Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Book Review : Resonance written by Ajay Pandey

Image courtesy Ajay Pandey
Thrillers have been my favourite genre of books ever since I could read. After all,  the "Secret Seven" and the "Famous Five" series of Enid Blyton were thrillers too, in their own ways. And so were all the other adventure books of Enid Blyton, including "The Enchanted Wood", "The Magic Faraway Tree", "The Adventures of the Wishing Chair" etc.  With age and time, the adventures got transformed to the present day ones of Lee Child's Jack Reacher fighting all "single-handedly"; and those of spies and secret agents created by authors like Frederick Forsythe, David Baldacci, Clive Cussler and scores of others like Mary Higgins Clark, Michael Connelly, Harlan Coben and Christopher Reich.

And this, my love for thrillers, is what led me to seek out this enticing book jacket peering out from book shelves. A pair of icy blue eyes, belonging to a face hidden behind a keffiyeh, promised a lot of thrills, and so with gusto I sat down to read it. Resonance : the work of first-time author, Ajay Pandey.

The thriller is based around the time the unfortunate Mumbai terror attacks of 26/11 happened. The plot centres around an ex-ISI General, Imran Shah Malik, who is unable to forget the defeat of the Pakistani army at the hands of the Indian armed forces in the Bangladesh war of 1971. Revenge is foremost on his mind and he starts dreaming of it, till one day he simply disappears and then a video surfaces showing him being thrown into the white waters of the Swat river from a mountainous height no human can survive. His son, Aban Malik, studying in the US, is suddenly arrested and then deported to Pakistan. He becomes a rebel and a poster-boy for Jehadist groups.

In the meantime, Siddharth Rana, a Joint Director in the IB, starts investigating into a possible terror attack on India, which is being plotted with the active participation of some traitorous Indians. He goes on from clue to clue trying to figure out what is "To Pak To", which were the last words of a dying CISF officer. And what he uncovers points to a chilling terror plot which, if executed as planned, would bring death and destruction to the country - a catastrophe of such proportions that its after-effects would destroy India forever. 

The book is a thrilling read from the beginning to the end. There is terror, of course. But what sets this book apart from the other stylish and taut thrillers of the West, is that the book does not indulge in demonizing any religion. The author has borrowed heavily from the Sufi traditions of India. Sufism itself evolved as a soothing and soulful blend of the best of Hindu and Islamic beliefs, and hence, the same soulful touch is found in many places in the story. Amidst all the plotting and terror, there is also the tender love story of Aban and Juhi. There are the beliefs of Nausheen Malik, Aban's mother and Imran Shah Malik's wife. There is symbology in terms of the use of Hindu gods like Brahma. There are the beautifully described landscapes of  the rugged mountains of the Af-Pak region and the scenic Swat valley. And of course, there is use of technology and of the force of nature itself, in the planned terror attack.

The author, Ajay Pandey, is an officer of the Indian Revenue Service (IRS). During his long and successful career with the IRS, he has had several occasions to work closely with law enforcement. Other than taxation laws, which, of course, are his bread-and-butter work. This kind of exposure has given him a ring-side view of the world of terrorism, terror financing and economic offences, and that exposure has come into play quite evidently in this book. 

Over all, a wonderful read. A book which is special because it is written by an Indian in the Indian context. The locations, agencies and agent-prototypes are known and familiar. This is Indian Writing in a different genre, a different class. A good read for this holiday season? Definitely, yes.

First-time author Ajay Pandey

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Battle the Gun; Not People

Today is December 17, 2014. The whole world, especially South Asia, is still numb with shock. Yesterday, hundreds of school children aged 4-16 yrs, left home for school in the town of Peshawar, in Pakistan, in the morning. Some of them never made it home. Some are still hanging between the state of living and the state of non-being. The ones who made it back safe will never be the same again. Their childhood, innocence, sense of security and the way of viewing the world, have changed forever. Of course, some teachers lost their lives too, leaving their families shattered too.

There has been a spontaneous outpouring of grief the world over. This massacre was preceded by the killing of two innocent persons in Sydney the day before. The world is waiting in dread : who, what, where and how will be the next.

Whenever a terror attack or a massacre occurs, people are first shocked. Then voices speak out against terror. There are some chases and arrests. There are some token memorial services. And then all goes quiet. Till the next attack. Every attack is measured against the previous one for severity and heinousness. As if such immeasurables could be measured! There is jingoism. There are vows of revenge and avenging. There is finger pointing. There is even denial. Like the Pakistani officials denying India having offered help. And then, it is business as usual.

What no one ever does is go to the very root of the problem. Of course, questions like who helped create and nurture these armies of terror, who used them towards what geo-political game, and who is still creating one horror to counter another horror, are too complex and convoluted to be discussed on this humble blog. I have seen Indians living in those same countries outcry the outcomes, but never question the global policies and practices of their adopted "homelands".

However, another issue which never is discussed, involves the instruments of terror - the guns and the bombs. Who manufactures them? Who markets and sells them? Who buys them and how? How do they procure money for buying the human-killing machinery? What happens to the money which the sellers receive? Which economy does this money finally get invested or channeled into? 

Surely guns and bombs do not manufacture themselves. Yet, why does no one ever raise these questions? The answers to these questions are vital if we are going to keep our promise to the slain children that their deaths are going to be avenged. Or the promises to our own terror victims and their families. Because the only way to stop weeds from growing is to uproot them. Promising flowers that we will fight weeds does nothing. And these questions can easily be answered if the right pressure is put on the right Banks in the right countries. But that requires geo-political clout. And if countries with that kind of clout are not doing it, there is something that they intend to keep away from the eyes of the world.

Food for thought. Why not strike where it really hurts rather than just beat about the bush and engage in tokenism, which will mean something to the victims and their families of this massacre, but will do nothing to stop the next one? If you take out one terrorist, a hundred will take their place. But if they don't have the instruments - the guns- what will they kill with? And the same logic can be applied to the frequent gunning in schools and community centres in the US. People cry hoarse about gun control, but I have never seen a single discussion on stopping production of arms. We call terrorists all kinds of names, but what about people who put the gun in their hands? Is their liability any less?   

So amidst the mourning, which people will forget in less than a week, when they go on to Christmas and New Year bashes, here is something to think about.....

Saturday, 13 December 2014

Lingua Indica

Copyright (C) Shubhrata V Prakash
I am no scholar of linguistics. My knowledge of languages is limited to two - Hindi, being my mother tongue, and English, being my tongue. Yes my tongue, thanks to a convent education. And so the entire German-Sanskrit, three-language formula, four-language formula, five-language formula etc have left me quite amused and huff-puff.....breathless too. Counting the number of languages in the formula is no less of an effort than actually learning them.

My proficiency in German consists of..ahem...knowing the meaning of all of TWO words - Achtung ("Attention" - who can forget the U2 song Achtung Baby?!) and Das (meaning "the"). My understanding of "Das" is courtesy Karl Marx - Das Kapital, and Volkswagen - Das Auto. Of course, I thought Volkswagen was pronounced as it was written in English, till I saw the Hindi signboards. And actually, when I first came across "Das Kapital", while mugging up 'Books and Authors' in General Knowledge books as a child, I thought it meant Ten Capitals (of maybe ten countries in the world! Das means ten in Hindi, you see).

Sanskrit is another story. Shabd Roops and Dhatu Roops kept getting complicated. The difficult level was an upward rising curve, from 5th standard to 8th standard. Needless to say that the marks were situated on a downward sloping curve. One positive aspect of Sanskrit education was that finally, after 6 years of formal schooling, I could understand why the last consonant of the Devanagari script अः (Ahh) existed - of course, to be used in Sanskrit! It is said that Sanskrit is the mother of Hindi. So, like all rebellious daughters, Hindi used her mom's favourite Ahh sparingly and most spitefully. And so we have Ahh appearing in horrible words like प्रातः "praatahh", meaning early morning. Who loves early mornings, pray? But how was a small, primary school girl to understand that? I was still hanging on to my mother's pallu then.

A new language came into my life when I went to reside in the "only one of its kind" linguistically divided state - Tamil Nadu. Tamil...! No தமிழ்  Thamizh. Anyways, from not knowing a single word of it, I can now speak a few words. My early experience of living in தமிழ் நாடு Thamizh Nadu helped improve my acting skills. You see, I was communicating wholly and solely through mime. I guess the same happens when Tamil students come to Pusa Institute, Delhi, for studying agriculture. They have perfected the art of mime and so, no cultural programme in any Civil Services academy is complete without a brilliant mime by Tamil civil servants, mostly from the Pusa Institute! 

