Dr. V or: How I Braved the Rain and Returned with a Pair of Torn Pumas

The Wall Street Journal commissioned me last November to photograph a story on machine learning (read AI) and its impact on eye care at the grass-roots level in Tamil Nadu (TN).

Armed with a borrowed 14-24mm, a 35mm, a 105mm macro lens, and a D750, plus my own modest camera & lighting gear I set out to Madurai on a rainy night. It was still pouring when I set foot in Madurai the next morning! Although none of my photo gear bore the brunt of the storm, my sneakers got soaking wet and squished with every step I took. Once I checked into the hotel, I spent a good 10-15 minutes trying to get them to dry but in vain. (They eventually gave way that afternoon.)

The two Google representatives, the reporter, and I arrived at the Aravind Eye Hospital around 8.30am. After a rather long interview session with the hospital’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Kim, we were given a tour of the facility starting with the one-of-a-kind teleopthalmology unit.

Clockwise from left:

  1. Four postgraduate students of ophthalmology man the teleophthalmology unit at the hospital.
  2. Dr. M. Mangaleshwari, teleophthalmologist, counsels a patient after grading her retinal images at Aravind Eye Hospital, Madurai, India, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. “The joy on the [patient’s] face upon seeing the world anew after undergoing surgery is priceless,” she said.
  3. The influx of patients was as usual despite the heavy rain.
  4. Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy, aka Dr. V iconography is scattered all over the hospital for good measure.

Once our tour was over, we were off to a small town – Thiruppuvanam – about half an hour’s drive from Madurai amid heavy showers to visit one of the first vision centers built by the Aravind Eye Care System to facilitate remote screening for diabetic retinopathy (DR).  

  1. V. P. Eswari, one of the two nurses at the Thiruppuvanam vision center, uses a fundus camera to photograph R. Anusuya Devi’s, 79, retina during a routine eye check-up, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. Ms. Devi was diagnosed with non-proliferative diagnostic retinopathy (DR) four years back. Ms. Eswari, a high school graduate, has been employed with the Aravind Eye Care System for more than 13 years. She opines that had she been employed elsewhere she would’ve sorely missed the human interaction that she gets to have at the vision center on a daily basis.
  2. Ms. Eswari has to capture three different useable photographs of the back (fundus) of each of the patient’s eyes for the AI to be able to successfully screen the patient.
  3. Dr. Mangaleshwari communicates with Ms. Eswari over the internet to assess Ms. Devi’s prognosis.
  4. The Thiruppuvanam vision center (VC) is one of the 73 vision centres established by the Aravind Eye Care System in rural Tamil Nadu. Around 2,000 patients visit these VCs collectively every day. VCs are open six days a week and charge a consultation fee of Rs. 100 which is good for three months. Incidentally, the Thiruppuvanam VC along with the Alanganallur VC was the very first VC launched by the Aravind Eye Care System back in 2007.

After I had the requisite images (& caption info) in the bag and the reporter was done speaking to the staff and patients, we made our way back to the hospital in Madurai. We stopped on the way and treated ourselves to a hearty meal. With our bellies full and our minds reinvigorated, we were once again back in the hospital around 3pm to see Dr. Kim in action.

  1. Dr. R. Kim (right), Chief Medical Officer, Aravind Eye Hospital, Madurai, India, performs a peripheral retinal examination on M. Kaliappan’s, 75, left eye using an indirect ophthalmoscope (not pictured) and a 20 diopter viewing lens in the eye examination room, Friday, Nov. 16, 2018. Mr. Kaliappan who had undergone retinal detachment surgery in his left eye 10 years back had come for a routine follow-up. Apart from his regular clinical work, Dr. Kim is involved in driving innovation in the organisation. “People ask me, ‘How can you let a machine screen a patient?’ I tell them, ‘Why not when they can trust a driverless vehicle while travelling?’”
  2. Dr. Kim sterilizes his hands before attending to his patient, Mr. Kaliappan.
  3. Dr. Kim examines Mr. Kaliappan’s, 75, eyes using a slit lamp biomicroscope in the eye examination room.
  4. Mr. Kaliappan is just about done with his consultation with Dr. Kim. The patient was prescribed glasses for presbyopia.

It was a challenging day for all of us and the rain only compounded the problem. Anyway, we decided to call it a day around 6pm. The rain by this time had trickled to a drizzle but there were no signs of it dying down anytime soon.

