The 7-hour itch



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A trickle of sweat dipped between her scapulae. It swayed indecisive, then travelled sinuously down the length of her furrow. It met its deadline in her scrub pants. Merged into its brethren already trapped in her hemline. The once sky-blue hemline would be now mottled dark blue. It would leave a rumpled, withered imprint all around her waist when she eventually undressed. When she achieved liberation from this stifling, 3-layered prison of mask, goggle and faceshield. That delicious freedom was still 7 long hours away. She had just joined her 7-hour shift in the ICU. T’was the Summer 2020.

            A pen held in the awkward shrouds of multiple gloves. A 5-rupees pen, strictly, since it would need be discarded after her shift. Safety’s sake. Peering past the foggy barrier of her goggles, she bent upon her notes. Blood counts, ECG, spO2, Ferritin. All checked. Stacking her files in a neat pile, she rose. Her layers of plastic wear crackled with every movement.

            She lumbered across from bed to bed. Checking for vitals. Alert for aberration. Trained for danger. Aware of the risk she undertook.

            She was used to multiple layers of clothing since childhood. She was often asked, “Don’t you feel suffocated?” Now they were all bundled up. Men and women. Layers upon layers upon layers. Covid was a great leveler. It had smacked all of humanity into 3 discrete classes. The dead. The living. The saviors.

            She had made a precise list of ‘Do nots’ before starting her 7-hour stint. Don’t drink a drop of water. Don’t eat a morsel of food. Don’t pee. Don’t itch.

            The first two were second nature to her. Every year for an entire holy month, she undertook the rigorous ritual with her brethren. It was a testament of her willpower.

            The 3rd on her list was torture. She boiled it down to a scientific fact. 1 ml of urine produced per minute. 7 hours = 420 minutes. Chaar sou bees. Only.

            She emptied her bladder precisely 5 minutes before getting into her PPE. Squeezed down to the last drop. Thereafter, no input= no output. The trick was not to even think of peeing. Damn! She felt a tumulescence in her bladder. An immediate urge. Divert, divert, divert the mind, she hyperventilated.

            She threw up her head to gaze at the walls of the ward. The paint was shedding in hesitant patches. Fungus darkened one corner. The rusty hinges.  Her colleagues in their corporate hospitals would roll their eyes when she carefully counted the coins back from the taxi driver. BMC mentality. Their lips would curl in mirth when she diligently switched off the fan and bulb when exiting a room. BMC mentality.

Not anymore. Her BMC hospital was now the cynosure of all eyes in the Covid war. It was the oasis of Life in the heart of the mightiest and busiest city of India. Her very own B.Y.L Nair hospital. Now, their eyes widened in awe and respect when they learnt where she worked. She passed a proud, possessive palm down her scrub. Not mere uniform, it was her armour. Her Superwoman cape.

She smiled at the naked walls. No, there would be no medal for her. No TV interview. No badge of honor. Nothing except the most precious gift – the knowledge that she had saved lives.

The strap of her lingerie stabbed into her skin. Her nose felt greasy. Exactly where the sweat met her spine, she felt an itch erupt. She groaned silently. Can’t afford an itch. Bcos one that can’t be scratched is pure hell.

She moved to the next bed. Checked the vitals. Ignore the itch. This patient needed to be flopped onto his belly. Call the staff nurse. Heave. Turn. Ignore the itch.

Turning to the next patient, her uterus convulsed. A dull ache crawled across her belly. A gush of sticky fluid. Damn! It wasn’t due till next week. How did it start today, this blood monthly ritual? Must be the stress. It could play havoc with hormones. She blinked in desperation at the wall clock. 300 more minutes. Only 5 hours more. She hoped the stain didn’t percolate through her Superwoman cape.

She had reached the end of the ward. The last and best bed. A quick glance at the patient’s name. Oh! She knew this name well. The one who surrounded himself with a battalion of commandos. Z security. Ensconced in which cordon, he believed himself immortal. Well, Covid had certainly ripped apart that flimsy cordon.

He who clenched his fists and dictated who wore what and who ate what. He who flew a chartered flight to USA everytime he sneezed. He who declared that women who bled every month shouldn’t be permitted to enter holy places.