Anyways, the mime soon changed into some pigdin Tamil (not Thamizh). Whenever I speak Tamil in front of my North Indian friends, and family, they are so impressed! They look at me in amazement and compliment me on my "fluent" Tamil. I enjoy all the compliments and strut about with my chest all puffed out. Why do they need to know that if my Thamizh friends had heard what I had said, they would have had to take some anti-spasmodic to stop the stomach-ache they would have got from laughing. May be they would have given their maids a day off as the house would be clean because of their rolling on the floor laughing (ROFL in Internet-ese), and they couldn't possibly eat because of the stomach-ache explained before. So no cooking required either.

However, I have had my share of Tamil-shocks too. A few months in TN and someone asked me if I would like to eat Sholay for lunch. I was shocked. How could anyone eat a movie? A little more use of my bird brain horrified me further. What if "Sholay" is code or short for "Kalia : Sardar maine aapka namak khaya hai...Gabbar : Toh ab goli kha!" ?!  Mercifully, what appeared at the lunch table was the good old innocuous "chholey"..........and I learnt that in Tamil, 'sa' , 'sha', 'cha' and 'chha' are all interchangeably used. In fact, in Thamizh, there is only ச  'cha'. Still, this concept took a while to take roots in my mind. And so, during my first posting in Madurai, when someone brought a file concerning a "church" case, I kept looking for a church in it. Alas, I could only find a tax-evading financial company, which had been searched under Section 132 of the Income Tax Act, 1961 : hence a "search" case! And in the next few months, I did see a lot more of these "church" cases.

Every language and dialect has its own peculiarities. In Bihar, my home state, there is no difference between "pen"and "pain". Probably, someone in the early days of English education, during the British Raj, did not like to write; and so termed the "pen" as a big "pain" in his life, and the pronunciation stuck. In the Hadauti region of Rajasthan, "sa" is pronounced as "ha", much like in Asom (Ahom). So "Bachche So rahe hain" (kids are sleeping) becomes "Bachche Ho rahe hain" (kids are being born)!

In Bihar, the words "Kaahe ka" mean "why?". In UP, "Kaahe ka" means "made of what?". So, when my mother-in-law, from Lucknow, first came to visit my husband and me, she would sit at the dining table and ask me "Kaahe ki Sabzi hai?" (What is this vegetable curry made of?) Poor, foolish me kept thinking "Doesn't she know why vegetable curries are made? To eat, of course!" But in India, the Saas-Bahu game is always on, and I thought maybe it was a quiz she took to examine my philosophy with respect to food, poverty, hunger, healthy eating etc. I guess the UPSC hangover is hard to get rid off!

So, with all this experience under my belt, my relationship with the latest language in my life,  ગુજરાતી Gujarati, has so far been quite amicable. Except in the beginning, when a shopkeeper called me મોટી બેન  Moti Ben. OMG, was the shopkeeper rude and impudent! How dare he call me fat! (Moti means fat in Hindi). Had he ever looked in the mirror and seen his own pot belly? Or was he delusional, thinking that it was actually a pot that covered his six-pack abs?! (Happy New Year had not been released by then and a six-pack, not an eight-pack, was the gold standard for male figures). I didn't want to create a scene, and so, I managed to keep all my knives, daggers, swords, drones, RPGs and IEDs, and even Sunny Deol's hand-pump, inside my imagination. The next day, I started on a vigourous diet-and-exercise regime. Two days later, I was back to snacking on potato chips slumped on the couch before the TV. I had, by then, discovered, that "moti" in Gujarati means "big"or "elder". Hence, "Moti Ben" meant "big sister" or "elder sister" !

Anyways, whatever the outcome of the present German-Sanskrit debate - doesn't matter to me. What matters is that I'm way past school and don't have to learn either !! Language was made for communication and for creating understanding among people. But all I've seen languages creating is confusion. Maybe the cavemen's pictorial script was the real language. My kids have been practicing it quite a bit as evident from the walls of our home. Who knows, before they reach the stage when the German-Sanskrit debate becomes real for them, the pictorial script may have become a game-changer...?!!

Image courtesy : Sharang Prakash and Aadyant Prakash
Copyright (C) Shubhrata V Prakash

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Enlightenment

Copyright (C) Shubhrata V Prakash

The night was dark, my spirits low. I sat on the pavement, near the seashore, musing. I had tried sleeping without success. My restlessness had forced me out of the house - into the darkness of the night. It was dark and humid. Not a leaf stirred anywhere. The air was still. Sultry. The present state of my mind was in harmony with the night, both blending into each other. And this wasn't the first time either.

For weeks together I had stalked the seashore, trying to find some meaning to life, in the rhythm of the tide breaking on the sands. Only tonight, it was darker and more sultry. Even the little pieces of silver, sewn on the black satin overhead, seemed to be shrouded. No breeze. My mind - too weak and dull, after weeks of brooding. Still I had no clue as to why I was a living being. Why life at all? Why my life?

A kaleidoscope of images whirred past me. Images from the past. The future? Life had always been comfortable. But why life at all? What would have happened if I hadn't been? Probably nothing different from what was happening now. What if I don't live till tomorrow? Nothing different again. I had heard arguments. Life is enjoy. to create, to revel and to be happy. To establish yourself as "somebody". To be different from the ordinary. I was not convinced. Why be different? What is so great about greatness? What is happiness? Why to be happy? Why life at all? Why?

So there I was. Back to square one. Back to that night. The dark, airless night. There were few people around me - some on the pavement, some down below on the sand. Yet, I hardly noticed them. Neither did I care for the few headlights, which used to appear suddenly from the dark and vanish again into the darkness, with amazing speed, blinding me for a few seconds - disturbing my communion with the night. So it was hardly surprising that I missed a dark shadow that crossed me for a second maybe. But the trailing hysterical scream was too loud to be missed. The source of this high decibel scream was a half-bent, frail kind of figure. The light from the street lamp was not sufficient to make out his features. Yet, the urgency of his manner was too obvious.

"What's the matter?"  I asked in a calm and steady voice.

The reply was hardly coherent. Yet, I could make out something about someone running away with money he had saved all day to buy medicines for his sick wife. The unfairness of it all struck me full force. The coordination between my mind and the night was phenomenal. The roar within me was answered by a rumble in the canopy above. In a moment, I was off in the direction towards which a crooked and shaking finger of his was pointed. Soon I could make out a medium-sized figure steadily gathering speed. But his speed was no match for mine. To come out of it the best way, he dropped a small and dirty cloth purse and sped away into the night. I waited to catch my breath. Then, slowly, I picked up the dirty object from the pavement and headed back towards its owner. As I handed it over to him, amidst the rumble, lightening flashed. Just for an instant. But that instant was enough. Enough to see his face. Enough to read the expression on it.

And even after that instant was gone, I remembered it only too well. It was like Prince Siddhartha becoming The Buddha. I had this strange feeling of elation within me. Pit-pat-pat. Big drops had started falling on the pavement. The latter, having weathered the sun for days, devoured the rain with a vehement hiss. The few people, who were still out on the street, started running for cover. But I walked on at a leisurely pace. 

It was pouring now. I couldn't have welcomed it more - yet I couldn't have cared less. For I had known, just for that instant, what life was. What happiness was. And, for that moment, I did not bother to add 'why'.

(First published in Vibes '97. The blogger was a 1st year MBA student then.)

Friday, 5 December 2014

A Cosy Reading Nook

Copyright (C) Shubhrata V Prakash

The sun beams beckon to me, "Come, sit a while;
Put your feet up and just feel yourself smile........."

