Why are we scared of germs?

In a single line, Dettol scared the daylight out of us…nothing else happened.

Everything around us, the air, water, our food is teeming with microbes. Not just that, but we have them thriving in our hair, skin and mouths too…

We could not make curds, cheeses, idli-dosa or breads without microbes. We cannot even digest the food in our gut without them… and breaking down the bio-degradable stuff is impossible witout microbes too.

Microbes are not just our neighbors on this planet but also our companions… Their populations, ability to adapt, survive and thrive is unparalleled, making many researchers believe that the mankind is just another species living on this planet ruled by the microbes!

Some researchers also claim that The history of mankind is actually choreographed by the microbes! And if we look closely, at the epidemics and political tides that followed each one, could we refute that?!

We have been at war with the microbes for generations…. In the last two centuries we managed to get a glimpse of their omnipresent diversity, but we are nowhere close to defeating them, are we?!

Studying the microbial world confirmed many personal hygiene rules. Regular baths, washing hands after using toilet and before having meals, keeping food and water clean are the basics that mankind is learning in order to say healthy.

But we have not really internalized the good habits of social hygiene yet. While on the other hand we are frantic to terminate all the microbes from our life. “Be 100%sure to kill 99.9%germs”?! Really?!! They show it on the TV, under a microscope, wriggling germs on one side and a clean white stretch on another… Within just a matter of few years, this symbolic image buried a seed of fear, deep in our minds! Weird, green-yellow creatures sitting in a toilet, plotting to attack the inhabitant’s health, became representation of the microbes, the modern villains! And to defeat them, it was inevitable to use the most harmful chemicals found by the mankind as our ammunition…

We cannot see the microbial world with our naked eyes and we CANNOT annihilate them. Our antibiotics and disinfectants have no substantial effect on the germs, and the researchers know this now… So if we cannot defeat them, then now what?! Could we ask for their allegiance instead?!

Following the fundamental rules of hygiene, good food, along with regular exercise and generally ensuring a good resistance, these are the only things we can effectively ensure. No matter what amazing technology we come up with, ensuring a complete disconnect from the germs is not just impossible but laughable.

It is far more reasonable to allow the good microbes to live with us and let them balance out the bad germs for us. Our true defense lies in the diversity of microbes…

Our inherent immunity is a miraculous power. White blood cells can recognize a wide range of germs and hence we are capable of sending out the right protein to block the most of them if the need be. Once a certain pathogen is identified by the body, the chances of falling sick with that specific infection is almost null. So wider the diversity of germs introduced in moderation, stronger our defenses will be.

On the other hand there is no such thing as 100% germfree. It is a lie. Microbes grow resilient to our hazardous chemicals much faster than our own bodies. Quite obviously, these chemicals end up causing us more harm than to germs, and in the meanwhile, we have also weakened our immunity.

Living in fear of germs and going to the fanatic extremes of hygiene, is not a progressive mindset. It is in fact, superstitious and hence highly unscientific.

In the last few years, though talking to many people, and looking up the vast and yet incomplete information about the microbes, I am trying to draw up my own ‘microbe policy’. It has invaluable contributions by many crazy people, friends, philosophers, nomads and such. But since I am certain to attract a fair amount of bad repute for voicing my microbe policy, it seems wiser to keep them anonymous and safe!

Before explaining the Microbe Policy, I do owe you some explanations:

  1. It is a policy, flexible unlike the religion. So it changes from time to time and place to place, depending on the availability of resources and such things.
  2. I am no researcher or medical practitioner. So my views are NOT valid. I am only exercising my own fundamental freedom to make my personal hygiene decisions.
  3. This is MY policy and is used here only as an example. It is, quite obviously, not applicable to any other person. So make your own policy and stick to it, as long as it does not interfere with someone else’s policy of hygiene.
  4. And if you do not want to draw up your own policy, much better! Dettol, Lizol and such entities are doing that for you. Just follow them, it is, I promise, so much hassle-free! You can actually skip thinking!!

