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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Life after Death

This is the last of the three posts that I had planned to talk about my father's demise. The other two are here and here.

The first few days pass by as if you are in a trance. You get up in the morning, and want to inquire about his health. You want to check if he has taken his medicines. But then you don't find him on the bed at the usual location. So you want to ask who shifted him, to which room, why. But before you can actually ask that question, you remember carrying him on your shoulders to the cremation ground.

Of course, morning is the only time when you can think. For the rest of the day, there will be a stream of visitors, same questions, same answers, same advise, same prayers. But believe me, repeating the same stories hundreds of times help you to get normal. Slowly, you start believing that he is really gone for ever. And that realization is the most important first step in the normalization process after death. Also, there is strength in numbers. When a large number of people visit, offer their support and prayers, you feel that your father must have been a great soul, perhaps greater than the credit you ever gave him when he was alive, and you get a sense of pride, the pride of being his son. You also start believing (correctly so in our case) that with all these people willing to help, all the issues will get sorted out soon.

Those issues, of course, relate to things like my father's bank account, pension, PF, medical bills, insurance, and a whole lot more. But to start taking care of those issues, you need a death certificate, and that is when your first interaction with government happens. The Municipal Corporation understands Hindu scriptures better than anyone else. Our scriptures very clearly say that we need a mourning period of 13 days, during which we should not go out of our home, and just talk to the visitors. Compressing this period, as is very common these days in cities, is not good for the near and dear ones, as they would not have gotten out of the shock by then. The municipality ensures that you can do nothing for 13 days by not giving you the death certificate (DC).

Once we had the DC, we made a round of all the offices, collected all forms to be filled in, found out the process, and every bank will have a different process, what all documents we will need and all that. For every account (and each Fixed Deposit is a separate account), one needs to fill up long forms, and attach all sorts of documents about father, about the nominee, about the witnesses, and so on. For each account, one could easily have 20 pages of xeroxed documents.

Father had a habit of keeping all records. There was a list of all accounts, along with account number, financial institution, date, amount, name of nominee, and so on. Every single account had a nominee or it was a joint account. On top of that, he had left a will, properly registered. Thanks to him, we were not anticipating any real problem. It was just the pain of filling long forms, getting a whole lot of stuff xeroxed, and doing it for each account. We could not write down all the accounts in the same form. And then you go to the bank, and they all follow the shortest job first policy of service. Since it will take time to go through all those documents, and check them against the information in their computers, they will look at them only when there are no customers demanding their 2-minutes.  So something that should normally happen in 30 minutes, will take 3-4 hours. So only one institution in one day. Of course, all this because they knew my father. Otherwise, they could ask you to get one more document. We actually would carry xeroxes of all our IDs, photographs, revenue stamps, blank sheets of paper, envelopes, file covers. One never knows what they might ask for.

But there is a goal in all that madness. They want you to forget mourning and become normal. And standing for hours will cause enough pain in your body that you will forget the other pain you had.

Transferring LPG connection was more interesting. There is no nomination facility with the LPG connection. So they wanted an affidavit from my mother on a stamp paper that no other legal heir would claim inheritance of that LPG connection. They also wanted the original document that gas company would have given when the connection was first taken. That was 43 years ago. But my mother was not at all bothered. She knew it must be in the file, and there it was.

The medical reimbursement required the maximum number of documents, and thankfully, for a change, the doctor had to sign more often than my mother. I really felt that doctors should charge extra from those who are going to seek reimbursement from some agency. Instead they charge less.

But now we are stuck. How do we transfer the telephone to our mother's name. MTNL believes that a landline telephone connection from MTNL is an asset, and should have been mentioned in the will. He should have clearly said who shall inherit the connection. MTNL clearly hasn't grown up. It was created in 1986, and it is still living in 1986 when it was entirely possible for the legal heirs to fight over that connection. It took years to get a new connection then. But today when landline customers are deserting them every day, and the connection is available instantly, to still treat the connection as an asset does not make sense.