I look at the chair, all comfy, with bright-hued cushions;
Calling out to me for a few restful reading sessions

The peonies and the gerberas; yellow, pink, red and coral
And some roses, ahh....such delicate fragrances floral

Sitting seductively, with green wraps, in a glass vase or two
Or maybe a large ceramic mug, the colour cerulean blue

A bookcase to one side, again like an indoor rainbow
With book spines arranged neatly to complete the show spirit soars at the sheer visual treat
I drink in the colours and sink into the cushioned seat

I let the sights and smells completely drown my senses
All that remains is the present, there are no other tenses

I close my eyes, and just let the sun warm my heart
For letting go and relaxing is no less an art

What lies before the eyes is just blackness, and more of it
But the darkness lies....and I'm so sure of it

I know that there are sights beyond, the black itself has shades
Reds, yellows, and oranges, curled softly around the blades

I open my eyes, and let the aroma of coffee drift in
The mug a beautiful sculpture itself of  fine porcelain

And, finally, I pick up my read for the day - a  tome
A little intimidating, the subject and the huge volume

Yet, nothing, can throw a shade over the warmth I feel within
At my reading nook, with coffee, a book - sheer bliss, a piece of heaven.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Gullible's (Indians) Travails

Last week was a landmark week for Indian Christians, or I would say for all Indians. Two Indians were anointed with Sainthood by the Vatican. Yet the Papal office overlooked some other great contenders for Sainthood. And why blame just the Vatican? So did the Shahi Imam, who was too busy anointing and appointing his own flesh and blood to religious fiefdom. So did the other fiefs of other religions, who were horrified just looking at the goings-on at one such fiefdom: "Satlok" of "Sant Rampal". Saint"hood"?!

And so Facebook and WhatsApp missed their official Sainthood. Now what makes them prime candidates for such an elevation from the ranks of ordinary mortals? Of course, their extraordinary powers, which were not earned at the Hogwarts School. And, hence, remain beyond the realm of explanation. Even the Vatican requires proof and illustrations of extraordinary powers of the contemplated Saints. So here I present a case for Sainthood for Facebook and WhatsApp.

1. Turning Bread to Stone.  Yes, even the Almighty could only turn stone to bread. But our candidates can even turn bread to stone. Numerous posts and messages are in circulation, which try to find innovative explanations for formation of stones in the gall bladder, kidneys, or wherever they want. The explanations invariably lie in the consumption of food, like tomatoes, spinach, blah-blah-blah, and of course bread. And history will one day correct itself for labeling Marie Antoinette a monster. You see, she actually wanted to save the bourgeoisie by preempting them from consuming bread, and replacing it with artery-clogging cake. At least she didn't want them "stoned"!

2. Promoting the belief that Man love Man. And I'm not talking "Yaarana" or the H-word. What I mean is that Facebook and WhatsApp have turned all users into philanthropists. Everyone. Any message or post which even remotely refers to human health and cure for diseases, is promptly forwarded. Without even being read, i.e. Naturally, who has the time to read long posts and messages? Not the ones who forward messages in bulk when they could have made a personal call, at least to a few. If only such virtual philanthropy actually translated into real common good, alas! 

3. Miracle Cures. O yes. There is a miracle cure for everything. From Cancer to Constipation. Turmeric, lime juice, lemon juice, karela juice.......anything that can be juiced. Or not. And studies quoted in support? None!! Miracles cannot be scientifically explained, can they? So no questions asked. Juice Do It!!

4. Producing mass hysteria. Pictures taken in one part of the world have been found to cause riots in another unrelated part of the world. All because some people chose to manipulate public sentiment in a place, which had their vested interests, by forwarding morphed versions of these pics to show how a particular community or society was being persecuted. 

5. Producing mass hypnosis. And the PR machinery of the powerful and the wealthy have been using this particular aspect of Facebook and WhatsApp to their hearts' content, or maybe pockets' contents. A particular industrial house, which was found with its hands inside the 2G till, and which had pockets, and pockets of influence, deep enough to affect ministerial berths, keeps promoting its owner as a visionary all over social media. And people lap it all up. A man on trial for running over homeless pavement dwellers, has a court hearing on Nov 24. His so-called "adopted" sister gets married amidst a media blitzkreig on Nov 18. The functions run close to Nov 24. And two days before the trial, people enthusiastically forward a message which claims that the man on trial "adopted" a pavement dweller's daughter as his "sister" and spent crores on her lavish wedding. People laud this, without any proof. And what is unbelievable is that people laud the wastage of crores of Rupees in a wedding feast - the same crores that could have fed an entire village of needy people for days! 

6.  Transforming non-believers into believers. The whole concept of Modern Medicine sprang forth from the well-founded mistrust that the Medicine Man had of the medicine man. The former being the pioneers of modern Medicine and the latter being the village quack. Yet it is actually an amazing feat of modern technology that Facebook and WhatsApp are making Doctors forget what they have spent precious years of their lives in trying to learn - modern Medicine. So it defies all logic, the phenomenon of doctors forwarding messages and endorsing posts which are against all principles of modern medical research. "Prolonged use of sanitary napkins causes uterine cancer" : and we all thought that the cause for uterine cancer was still unknown! Only co-existing factors had been identified.....!!

7. Empowering women. Any woman who spends time on Facebook and WhatsApp would know how empowered she is. Women's only groups on WhatsApp never tire of sending messages to each other which keep emphasizing how woman is God's special creation. How women are angels, only that they forget to remember so.......! Dear God, what did you do?! You created one whole gender without angelic qualities? Not fair to "Man"kind! Women keep perpetuating the quid pro quo. Recently, a video, which asked women to forget weight-watching and eat what they want as they are beautiful just the way they are, became a rage. Of course, the women watching it forgot to notice that the women in the video were all models...!! And if you eat sugar when you are diabetic, which, unfortunately, increasingly younger women are becoming, you may lose your eye-sight and not even know what beautiful looks are!!!!

8. Encouraging Love. And not just romantic love. Brotherly love. Sisterly love. It is amusing to see endearments pour forth so generously, on WhatsApp especially. Darlings, sweethearts, sweetie-pies.....much such sweet, sweet love! Makes the eyes all moist and teared-up. In real life, the "darlings" don't have time even to talk to each other; the "sweethearts" would cross each other on the streets, without a trace of recognition; and the "sweetie-pies" probably would love to push each others' faces into pies - the '70s Bollywood movies' style - or feed each other pies filled with Karela inside and glazed with Neem outside!

9. Inspiring ordinary souls to become Motivational Gurus. Everyone is a Guru these days. For themselves? Yes, they should be, for everyone should know what they want in life and how they want it. But Facebook and WhatsApp have turned every Netizen into a motivational Guru. Now Deepak Chopras and Wayne Dyers of the world have very, very tough competition.

10. Making people "Gullible". People are ready to believe anything and everything that goes around. More than ready. They also become a part of the machinery that speeds the passing around. Half-truths, untruths, lies, falsehoods, propaganda, self-defeating beliefs - all. Without using them grey cells, much to the horror of Hercule Poirot, had he been alive. Without any proof.

Which makes one wonder: what happened? Why have we Indians become so gullible? Part of the 19th century and the whole of the 20th century were notable for the efforts made by luminaries like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, for inculcating a scientific temper in the Indians. Myths and superstitions were sought to be debunked. The awakening of the spirit of inquiry was an integral part of the Independence Movement. Mahatma Gandhi's Swadeshi movement was not just about spinning khadi and economic self-reliance, but also about self-reliance in temperament. Examine facts and decide for oneself what they mean. Self-belief, self-reliance, self-respect. And what is most amusing is the fact that the instruments used for quelling scientific temper in Indians are products of science itself. Technology. In terms of the Computer, Cell Phone, Internet, mobile telephony etc. 

Fads pass quickly. And I am sure hoping and praying that this is a fad, a phase, and the faster it fades away, the better it is.

Till then, Talk Talk mein confers Saint-"hood" on Facebook and WhatsApp. Now we all shall be using St. Facebook and St. WhatsApp. Or maybe, Sant FacePal and Sant WhatsPal ?!

