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Why Suicide? – Beyond Mental Health Awareness

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Drawn on a day of intense panic and anxiety circa 2017.

I have been reading so many tributes to Bourdain and Spade, in light of their recent deaths by suicide.

Suddenly, my timeline is filled with posts and thoughts on mental health awareness. There are people constantly sending out love, advice to anyone who would care to read, to anyone in a dark place. In time of news like the tragedy of an influential figure ending her life, the virtual world seems to come together as a community.  It is indeed pitiful that it takes tragedy for us to display emotions and advocate thoughts, that seemingly are more natural to the word ‘human’.  

I believe each one of us has a dark space in our hearts. Its almost like the black hole in the universe–only, the size and the force with which this black hole on the inside can suck out our soul differs for different people. 

One thing that all this highlights to me is the fact that despite reading so much and learning so much about mental health, even those privileged enough to have access to all this continue to be, if not apathetic, ignorant (and indifferent) to people around us. There seems to be a continuing gap between the abundance of information on mental health and the day-to-day application of it. People with the privilege of access to information continue to struggle with depression, and the shame and stigma attached with it; leave aside those without the privilege to access information or even take online counselling.

We may care, of course, for most people around us. But, only till a point that it is comforting, only till a point that it gives us the satisfaction that we have helped someone. If we don’t get the instant gratification of pulling someone out of sadness or gloom, we give up, pulling the plug of our empathy.

It isn’t that we tend to be tardy and heartless. But, I believe that this gap probably stems from the inability to apply textbook (or internet) knowledge to understand, in case of suffering friends and family, when does general sadness become depression? Have we been able to identify it easily, more so, accept it? Probably not. Because depression continues to be seen as the typical black and white image of someone sitting with their face in their hands in a dark space, in deep anguish; forgetting or perhaps, denying the existence of high-functioning depression.

Depression can be present in someone who seems to be living it up. One can be fulfilling all their worldly ‘tasks’–doing their jobs, eating, going out, laughing with friends–while being painfully depressed. Oft repeated but, depression is not a matter of terrible and terrifying shame, to force one to deny being depressed. Nor is it the likes of a casual headache, for anyone to call themselves depressed for momentary sadness or displeasure.

Many loved ones of people who end their lives by suicide continue to grab at their memories saying that things seemed okay, she seemed okay, if there was any darkness, it was sudden or she didn’t share.

Point is, suicidal tendency stems from an innate sense of fatigue and tiredness rooted in  hopelessness. This hopelessness is usually in one’s ability to ever get out of the cycle of darkness that one’s mind can spin.

Suicidal tendency in someone will not carry a tag, informing others of the state. The only way to prevent it is to teach oneself to be alert on a daily basis, to be aware of those around us everyday. 

If someone has been struggling mentally for a long time, you can help them by giving yourself to them on an emotional level, letting them know that you are there. They probably have been tired of fighting but, your pinning value in their struggle and your belief in their victory over their hopelessness, will give them courage and reason to persevere, to not give up. Give them that and you won’t be wondering what went wrong.

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Selling Dreams of Elitism

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I saw a real estate poster today, a big glossy ad of a new residential project somewhere in this beautiful landscape called Goa. Now I was not quick enough to capture it on my phone but, my mind saved a good image of it.

The model on the ad seemed to be of African descent. Now I am all about inclusivity and brands being especially keen to promote anti-racism (if that is a term), but funnily the tagline made me burst out laughing at the stupidity of advertisements. The tagline read,

“Goan inside, but Modern Outside.”

Does it make sense? Not to me.

One can’t help wondering and subsequently, questioning the attachment to the word ‘modern’. What does that even mean anymore? Then, if modern is a great appeal or reassurance then, is being Goan something lesser than modern? Why is there even a comparison?

I have been mulling over this simply because it is an inherent tendency often noticed among many, including a former version of the self. One sees yellow, dim lights in halls; glass and steel and a little bit of wood in balconies; and it becomes clear that those are the signs of modernity aka elitism. If you have that kind of a home, you’ve arrived. At least, this the kind of emotion that realtors seem to appeal to in their potential buyers. And then, in a society that values being attached to one’s roots intensely, it becomes important for the marketing team of the ad agency to bring in the sentiment of “I might look videsi but, will remain desi at heart.”