So…I travel a lot for work, and mostly in remote regions, faraway hamlets and villages. Bottled drinking water is available everywhere these days. But it does not feel very responsible of me, if I travel, leaving behind a trail of disposed plastic. I am personally, more scare of plastic than germs, believe me! So I carry my own metal bottle and refill it at local drinking water points, tea-stalls, bus-stands and other such known unhygienic places. I have been drinking unfiltered tap water at home for a few years now. We get a decent water supply and have had no complaints so far.

Eating out with unclean hands is quite common while traveling. But whenever I reach the destination, as a rule, I eat whatever is served locally. Apart from slight bloated tummy, on rare occasions I have never had any major illness.

In most villages across India, one is lovingly served locally grown, home cooked, clean, vegetarian food without any problem. Possibility of exposure to chemical pesticides and fertilizers is inversely proportional to the distance from the closest big city. So farther away the village, better the chances at getting organic food!

But since plastic waste in omnipresent, often villagers use it to fire up their chulhas. I definitely fear breads crisped on plastic embers.

Since I stopped using a vehicle to commute to a city job, I do not get up every day to ride through the smoke, contributing more smoke, cursing the traffic jams and insensitive jerks riding along…  Being deficient in the amount of inhaled vehicular exhaust smoke, I have lost my good old friend, common cold… Even a mild throat infection has become a rare surprise for someone like me who lived with annoying cough for weeks at times.

And even with all this, if once in a couple of years I do catch common cold, I do not feel bad about it. Instead of wasting time, thinking about which germs caught me where, I spend a couple of days resting leisurely, since, hey, I do not have to commute anywhere!

Work schedules are usually a little too laid back in the villages. One does not have to stretch their physical and metal limits too much, if one is unwell. It is okay to rest and be nice to our own bodies…. Yes, I admit rural work-life comes with a little compromise on the finance department…

In my own house, soap-nut and lemon base vinegar suffices for pot-wash and laundry. Lentil flour, milk cream or coconut cream, or many other nicked ingredients from the kitchen make wonderful body wash. The same soapnut-lemon vinegar works as a shampoo for my hair.

I would not have my vinegar without the microbes, would I?!

It lathers wonderfully and washing it off does not affect the river where all the sewage ends up….

Coconut oil in warmer climates and mustard oil in colder climates gives great hair massage. Milk curds or eggs work as nourishing hair conditioners for my hair type, when I feel like pampering myself…

Curds, buttermilk, Idli-Dosa, yeast breads and many ferments are definitely in my food and beverage list, replenishing my own personal microbial diversity. Eating street food with unclean hands does happen once in a while, to add to everything.

Apart from all the madness, at home or any place I stay long term, washing feet and hands regularly is a meticulous practice. If the village has sufficient water, baths are welcome! If not, I have trained myself to not complain. Rural water issues run far too deep than my trivial bathing needs…

Eat local, seasonal fruits, vegetables and forest foods whenever available. Instead of eating wheat every day, finger millets like pearl millet (bajra), sorghum (jowar) or raagi mixed with rice make good flat breads, (bhakri).

Split pigeon pea (toor daal) is although most common part of daily protein portion of our diet, it has so many siblings! I have grown to prefer the red lentil (Masoor) and moong daals instead, initially for their non-political diverse food value… and now for their deliciousness!

Every year, onion prices rise once, that I believ is the wrong season to eat too much onion anyway. That time of the year is usually a forest veggie fest time.. so no reason to miss one ingredient.

No refined oil for cooking, we use locally pressed oil of preferably from one of the many oilseeds available. Why worship only one oilseed?! In effect, I do not feel nauseated by any oil smell and can eat happily through almost any food culture!

So basically, if we manage ‘diversity’ aspect, no one kind of germs gets over nourished. Wider the diversity of germs, healthier I live, is my observation.

And then, the stuff that is not edible for me is eaten up by the microbes in my compost pit. I get chilies, tomatoes or bitter gourds once in a while, as a return gift from them!

Microbes bless you!

Of course, not falling sick too often is ‘my’ achievement really. Our immunity is mysteriously efficient little system! I can at the most thank my ancestors for the genetic gifts and of course the microbes, for keeping me well.

With age and other reason I will naturally fall sick, but for sure I cannot blame microbes for that.