Disclaimer: This blog post is written in a humorous vein and does not intend to question or make fun of any religion, or religious beliefs.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Surviving the Ocean : Airlock

Copyright (c) Shubhrata V Prakash

I have survived. The Ocean of Darkness? Yes.
The point of light guided me back to the shores
Not just out of the Ocean of Darkness
But to the shelter of some rocky coves

The shore is just a short way from the coves
The path from one to the other shown by stepped-on stones
The path literally glittering like a gem-studded treasure trove
The stones like gems, with the light the sun chose to shone

I sat in the cove, feeling numb, for a while
I caught my breath, rested my tired arms and legs
Felt my face unfreeze by the warmth into a smile
My lungs and muscles hung out to dry on memory pegs

Memories of the darkness that almost did obliterate
A living being and its self, happiness and its will to live
Its dreams, aspirations, joys and all raison d'etre
And wrung out its complete spirit, its innate desire to survive

And then, in the distance, over mists thick like a screen
The spirit that did survive laid out more memories to play
A tide of memories of times before the dark ocean
That now came rushing, gushing; conquering the time delay

Of smiles, joys, happiness, and the loving people around
Family, friends, dear ones, who were hidden in the darkness
Though they were there always, yet I didn't feel them surround
Me with their everlasting love, keeping me secured with love as a harness

Kept me safe from drowning; yet not my fault that I couldn't see
The anchors, the harbours, the lift rafts which kept me from going under
For the darkness - cunning, inclement and insidious - enveloping me
Would lie to me, show me horror, and all evil; and tear my mind asunder

Now the darkness has lost. Other memories rush even faster
A life full of love, colour, laughter, happiness and drive, so much
A life so full of rock-like determination to exist and to live, no matter (what)
A life that filled love and special things, into all other lives it touched

A life in which I didn't walk but sometimes skipped, sometimes glided
On air, with a song on my lips, a smile in my eyes and ideas in my head
Rules were rules but were no rules by which my crazy mind abided
And flew across miles in seconds, back and forth, no fear, no dread

The movie flew by; my life's movie on the imaginary screen
I'd been on a perch taking deep breaths and putting an airlock:
An airlock between the dark waters and the shore with its golden sheen
The sheltered cove my airlock hub, dark waters left beyond the rocks

And now that I am somewhat dry, I take a few more breaths
And rise to cover, the last few steps towards the journey's end
Slowly at first, then with growing spirit, I make the last of the trek
To the shore, the proverbial pot of gold, made so by the sun on the sand

I can see the blue sky and puffs of white clouds, such joy almost forgotten
I can now see people and that they not phantoms but real, whole and alive
I can see them just enjoying their lives, and in it what they've begotten,
I can see all, I can feel all, I can read all, and still be happy: God I'm happy to be alive!

And now, further dry, I enjoy just soaking in some more sun
Sun, light, warmth; such wonderful wonderful sun sun, sun - I cry
Tears of joy, just salt water added to some brine, and then some
Joy that knows no bounds, I'm back to safety, back - home and dry.

Monday, 17 November 2014

An Ocean of Darkness

People see the smile outside. No one sees the darkness inside. Not just a spot or two of darkness. A whole ocean of darkness. I am drowning in it. Many times I’ve tried to keep my head above. Many times I’ve resurfaced when I couldn’t keep my head up and had gone down under. But every time I go under, I find resurfacing a little more difficult than the last time. Every time I go under, I need to hold my breath. For letting go of my breath means letting go of my life. If I let the air leave my lungs, my lungs, starved of air and strained with the effort of holding out on their own, are programmed to suck in the dark waters. Dark waters of the ocean of darkness. And once the darkness enters my body through my lungs……my lungs starved of breath, know nothing else but that it is time to tell me that this is what drowning is. Like, “I’m sorry but I’ve failed. I held out very long but, starved of air, the need to suck in whatever was available to fill myself up, was pressing. Just like a hungry child feels compelled to devour rotten remnants of other people’s meals to fill up his empty stomach.”

The suffocating dark waters swirl around, all around. I flail my arms and legs about. My strength ebbs with all the effort. My muscles, devoid of oxygen, also begin to start giving up. But some point of light in some recess in my brain pushes me to exert myself once more. With this psychic strength, I push down with all my remaining energy and resurface. After resurfacing, every initial breath is painful. My lungs, my heart, my nose, my eyes, my ears; all hurt. Slowly, with great effort, the breathing becomes normal and the pain recedes. But then, I am not as strong as I was before I went under, am I? There is wear and tear of my muscles, everywhere, from my extremities to my lungs and heart. There is nothing out there to replenish the energy store. So the muscles never recover, however much the body may want them to.

And then, when the next wave of darkness rushes towards me, I find it more difficult to brace myself. The entire process of holding out and fighting the wave, then going under when that fails, and then resurfacing, and then returning to a semblance of normality, leaves me even more depleted of energy than the time before. The process goes on without a break. My body is tired. My mind is tired too. My spirit is probably the point of light in my brain which pushes me to fight each time, despite knowledge of the inevitable outcome.

This point of light too, is dimming with each episode. The body and mind try to put some more oil into the burning lamp. Meditation, writing, playing, yoga, spirituality. They are all supposed to give strength to the flame inside my brain, to what I think is my spirit. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. The number of times they work is fast reducing while the number of times they don’t is accelerating like a car with the gas pedal pressed all the way down to the floor. So the light gets dimmer and dimmer. And when it goes out, I may find the ocean of darkness, surrounding me, too comforting to be worth fighting against. My body, dead tired; my mind, totally blank; and my spirit, out. Oh look, the ocean bed tempts. How nice would it be to just lie down there, curled up like a new born. How nice would it be not to fight any more. How nice would it be not to make an effort any more. How nice would it be to feel no pain. How nice would it be to float, weightlessly, in the darkness. Float and float and float. To let it guide and let me follow. To let it cushion me from all that lies above. To let me be. Just let it be.

PS : Please don't give up........perhaps there will be a day when the waves of darkness shall recede.....and you have to keep fighting to see the light of THAT day.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Not A Feisty Heist

Image courtesy Wikipedia 
This year, New Year Eve came early. Two-months-and-a-week in advance. It came with the new SRK movie titled "Happy New Year". Ahaaa...! Now that title was surely misleading but more on it later. Farah Khan may not have hit the bull's eye with "Tees Maar Khan", but her husband surely took a hit from SRK. Ram Jaane what transpired after that but things between them were all well again - Om Shanti Om- and here was "Happy New Year".

In the movie, Shah Rukh Khan is "Charlie" aka Chandramohan Sharma, who cannot "earn an honest living in his city". Now as someone who went to Pardes to earn a degree, why should he not be able to earn honestly in Swades, pray? The question is answered in a flashback where his father Manohar Sharma (Anupam Kher in a cameo), a safe-maker, is defrauded by the Ra.One-esque Charan Grover (Jackie Shroff) by stealing diamonds and laying the blame on Manohar. Manohar is jailed and Charlie doesn't know how to say "My Name is Charlie and mera baap chor nahin hai". So Charlie hatches a plan to clear his father's name by stealing the Shalimar diamonds, which are being transported by Grover and his son Vicky (Abhishek Bachchan), and which will be stored in a safe in the Atlantis Hotel in Dubai on Christmas eve. To steal the diamonds, Charlie plans a One-Two Ka Four heist.

Now there are no Mohabbatein lost between Charlie and the Don, Charan Grover, and hence Charlie has planned the revenge and the heist quite Dil Se. So he picks up an Army, which needs a bit describing. Jag (Sonu Sood) is actually an ex-Army guy who is smoking hot and has all Maya Memsahebs salivating "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai". Tammy (Boman Irani) is a safemaker-cum-safecracker who is Manohar's friend. Rohan (Vivaan Shah) is a whizkid who can hack systems with Josh. Nandu Bhide (Abhishek Bachchan again) is Vicky Grover's Duplicate. He is quite a Chamatkar of a man who can throw-up (yes, i.e., vomit) at will. Hey Ram!

But wait! Isn't this a Farah Khan movie? So where is the dancing? At the time the heist is to be pulled off, the World Dancing Championship (WDC) is happening in the Atlantis Hotel. So, what better way to get to the venue of the heist than by representing India at the WDC? But, the Paheli is, how? How do five two-left-footed men get to the WDC? The English Babu Charlie finds a Desi Mem - a bar dancer - Mohini Joshi (Deepika Padukone) to teach them how to dance. The English is her the weakness and the Charlie manages to make her the Dil To Paagal Hai.

So, the team members get together. They rehearse their roles and practice dance. With lots of drama happening all around, the team manages to make a Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman of even Nandu Bhide (dimaag mein keede) and put together some sort of performance for the selection rounds. They get jeered and boo-ed at, but with Rohan's manipulation of the scoring system, they manage to reach Dubai. When they reach Dubai, like the Congress MLAs of the last Delhi Assembly, they are packed off into an Innova and delivered to the Atlantis. As team after team of stalwart dancers arrives on shining wheels,  the crowd sees Charlie and his team, and decry "Oh darling, YEH hai  India?!"

And so the story unfolds......There are "unexpected" twists like the diamonds not arriving on Christmas eve as scheduled. There are some fight sequences and some weird songs and dances. Ultimately, the diamonds arrive on New Year's eve, and Charlie is worried. Kal Ho Na Ho? Then, when it is time for Team India to perform, only Mohini is there. For her, what are diamonds but a form of Koyla? And she may be in Dubai, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. She decides to dance alone till Jab Tak Hai Jaan. The climax has moments of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, and Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna. Ufff.....Kitna Konfusion! And it is not even an Ekta Kapoor movie. Then, finally, it is Chak De India! King Uncle Charan Grover suffers the Anjaam of his being a Baazigar, and Charlie celebrates the Happy New Year of his new life.