Sigh.

Maybe that’s why there will still be a lot of people who will go and check out those spaces that are “Goan inside but, modern outside.” ’cause har ghar kuch kehta hai. 

Pardon my love for quoting ads.

But, note that my ‘offensive’ against this ludicrous ad holds true, at least in the choice of Photoshop model.

(En)Trusting the Future to Youth

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It has been a few months since I have been teaching, mentoring and working with children and adolescents. The journey has been challenging as well as rewarding, leaving me with a fresh perspective with every interaction.

For the past two days however, I have been thinking intently about how can more children and teens be reached out. The reason that I feel this compulsion? Well, that’s not just mere knowledge that the children and teens of today will be the adults of tomorrow (duh!). No, my reasons are based on my observations.

I have seen 15-18 years old people suffering through death, bullying, peer pressure and so on; without, any support. Note that in saying that there was no support, I do not intend to imply that parents don’t support or maybe they are to be blamed in any way. What happens however, is that parents, after a certain time of spending their energies to keep things running smoothly in the daily, tend to look at things in a certain manner and fail to approach children to ensure an absolute support. It doesn’t necessarily speak of incompetency but, more of the human tendency to err.

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Trail by Shivranjana Rathore (C)

A few observations that compelled me to think and study this include an adorable 8 year old becoming conscious of his eating habits because he’s been told by his friends that he is fat (unsure if he was made fun of or gently told); a seemingly stubborn and confident 17 year old arguing with her mother on shopping as the price for her to accompany her parents eventually saying that if her mother didn’t agree, she always had her father to ask for money, and then finding something to read to find a way into self confidence; the mother of a 13 year old fearful of her daughter’s reactions since a death in the family since she didn’t think she was capable of reaching out to her; a group of 17-18 year olds with nice clothes (in line with Instagram fashion), pocket money to buy whatever they could get their hands on (sangrias mostly) gathering together to record a video message for a friend in a public space ending up dropping an empty plastic glass and not bothering to pick it up; an 8 year old bumping into snack packets in the aisle of a grocery store ending up dropping the packets, turning to look at them and proceeding towards the next aisle, with no care for the dropped packets; a set of four 20-something boys on two bikes feeling the need to honk on a road full of traffic and then continuing to do that even when they had no vehicle blocking their path and lastly, the sight of 15-16 year olds with expressions of glorious victory while walking out a liquor shop with cans of Budweiser.

Each one of these observations created a good impact on my mind because none of these people are ones with whom I have had any direct interaction nor will I have one anytime soon. But, the prospect of their lives going on this way, with no mentoring or support, left me despairing over the future. That’s when I came across a short film called Rites of Passage that not only gave me possible solutions but, left me with a lot of hope because finally, my questions seemed to not be one of those that were left hanging in the space. It gives me a way, to find my own around this. Hence, I write this blog post as a part of action that I can take in this direction. If you are someone who deals with people in the age groups that I mention and/or if you maybe know one in your life, this will be of great help for you.

I will not get into details of what the film is about but, one core point it leaves one with is the need to nurture the future of the world being the adults’ responsibility through

  1. Respecting children and teenagers as they grow older in the form of respecting the individual who is growing up and who will add something unique to this world
  2. Celebrating and having markers / ceremonies around significant dates that mark the adulthood of teenagers – things like turning 16 (in Indian culture), turning 18, getting voting rights / driving license – anything and everything that makes them a part of the adult world
  3. And last and most important using action in their own lives as models to inspire responsibility among young adults as opposed to preaching or coercion or the ideas of “that’s how you are supposed to be”

The film’s site offers a toolkit that can be used as well. Go ahead and do it and share with me as well!

PS: This is something else that I found helpful in the same line of thought. The thoughts of a man from Chile practicing a Buddhist philosophy.