There are many more aspects of life where I would like to show the market bought chemicals out of the door and invite my beloved microbes to come and stay, but it is a slow task…. For eccentricities are new superstitions and just as unscientific…

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Himalayan pilgrimage part I: Dharmalaya

When I look back on my summer study travels, often it is the flavor and tenor of those places, the light and coziness of spaces, people, their pasts and so many interlinked stories, that fill my heart with some unknown affection, as though I have spread my roots into those places and people, as though they are very much part of my being…

Every day of my stay in Himachal, I woke up to the vision of Dhauladhar snow peaks. I thanked them every day for their mystical blessings that reached me through people, food and endless conversations.

The learning and growing of every pilgrim like me is made possible by these places and people. The smallest things in my routine life remind me of their smiling faces and I feel some warm and pleasant heartache.

I wish to narrate what happened on this Himalayan pilgrimage, and how it has altered me irreversibly… But I doubt if I can convey fully everything I have to say, while tides of love and joy burst against the walls of my heart, even at the thought of this journey… I am still too overwhelmed… Too touched to be able to find crisp words for everything… But I must write this now, with all this vulnerability still alive in me… And I hope that no matter how confused or ambiguous I may write, something will reach you just between those awkward lines.

There are three distinct legs of this journey that were staged through three different places in the Kangra District of Himachal Pradesh. The visions, experiences, challenges, and their solutions evolve into an overall flavor of first two places. It keeps climbing and intensifying with every passing day… coming together into an unexpected climax of the story in its last week — a beautiful closing note to a melodious song.

***

It starts way up in the awe-inspiring hills of the Dhauladhar range, winding through the half-asleep village of Bir, when we were dropped at the fringe of a pine wood to hike the last stretch up a hill to reach Dharmalaya. Walking up to the campus with all your baggage is the first gateway into the ‘Dharmalaya lifestyle’ that awaits us up top! And, there, the valley encircled with hills provides a literally breathtaking distraction!

That first vision of Himalayan peaks after so long… every time, it unfailingly takes you away from your urban presence. Your name, designations and credentials are all washed away. You become a being… a clean and simple unit of existence, cleansed and ready to live a life in the hills.

Dharmalaya is a place that functions as an opportunity for learning a sustainable lifestyle by practicing it. Although it is a campus still in the making, it already lives and grows, true to its fundamentals.

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The place staged some simple and obvious challenges that, surprisingly, I had never faced before. It feels differently alive when you work toward the naked, crude reality of survival and stand straight, holding your head high, looking up into the face of a lofty mountain, and smile…

And there were my personal attempts to overcome past records! It is astonishing how much one can accomplish even after crossing the known limits of physical or mental exhaustion. Exhaustion is possibly just an illusory barrier after all, beyond which lies the world of personal miracles!

Every evening, when I would let myself become aware of how tired I was, it felt absolutely the opposite! I felt eased, as if all my limbs were completely relaxed after such a long time! I realize that it was because they had worked well beyond their limit of exhaustion! I would watch sunburns and bruises on my arms and legs, and wonder why it did not hurt even in near-freezing cold wind. But my hands have known a worse pain: that of spotless, useless idleness… bruises rather feel better!

I would think of quiet, peaceful afternoons back home… times when I watched my clean and spotless hands, hurting inside, for I was hungry to know what I could do with those.

It gave me some violent pleasure to think of clean hands while I mixed and danced in cold mud, wiped wooden molds for another batch of adobes… or got funny, throbbing blisters after a day of sod cutting.

There have been long evenings back home when I used to sit motionless through meetings, feeling a dead, heavy fatigue in my legs, for I was dying to find out how far I could hike or run through wilderness with those legs, as I know every human is born to do! It gave me the same violent pleasure to think of those idle evenings while I actually went jumping over boulders through possibly some of world’s most pristine hills, feeling light, strong and so so alive! Village dogs often joined me and raced through the trees by my side, with a grave look of comradeship in their hairy, warm faces.

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Of course there were quiet moments here as well, when there was warm, buttery sunshine and I could stretch out under some random, beautiful oak tree, thinking about nothing too human… Simply balancing sun and shadow over my body, according to how cold or warm it felt that day… Or finding the most comfortable angle to rest my neck into the rough lovely tree trunk! And then somehow the hills would become silent for a long time.