The film is quite below average. Faran Khan misses the bull's eye again. The music is absolutely mediocre and a huge let-down, especially as this is a dance movie. The only saving grace is "Indiawale". There are too many many that one gets confused whether Sarah Jane Dias had a role or a cameo on the dias. The safe with the diamonds has all kinds of security systems including a high energy invisible shield but no encrypted password?! Any Badshah, Guddu or Asoka could get it to sing "Hum tumhare hain sanam"! And btw, one wonders what were Anurag Kashyap and Vishal Dadlani doing in the film: playing "Veer-Zara"?!!

As far as performances go, well, a 50-yr-old man with eight-pack abs and facial wrinkles falling till his feet - how is it possible? Only SRK and his Dil Aashna Hai! It is a pity to see the actual man of action, the one time Yuva, having to strip to entertain. Mohini has got the moves but not the music to be a patch on the "Ek-Do-Teen" Mohini. Jackie Shroff looks in desperate need of the services of Billu Barber. Boman Irani, Sonu Sood and Vivaan Shah do a good job though.

Now for why the title is a misnomer. Happy New Year. First of all it was released on Diwali, not New Year's Eve. There was nothing "New" in the story. The heist was cut, copy, paste and rehash, from many Hollywood heist movies. "Year"? No, ear. The music was actually quite a strain on the ears. So, in the end, one does not end up "Happy" after watching the movie. Farah Khan could easily have titled it "Diwali Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge". It doesn't take Rohan's hacking skills to change the date of the heist from New Year's Eve to Diwali. The overpriced tickets sure made her and SRK have a special Diwali. And as for us, oh we are so used to taking out our diwala (bankruptcy) by putting fire to our money on Diwali, aren't we?!

But then, Karma has a way of working. Shayaad mere Karan-Arjun aayenge, zaroor aayenge..........

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Racist Who?

A couple of years back, on a Saturday morning, I found myself at a leading Delhi hospital with my husband. My husband needed some blood tests done and then we had to see his doctor with the reports. There were only three counters for outpatient payment and the queue before each of these was long. In between the queues at two of these counters was a parked wheelchair, occupied by a tall, large-built African man and flanked on one side by an equally tall, hugely-built African woman. While the queue snailed forward, a hospital attendant came by and tried to move the wheelchair with its occupant to one side. The African gentleman screamed.

Meanwhile, a middle-aged woman, dressed in what has perhaps become urban India’s middle-aged uniform- Kurti with a pair of trousers- with a boy perhaps just past his teens and dressed in what were perhaps his school shorts, walked up to the payment counters and asked, rather demanded of me, whether there was any other counter for payment. Yes, I wanted to say, and we are all bereft of brains and gifted with eons of time to kill when there are time-saving options available. No, I said aloud. Of course, it was unfair, the sentence of standing in a long queue that had been just handed out to Her Highness, and quite outraged, she proceeded to the counter sideways demanding to know again whether there was any other counter for payment. No, she was informed by the counter staff. Resignedly, she settled for standing in the queue behind us.

The African gentleman, by now, was in the middle of a major temper tantrum. He was screaming and screeching. Language played the biggest baddie in all this drama. The hospital attendant, through gestures, was trying to explain that he just wanted to move the wheelchair aside so as to clear the passage and to ensure that its occupant was not hurt by the crowd milling around. By then the row had been escalated by the active participation of the wheelchair occupant’s companion. The Africans seemed quite agitated and ready to hand out a punch or two to the hospital attendant, who then started backing off, and finally gave up and slipped away. Bystanders like us watched and heard, but did not react, for there were no cues in this drama for us. But Her Highness from behind me could not help herself. In the most sophisticated and Anglicized English she could manage, she advised the African couple that they must complain to the hospital management. Not once, not twice, but thrice she reiterated that the hospital authorities must be informed of how innocent foreigners were being harassed in their hospital. “Money. All that these hospital attendants want is money. They will harass foreigners all they can to squeeze some money out of them,” she pronounced with offended dignity.

My poor husband, the loyal Indian that he is, could not take it anymore. He opened his mouth to say, “Excuse me, Ma’am, but the hospital attendant was not at fault. He was only trying to clear the blocked passage. The patient’s and his companion’s reactions were extreme.” Prompted by this support from unexpected quarters, the manager of the outpatients payment counter came out from behind one of the glass counters and said, “Sir, you have rightly said it is not our attendant’s fault. This particular patient is quite a regular visitor here. He is generally violent. He has once bitten a nurse and assaulted a lab technician”. “Oh but then, if the hospital attendant was not harassing him, why were the Africans shouting and screaming?”, Her Highness wanted to know of my husband. “They are troubled enough by whatever health problems life has given them….woh apni bimariyon se pareshan hain. But please don’t complain against the hospital attendant for no fault of his. The poor man may lose his job and livelihood, and his family will suffer”, my husband said with utmost politeness. His turn had come and he moved up to the counter to pay. I felt immensely proud of him. Trust him to always speak up for the truth.

“Such bias….”, Her Highness kept whispering behind my back, “…only because they were Africans! Had they been Americans, people’s reactions would have been different. We would have been bending backwards to please them”, she said indignantly. The “We” that she had used was very obviously meant to exclude herself and her overgrown teenager.  By then my husband had already walked off and I followed suit, concentrating all my energies in avoiding the African gentleman, whose wheel chair was again found parked in the busy, crowded corridor. Who knows when he would decide that a bite on my plump arm or plump neck is what I've been asking for. I even hid behind a paper cup of cappuccino in the hospital Café Coffee Day outlet while my husband kept walking up and down the corridor, checking the status of his token number. Of course, he is a greater mortal than me and I’m never ashamed of it. 

My husband’s tests finally got over and as we were waiting for our car, I just couldn't help thinking that there are so many pseudo-sophisticated, pseudo-urbane Indians walking around who wouldn't think twice before endangering a poor Indian family’s livelihood just to poke their snooty noses into affairs which are not theirs. For what? Bleeding heart anti-racist activism? Or a sense of self aggrandizement? After all, it isn't everyday that they encounter Africans or Americans. Their daily life is spent trying to distinguish themselves from the common, unsophisticated, poor and not-so-urbane Indian….for after all you need to define inferior in order to feel superior?! The car had come. We sat and drove off into the sunset.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Book Review of "Cafe Latte" by Amit Shankar

It was at the book launch of "Cafe Latte" by the Ahmedabad Book Club that I first had the pleasure of meeting "writer" (no "author", pls!) Amit Shankar. His modesty (he forbade us from using the "a" word!!) and down-to-earth attitude were quite refreshing. Over casual chit-chat, I discovered that we had a lot in common. We had both attended prestigious colleges at Delhi University. We both had MBA degrees from some of the top B-schools of India. We both had begun our careers in advertising and marketing........and of course, we both had a love of the written word.

During the book launch, I volunteered to read the first story. The title "Cafe Latte" was enticing enough to want to start the book as soon as I had a copy in hand. The reading of the "The Black Widow", which I did, was quite an experience for me. Reading a thriller, trying to use my brains and figure out the end, while reading aloud the story to an unfamiliar audience, and feeling the goose bumps.....unforgettable! I finished reading the entire book in one night, which is quite a paradox, a paradox which the book itself is. It is interesting to the point of being un-put-down-able, while at the same time, the web, which each story spins around the reader, takes a while to come out of before one can move on to the next story. 

"Cafe Latte" is a collection of 18 short stories. The language used by the writer is simple to read, but quite deep when it comes to understanding the context and concept being described by him. Some stories are as short as 4 pages like "A Rose for Her" while some others, like "Code of Honor" and "The Lion, The Leopard and The Hyena" are around 12-15 pages each. Each story has what is called a "twist in the tale" (like Jeffery Archer's book of the same name). In most of the stories, the writer has left the climax a bit open-ended......something for the reader to understand, imagine or simply spin-a-yarn for himself/herself. Some stories are sweet, like a drop of hazelnut in the latte. "The Guardian Angel"  is one such story. Some sad, some scary, some inspiring, some psychological thrillers and some "points-to-ponder".