Note: Have published this to reach a wider audience on Youth Ki Awaaz as well.

Thoughts on One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

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I had never thought that there’d be a day when I would blog about a book I have read. For an overthinker like yours truly, I surely never articulated the power of literature to change things. Well, unless I decided to seriously pursue writing. I think that’s maybe because I asked myself why I wanted to write besides the momentary joy of it.

As a reader I believe that books come to you when you are ready for them. The seemingly inanimate pages displaying strings of characters and words collectively carry something palpable, something so intimate that the reader lives the words. Isn’t that the singularly most awe inspiring and powerful thing about the written word? Starting with simpler books for young adults, I read a varied set of books, each of which leave me with something new. Of course, there have been occasional instances of a few books that don’t sit well or put me to sleep within a few pages. Those, I leave.

Until 2017, I had never been the one to actively aspire to read a certain number of books through the year. In 2017, I decided to keep track of my reading, if not have targets. I am reading 3 wonderful books while the ones that I have read lie happily with slightly worn off pages in my bookshelf. Of these, the one that compelled me to write this is Perumal Murugan’s ‘One Part Woman’.

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I stumbled upon this book through an artist who recommended the read. Her work and her style continues to inspire me and I decided to give this book a shot since the basic plot type has seldom seemed inviting to me. When reading up about the writer after reading it, I realised that Murugan was in fact, the writer who somewhere stirred the desire of writing professionally, in me. I was pursuing my Masters when I had read extensively about him as a writer who was harassed for his work. I remembered being in awe of the offense taken at a work of fiction by a mass of people and the subsequent responses of the writer to not write anymore. I had decided that I want to be such a writer, who would however, continue dissent.

When I started reading the book, I fell in love with the imagery created by Murugan – the portia tree, the farm, the forest and the mountains, Kali’s drowsy body staring at the canopy, Ponna’s beauty – all of it made me feel like I was a voyeur in the most tender and intimate lives of the two. So, Ponna’s pain and anger made me sad and want to reason with her that being childless is no sin, Kali’s listless personality and eventual mistrust of Ponna made me weep wanting to reach out and tell him the truth.

Once the emotions faded, the crucial importance of this book is what stayed with me making me want to write this. Through the narration of the life, love and loss of Ponna and Kali, Murugan very intelligently displays everything that feminism speaks against, everything that is wrong with the patriarchal world view. For Indian feminists, I think the book serves as the go to book to identify and work through typically Indian realities in a discourse dominated by non-Indian writing.

That patriarchal mindsets are poisonous for every individual, became the truth for me through an independent research project that had cleared the picture. ‘One Part Woman’ further makes the damages of patriarchy so simple, bringing it in rural Indian context sharing thereby, how the rigidity of these ideas and rituals destroys human happiness of a daily basis.

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Kali and Ponna, the two protagonists in the story, through the eventual destruction of their love, display the seemingly micro yet key impact of patriarchal beliefs. Ponna is unable to bear a child which is a cause of much shame and sorrow. To an urban mind, this would of course feel exaggerated. One would want to say to the woman and her kin in such a case, that they need to just shake off the worry and adopt of maybe just understand that giving birth to a child is not the be all and end all of a woman’s existence. However, the writer is able to share just how painfully real these beliefs are and how what is required is a larger, cultural thought revolution. I have, through various tools, shared the hypocrisy of Indian society when it comes to honour engendered in the female body. On one side here, adoption does not seem like a possibility (which is the case even for urban Indians), the other side has the family contemplating getting Ponna impregnated (after all pleas and fasts to god fail) by taking her to a religious festival where for a day “gods” descend from the hills to bless women with children. Note, these gods are men, penis-bearing male bodies, intoxicated and let lose for a day to sleep with any woman that comes their way. Also note, that on this day, any woman is allowed to sleep with the man who becomes god for a night.