She gazed down at him. Should I prod him awake and tell him I’m bleeding right now? Would he permit me to save his life? Or would his belief shatter on the verge of death?

His chest heaved. Fell up and down in uneven gasps. A rattlesnake gurgling in his chest. His immortality at the mercy of a tiny virus.

Should I tell him?

Her gloved hand patted him awake. Eyelids fluttered open. Eyes blank in gloom. Eyes wide in terror.

And just as suddenly, she wasn’t just the doctor. Not just a savior. Not just a warrior shielding him from death. Much, much higher. She was a mother nursing a sick child.She thought, ‘Power does not justify evil. Power is not virtue. Virtue is that which exists despite power.’

She bent down. Whispered, “Don’t give up. We will survive this. Together.”

Because humanity was her only religion. Her duty was her only holy hymn.



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Mira sat still in the office meeting. Ramrod straight. Eyes fixated on the screen. She was glad the Corona mask hid her face, because all her attention was rivetted on her tongue tip.

The tip did an acrobatic leap, a desperate attempt to reach that tiny gap between her last 2 molars. Wedged in between 2 molars , deep and snug next to her gums, lay a tiny morsel of apple. Her breakfast apple.

The tongue tip worked like a spade, then curled like a scoop, dug in like a spoon. It scraped the inner, then the outer surface of the molar. No use. The morsel hid deeper like a soldier ducking into his trench.

Mira felt a slight give, and her pulse quickened. The morsel rotated in its grave. It somersaulted. Its skin now lay stuck to her gums.

Mira’s jaw ached. Her tongue begged for mercy. It had been swaying, tugging, cajoling that morsel for – Mira’s eyes swung to her watch – was it only 2 minutes?

Mira fidgeted. She itched to dig in a manicured fingernail and yank out that damned morsel. Ah! that apple tasted so crisp crunchy at breakfast. Now, an hour past its prime, it felt wilted and tasted rotten in her mouth.

Apples dont always protect you from doctors. This one would probably force her into a dentist’s chair!

Mira swung her jaw side to side to dislodge the stubborn bite. No use.

The speaker droned on. Mira heard not a word.

Then Mira felta slight give. And thensome more. Some more. And Yessss – the morsel finally surfaced and was quickly flushed down her throat.

Mira grinned behind her mask. Then she realised the entire room was looking at her. Then it dawned on her that she had said the ‘Yesss’ out loud.

The above was an exercise in ‘slow motion writing’, as part of Himalayan Writing Workshop by Chetan Mahajan. Click here for more details The writing is targeted at zooming in and amplifying a moment, making it visual, sensory and raw.

Did it work? Did you relate? Had the same experience

Irrationally Passionate by Jason Kothari


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In Pretty Woman, he simplifies his complex job by saying ‘I buy big companies, then break them into smaller companies and sell them” She asks, “And that’s all it takes to make you a millionaire??” (or somewhere along these lines)

Jason simplifies his life as a voracious appetite for diving into troubled waters (read businesses or startups) and getting a kick out of smoothening the choppy waves. He makes it sound simple , magical and ‘Heck, I can do it too’ Continue reading

Atheist or otherwise – by fault or default?


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Can atheists & non-athists coexist peacefully? Yup, I sure think so. That’s b’cos both reside within me!!

My father believed in God. My mother doesn’t.

This simple fact gave me the best gift – that of Personal Choice!

If both parents were believers, I’d have been unwittingly (and witlessly) built along similar lines. If both parents were atheists, I’d have been poured into a similar mould.

Now I’m free to think, judge, evaluate, transform, debate, expand horizons and explore. Have I reached a decision? Cant say. I’m still open to revelations.

All I can say at present is :

Varna is not equal to Caste
Ritual is not equal to Religion
Religion is not equal to Dharma

Vipassana–my experience. Part 2


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Gateway to Hell or Heaven? Recounting my experiences at Vipassana centre, Igatpuri –Part 2

Day 6: (continued from part 1) Today’s breathing variation is to focus attention on sensations in a tidal wave from head to toe. Subtle sensations preferred over the gross. The objective: to enhance memory.