While reading "Cafe Latte", I could clearly pick out two aspects that I found most appealing. One is that Amit Shankar is also a passionate musician and that passion comes out in stories like "Temple of The King", "The Jazz Player" and "The Guardian Angel".  The other is his respect for all human emotions, and his acceptance of them, without any moral lessons, as reflected in the stories. What at first read is a simple story, on a deeper level, is a solid tapestry woven from the threads of human psychology and philosophy. Like the "Slice of Life" ads, which apparently just want you to buy a soap or cream, but are actually hitting at some aspirational target deep within your psyche. Questions are thrown up, answers to which require a very profound understanding of the human mind and the ways in which it works,.......or doesn't. Of course when the writer is an ad man, that's no surprise!

As for me, my favourite stories from the collection are "The Black Widow" and "Every Mouse Ain't A Mickey Mouse". Why? Well, if I start taking a class of literature on "Cafe Latte", whose going to enjoy the caffeine kick? 

So, go get your own copy and enjoy a nice Sunday afternoon with cafe latte and ........"Cafe Latte" !!

Friday, 10 October 2014

Unchain The Maladies

October 10, 2014. Today is WHO Mental Health Awareness Day.

Mental illnesses, for whatever reasons have received very little attention, from the population in general, and the medical profession in particular. Law makers haven't had much time to look at the issues related to mental health either. As a result, we have an acute shortage of trained medical personnel, paramedics, counselors, treatment options and facilities, laws to deal with complexities arising out of mental illnesses, support for the mentally disabled, and the biggest lacuna of all - a proper understanding of mental health by the society at large and even the patients themselves.

It would be easy to rattle off statistics stating which organisation says how many doctors per 1000 population or how many hospital beds per 1000 population, but such an insertion here is not the idea behind writing this post. Those statistics are available on any number of websites of any number of organisations. The purpose behind writing this post is to discuss briefly and touch upon the various issues related to mental health which need to be addressed urgently. This assumes special significance as the statistical websites also dish out rates at which mental illness is growing. Almost exponentially with time. As if India's population and mentally ill population were fighting a race as to which outgrows the other.

Mental illnesses or disorders are a broad range of disorders. There are disorders like Major Depressive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder, Schizophrenia, and various varieties of neuroses and psychoses, forming a part of these affect disorders. Then there are developmental disorders like Down's Syndrome. There are also many learning disorders like Autism, ADHD, Dyslexia etc., some of which also qualify as developmental disorders. These disorders affect people from newly born babies to nonagenarians, or a rare centenarian. So one notion that needs to be dispelled is that all people with a mental disorder are MAD. Or Mental. Well mental means having to do with the mind, and if a person is not mental, I'm sorry, it means that that person does not have brains up there. So, all human beings are mental in that sense. And as we can see clearly, there is a method (of classification) even in madness.

The only physical illness that comes even close to the affect disorders is cancer. Just like cancer, these disorders are easier to treat and remission is more achievable if the disorder receives attention and treatment early on. The more one drags one's feet about seeing a professional and taking the prescribed treatment, the longer the treatment takes, and the lesser chances of the disorder going into remission. Then there is always a chance of relapse, like metastasis. Treatment involves chemotherapy, psychotherapy and talk therapy plus lifestyle changes. Changes in diet, exercise schedule and meditation. One very strange thing with mental illnesses is that patients, and society in general, are very resistant to the idea of medication. I haven't seen anyone dissuading a cancer patient from taking chemotherapy, despite the havoc it wrecks on the healthy cells as well. Yet when it comes to mental illness people react to chemotherapy as if a healthy person were being poisoned. Or worse still, that a mentally ill person is so weak that he or she is not able to fight the disease on his/her own and has to depend on medicines. Why this segregation? Why the discrimination with the mentally ill? Nobody insinuates that a diabetic is not able to fight insulin impairment on their own because they are weak. Neither are insulin shots or metformin tablets frowned upon. Why the double standards?

The basic premise behind this discrimination is again the presumption "It's All in the Head", addressed in my last post. This is the result of total ignorance and callousness of society towards mental health issues and mentally ill patients. It's a case of us and them. And people are so proud of and blissful in their ignorance!!

Most mentally ill people are not dangerous. A very small percentage of them become violent and pose a threat to society. But mostly, if they are violent, the biggest risk they pose is to themselves. Suicide is the ultimate form of danger to the person. But other self inflicted injuries are not very uncommon, and some of these injuries may be suicide attempts. Well, what prompts a person to take his or her own life? Pain. The pain of living a life without any joy, any hope, any motivation, any meaning. Just breathing, eating and eliminating are not enough for a human being. Everyone is born with a brain. And when that brain goes out of control, and despite desperate efforts if the brain refuses to yield back its control to its owner, or refuses to work as efficiently as it once used to, the human being sans that brain feels so helpless that living day to day and trying to appear normal becomes worse than hell. The pain is so much that if is not constantly addressed by medication, family support and psychiatric help, freedom from pain is enough to motivate a person to take their own lives and move beyond the pain. The pain is as bad as the pain of cancer. Alas it is invisible! And the world thinks it is all in the "Head".

Another fact that needs reiteration is the disproportionately small number of mental health care professionals available, when compared to the population size. Doctors do not prefer to specialize in Psychiatry. It is not as glamorous or lucrative as surgery or cardiac intervention or some such other uber ultra super specialization. The medical community itself shows little respect towards their psychiatrist colleagues. A neuro person is a neuro but a psychiatrist is a shrink. Psychiatric inpatients are difficult to handle and hence, even nursing staff prefer to keep away. The ultimate exhibition of callousness on the part of nursing staff is the ill-treatment they mete out to the psychiatry ward patients. Laughing at their crying or other eccentric behaviour, using physical violence against even non-violent patients, and in some extreme despicable cases, sexual abuse of  and /or sexual assault on patients, specially female patients. There is an even greater shortage of trained counselors and psychotherapists. Even the available personnel are first lured away by corporate setups and schools, where working conditions are more convivial, salaries are attractive and there is less morbidity to deal with. Hence the pool of trained professionals to actual work clinics and hospitals is minuscule. So who deputizes or temps? Of course untrained casuals, who end up doing more harm than good.

The mentally ill also need a lot of care at home. They need acceptance and compassion from family. They need their family members to become caregivers. But due to different circumstances in different households, often that does not happen. The biggest obstacle in care-giving at home is acceptance. Family members are reluctant to accept the diagnosis, and the implied prognosis. They may see the signs and symptoms, but may defer seeking professional help. It is a matter of great "shame" that they have a mentally ill family member. And then comes the ubiquitous theory of  "It's All in the Head"! The patient is not mentally ill. He or she is just mentally "weak" and if the mentally "stronger" family members scold, threaten or cajole the person into becoming "bolder and stronger", that's all. That's all that's required. No medical or professional help. One of the worst forms of this non-acceptance on the part of family members is the beating or use of physical violence against the patient. The father, mother, brother, uncle or whoever, believes that a good beating or locking up of a patient will cure them pronto of any affectations. Such incidents make one wonder who is actually the mentally sick person here? Another really cruel practice is discussing the patient with others in derogatory terms in front of the patient, as if the patient were just a piece of furniture or prop kept there. And in India, every one is an expert on anything and everything. So what different is psychology or psychiatry? Everyone becomes a pop psychologist and starts counselling the patient. This further pushes back the patient from whatever gains he or she may have made from treatment. Mentally ill family members are often seen only as a burden to be cursed day in and day out. They are hindrances in the enjoyment of life by other family members. Parents, brothers sisters, friends, how can you do this? What if it was you?

Mentally illness takes a different turn altogether when society starts viewing a mental disorder as a supernatural phenomenon. Schizophrenia is often deemed to be possession by the demons. Exorcism and other equivalent rituals are performed on the mentally ill to drive away the evil spirits. The patient is thus deprived of the requisite medical help. The patient's condition often worsens. Sometimes such rituals are dangerous and may even claim lives of the mentally ill.

The socio-economic status of the patient’s family plays a big role in the fate of the patient. Families belonging to higher SECs (Socio Economic Class) can afford the treatment and care. They are also more aware of mental health issues and have the basic education to understand the complexities involved. However, the lower the SEC the patient’s family belongs to, the more difficult it is for the patient to get the treatment and care. Many families, unable to manage their daily living, cannot afford to take care of an economically unproductive member. The amount of effort, money and resources involved in caring for the mentally ill, makes it an impossible task. One member of the family keeping watch over the mentally ill one, translates into two economically unproductive members of a family, which needs each member to earn something daily, just to survive. So the mentally ill are turned on to the streets to fend for themselves. Some beg, some simply languish. Some also bear the brunt of brutality at the hands of a society which just needs an outlet for its frustrations. Or just an object for crude enjoyment - enjoyment that they feel the more affluent society denies them. So the poor, homeless, witless, and pathetic mentally ill are sometimes shooed away, laughed at, stoned, kicked and often beaten by passers-by. 