The two are tricked by her parents and brother wherein Kali isn’t told about Ponna’s going to the festival while Ponna is told that Kali approves. What then happens is where the intelligent storytelling comes in. True to expectation, while Kali, who had become aggressive as a husband often raping his wife every other night in a state of drunkenness and anger at her even asking him if they should consider the festival as the way to have their child, is heartbroken eventually and directs all his anger towards his wife; Ponna, on the other hand, is childlike and enjoying the new sense of adventure that her life seemed to have brought in through this desire to seek a god to help her. It is in this sequence when the narrative tone changes from Ponna’s true identity, her likes, dislike, sorrows, disappointments, all brought to the fore while Kali’s constant benevolence at being okay without a child yet still craving fatherhood, sling away into the shadows of his sorrow.

What had seemed like the most passionate love for Ponna with vivid descriptions of Kali’s sight, his expression of love for her by nuzzling his face between her breasts; turns out to be yet another story where the woman’s voice was stifled. Ponna had been in love with someone else but, it was custom for her to not fight for it and give in to the family’s decision to marry Kali. Ponna was Kali’s first love but, not the first one to be made love with.

One Part Woman therefore, becomes an essential read for Indian readers to share the key reason for feminism – the culture of silence breeding a continuous quiet among its women. As far as one can think, whether physically same or not, a woman is a human being first. Why silence her voice then?

Going Mental(ist) – Errors in Storytelling Today

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One of my guilty pleasures is watching sitcoms on binge. The latest show that I watched on binge and even used Google to end my misery at times was The Mentalist (yes, yes, I am quite late to jump on the bandwagon but, better late than never right?)

While there are many tangents that I can go to in terms of what I loved as well as hated about the show, I will pick up on one broad trend that is a reality for media in most places. Sitcoms even in the Indian industry (can speak for Hindi shows alone since I haven’t watched any other Indian shows in other Indian languages), are the ordinary citizen’s access to a world far away from her daily reality. From TV sets in common rooms to Netflix and the likes on one’s bed, media as entertainment has access to the most private corners of one’s existence. Of course there is the business side to it as well that deems producing things that aren’t just liked but, also accepted by the viewers. It is crazy how the virtual production of the Game of Thrones made ‘winter is coming’ as a mark of cool and awe-inspiring minds.

What I have thought about time and again however, is the need to balance economic orientation behind soaps with creating things that add a new value to the viewers’ minds, makes them question and think. Media and storytelling has that immense power.

With such an orientation however, when one watches an acclaimed show and sees it fall flat on its face, it feels sad. Web series are definitely changing the way things go but, the downside of the trend yet again is the surge of multiple channels owned by a few big business houses that own the TV channels spreading mediocrity.

Why I am ranting about media here is to note one point that has come to mind time and again whether watching an Indian web series or reading a comic or watching The Mentalist. My basic issue is with all of it, especially the series in question, is the reaffirmation of stereotypes that deepen a sense of bias against people. This is a very subtle form of bias that exists in the modern world. One has opinions based on one’s race, class, sex and appearance…the least that storytelling can do, is to break through those typical narratives forcing the viewer to look beyond hearsay. Another classic fallacy in Western storytelling is building everything around one male protagonist (usually white) who is wronged by another man and with the help of a secondary female character who nurses his hurt ego and teaches him vulnerability after he disses her all through the plot, he gets justice and stands taller with his arm around the woman’s waist looking straight ahead. Remember Harvey Specter and Christian Grey? The typical protagonists?

While the entire plot line and appearance of the show is clean, minus heavy words displaying hyper-masculinity and full of humour and love. The characters are all shown to possess their own pasts and like all of us are products of their environments who have evolved a lot with time. All of this is what makes this show very likeable. However, as the series progresses, slowly all the mature writing falls through the cracks. Lisbon then becomes the female cop who was no nonsense and super professional not because she is good at her work and prefers to keep things that way. Rather, she was so because her dark past made her display a tough exterior to protect herself until love comes knocking. The same love that makes her throw away everything that she defined herself by and reduce her existence to anonymity. Jane is a funny, con man turned righteous hero who spends all his energies trying to salvage the murders of his family caused due to his irresponsibility. From the hurt and grief stricken man looking to avenge his loss, he slowly becomes the egoistic narcissist ought to display a sense of superiority especially against the woman he loves, without any care when the same woman loses everything in order to help him. Their story is the typical story, only with a little addition of Lisbon’s past. On the side are 3 more characters – Rigsby (tall, athletic, dumb white male aka jock in the dictionary of stereotypes), Cho (short, pokerface Asian guy with the focus of a horse with blinders because you know, he’s Korean with a gang past) and Van Pelt (red head with the perfect body that is objectified immensely, also a farm girl with the belief in horses, unicorns (not really) and rainbows, she is shown all business unless of course, love grabs her heart).