Aravind Eye Care System is the brainchild of the late Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy.
Dr. Venkataswamy devoted his life to making quality eye care accessible to the masses. He was also instrumental in making India self-sufficient with regard to ophthalmic equipment by founding Aurolab to manufacture ophthalmic equipment locally.

I was back in my hotel room before 7. After a quick shuteye and shower, I packed my bags and checked out at 10.30. I said, ‘Thank God!’ to myself when a waft of cool breeze greeted me as I made my way out of the hotel and onto the shimmering pothole-strewn street.

P.S. My trusty Pumas held on until I reached home.

P.P.S. Read The Wall Street Journal article here.

Cashews Galore!

I travelled to Kerala at the peak of summer earlier this year; my second time in as many years. Although this time not only was I travelling alone but had a 50-pound backpack, replete with all my photo gear, strapped on my rather bony shoulders for a photo assignment on cashew nuts. Self-doubt ran riot in my mind the entire duration of my 12-hour train ride. I could barely sleep.

The first day of shoot was probably the most overwhelming of this fun yet demanding three-day shoot, for I (along with three wonderful WSJ staffers from the New Delhi bureau) was thrust in a cashew processing factory the likes of which I hadn’t seen ever before. There was so much going on yet there was a method to this madness. And that’s precisely what I tried to explore the remainder of this (productive) assignment with my trusty D90.

You can see my exploits here – How Cashews Explain Globalisation. Meanwhile, here are some of the outtakes that didn’t make the annals of The Wall Street Journal.

Pradeep Ramesh: ‘How would I like to be remembered? As a motivational figure who proved that anything is possible’




Born in Chennai, Pradeep Ramesh, 27, is a professional freestyle footballer who also happens to have broken two Guinness World Records in the past eight months. As a matter of fact, his second official Guinness World Records certificate arrived just last week – he broke the previous record for most football touches with the shin in a minute by achieving it 238 times in the allotted time. When he’s not busy shattering world records at whim (he is gearing up for his third Guinness Record attempt as you are reading this), Pradeep can either be seen teaching budding freestylers this evolving art/sport or mesmerising audiences all over India with his brand of kick-ass freestyling.

When were you happiest? I can’t pinpoint one particular instance but if I’ve given my best for the day, I’m really happy that particular day.

What is your greatest fear? Whenever I see a grey strand in my beard, I get scared.

Which living person do you most admire, and why? I admire both my mum and wife and for the same reason – I don’t think there is anybody in this world who works harder than a mother especially Indian mothers. They have so much work and yet maintain a positive attitude every single day. The house will be in shambles without them.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Let’s say I wake up feeling low tomorrow, I’d just shut myself off and end up doing nothing the whole day.

What was your most embarrassing moment? When I’m visiting my relatives or meeting someone new, explaining what I do for a living is downright embarrassing. This occurs at least once every week.  

What is your most treasured possession? My wife.

What would your super power be? The ability to read others’ minds.

What makes you unhappy? If I’ve not given my all in an endeavour, then I get unhappy.

What is your most unappealing habit? I’m addicted to coffee. 

What is your least favourite word? Extra cheese.

What did you want to be when you were growing up? When I was in sixth grade, I wanted to join the Army. I took the National Defence Academy (NDA) entrance exam in tenth but didn’t make the cut as I flunked the maths paper by 10 marks.

What is the worst thing anyone’s said to you? This one guy on social media commented – ‘Is this record official [referring to my first Guinness World Records attempt video I put up on my Youtube channel]?’ I didn’t respond. After a while, he’s like, ‘Show me your certificate.’ He was getting on my nerves so I blocked him but that didn’t stop him from going on an epic rant on FB dissing me and my claim of being a world record holder.

What is on top of your bucket list? Winning the World Freestyle Football Championship.

What is your guiltiest pleasure? Filter coffee.

What is the greatest love of your life? Football.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “Ready, rolling.” (A phrase Pradeep often says when shooting videos for his vlog.)

What is the worst job you’ve done? A wedding gig in Agra where I had to freestyle in front of the bride and groom entourage as they were being led up to the dais.

If you could edit your past, what would you change? Nothing.

How do you relax? With a cup of coffee or just chilling at the beach.

What keeps you awake at night? Hopelessness.

How would you like to be remembered? As a motivational figure who proved that anything is possible.

What is the most important lesson life has taught you? Sometimes, hard work doesn’t pay dividends. 

Tell us a secret. My wife snubbed me in high school when I proposed to her.

What single thing would improve the quality of your life? Money.


