The Return of Suppurating Pustules

February 8, 2014

Around the end of last year, Unilever came up with a ridiculously long, fuzzy and sentimental ad film, which did not pitch soap, or detergent, or ice cream, but the idea that you should have children.

Let us for the moment put aside the conspiracy theory that Unilever is encouraging people to go out and breed because, not satisfied with selling household and body cleaning things to its existing customers, it wants even more customers in the future. After all, it’s not demanding that all people have kids, just trying to reassure the people who’ve already decided to do it that their choice isn’t that bad after all, considering that scientific progress is reducing the risk of famine and drought.

Now read this:

With antibiotics losing usefulness so quickly — and thus not making back the estimated $1 billion per drug it costs to create them — the pharmaceutical industry lost enthusiasm for making more. In 2004, there were only five new antibiotics in development, compared to more than 500 chronic-disease drugs for which resistance is not an issue — and which, unlike antibiotics, are taken for years, not days. Since then, resistant bugs have grown more numerous and by sharing DNA with each other, have become even tougher to treat with the few drugs that remain. In 2009, and again this year, researchers in Europe and the United States sounded the alarm over an ominous form of resistance known as CRE, for which only one antibiotic still works.

Health authorities have struggled to convince the public that this is a crisis. In September, Dr. Thomas Frieden, the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, issued a blunt warning: “If we’re not careful, we will soon be in a post-antibiotic era. For some patients and some microbes, we are already there.”


The burst in food production that Unilever is counting on to make the world a better place for the next generation could be totally overshadowed by the bacterial disease’s big comeback, as antibiotic resistance becomes widespread. Actually, not just bacterial disease:

Many treatments require suppressing the immune system, to help destroy cancer or to keep a transplanted organ viable. That suppression makes people unusually vulnerable to infection. Antibiotics reduce the threat; without them, chemotherapy or radiation treatment would be as dangerous as the cancers they seek to cure. Dr. Michael Bell, who leads an infection-prevention division at the CDC, told me: “We deal with that risk now by loading people up with broad-spectrum antibiotics, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. But if you can’t do that, the decision to treat somebody takes on a different ethical tone. Similarly with transplantation. And severe burns are hugely susceptible to infection. Burn units would have a very, very difficult task keeping people alive.”

Let’s not forget the charming symptoms that arise out of bacterial diseases, like pus filled sores, rotting flesh, and oozing lesions.

I do see the prospect of a world where we have no defence against bacterial disease as providing a small benefit: the world will become a more horrible place, but life will become more worth living. More so for people like me who find it hard to believe in the existence of God, and struggle to create our own meaning in life.

Trying to add some sort of meaning to our current, prosperous, lives is an exercise in dizzying scale. We are aware about the whole interconnected world, and want to make a difference to it. But we can’t. There is a total mismatch between the scale of our experience and the scale of our ability, and being unable to deal with this causes anxiety.

The way to deal with this is to enter a sort of (non-Total) Perspective Vortex that makes us realise that our lives are not that significant and so we should just get on with making them as pleasurable as possible. One way of doing this is to believe in God and one’s own relative insignificance and imminent danger of being cursed. Another is to read or listen to Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech (Zen Pencils webcomic, YouTube video) every week or so. But if rampant bacterial infection makes life short, fragile, and in constant danger of going horribly wrong,  that perspective comes much more easily. Every day spent without having your face fall off will be a day lived in gratitude.

In a way, then, Unilever remains right: this is indeed the best time to bring a child into the world, if what you want for that child is not a happy life, but a meaningful one. I just wish their ad were more accurate about it.

Oh The Place Names You’ll Know!

February 3, 2014

Today, I drove from Kanchipuram to Coimbatore. The drive is excellent, and the highways from Vellore to Krishnagiri, and Krishnagiri to Salem are wide, and almost empty of traffic. (Which means that concessionaires who’re operating the toll roads are probably in grave financial distress, but that’s a separate issue.)

One of the unique pleasures of traveling medium distance by car is the sense of possibility it gives you. Rail travel has its own charms, but by and large, once you board the train, you’re stuck on the route it will travel (unless you make really special efforts like changing trains every now and then or maybe even hijacking the train). But with a car, the ability to change plans and to go forth and to completely different places is much higher. “I could detour just eighty kilometres and see Hogenakkal, and still be able to reach my hotel tonight,” I thought around eleven thirty this morning. “I could cancel my appointment and just drive on to Cochin!” later, around two thirty in the afternoon. “Gosh, what if I skipped the direct route and went via Namakkal instead, just for the opportunity to make terrible Chennai Super Kings jokes.”

The seed of this temptation is planted by highway signs, telling you that such and such place is a left turn away, or just 40 Km from where you are now. (In an extreme case, on the way from Pondicherry to Chennai, my passenger saw the sign for Calcutta and suggested going there instead for phuchkas. I did not oblige.)

The highway signs between Salem and Coimbatore made me realise that this  particular part of Tamil Nadu has places with names that are very different from the ones I’m familiar with from Chennai, Kanchi, and their surroundings, which tend to the “Long live divine classical Tamil!” mould; what with names like Thiruvallur, Sriperumbudur, Azhinjalpet, Thiruvannamalai, and Villupuram.

The Salem – Coimbatore stretch has those too, of course (Tiruppur, and Kovai itself), but there were four names I saw which had a much more immediate connect with me as a North Indian: Sankari, Bhavani, Sathy, and Avinashi.

All these four names are Sanskrit, all four are names or epithets of Parvati, and none of the four have suffixes. The town is called simply Bhavani, not Bhavanipuram, or Bhavanipet, or Bhavanipalya or Bhavanihalli. And they don’t have any honorifics either – neither Sri nor Thiru is appended to these names. They are quite simply, some of the most direct and personal names I have seen in Tamil Nadu.

(Place names with honorifics are not unique to Tamil Nadu. Punjab has Anandpur Sahib, and there is a very unfunny joke about the pious Punjab Roadways bus conductor who slaps passengers who ask him for tickets to Amritsar instead of Amritsar Sahib and Ludhiana Sahib instead of Ludhiana.)

I wonder if there are more such prefixless and suffixless Sanskrit names in this region, and for that matter, how these names came about. There must be a story here.

On a more frivolous note, I also saw a signboard for a place called Gobi. This being TN, the name might actually be Gopi or Kopi, but now I am filled with a burning desire to go there, find out if the local method of preparing cauliflower has something distinctive about it, and then release the recipe to the world as Gobi Gobi.