Treatment of mental disorders is expensive too as it is a long drawn out process. It may take years to cure or at least bring to remission any episode of Major Depressive Disorder. Bipolar, Personality and Schizophrenic disorders are even more expensive to treat. Care giving at home is also proportionately expensive. In most cases, patients are not able to care for themselves. It may extend to others in the family too. A depressed mother may neither be able to care for herself nor for her children. They all need to be taken care of. Consultation, chemotherapy, psychotherapy and followups are all expensive affairs. Plus, there is loss of productivity, especially economic productivity, on part of the mentally ill persons. Yet mental disorders are still not identified as disabilities under the Indian statute. There are some guidelines of the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, dated 2002, which purport to bring certain kinds of mental illnesses as per IDEAS (Indian Disability Evaluation Assessment Scale) under the ambit of disability. However the last piece of legislation in context of mental illness is the Mental Health Act 1987. There are many individuals and bodies working even now to get the draft Mental Health Act, 2013 approved. Getting medical insurance for mental illness is another herculean, if not impossible, task.

And there was the Indian Lunacy Act, 1912, which though repealed and replaced by the 1987 Act, continues to exist in spirit, if not in letter. According to this Act, the mentally ill or "lunatics" were to be segregated and kept in confinement in order to protect society from their "dangerous" presence. There are many institutions for the mentally ill, still called Lunatic Asylums, where the mentally ill are kept in chains. The infamous incident at Erwadi (TN) where 28 inmates were burned to death as they could not escape the fire, due to being chained to their beds, is a very painful reminder of this practice. There have been fires at mental hospitals in Russia and New Zealand too, where mostly women and children perished in the fire. Due to lack of enough hospital personnel, the practices of chaining patients is adopted for violent patients. But being chained for being ill? As if being mentally ill was a grievous crime?

It is said that prevention is better than cure. One may see a number of health camps dealing with the heart, diabetes, cancer obesity, dentistry, wellness and what-not. I am yet to see a camp for promotion of mental health at any hospital in any metro, what to say of smaller cities. We are a society obsessed with academic achievement. Hence, everyone talks about IQ; no one about EQ (Emotional Quotient). Resources are scarce and the population is ever increasing. Hence, physical fitness, academic excellence, sporting and extra-curricular achievements, receive the attention of schools and parents. But no one prepares a child for dealing with LIFE. Mindfulness practices are never taught. Meditation, moderation, dealing with failure as well as success; these topics do not find space on any school curriculum. Parents are quick to enforce discipline and comb through every assignment, yet never spend time teaching life skills to the child. "It's OK. We love you, no matter what." That's all that is required to make a child blossom into a well-balanced and secure individual.

Even in offices, health camps never focus on mental health. At the most, there may be some discussion on stress busting or reducing work stress. That is not enough. It is like telling people to eat a well-balanced meal at any other health camp. Nothing specific; only general wisdom. No education is given whatsoever on what are the signs and symptoms of mental illness. A person maybe mentally ill but may not know it. He or she may simply not be aware of what his or her changed mental state - thoughts and beliefs - imply. So instead of shying away from mental illness, or only glancing at it obliquely in health camps, there need to be camps focused solely on mental health, if prevention is to be a serious alternative to treatment of mental illnesses.

In conclusion, it would be enough to say Unchain. Unchain society from the chains of rusted beliefs. Unchain the mentally ill from bearing the cross of the stigma they are chained to, and forced to carry with them. Unchain the mentally ill from the metal labels of "Weakness" welded on their foreheads. Unchain the collective family consciousness from the locks of "burden" in the form of mentally ill family members that they feel they are chained to. Unchain knotted beliefs and attitudes. Unchain minds. Unchain spirits. Unchain the mentally ill. Unchain the maladies from which our mental health system suffers.


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

It's ALL in the HEAD

Whenever confronted with a person with a mental disorder, the general reaction is : It's all in his/her head.

True. It is in the head because an organ vital for a human being's existence, The Brain, resides inside one's head. The more subtle and unseen Mind too resides in the head. Hence, "mental" disorder. Hence, it's in the head.

But is it All in the head? No, absolutely not. There are various factors contributing to a mental disorder. Broadly split, they can be bundled as Nature factors and Nurture factors. Nature factors are those which are inherent to the individual, and not dependent on the environment. Like genetics, heredity, severe trauma to the brain by means of injury. However, Nature factors, mostly, only predispose an individual to be a likely candidate for a mental disorder. They cannot cause or create a mental disorder, even a chemical imbalance induced one.

This brings us to the more important of the two factors: Nurture. Nurture is a very wide term used to club together factors dependent on the individual's environment. Upbringing, early childhood experiences, treatment by elders and peers, environmental stressors, traumatic experiences, sexual abuse, physical and/or mental abuse, frustration in reaching one's life goals; the list can go on interminably.

Whether a person will develop a mental disorder depends on the interplay of Nature factors and Nurture factors. Again, broadly speaking, if both Nature and Nurture factors are pathogenic, a person may develop a mental disorder. The changes in a person's mental outlook and behaviour are initially classified as a "Disorder" only. Even DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association) classification uses the term "Disorder". However, if the disorder does not correct itself soon enough, either by itself or after intervention by Psychiatric professionals, then long term treatment options make it an illness. Whatever the terminology, even a mental disorder is as serious an illness as any other physical illness. It is as debilitating, as disabling. The only difference is that there are no fevers, no rashes, no broken bones, no surgery. Hence, it is invisible for the most part to people, other than those whose mind and self-esteem the disorder erodes everyday.

We, as society, are all part of the environment (hence, Nurture factors) of each and every other human being on this planet. The physical and mental energies do interact on some level, which will most likely be unknown to us. Decisions taken in a corner of the world may have repercussions on a far removed spot on the earth. We all are individually and collectively responsible for the Nurture factors involved in mental illness, even though the persons suffering may be total strangers to us. For example, the prejudice that Indian society holds against the birth of a girl, may be a major contributing factor in the development of pathological symptoms in a girl child and her parents. So, those who smirk at persons with mental illnesses, please wipe that ugly smile off your face. You are as much of a contributor towards the genesis of the illness by creating an environment in which the illness grows. You also contribute to the severity of the illness by being the architect of an artificial "shame" around mental illness, which deters people from approaching health professionals for help at an early stage, when the disorder is more amenable to cure.

We are not all medical professionals. It may be difficult for us to understand a mental illness without suffering from one ourselves or by watching a dear one suffer. A person with mental illness may keep smiling through the tears. But that does not give you, me or anyone the right to say that it is ALL in the head. It is not. It is as real as cancer. It eats away the mind just as cancer eats away the body. Of course, there is no life without a body. But ask anyone suffering from a severe mental illness: what is life without a mind?

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Rubber Ball is not a Person

There is a very attractive turquoise blue swimming pool. It engulfs all ones' senses and brings about the most beautiful, the most serene feeling. People sit by its sides and relax. People dip in for a swim. Some for fun. Some for sport. Some for competing to win. Some just for learning a survival skill. They are people. They are lucky.

There is a rubber ball. That is my head. Inside it is my mind, occupying it like the life air of the ball. Life sits by the sides and tries to push the ball in. Again and again. I feel squeezed. I feel tremendous pressure. Pressure between the hand pushing my head deep down into the water and the water pushing it back up due to buoyant forces. The game between Life and Water goes on. Sometimes, the pressure is so much that I feel my head ball will burst and water will rush in, forcing the life air out. The rubber, deflated, will either sink to the bottom of the pool. Or will float lifelessly, uselessly on the turquoise blue surface.

Yet, till now, every time Life's hand has pushed my head down, I have fought to resurface. Bobbed back. Refused to cave in to the pressure between the opposing forces, Life and Water. I do not trust water to throw me back up always. For water is uncertain. It flows whichever way the it is made to. It occupies whatever space or shape it is made to. We drink it for life. Yet, it so often, takes away life. Floods. Viruses and bacteria nurtured by it. Its deadly friendship with electricity.