Of course, we can lie to MTNL that he did not leave a will. At least they won't laugh at him for failing to include such an important asset in the will. But that process is also not very simple. They need a no objection certificate from all legal heirs (that is, all four siblings) that they have no objection to our mother inheriting the MTNL connection. And the problem is that my sisters have gone back to US. At least the Indian Oil (for LPG connection) accepted the affidavit from my mother. MTNL wants it from all of us. Of course, the simpler thing would be to start giving mobile number in all offices, and after a while give up the phone. And during this period, keep paying the bills that come in father's name. MTNL, I am sure, would be happier to have one less landline customer.

Another asset that my father did not list in his will is the water connection from Delhi Jal Board. And they are even less forgiving than MTNL. It is not acceptable to them that the four siblings give a No Objection Certificate. They want a succession certificate from the court. Otherwise, what is the guarantee that there is no 5th or 6th legal heir who may claim to inherit that water connection in future. This is the most ridiculous. With MTNL, one could at least think that while the "connection" per se may not be an asset in today's world, but the "number" could be still important. But with Delhi Jal Board, it is just that someone has to volunteer to pay the bills. And my mother is telling them that after my father, she is agreeing to take the responsibility of paying the bills.

I am sure he is watching us from up there, and kicking himself for not including such important assets in the will. With all his planning, and all his record keeping, he still forgot about them.

Monday, September 16, 2013

My father's education

Yesterday, I wrote about my father's illness and death. Given that this blog readers mostly expect me to write about education, I thought of sharing some very interesting education related experience of my father.

He was a very quiet person, but after his illness, lying on his bed, he loved to talk. He particularly enjoyed remembering incidents and experiences from his early part of life. One day, when he was visiting us at Kanpur, he told me about his education, and it is a rather interesting, though sometimes a sad story.

Our village is only 75 KM from Pilani. My father studied in Birla School, Pilani. In the Inter final exam, there were five subjects, and there were 3 papers in each subject. So a total of 15 exams. (Inter was equivalent to 12th class, but the exam was conducted by a university, and not a school board. In this case, the institute was affiliated to Rajasthan University, Jaipur.)

During the exams, he became ill. He somehow managed to take 14 exams. But on the day of his 14th exam, his condition was serious enough that the warden forced him to go to a doctor, and the doctor promptly advised that he be admitted to a hospital. The next day, he pleaded with the doctor to let him take the last exam, even for just an hour, but the doctor was unmoved, and he had to miss that exam. It was Maths III exam, worth 33 marks.

When the results came, the marksheet showed 33/33, 34/34, 0/33, a total of 67 out of 100 in Maths, the first time in his life when he had received less than 100%, and it pained him, even though it was not because he did not know the answers. But the good thing was that he was in the merit list of Rajasthan University. It was amazing and unheard of that someone who had given only 14 exams was in the merit list.

With this performance, he could have walked into any engineering college. Yes, even in 1950s, there were only two careers which were considered attractive - engineering and medicine. But the village people had only heard of Pilani and Thapar. That Hijli jail had been converted to an IIT was not yet known to the mankind at large. And he chose Pilani. He filled up the admission form, submitted and came back home.

BITS was not yet a deemed university, and it was an affiliated college of Rajasthan University. So its admission was controlled by RU. After a few days when the list of approved admissions came to BITS, there was a shock. My father's name was missing from the list. They immediately sent a man to Jaipur to get the inadvertent error corrected. But he was told that this was not an error. My father had failed one of the 15 exams of Inter, and hence not eligible for admission to college. But if he had failed one subject, and passed all other subjects, then as per rules, he should be allowed to give supplementary exams, and the admission can be given provisionally, subject to his passing the supplementary exam. The engineering admission wing of Rajasthan University was OK with this argument, if the office controlling Inter exams allowed him to sit for the supplementary exams. When this man went to the neighbouring office within the same university, he was told that my father was the topper and how could a topper be allowed supplementary exam.