I know I was not there on a holiday! There was architecture happening, taking shape among all of us. We were breaking through the most obvious assumptions in architectural practice and starting our thought process at the very beginning… Somewhere near the instinct of ‘shelter making’.

It frustrates the best of us when we realize that, in the course of sophistication, we have let our instincts rot for generations. We have no clue of how to survive! Most people remain unskilled in this way because they simply do not know there is something lacking. Our schools and colleges have ensured that we remain oblivious to reality. But when one realizes what is missing, it becomes a personal challenge to learn things, to do things by hand… and to know that the most beautiful attribute of human anatomy is its ability to learn and do and create — an ability that often remains untapped!

I am not going to quantify and spoil all the learning that happened to me… To be honest, I cannot measure the depth and intensity of changes that these lessons have brought and are continuing to bring. The lessons of life and architecture have blended together inseparably. I simply believe that they will seep into my being and express themselves as I encounter relevant situations in the design of life. Nobody knows where this learning may take me with time. Slowly, I am starting to appreciate the beauty of this ‘not-knowing’ — a fat achievement for someone who has been such a control freak for years!

There is meditative pleasure in doing things by hand, and it grows deeper and more compellingly addictive with time. For example, before using soil for making earth blocks, one needs to set aside the precious top soil layer, for it contains all the organic nutritive treasures of life. Cutting chunks of sod and replanting them as part of landscaping can, in fact, turn into a blissfully exhausting experience. It also teaches one to watch carefully, at the scale and amount of ecological damage that has to happen in course of building anything, even with the least processed forms of earth construction.

Earth is a highly instructive teacher when we stop being morons and allow her to lead the way. She teaches us to look at life carefully… to treasure it and, at the very least, to limit our destructive activities and find ways to heal life as much as we possibly can.

Every time we make a choice of saving or healing, we must also be prepared to put in additional time, human effort, skill and sensitivity, because acts of benignity cannot be purchased: they must be ‘done’. But somehow modern man often does not care about investing these trivial things into a building activity. He has built his systems such that they compel him to become more and more insensitive, unskilled, thoughtless, and yet surprisingly too busy to do things!

So, probably, we are a funny bunch of people trying to turn the wheel back, while the rest of the world is moving forward. But the increasing number of restless architects setting out to find hands-on work opportunities definitely means something. It hints at things we have lost with time — things that are human and possibly even trivial, but things we have started to miss in our daily lives. It is instinctive and apt for a human to want to go back to the basics and relearn those things. It is no more going back in time; it is not reversing the wheels of development. It is simply nurturing our roots to have better grip in the future.

Apart from making adobes and maintaining the existing building, we also had a design task to finish in two weeks’ time: We had to build a toilet, by hand, without using any industrially manufactured, purchased building material, and without using and help from outside.

Indeed, we did install a dry pit toilet with a bamboo enclosure at Dharmalaya, but only after two highly eventful weeks. It started out with long discussions, calculations, sketches, frustrating setbacks and redesigns. Through this, we architects discovered that none of us actually knew how to build!

So, we learned to select bamboo, clean their nodes and then cut the right lengths. We scavenged the hill slopes with our local thatch consultants, learning to select the right kind of grass for thatch roofing. And at the end, one sunny day, we had heaps of harvested grass — and no frame on which to tie it!

One needs something to tie bamboo joints together. Again, we ran to our local skill consultants and Rajinder bhaiyya showed us how, for generations, they have been making ropes out of the bark fibre of a specific tree that they call ‘dhaman’. After several frustrating and failed attempts at rope-making, finally our hands learned to roll the fibres into a rope! Rope-making is like a rhythmic dance that goes on into timelessness once we learn the motions well. I sat through a beautiful sunset, my eyes closed against the pleasant reddish-purple glow on the horizon, while my hands played with the bark fibres, rolling out seamless, neat spirals of rope. What a blessing it is to be alive!

There were several things happening around us in loosely connected dynamics: We were splitting bamboos, cutting bamboos, tying joints, falling, cutting ourselves, laughing into hysteria — and some of us snoring through the evening sessions!

One day, with outdoor work stalled by bad weather, we had fun with a new instrument: a glass cutter. Using this tool for cutting glass bottles was a quiet, precision task, and I had the warm glow of candle flame right by my side. All the cut bottles will be wrapped in reflective foils and embedded in earthen walls as tiny, glowing day lights.