See more of Pradeep Ramesh here: Youtube, Instagram


*Inspired by The Guardian’s The Q&A

Citizen(s) of December

kandasamy, IAS, chennai floods, portrait, chennai, tamil nadu, 2016

 “Although the floods has helped us broaden our horizons with regards to preparation for such occurrences in the future, nevertheless, we end up giving thought to disaster mitigation only after we are hit by a disaster.”  

K S Kandasamy, IAS

Deputy Commissioner (Works), Greater Chennai Corporation

It was a tense few days for K S Kandasamy the first week of Dec. 2105 as he had to be on his toes what with monitoring rescue and rehabilitation operations from the control room in Rippon Building; delegating tasks to corporation field officers; visiting the affected localities for assessment; and overseeing the relief management and distribution at the Jawaharlal Nehru Indoor Stadium. Simultaneously, help was pouring in from all quarters – donors from all the 31 districts of Tamil Nadu as well as public and private enterprises including the Indian Armed Forces donated around 1,700 tonnes worth of supplies to the Chennai Corporation. Earlier last year, all the insight and hands-on experience gathered during those arduous days was collated into an exhaustive handbook – the City Disaster Management Plan 2016. This 750-page guide contains all pertinent information concerning city layout and infrastructure, disaster-prone areas, emergency phone numbers, the “first line of defence” during a disaster situation, etc. All of this data was painstakingly compiled over a period of six months to ensure an effective management plan is in place to tackle future calamities. This handy guide will be made available for public perusal in the near future.   

Please visit BBC to read the rest of the story.

*A joint effort with Karthik Subramanian      

Carpe Diem

Had five-time World Amateur Boxing Champion Mary Kom been present at Chennai’s Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium earlier this month, I bet a strong proponent of the sport such as herself would have shed tears of joy—and by the buckets.

The turnout at the Tamil Nadu State Sub Junior Boxing Championships was so immense that the small room that housed the ring resembled the Chennai Central to a T; incidentally, located just a stone’s throw away.

There, the usual noise that follows children wherever they gather was not to be. During the bouts, a certain silence ruled the atmosphere—only to be suspended by the heckles of a worked up coach and occasional bursts of cheers.

Some still accompanied by their moms, the budding combatants put on their game face, and looked their menacing best in their shimmering boxing gear. Albeit little, these feisty pugilists left no stone unturned in making their presence felt inside the twenty square foot modern-era Coliseum. But at the end of the day, there could be only one winner.

When the final bell is rung, heartbreak was written on the faces of many a child who had failed in their bid for glory. This, while a resolve to bounce back even stronger rumbles deep inside.

Ringmaster K. Chakravarthy


K. Chakravarthy is a showman par excellence who’s literally grown up under the big top.

Having lost his mother at a young age, Chakravarthy ran away from home at 10. He toiled as a busboy in Bengaluru for a short while, but lured by a colleague at work, who was in search of greener pastures, he became a runaway once again. The kids boarded a train to Hassan, Karnataka, but fate had other plans. Upon arrival at their destination, his colleague scammed him out of the few hundred rupees that he was carrying, and the young and naive Chakravarthy lay in despair at the train station with nowhere to go! Moved by his plight, he was offered a job at the railway canteen.

Just as he was getting settled into his new job, out of the blue comes a train carrying circus cargo – stupendous circus wagons, enormous elephants, ferocious tigers and all that razzmatazz. Amar Circus had brought their paraphernalia to set up camp in the town and after scoring a pass to one of their shows, Chakravarthy was bitten by the circus bug! He ran away (once again!) in hopes of getting a job at this circus and lo and behold he got hired, though at another establishment – Geeta Circus.

From then on, it’s been one hell of a ride for the last three decades at over a dozen Indian circuses: after getting his start as a helper in the kitchen, he progressed to doing group acts, then solo acts, then the acts got a little daring, and then riskier until finally he became a revered name in the business. Everything was hunky-dory until it all came to a screeching halt three years back when he and his missus suffered a major accident while performing one of their signature acts. Despite the grievous blow, he’s managed to pull himself back and founded Reena National Circus last year and has since been toiling day and night to make his baby click with the audience.


Mr. Chakravarthy can be reached at +91 951 497 9550

Walking towards Hope

You have to give Sriram props for his indomitable spirit. For someone who could barely stand, walking was a distant dream. But the presence of a great support system has worked wonders for this 22-year-old…

For the last 20-plus years, Dr Paul Devasagayam has been championing the development of disabled sports in Tamil Nadu. His efforts have brought about a sea change in parental attitudes towards sports and transformed many a life in the process.

Find out more about the two of them here