BITS Director (or Principal) immediately left for Jaipur to meet the Vice Chancellor. He argued with him that the University should make up its mind whether my father was the topper or a failure. One office calling him topper and the other office calling him a failure was not right. If he is a failure then he should be given supplementary exam, and provisional admission. If he is the topper, then of course, he should be given regular admission. But VC could not resolve the issue, and my father did not have any admission, as he had not applied to any other college, and the last date for every program was over.

That BITS would do so much for him really impressed him, and to his last day, he had a soft corner for Pilani. How many of our current academic administrators would do anything to get a good student to their respective colleges. And, by the way, similar stupidities continue till today. If you see IIT JEE (now called JEE Advanced), if you do extremely well in one exam and have good enough marks to get into an IIT, you are still denied admission if you were absent in the second part. If you come to the second part, mark your presence, don't answer even one question, and get a zero, you are eligible for admission, but an absence makes you ineligible. What is the difference between 0 and absence, only IIT Directors know. The story also makes me wonder what would have been his career if the doctor had allowed him to be at the exam for just 15 minutes. Or if he had just casually sent an admission application to Kharagpur or Thapar.

But the story does not end here. It is only the beginning. So if you are allergic to long posts, stop here.

Back in the village, it was obvious that he would have to waste one year, and next year, he could seek admission at Thapar. My grandfather was not happy with the situation, and he thought of talking to the Principal of the local village college to see if he could just attend it for a year. My father wanted admission in no course other than BSc (Mathematics). The college principal had multiple issues. The last date for admission was over. The college only ran BA courses and getting approval for a new program and that too after admissions were closed did not seem feasible. And of course, if at all those hassles could be overcome, who would teach Mathematics in that village. But he was very excited that the topper of Rajasthan University was seeking admission in the village college.

My father made it easy for him as far as the last problem was concerned. He promised that every day during the so-called lecture hours, he would sit in the college library and study those topics himself. The principal was happy to hear that and was confident that this boy would be able to self-study and pass the program. So next day, early morning, he set off to Rohtak, which had a regional center of Panjab University, the one that provided affiliation to the village college. The seniormost administrator at Rohtak looked at the marksheet of my father, and without any delay approved the new program, as well as extended the deadline for admission into this new program. Notice that he wasn't even the Vice Chancellor, for the VC of Panjab University had an office in faraway Solan in what is currently the state of Himachal Pradesh. A lower ranked officer could take such a decision without even a meeting of the Academic Council.

There was critical difference between how Rajasthan looked at education and how PEPSU state looked at education. Rajasthan was just trying to create a reputation of being part of BIMARU states and would do anything to thwart the progress in education. But PEPSU had realized that education would be key to growth in the newly independent India, and there was massive expansion of higher education going on throughout the state. (Of course, that was then. As I have written in some of my earlier blogs, today Rajasthan has amongst the most liberal policies on higher education.) So any college wanted to start a new program and requested more seats, they were easily allowed.

So the principal comes home in the night to deliver the good news that my father could start college from the next day. But the principal had not anticipated some problems when he did all this. The next day, some other kids from village who had taken admission in BA courses, also applied to shift to Mathematics. Now, the principal could not say no to them, but at the same time, he wasn't sure that these kids could pass the courses without a faculty member teaching those courses. And that could lead to violence. They would obviously demand that classes be held, and there was no way that the village college would find Mathematics faculty so soon.

My father solved the problem for him. He would study all Mathematics courses in the evening, and take lectures for all other students in the day time. So at a tender age of 16, he became the de facto college lecturer, of course, without any remuneration. And he really had to work hard for this.

One year went past. Remember, he was expected to apply for admission to Thapar. But he shocked the family by telling them that he was happy studying mathematics and he was dropping the idea of doing engineering. Not only was he deeply interested in maths, but he also felt a responsibility towards his fellow students whom he was continuing to teach.

Three years went past, and he passed the BSc (Mathematics) course with flying colors. He was the topper of the university in the Rohtak zone.