Rejuvenated and perky, I feel my mind razor sharp, receptive and keen. Shorn of all external stimuli, I use this brand new mind to whittle down my story plot. It shapes up better and better. I scribble down the plotline maniacally at lunchtime (been doing it for past 3 days. Yes, I’ll duly acknowledge Vipassana when the idea fleshes out into an actual publication 🙂 Virtue born out of a sin.

Day 7: We are elevated to the ‘privilege’ of entering shunya-agar aka isolation cell. Shunya = zero, i.e zero disturbance, total isolation. Image result for zero

Shunya-agars are 2 x 2 feet cubicles built side by side in concentric whirlpools within a pagoda. No window, no ventilation, no fan, no chair. It has one floor cushion, one door and one dim bulb (No! the latter is not in reference to my brain.)

The cubicle is a haven for agoraphobians ; a nightmare for claustrophobians.

The door carries a pinned warning – Shut the door tight ‘in case insects get into the pagoda’. That, of course, floods my panic button as I imagine snakes and caterpillars slithering out from every corner. So much for mental peace!

I expound on the many extra benefits of this cell. Any criminal aiming to get incarcerated in an Anda cell is advised to initiate their training here. The shunyaagar also yields answers to deeply insightful research queries, such as Did that embarrassing rumble in the hall emanate from my stomach or my neighbor’s stomach?

I try to estimate the motive behind this isolation. I guess they are equating physical isolation with mental isolation – but is that actually feasible in the chaotic outside world? Shouldn’t we aim to develop an oasis of peace in the midst of din, depression and disturbance?

Day 8: Ennui strikes again. Monotony creeps in again. Questions explode in my mind. Even if I achieve equanimity to skin sensations, how will it help me deal with deep organ pain, if any? (Anatomy has already taught me that dermal and visceral nerves are different.) Is the whole goal of this exercise to make me ignore an itch, twitch or ache? 

I voice my query at FAQ time. The teacher stalls it with ‘Have Patience. Guruji will explain eventually.’ I fidget. Silence can be either peaceful – or sterile. The one in this meditation room seems like the latter.

Sonu Nigam once again intrudes into the vacuum to murmur Kal ho naa ho. Me, the reading addict, am getting withdrawal symptoms from the ‘No reading’ clause. I clutch at straws – I compensate by diligently reading every notice board on the campus. Twice.

I miraculously discover a six-month-old newspaper tucked in the back flap of my suitcase! I clutch it to heart and devour every printed word. Yep, even the matrimonial columns. (It’s heartening to note how many families want slim, fair, beautiful and ‘homely’ brides for their boys. Homely??? Do the idiots even know the dictionary meaning of homely = plain/ unattractive? I sincerely hope all the ‘boys’ have got their well deserved ‘homely’ spouses by now.)

In the post-lunch session, bang in the midst of meditation, I gasp as I discover a superb plot twist . Hmm, if nothing else, meditation is doing wonders for my creativity.

Evening snacks is the usual encore of chivda (puffed rice) + bananas/watermelon. I resolve not to touch chivda for the next 10 years.

Desperately missing mummy ke haath ka khaana. P.S– Poor Mummy is also here with me.  I sneak a look at her & wonder how the talkative woman is faring in absolute maun. She makes for an elegant and diligent student perched upon her cushioned throne, while I creak and groan on the hard floor.

Day 9 : Today’s variation is to mentally pierce the body through and through. To feel the vibrations or waves radiate from side to side, from front to behind and vice versa throughout the body. To feel the body as a porous, spongy, sieved object rather than a solid mass of bones and muscles.

Day 10 : End of silence – they finally free all the caged birds and permit an words. Needless to say, there is pandemonium as the ladies chatter & jabber as if words were O2 in this gas chamber of silence.

We learn Metta i.e whatever sensations we internalized till date are now radiated outward to wish peace for everyone.  Just as Metta hour ends, the skies darken, clouds rumble, lightening strikes. I overhear a volunteer say that heavy rains are inevitable. She has experienced this at every single Metta, irrespective of the season. Heavy rains are a byproduct of the collective peace & joy we radiated on day 10. (Now, isn’t that an innovative solution for droughts in India?)

What is Vipassana?

It’s a mood + behaviour modification technique based on the triple pillars of शील साधना & प्रज्ञा. Sheel (conduct), sadhana (Anapana or breath awareness) and pragya (learning to be equanimous to bodily sensations. This ‘no reaction’ method teaches the body that pleasant and unpleasant sensations are anitya or temporary.