There was a platter of tasks from which we could pick and choose, learning whatever we pleased! There were a thousand more things I could have learned, but I learned what I could gather in the time available and made a note to myself about things that I now know must be learned.

Dharmalaya is also a place where one learns to live as a community and participates in its daily chores. Unlike urban settings, no invisible cleaning staff comes here to maintain this place while we are oblivious to their presence, busy at work. We are our own janitors, cooks and housekeepers. Tasks as simple as chopping fruits and vegetables, cleaning the kitchen, dishwashing, and toilet cleaning have a very deep effect within us when we perform them with full attention. Chores were indeed highly contemplative opportunities to continue what we were striving to learn outdoors.

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One cannot drift through and remain untouched by the pristine hills and humble lifestyle at Dharmalaya. It is a hard life if not accepted with full understanding — as hard as reaching this place is!

Still, somehow it is much harder to leave this place, once we catch the rhythm of it. Yes, it has a heartbeat of its own that throbs in dung-plastered walls and in a solitary light beam stretched from the ceiling across the earth floor… a pulse that is the sum total of many hearts and hands that have shaped this place.

Himalayan Pilgrimage Part II: Sambhaavnaa

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Home in the Lap of Nature…..

The Real Face of Realty

Market is overflowing these days with the advertisements about properties. It is the leading investment industry in town that thrives mainly on increasing demand and hence price of properties. Basically this is about a vicious circle of greed that some people may term as “progress”.

Those who have no house, desire to rent a house. Those who have a “house on rent” desire to buy their “own” house. Those who already own a house desire to own two houses. So naturally the demand keeps increasing multiple times the actual requirement. Since the demand is high, prices keep rising higher. Anything that sells for a higher price becomes an investment asset. So now properties become an investment asset. Naturally the demand increases ever more. The more the insecurity in social mind, more the sale and purchase of such assets!

There is nothing created in this business yet money keeps rolling. It apparently gives a “feel good” mood but kills the habit of “working for money”. “Sit back and earn” is a dangerous culture. But never mind, this is not about the illusory economics of the realty business.

This is about what after you make all that money….There is the next advertising sport awaiting you….

The Weekend Home

The holiday home….”stay in the lap of nature”…. NA PLOTS!!! Observe the hoardings in and around the city. 80% of them are overflowing with serene pictures of lush green hills and valleys lined with blue rivers! That’s where you will get to stay…. Or so they claim!

You like the pictures and luxurious advertisements…. And you visit the site. A stately site office welcomes you with some more attractive landscape flex boards. A colorful broacher with landscaped plan decorated randomly with green blots of trees, some high quality 3D visuals of plush, furnished houses…. And they sell you a dream house! Then you look out of the window…. Yes! you can see a rolling hill adorned with bright green grass (if you go property hunting between the months of July to October!)

You feverishly sign the documents! And the moment deal is cracked…. So is your dream! By the time your house is built, the hill is no more green… its ugly color of grey… the color of concrete and the color of weathered plastic fence… the color of your hair by the time you get possession of the house!

There are many more houses popping up identically like yours along the driveway. You check ten times to confirm which one of those factory-made cubes is your own house! From distance, the hill that was green once now looks like deceased skin of the earth!

There will be designed landscape of course! Of fancy delicate plants that remain wilted almost half the year….. Or shamelessly overgrow as weeds. Nature will painfully try to heal itself through tiny patches of soil you leave by the concrete driveways…. Old grown trees that you had seen in their pretty pictures have long gone from the hill… replaced now with stubs of some foreign tree standing within a cage, along the driveway, waiting thirstily for a tanker to pass by…

And the serene stream that was shown in the graphics… it has dried away. Besides you do not need that mud bank to breed mosquitoes. You have a wonderful blue tiled swimming pool right there in your premise! Why…no… we hardly get time to go and stay in that house… let alone to swim!!

You wanted to stay in the lap of nature…. But now it is killed. You have a house… an expensive one…but just like your city house…crammed up with all the “modern amenities” that you will hardly have time to look up. A handkerchief size patch of yellowing lawn will laugh at you, mocking your own desires now confined again in a few square feet of a weekend home!

