate with the state police departments to assist in crime prevention, NCRB Director Ramphal Pawar told IANS.

Pawar said that “NAFIS will be a game-changer in partnership with NCRB”.

While digitally inaugurating the 21st all India Conference of Directors, Fingerprint Bureau 2020 on Tuesday, Union Minister of State for Home G. Kishan Reddy also emphasised on the importance of fingerprints.

Reddy said a fingerprint is an essential tool because of its uniqueness, permanency, individuality and ease in acquisition.

He added that digitisation of records and fingerprint data is an important step forward in documenting and tracking crime and criminals and expressed his confidence that the “fully computerised NAFIS would soon become functional and benefit the police forces”.

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Of girls navigating cities




Manreet Sodhi Someshwar
Manreet Sodhi Someshwar

A trained engineer who went to IIM Calcutta, and after a decade long corporate career decided to pause and gift herself some “me time”, not to mention a Creative Writing course in the US later — author Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, whose latest “Girls and the City”, published by HarperCollins India recently hit the stands, has vivid memories of that break during which she wrote her first book.

“My husband and I were in Singapore that time, and I couldn’t help but think of my home in Ferozepur. Memories flooded back in. To make sense of them, I started asking questions. My research took me back in time and it was the national library, not any salon, that became my haunt. Seven years later, I had a book, my first: ‘The Long Walk Home’,” says the author who now has six books to her credit, including the Mehrunisa series and “The Radiance of a Thousand Suns”.

Talking about her latest, “Girls and the City”, set in Bengaluru, which is tale of female friendships centered on a murder mystery, a whodunit, that is more of a who-was-it-done-to, Someshwar reveals that she started writing it amid the #metoo movement, wanting to explore the dynamics between sex and power.

“We are somehow still reluctant to discuss sexual assault and harassment. I saw the book as a way to reignite that conversation. It explores how women navigate everyday misogyny using wit, grit and tenacity.”

Adding that women’s concerns are different from those of their male counterparts, she says, “Men write about themselves whilst women write the world.”

Recalling that when she switched gears, her writing experience was limited to powerpoint presentations, the writer says that she is a self-taught one and quite happy with the fact. “This gives me the freedom to tell the stories that I really want to. I went back to school to gift myself a like-minded community. Whilst I love my friends (class- and work-mates from my previous avatars) I do get tired of hearing: ‘So, when’s the next book coming out?’

“Now, books don’t come off factory floors… Sometimes it is such a relief to be with other folks who tussle with writing daily. That’s where being part of a Creative Writing program helps.”

For someone who started writing when she moved out of India, the distance from home gave her the perspective she needed to write. “Additionally, that provides me with a sharp prism through which to refract my experiences. Living outside of India, I have gained insights into the Indian diaspora and its varied challenges.

“I write books that I want to read which are not out there yet. It’s liberating to be in a mix of people where each one is trying to tell stories that are important to them. That has been enriching because I have learned that while every story is particular in its concerns and setting, every well-told one is also universal in its theme.”

Considering she writes across genres, it is important that she reads widely, indiscriminately and regularly. “I follow every big book with a more contemporary one. The latest one was born amidst the raging #metoo campaign of 2018 and I rode that tide because there was so much that was relevant and urgent. I begin only when the compulsion to write it is stronger than not writing it,” says the author who is presently working on a Partition trilogy.

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Only 300 to be allowed at Mysuru Dasara fest parade: Minister




Mysuru Dasara celebrations to commence on Thursday with Gajapayana
Mysuru Dasara celebrations to commence on Thursday with Gajapayana

Admitting that Covid pandemic was still rampant in Karnataka, state Health Minister K. Sudhakar on Monday said only 300 guests would be allowed to watch the grand finale of the 10-day Dasara festival on October 26 in the royal palace grounds here.

“As Covid spread is still rampant in the state, the Dasara fest will be celebrated in a simple manner this time, with 300 people allowed to witness the royal parade on its 10th day (Vijayadashmi) to mark the victory of triumph over evil in the Amba Vilas palace grounds,” Sudhakar told reporters here.

As the city of palaces and cultural capital of Karnataka, Mysuru is about 150 km southwest of Bengaluru in the southern state.

The world famous 10-day Mysuru Dasara festival is celebrated every year in September-October as per the Hindu calendar, with religious and cultural events, in which the royal family of the Wodeyar dynasty participates and the state government hosts it with the help of the citizens.

“In view of the state government guidelines to restrict large gatherings to contain the virus spread, people can watch the proceedings from their home as the various religious and cultural events from October 17 will be telecast live from the palace venue,” said Sudhakar.

Sudhakar, a medical doctor by profession, has been entrusted with the health and family welfare department in addition to the medical education portfolio from Monday to rein in the pandemic, which broke in the state in mid-March.

Ranking second to Maharashtra, Karnataka’s Covid tally rose to a whopping 7,17,915 till Sunday, including 1,15,776 active cases and 10,036 deaths due to the infection across the state since the virus broke on March 8.

With Mysuru accounting for the largest number of cases after Bengaluru in Karnataka, the beleaguered government has decided to keep the yearly fest low-key, cancelling outdoor religious and cultural activities, including a 5-km victory procession from the royal palace to Bannimantap grounds across the city for torch light parade on October 26 night.

