Read To Win

Don’t you just love a novel that makes you want to visit the place it’s set in?

How can you read Harry Potter and not explore Paddington?

“He paused half-way, putting the suitcases down for a few minutes while he recovered his breath and looked down the hillside. He saw olive trees. He saw more hills, blue and distant, and a line of cypresses on the horizon. He looked up at the sky, empty and filled with a lambent blue. He wanted to break into song,” wrote Alexander McCall Smith, of Paul, his principal character’s response to Tuscany, in My Italian Bulldozer. I too have felt like I might break into song if I ever set foot there.

For years, in fact, I have harboured a deep desire to tangle with Tuscany, based entirely on descriptions of its salubrious beauty in books. This (one-sided) love affair began when I read EM Forster’s Room with A View many years ago, and it was reinforced by my happy discovery of Mark Mill’s The Savage Garden more recently. Each time, I was overcome with the same yearning for a tryst with Tuscany.

So, when I put down the heart-warming Italian Bulldozer, I made like a bulldozer and announced, “This summer, it’s Tuscany or bust, buster,” to my long-suffering husband. How seriously he took it will become evident soon. But this summer or not, my track record of succumbing to the siren song of book settings is not to be taken lightly.

Entering the book

I have, for as long as I can remember, taken books to my bosom, to the extent I have felt the need to actually inhabit the world of its characters. I have ached to follow in the footsteps of Isabel Allende’s complex women through magical Chilean causeways. Or join Judy Blume’s American middle-school nothings in their wholesome white-picket-fenced homes. Or even luxuriate in the dangerous lethargy of Han Suyin’s imagined East. Yet the books that stir me this way are rarely proper travel books.

Travelogues can sometimes be too prescriptive. Go see Siberia, they command, or you’ll adore Angola, they insist. “Visitors to India either absolutely love it, or absolutely hate it. Often at the exact same time. There is no middle ground here, India is a land of extreme polarity that throws everything at you all at once”. As do travel guides of this ilk. But a book (much like a man), with a subtler seduction plan, is far more likely to worm its way into my heart. And before I’ve realised how at home it’s made itself in my imagination, I have put down roots at the mise en scène.

I started reading James Herriot in my early teens, because I found the characters endearing and the situations funny. AND I needed a respite from the grim Russian tomes I was ploughing through at the time. “In the streets, through the windows of the houses,” I read in All Creatures Great and Small:

“…you could see the Fell rearing its calm, green bulk more than two thousand feet above the huddled roofs. There was a clarity in the air, a sense of space and airiness that made me feel I had shed something on the plain, twenty miles behind.”

I didn’t know then how deeply in love I would fall with the idyllic Yorkshire setting of Herriot’s books. But eeh by gum, a decade later I had moved lock, stock and hope-filled barrel to that very part of the world. It had everything to do with the rolling green meadows, big blue skies and bracing air in those veterinarian volumes, and much less with the marriage proposal I received from a son of that fertile soil, who got down on bended knee, to become my first husband.

I may have divorced him five years later, but I never fell out of love with Yorkshire. “I could find other excuses to get out and sit on the crisp grass and look out over the airy roof of Yorkshire. It was like taking time out of life. Time to get things into perspective.” I regained perspective in those pea-green dales as well. I recognised it was time to move on to Byron’s magnificent Midlands.

Family matters

While no other book-instigated trip has been quite so momentous (or as disastrous), the list of reads that have had me packing my bags is endless. Growing up entranced by Gerald Durrell’s descriptions of Corfu, I knew I’d get there some day.

“Riding side-saddle on their slouching, drooping-eared donkeys, they were shrill and colourful as parrots, and their chatter and laughter echoed amongst the olive trees. In the mornings they would smile and shout greetings as their donkeys pattered past, and in the evenings they would lean over the fuchsia hedge, balancing precariously on their steeds’ backs, to hold out gifts for me – a bunch of amber grapes still sun-warmed, some figs black as tar, striped with pink where they’d burst their seams with ripeness”.

Exploring Corfu one languorous summer’s week with my second husband (I solemnly swear I’ve known more books than husbands), I discovered it was every bit as gorgeous as Gerald had said it would be. Beyond the dazzling azure sea, chirping cicadas and fragrant lemon groves, there was for us too, a strawberry pink villa, with its rooms and rafters bursting with light and life. Life that was catching apparently, because it wasn’t long after our return to Blighty that we found ourselves in the My Family and Other Animals way.

A dynamic daughter followed a lively little boy into our lives and the haring off to see the sights from books only intensified with them in tow. But now their books had as much to do with our preferred destinations as our own reading. In recent years, we have scoured coastal England for the castles, beaches and honeysuckle-smothered villages of Enid Blyton. We have kept our eyes peeled for bears from “darkest Peru” on journeys in to London. On those passages through Paddington, we have stumbled upon the places that bear magical traces of Harry Potter’s adventures too.

“The late afternoon sun hung low in the sky as Harry and Hagrid made their way back down Diagon Alley, back through the wall, back through the Leaky Cauldron, now empty. Harry didn’t speak at all as they walked down the road; he didn’t even notice how much people were gawking at them on the Underground, laden as they were with all their funny-shaped packages, with the snowy owl asleep in its cage on Harry’s lap. Up another escalator, and they were out into Paddington station”.

Farther afield, in the Alps, we have lost ourselves in the lowering clouds looking for Johanna Spyri’s Heidi (making up for that icy interlude with pure molten Swiss chocolate after). And in Paris, we have rung the bells of Notre Dame in the spirit of Quasimodo, promenaded down the Champs Elysees in tribute to the Musketeers, and surveyed the city from the Eiffel Tower’s eyrie as the Count of Monte Cristo must once have.

Mistimed journeys

Not every book-spurred sortie has gone swimmingly of course. The sheer inadvisability of visiting a place at a particularly bad time has never got in the way of my need to see them, however. So, when the companion of my adolescent years, Holden Caulfield from JD Salinger’s Catcher in The Rye, summoned me to New York (via a cheap flights website) on that first fraught anniversary of 9/11, I answered his call. Not the cleverest thing I’ve done, but on par with some of Holden’s own misadventures, I consoled myself later.

“It was that kind of a crazy afternoon, terrifically cold, and no sun out or anything, and you felt like you were disappearing every time you crossed a road”.

New York that year was in a step-motherly mood towards people of my persuasion – the brown-skinned. Though I had neither Jihadi beard nor handy Kalashnikov on my person (for which they searched repeatedly, interminably and minutely, as I went through every security check known to man), I was clearly not going to become their blue-eyed girl that visit. Almost rugby-tackled at Newark Airport, harassed on the subway and shoved aside on the Staten Island ferry, I was also scolded for asking too many questions at the Rat Pack’s favourite diner, and nearly ended up sitting on a used hypodermic needle in Central Park.

And yet The Big Apple managed to redeem itself before my trip was over. Reconnoitring Wall Street, Harlem, and the blistering barrios during the day, and glittering Broadway, soaring bridges and dizzying skyscrapers by night, I found that fabled energy, the riveting restlessness, read about in the tales of Teju Cole, Edith Wharton, and EL Doctorow, to be as real and alluring as promised.

“Each neighbourhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks.”

— "Open City", Teju Cole

So, nothing, but nothing, you see, can put me off landing up at locales I have learned to love through books. I’d do them all again. AND that unending wish-list of destinations as long as my arm. But first – Tuscany awaits.

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India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

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Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

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Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

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Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.