He took admission in the MSc (Mathematics) program at Delhi University. This was a dream place for him. All the great mathematicians whose books he had been reading for the last three years, were there. He could see them, hear them, and even talk to them. If there was heaven on earth, it was here, it was here, it was here. But he had some handicaps. There were some topics which were part of curriculum of BSc in Delhi University but not in Panjab University, and they were assumed as pre-requisites by all faculty members. There were some topics which he wasn't very confident in, since he had received no formal guidance in the last three years. So he had to work extremely hard to perform well overcoming those handicaps. And, of course, first time in a big metro city for a person from village is never very easy. But he worked hard, day in and day out, and when the result came out at the end of the year, he was ranked #2 in the university.

This encouraged him a lot. If with all those handicaps and initial teething troubles, he could secure the second position, now that he was well settled, it should not be very difficult to be the topper. He had heard that the University offered a lecturer position to the topper of the MSc program, and one could do PhD while being a lecturer. Just imagine being the colleague of those Gods of Mathematics. That was a huge motivation and he worked as hard as any human could possibly do. He just had to top the MSc program. But in the process he forgot that to survive, he needed to eat and drink as well.

Just a month before the final exam, he became seriously ill. My grand-father came to Delhi and took him to a doctor. The doctor simply said that his illness is Mathematics. The moment he leaves Maths, he will be alright, and if he does not, he will die. Grand father did not take even seconds to pronounce the judgment. By evening, he had to pack up and leave for village.

My grand father was a good man. He gave a lot of freedom to his sons to take decisions. But, once he had decided something, it was final. You could appeal a decision of Supreme Court, but there was no appeal against his decisions. It wasn't a question of just one month, but it was this whole career plan to study Mathematics for the rest of the life that scared my grand father, and he wasn't going to risk the life of his son for the sake of Mathematics.

Back in the village, my father joined a school as a teacher, and soon started enjoying it. He had enjoyed his stint as a de facto lecturer earlier, and really felt that teaching is his calling. If not at the college and the university level, then let it be at the school level. Soon, he shifted to a school in Delhi. But to get a permanent job as a school teacher, he needed a Master's degree and B.Ed.

He was advised that the easiest subject to pass at the master's level without a bachelor's degree in the subject was History. So he enrolled in MA (History). He admittedly had no interest in the subject. He was teaching Maths in the day and studying history in the night, that too without any passion, and without any background at the bachelor's level. All he could manage at the end was 59% marks in the university exams.

The marks weren't bad for those days. First divisions were rare, and he actually had a decent rank in the university. And most importantly, he could have managed a permanent job with that. But he felt ashamed of getting a second division after such a brilliant academic career throughout. He had to do another Master's degree.

He thought about the subjects that he might enjoy studying (besides maths, of course). In the post-independence India, there was a lot of curiosity regarding the constitution, the form of government, and how everything was supposed to work out. He used to read a bit on these topics. And thus, he decided to do an MA in Political Science, which he followed by a B.Ed., and then secured a job in Delhi Government school system as a Political Science teacher. Of course, through out his years in schools, he had to take all the classes of political science or civics, and in addition the school principal, knowing his background, would ask him to teach mathematics to some class. So he did double duty throughout his career. But he loved teaching so much that he would never mind putting in extra hours for it.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

My father is no more

My father was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a form of cancer, about 7 years ago. He fought a valiant battle, but the inevitable happened on August 25th, 2013.

The journey was difficult, perhaps more so for him, and a tiny bit less for us, and we had the usual ups and downs. But the good thing was that the immediate family was not alone in this journey. He had helped so many people in his life, and the goodwill was tremendous not just in the extended family, but also in the neighborhood, in schools where he taught, his ex-students, and a whole lot more. We never really were alone. There was never a day when we needed some help, and some angel won't drop by. Just to give an example of my father's generosity, we are four siblings, and along with our parents, six of us lived in a one room efficiency for most part of our childhood. But no, we were almost never six of us in that room. It would always be 7 or even 8, because anyone in the family wanted to study in Delhi instead of being in the village, was most welcome to come and stay with us, not for a day or a week, but for years together.