Of the state’s Covid tally, Mysuru registered 42,373 positive cases till Sunday, with 7,123 active, including 309 new cases, while 34,357 were discharged so far and 893 succumbing to the infection since March.

“While 590 beds are available for Covid patients in the state-run hospitals across the city, 428 additional beds will be available in a week to augment the capacity,” reiterated Sudhakar.

Though charges have been fixed for Covid treatment in private hospitals, the state government will pay for patients referred by its health department in the event of bed shortage in the state-run hospitals in the city.

Noting that delay in detecting and reporting the cases to hospitals was one of the reasons for higher mortality rate, the minister said measures were being taken to ensure early detection and treatment to minimise deaths.

“The emphasis will be on tele-medicine and home isolation across the district. More labs will be set to double testing in the city to 4,000 from 2,000 per day,” noted Sudhakar.

Hoping to control the virus spread in a week or so, the minister said people should strictly follow the guidelines to wear a mask, maintain physical distance and wash hands with sanitizer regularly.

Mysuru’s deputy commissioner Rohini Sindhuri and state health department additional chief secretary Javed Akhtar participated in the review meeting.

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Big B to lend voice to show on the Buddha




Actor Amitabh Bachchan. (File Photo: IANS)
Actor Amitabh Bachchan. (File Photo: IANS)

Varanasi (UP), Oct 12: Superstar Amitabh Bachchan will now provide a voice-over for a light-and-sound show to be held in Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh, highlighting the life and ideology of Lord Buddha.

According to divisional commissioner Deepak Agrawal, the company that is producing the show has started preparations for the recording.

The show had to be ready for screening by September 30 as per the initial plan, but Bachchan tested positive for Covid-19 and the recording was delayed.

“Fresh dates have been given to the company and recording will complete by October 25 after which sound mixing will take some time and so the show is likely to be ready for screening by the year-end,” the commissioner added.

Tourism joint director Avinash Mishra said the content of the show had been finalised long ago and the content creator who developed the light and sound show of Agra and Jhansi was on this project too.

Efforts to rope in Bachchan for the recording of the narration of Lord Buddha’s life since childhood to his ‘parinirvana’ for a global audience had begun in 2018, he informed.

The Union ministry of tourism had, in 2002-03, sanctioned Rs 3.52 crore for a sound and light show based on Lord Buddha at the Buddha Theme Park of Sarnath, where he had delivered his first sermon.

The Indian Tourism Development Corporation was assigned the project in 2003-04, but no work was done. The ministry withdrew the funds from ITDC in 2013.

The UP tourism department decided to shift the site of the show to Dhamekha Stupa and sought consent from the Archaeological Survey of India.

On the ASI’s request, Indian Institute of Technology, Banaras Hindu University (IIT-BHU) experts evaluated the impact of the light-and-sound show on the monument.

It was only after getting a positive report, the ASI gave its nod to the tourism department which asked Rajkiya Nirman Nigam to execute the project in 2016-17 and revised the budget to Rs 7.88 crore by February 2018.

The audience gallery for the light-and-sound show has been developed in a park between stupa and ruins of some monuments with a makeshift sitting arrangement.

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Looking ahead with Nalini Malani




Looking ahead with Nalini Malani
Looking ahead with Nalini Malani

There was a time when she could not afford a studio, and had to move in with her mother. But there was never a time when she made marketable art. “However, as an artist I never look back at my past. It is important to look forward, as an antenna of the society — what can happen in our near future? If I look back, it finds a way in my art,” says artist Nalini Malani.

The first Indian to win the Joan Miro Prize (2019), considered one of the most prestigious art awards in the world for giving a voice to the “the silenced and the dispossessed all over the world, most particularly women,” the artist says, “I think it is an important step for this prestigious award to spread their field to a more global vision.”

While her work ‘Utopia’ is part of KNMA’s ‘City Tales’ digital exhibition, she is busy with her notebook animations as part of the project ‘Can You Hear Me?’

“I post them regularly on Instagram. As an installation, which I call ‘animation chamber’, it is now installed as a solo exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, on till June 6, 2021. Besides that, I am working on the fellowship project of the National Gallery in London, which research/work project should culminate in an exhibition and publication of spring 2023.”

Known for strong social concerns in her art including issues pertaining to politics, gender, violence and consumerism, Mumbai-based Malini who during the initial days of her career worked in painting and drawing also incorporated film and video later, with memory playing an important role in her art work.

A pass-out from the JJ School of Art, the artist, who received a scholarship from the French Government to study fine arts there from 1970 to 72, smiles, “I always say: Paris was the university of my life.”

Ask her if her work ‘Utopia’ has a special resonance considering the times we live in, and she replies, “As an artist one always hopes one’s works have a special reverberance. However, it is the viewer who completes the works, and might experience this special resonance.”

Unlike many other major artists, Malani, who still works solo in her studio without any assistants happens to be one of the early artists who strongly brought forth issues of feminism in the Indian art landscape. However, she feels that things have gone worse. “The headlines of the general newspapers of the last years give us evidence of this,” she says.

Recalling the reactions from the Indian art world when she started exploring video, theatre and ephemeral wall drawings, she remembers, “There was no real appreciation directly. One was mockingly called an ‘installator artist’, as if one was a kind of gladiator artist.”

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