This is high time we as consumers start to look into the reality behind the face of realty market! This is high time we start to question and demand some ethics! But in order to demand ethic we must first “know” them. We must know what we really desire deep down in our hearts….

Life in the Lap of Nature

Life in the Lap of Nature

When you started to look for a weekend home, you had actually started to look for a life in the lap of nature… had you not?! You desire to stay in a house surrounded with trees and birds, just as they portray on the bill boards! You work hard for years and years to be able to afford such house… and you end up buying a lump of concrete placed among some more lumps of concrete that look exactly like yours! “NA plots and row house schemes?!”

First proof that you are NOT getting a house in “nature”: check the colorful plan they show you. Forget the uniform green wash on glossy paper. Look at the plots. They are just enough proportioned to fit a house…. There is no space left for nature to crawl into your backyard. A handkerchief sized lawn is not nature; do not insult your own intelligence!

Second proof: if you fit all your “modern amenities” in the lap of nature, you end up staying in the lap of amenities…. Nature has just run away!! You city house was much better; nature had anyway run away from the cities long ago!

I believe that there is not a single human heart that does not respond to nature and feel big, light and fluffy as cloud! Every single person holding this sheet of paper smiles at the mere thought of standing in a clearing among trees with soft breeze that even smells green!

If you really, truly desire to live in the lap of nature, continue to read. Otherwise I have already lost my case and your interest. But if you have mugged up in your schools….rubbed nose in your jobs…just for a house within trees, my nature lover, this is for you….

Living in the lap of nature is not about affording or buying a house. It is about a mindset… about adopting an entirely different lifestyle. Just as you cannot truly live with your family without loving them, you cannot live with nature without loving it! Nature is not a piece of artifact to be bought and kept in the corner of your house! It is a dynamic, living and life giving entity that flows through us right at this current moment! Love nature!

And one cannot love nature without understanding it! Understanding is the first basic stage of love! Understand your surroundings and the silent loving traces and trails of nature around you. I know they did not teach this in schools. But they cannot “teach” you to love anyway!

Observe the green hill that you wish make your home someday. See the clusters of trees and shrubs…and birds nesting in that thicket…. It is their home first. Would you like a guy called “developer” come and run a bulldozer over their home and then give you a little yellow patch of lawn?!

Small shrubs and thorny bushes, deciduous trees that have always adorned our Sahyadris…. They are the nature you have been looking for! Give them just a moment out of your busy life… and they will tell you the ten secrets of living with nature!

The Ten Secrets

  1. Do not cut any old grown trees or clusters on your land. Add more native trees to the green. They are hardy, just need little water, protection and love!
  2. Do not level, cut, fill or flatten your land. Responding to the natural terrain will give a unique home of your own. (Pic: that insect mud castle….)
  3. Learn about the wonderful biodiversity that is already making a home in your land. Hire ecological experts to study and show you the nature’s wealth you got free of charge, when you bought the land.
  4. Leave a large portion of your land for nature to be your neighbor…. Give it some space! Protect the natural habitats such as seasonal water pools, streams, trees, bush clusters in that area.
  5. Design your house for minimalistic requirements and smaller footprint. You do not need Olympic size swimming pool or a huge golf course if you wish to stay with nature!
  6. Using natural material or recycled material is not as impractical as your contractor says. Concrete is expensive and harmful in many ways. Use it as less as possible.
  7. Keep manicured landscape features to their minimum. Foreign ornamental plants and lawns require large amounts of watering, artificial nutrients and hence expenses.
  8. Arrange for amenities that you truly need during a holiday. Watching the moods and melodies of nature is going to be your best recreation activity, and it comes for free!
  9. Plan your wastes properly. The sewage can be effectively used to recycle nutrients back to the soil, instead of polluting the rivers. Decomposable solid waste can be composted easily. And take your non degradable plastic wastes back to the city from where it came. Your new neighbor Nature does not love plastic litters!
  10. Ignore what the bill boards and advertisements say…. Beauty of nature cannot be picked out from a glossy catalogue. You must find it in wilderness. Trust your innermost instinct… it unfailingly takes us back to the nature.

    A flood-proof soil-fort built by the Harvester Ants