And the support that we received from the doctors was just fantastic. May be we were lucky. Starting with AIIMS seven years ago, we moved to Rajiv Gandhi Cancer Institute near our house, and for the last three years, he was under the care of Dr. Ganapathi Bhat in Mumbai. There is an Indian saying that a doctor is next to God on this earth, and we had exactly this feeling with him. The way he would explain us all the details of the illness, explain options, counsel us, it has been amazing. Today, we can confidently say that our father received the best possible medical care throughout his long illness.

A cancer and its management is far more complex than a game of chess. Think of a chessboard which is so huge that you can't see the whole of it at the same time. Every now and then you will look at the pieces on some part of the board (in form of pathological tests). And then you will make your moves. But the opponent sees everything all the time. It will make a series of deliberate moves, and when you are convinced about the direction and speed of those moves, it will suddenly unleash a violent series of moves. And it won't even wait for your turn. It is a game that you are guaranteed to lose one day.

I have often wondered what is the motivation for anyone to even play a game which you know you are going to lose every single time. It is like asking why should Afghanistan play cricket with India. But then the losing team can still enjoy the game if they can think of milestones other than victory. Can they make sure that they don't lose in less than 40 overs, just to give an example. Physicians too can have similar motivation. Can we improve or maintain the quality of life, if we can't cure. This seven year journey has caused me to have a huge respect for the medical profession. It is not easy what they do, combining art and science, combining spiritual and real, and balancing difficult choices.

Every few days, there will be blood tests, and we will read those numbers. Ours and his mood, confidence and will to fight was intricately linked to those numbers. 10.0, 9.6, 9.3, 8.9, 8.5, 8.3, 7.9, and there is gloom, the will to fight is receding, the end appears near, he will start evading some medicines, and then an RBC transfusion will take the haemoglobin back to 10.0, and he will once again become punctual with all the regular medicines.

 The journey has also left some very uncomfortable questions. If we had not made him go through the chemotherapy in summer, would he have had a less painful departure. If we had agreed to another round of chemotherapy, would he have lived a few more weeks. A couple of weeks before his demise, when he still appeared to have a sound decision making abilities, he told us not to take him back to a hospital, not to give him anything intra-venous, not to have any more blood tests, and not have any injections. He desired a quick and relatively painless departure. But when the condition became serious, we couldn't resist taking him to a hospital and doing everything that he did not want. We perhaps delayed his departure by a week or so. Should we let someone go easily, even when a doctor says that there is a one percent chance of his revival and staying live for a few more weeks. These and many other such questions will keep haunting me for a long time to come. I know there are no good answers to any of these, but the heart keeps debating.

My father lived by his principles and cultural norms till the day he was in control of his body. Just three weeks before his death when he was in a Kanpur hospital, his greatest problem in life was not his cancer, but that the visitors were not being treated properly. If they had come home, he would have ensured tea and snacks for them, and if they come at the meal time, then they had to share the meal. But in the hospital, extending such hospitality was logistically difficult, and that pained him more than the pain in his bones. So he would ask each one of them to visit him at home after he is discharged from the hospital.

The most striking quality of my father was his honesty. I remember when I was going to US for higher studies, he went to the PDS office and applied to remove my name from the ration card. Seven years later, when I returned, he went back to the office to add my name. No one in the PDS office would believe him that my name was removed just because I was going out of India. People only removed names when they are getting another ration card somewhere else in India. There was no possibility of getting caught if the person is abroad and does not have a second ration card. Did he not want another few KGs of cheap sugar every month. But the issue with him was not the possibility of getting caught. The issue was always, what is right. This was such a rare case of addition that the file had to move up to a very senior officer, who was shown my passport and all other proofs that indeed this was the case.

While the death of a parent is always an irreparable loss, it does have its own silver linings. Our close knit family came even closer. A tragedy always brings out the best in people, and we are really fortunate to have been surrounded by a sea of good people at this difficult time.