The people who sit around, they don't know that the ball contains a human mind. They either sit back and enjoy the bobbing game, or sometimes join in. They throw the ball around and laugh. It is a game. A sport. If they start drowning all hell breaks loose. They are people. They can be seen drowning. But not a ball. Not a ball's struggles to stay afloat. After all, a ball is a ball. It is made for sport. It should know how to float by itself. It is not person. A drowning person needs help. Not a rubber ball.

So, I depend on nobody. A ball cannot control water. And what you cannot master, you cannot trust. I know I have to fight back myself. For myself. I have to resurface. I have to bob up even though I know bobbing always involves up-and-down. Down, but then there is also an up.

This is how the world treats people with mental illnesses. They first want to know how can someone develop a mental illness. Like how can a ball drown?  Only people with physical illnesses are real sufferers. They are drowning and need to be saved. A rubber ball is a rubber ball is a rubber ball. It is just full of air and hence, needs no saving. It can save itself if it wants to by just floating back up.

Yes. With most mental health patients, this is what happens. They cannot depend on anyone to save them. They depend only on themselves for survival. They fight Life's crushing hand and the pressures of an uncertain watery environment. They fight back and forth. Sometimes the head really feels like it is going to burst. But then bursting is not an option. The only option is self-preservation. To fight back. Bob back up. Even though one knows that nature's forces will drag it down again. Make it bob down. But, then one also knows that one has to withstand the drag and bob back up. Right back up.

Friday, 19 September 2014

A Treasure Chest of Memories

Dear Friends,

It is said that there is only one ultimate truth in the world : Death.

Well, there are, then, a number of penultimate truths too. Like illness. Hardly anyone goes through life without falling ill. It is like, whoever has a body will fall ill. Mathematically, body implies illness, at time t=unknown.

Yet, we as a society, have a very queer attitude to illness. Employers think the employee is faking it to steal a few days of leave. Parents think children are faking it to escape school. Teachers think the same too. Doctors want to ensure that their patients are not faking it. Primary care-givers at home are praying that their loved ones are faking it because they want to be spared the anxiety and the work that comes with caring for the ill. Only God knows that his creations are not faking it.

That was on the lighter side. On a more serious note, most people react to illness, especially serious illness, with shock. Arrey, aapko heart atttack kaise aa gaya? Kal tak toh aap bilkul theek-thaak they! (How did you get a heart attack? You were absolutely fine till yesterday!). Or, maybe, how did you get cancer? We met only last month and you were fine. Or, how did you get depression? You have always been a very cheerful person. It is a little like asking a corpse, how did you die? You were so full of life yesterday!!

Yes, the shock is a natural human reaction. Illness and death are difficult and morbid concepts to wrap our heads around. We often hear people say, Mujhe toh marne ki bhi fursat nahin hai (I don't even have the leisure to die). We are so busy fighting for things like getting to a meeting on time that if Yamraaj himself were to come and stand before us, we would probably say, "Come back later. I have to reach office on time else my Boss will kill me". Any knowledge like that of someone's illness is like a rude shock, which brings us back to the reality about life. Its frailty and uncertainty.

So, just imagine the plight of the ill. Having to wake up everyday with their illness. Having to spend the whole day with their illness. Having to go to bed every night with their illness. Not for them cares about the next office meeting. Not for them the care about their next promotion or their child's top position in class. Not for them the woes of the whole world sitting upon their solitary pair of shoulders. Getting by morning to night and night to morning itself is a struggle.

What matters to them is every act of care or kindness that someone shows towards them. A few words on the phone. A few minutes spent laughing, looking into their eyes. A small treat, a light touch, a loving caress, a tight hug. Who knows. Everyone has their own ways of collecting such a treasure box of memories, which they open and look at when they are lying alone in bed. Maybe flowers brought them by a friend. Maybe a sibling's night spent fussing over them. Maybe a relative's hand cooked food, fed with love. Maybe a co-worker's two hours spent with them over coffee and donuts. Maybe a parent's love shared over tea and cookies. Maybe a neighbour's evening spent watching a movie together. Maybe a Boss's surprise visit with the implicit promise of help. Maybe a child's clumsily drawn card. Moments wrapped in the tissue of acceptance, kept in the chest of feel-good emotions. They give the ill the strength to get by the challenging days, the motivation to get well, and the belief that the world is a good place; a place worth hanging onto with dear life.

They don't need anyone's shock reaction. They don't need the crocodile tears. They don't need forwarded jokes and talent-show videos. They need a touch, a humane touch, a human touch. So, when you are preparing for that next big promotion or meeting tomorrow, remember tomorrow may never come. The ill are still fortunate. They know pain. They know that their time may be limited. Life has given them that chance. Not everyone is so fortunate. All it takes is just one second of inattention at the wheels by someone, or a second's delay in reaching the hospital. It may be time for someone else to ask your corpse, "What happened? You were so full of life a second back!!"

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Kick Kick Mein

I have never had the himmat (courage) to see either of the "Himmatwalla"s. The original or the remake. Wild horses couldn't drag me to the theatre to see the remake. Of course, the decision on the original was made by my parents, as I was a tiny little girl then, and of course they, like others born in their decade, had quite a taste for class, not crass.

So, while the first one had weird songs, things got weirder with part two. BPL or "Bum Pe Laat". A kick in the a....., which for the sake of those below 18 reading this post, we shall simply call "the rear". See, still that sounds cheesy 'cause it sounds very much like......errr......the real thing! Now that's a real class of a song! Even third class is, after all, a class!! Lyrics, music, choreography, the whole works. Even Tamanna Bhatia's "the rear", which was intended to have been the prize bull's eye for the "Laat" (kick).

Haah. So you thought this post was about "Himmatwalla"?! No. After beating around several bushes, which may or may not have been as shapely as Tamanna's you-know-what, we come to the heart of this post which is about a movie called Kick. Kick? As in kick-in-the-.....err....."the rear"? Or the ones Messi and his team-mates sure got by the foot-fuls after they fooled with their foots? Sorry, feet. Or the ones that Laloo got when he tried to mess with the feet, sorry feed, of some very angry bovines?

No. Kick is not about that kind of, well, kick. Kick is about kick. Kick, as in what Salman bhai gets from driving dangerously on Mumbai roads and chasing endangered animals with loaded guns. Kick out of life. Kick out of doing really weird stuff, which were understood and appreciated only by his weirder parents (Mithun Chakravarty and Archana Puran Singh). And, of all, people, a psychiatrist (Jaqueline Fernandez, post some kind of cosmetic procedure) falls in love with him. Like a biologist would with a guinea pig. Or probably a physicist with a quark. Quite quarky, no, quirky, isn't it? Throw in a lean and mean kick-a** cop (Randeep Hooda), who has foreign cops and diplomats getting their orders from him. And Ek Villain called Shiv Gajra (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who gets his kicks from making people kick-the-bucket even before their time for kicking the bucket has come. And also from making a kick, no, tick, no, "tock"-like sound from his mouth, after he's gotten his "kick".

That's all folks. That's all that's there in the movie. Else, the movie is like a kick, and a real and hard one at that, to one's frontal lobe, temporal lobe, parietal lobe, occipital lobe, cortex, even the well-embedded hard-to-get at hypothalamus, and may be even some still undiscovered parts of the human brain. A kick to one's senses and sensibilities. A kick to bucks too, though not the black variety, but the paper ones which reside within the interiors of our wallets. Even a raunchy item number, by a gyrating Nargis Fakhri, failed to give the audience their paisa-wasool (money's worth) kick. The seats in the theatre were probably itching to give our rears a kick, as I found it extremely difficult to sit for the entire length of the movie. Especially after my writer's brain got a penalty kick, when the climax turned out to be, well, not the climax. Chetan Bhagat?

After so many kicks, the audience is left black, blue and bruised. That is not being very human, Salman bhai.
When the credits rolled by, the psychiatrist heroine was also gyrating. If only the director and script-writers had made her talk to the traumatized audience, suffering from PTSD, to explain the kick they got in making Kick and getting us kicked! Probably some counselling would have done the kick, sorry, trick and soothed "the rear" after so many BPLs.

In retrospect, may be my parents weren't very pragmatic in their child "rear"-ing. Had they taken me for "Himmatwalla" in my childhood, I would have withstood the BPLs of Kick, with less trauma in my adulthood. I wonder if I, too, made the same mistake by not taking my kids to Kick. Probably they would have been better prepared for watching a 30-years-later remake of Kick, without getting their rears kicked.