I would end with just one thought – while adding a background story to the lives of the characters does add a more humane touch giving life to these stereotypes, it still reaffirms every bit of it keeping narratives stale and predictable. Stories, while of course need to be a sort of business to sustain storytellers, are however, more powerful that dumbing down generations by affirmation of stereotypes. They can change the destiny of the world, if only, a little more courage is shown in telling them.

Healing, growing… Nostalgia.

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I haven’t really blogged with my thoughts on here in a long time. There is an anon blog for that and also, I am a little old school with my pen and paper for things that I need not share on the internet. Yes, even those who know me, don’t really want to believe that I might have a whole lot of private and personal stuff in my heart. I cannot blame them ’cause I always do have a lot of stories to share.

Anyway, I felt like rekindling this blog to a more personal one as opposed to regular thoughts on the difficult realities in the world that we have created. I started reading a book called Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra who is a Delhi based artist and explores the partition through personal stories and reminders in terms of objects that people carried as they fled across the newly created borders back then.

As I go through the endearing accounts and stories (yes this isn’t a book review!), my head swims in a different space altogether. From what I have known, I had been a sucker for nostalgia and continue to spin stories and memories as if they were right in front of my eyes. I don’t know if it happens with everyone but, when I remember certain magical parts of my life so far, my mind actually plays a very mellow sound and I feel the same warmth and happiness that was felt when I was younger and would soak in the warmth of the winter sun with a copy of Harry Potter, undisturbed for hours. That is the thing about nostalgia, you start once and it plays an entire film in front of your eyes.

When I started working, I realised that my obsession with nostalgia was maybe keeping me somewhere close to a part of the past that was safe and warm, trying to keep me sane in the reality of my present or the clouds of the future. I clung to the toasty warmth of my memory blanket as I walked on ahead into what seemed like a long, dark tunnel with the only light that was there, within. There came a point that I had to drop the blanket midway, squaring my shoulders to walk straight into the abyss, without a care of what would happen. I kept going with my mind protecting the warmth for contingency expecting darker demons to confront me as I walked on. Then, finally, I found myself on the other end.

This time around, however, I chose my stories carefully, making sure that none of them had father in them. I was afraid of being labelled as the girl without a father, the poor soul that was still in remembrance of him, even after all these years ’cause maybe she has never gotten better. Maybe, she was still there. I shut my father away from all my memories and continued to remember the sunny afternoons from a decade ago. Only, this time, the sun seemed a little cooler and the blanket, a little thinner. Discovering the artist in me taught me how to isolate my mind that remembers from all the naysayers that whispered in my head. And finally, after 8.5 years of his passing, my mind has healed itself and the sun is warmer again.

These thoughts were churned as I entered the give – away contest for Aanchal Malhotra’s book where I had to write about my favourite object. Among many tokens from the past, I immediately had my answer ready. Only the reason was that the act of writing about it told me. Here is what I wrote (and got the book! :D) –

It is quite difficult for me to pick one favourite object. I have many tokens of memory from many stories in the life that I have lived so far. There are bus tickets, shells and stones and even paper bags that tell stories from my past.

However, my favourite, that comes to mind right now, is a bundle of pages that together form the photocopy of a Thai cookbook. My father was a writer and reader and so am I and that, and a love for food and history was what was common between us. Well that, and curiosity about everything related to culture. From an afternoon  when I was 13 years old and browsing through cookbooks since I had started experimenting with food, I remember picking up a Thai cookbook that taught the basics of Thai cuisine – tricks and tips and tools needed for these. 