Code words at Vipassana:

भवतु सब्ब मंगलम  = May everybody be happy/ May good things happen to all. This reminds me of Yoga prayer – सर्वे सुखिनः सन्तु सर्वे सन्तु निरामय ; OR even the ‘duritanche timir jao, vishavsa’ shloka of Dnyaneshwar. Great minds think alike!

साधू = Tathastu or ‘So be it’. This is expected to be uttered by students after Sh. Goenka says ‘भवतु सब्ब मंगलम ‘.

अनित्य – fleeting , temporary sensations/ feelings/ emotions

How is Vipassana different from Yoga?

Vipassana focuses attention on observing normal respiration, while Pranayama aims at altering the normal breathing patterns via deep breathing, slow ‘rechak’ exhalation etc . Also, Yoga  imbibes physical asanas for flexibility, hormonal balance & muscle tone; while Vipassana forbids mixing itself with physical exercises (except brisk walking).

Wow factors at Vipassana centre:

* Eco friendly campus with reverse osmosis drinking water, solar energy panels & rainwater harvesting. There are plenty of trees and flowers everywhere.

* Spic-n-span rooms with inbuilt mosquito nets and snake filters. Neat dining hall with sparkling clean tables & no flies hovering over dishes. Sincere and efficient Dhamma-sevikas managing the prayer hall, dining, catering, laundry etc.

* Strictly avoids any mention of religion, God, caste, cult or mantras.

* Despite the draconian rules, it remains a Genteel world. They stress on self- censorship rather than moral policing. (Yep, they never actually checked my bags. I could’ve sneaked in pickles, cookies, mobile phone, novels etc etc)

* Delightful, tinkling silver bells rung by sevikas going from cottage to cottage to sound an alarm for meditation time or wake-up times.

* Goenka’s insistent statement to those fidgeting and yearning for escape – You are not doing a favor to anyone, except urself.

* Totally free of cost!Meals, bed & room, training all at zero cost. You may (or may not) donate a cheque at departure time (80G sanction in Income Tax too!)

Oww factors at Vipassana

1] Scroll way up for the grueling schedule.

2] Duration – I’d suggest to reduce the course to 5 days, to make it bearable and interesting. Avoid repetitions thru’out the day. Also, tone down meditation sessions to 45 mins, cos’ thats’ how long an average human brain can focus.

3] Physical exercise was almost zero. Why should flexibility/tone/core strength based asanas interfere with Vipassana’s mental exercise? (On asking, they said mixing 2 healthy foods like fruits & milk is ill-advised, likewise mixing 2 health techniques is taboo. Hmm..)

4] Monotony – Once a variation was taught, we were expected to repeat it throughout the day. The motive behind the exercise was explained far too late, on day 9-10. If told earlier, students had higher chances of imbibing them.

5] Goenka often poked fun at the conventional methods  i.e the illusion of flame/divine sight visualized at the centre of forehead. Yet, he himself cheated by describing to us in detail about the sensations v were expected to feel. Why drill it into our imagination, instead of eliciting honest answers from us? Expectedly, when instructors enquired what sensations we experienced, out came the parroted terms – exactly in Goenka’s words. Isn’t  this too a form of brainwashing, which he so vehemently denounced in rituals?

6] Is it seriously possible to sit in meditation for 10 hours a day? Any new knowledge makes sense only when it is practical, doable and feasible. Else, it’s just a fad. 

What I deduced about Vipassana:

It may not be a foolproof method to achieve peace – but may reduce the frequency, extent & longevity of maladies, both physical and mental.

The motive behind 10 days of introspection is perhaps, to develop the ‘Observation’ technique. To look at sensations and watch till they dissolve and fade. Sensations mirror emotions. Instead of knee-jerk reactions, we should train the mind that physical sensations & emotions are ephemeral, flaky and momentary.

Thoughts lead to words, and words to actions. Developing emotional control may (hopefully) lead to control over speech & actions.

If nothing else, it does wonders for creativity. Every person with writer’s block is recommended.

And the release on day 12 makes you value everything you always took for granted – freedom, choice, home and ghar ka food!