My frugal father’s response was a flat no. I remember being surprised at the no since no matter what, I was never denied a book. I have never bought anything much in life as opposed to books and for the first time, he said no. I didn’t protest because I believed that he saw reason in not buying it and internet had slowly come into our small town by then hence, he suggested we find these tricks on the web. I agreed and we moved on.

Within a week, as I headed towards my study table – my study and his table were in the same room – I find a black and white picture of the same Thai cookbook’s cover! It was a bundle of pages all tied together. I flipped through it and realised that he had found the book and taken a copy of it. I have changed 5 cities till now and it still is with me safe in a plastic folder with all my important documents. 

I had lost him 5 years later and this book lives with me as a reminder of the millions of stories that he has taught me through his actions. 

Till when can one be silent?

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I write this post as a prelude to another which I shall write soon. The type of post that the  sequel to this one is something that I have vehemently avoided for a while to avoid certain labels as a writer. However, certain things cannot be avoided and must not be silently witnessed.

I have started a Facebook page called Genderlise with a friend. The reason? No, we don’t aim to make it a forum for men bashing or any sort of hate propagation at all. From my frustrations with reality, I realised how privileged I am when it comes to fighting against any and every prejudice against my sex. I have met and observed many women and men who do not realise when prejudice and bias leaks into their random thoughts and actions.

Take for example a scene from a petrol pump. I had blogged about this one instance where I had bumped into a rather impatient man when refuelling my bike. The other day, I however, witnessed another sight. In the line of maybe 11-12 bikes queuing up to refuel, I saw one woman. Great sex ratio again! She was right in line after my bike until another impatient human barged in. I was assertive enough to not let him break the queue while she didn’t protest. Now, for a second, I did think that this is sexist, this guy is an asshole, in my head. Then, I brushed it away because I saw him try the tricks with another guy, who did not let him. What I observed however, was the anxiety of this other woman. She was preparing in advance by not switching off the engine,2 unlocking the seat, taking out her wallet and balancing herself on the edge to jump off ninja-like when the time comes. The thing that I realised was something along the lines of MLK’s quote that goes, “For evil to succeed, all it needs is for good (wo)men to do nothing.”

The fact that not only did this woman allow the impatient man to break the “queue code” but also, and more importantly, she didn’t seem to even consider that as an unfair act is where the root of the problem with acts of injustice and also the possible solution for the same lie. I couldn’t imagine myself allowing to be pushed over unless the person was genuinely in a rush for unavoidable reasons nor would I silently and rather calmly tolerate any injustice.

Wondering if the reason for my being perturbed by such things was my generic trait of impatience, I realised in one eureka moment that the problem was that I was aware. I had the knowledge and can think about such things and hence, I could see the wrong when it happened. The thing about that woman was that she wasn’t even aware. For her, perhaps, it was the way of the world and she maybe had to deal with it without inviting harm towards her. That made it all clear for me when thinking about how patriarchy pitches woman against woman. It usually is an unaware woman who would ensure curbing of agency for another woman, if she does. It isn’t that she becomes the enemy, she is simply playing by the book that she has been handed over, even when in situations she might not be the typical woman imagined by the same book.

As a conclusion to this post, I would end with this thought. Gender equality is what feminism fights for and that, in effect, are rights entitled to women as human beings. Hence, feminists demanding equal treatment isn’t something dictatorial or “totalitarian” in nature (read: feminazi). There isn’t anything unjust in demanding to be treated as humans without any prejudice. When thinking like that, without the labels of one’s sex or gender roles defining one’s identity, it then becomes crucial to identify that a) the awareness of the limitedness of traditional gender roles is highly variable across cultures, cities, even the same households and b) as people privileged enough to know more (if not necessarily, know better), it is important to communicate necessary thoughts and ideas keeping in mind the cognitive levels of your audience.

It could start with a family member, an elder, a friend or a young child. It is important to communicate ideals of equality, in manners best known to them.