Time To Say Thank You!

A few months ago, when the issue of OROP (One Rank One Pension) for the Indian soldiers, was still headline-worthy, a leading news channel hosted a discussion with a panel of retired defence personnel and a few family members of military martyrs. The focus was not just on the problems relating to OROP but also about what exactly a soldier feels in the face of such political and bureaucratic manoeuvring. A retired air force man spoke about izzat (honour) and respect.

A word like honour can sound archaic – something more befitting a feudal lifestyle… though in India, we never wander too far from our medieval roots. However, this retired pilot was not talking about honour the way, say, a khap panchayat would interpret it. No. He was talking about something more basic. Something, neither he nor any other soldier, retired or otherwise, should have to beg, ask, protest or fast for. This is something that should have been a given.

He was asking for acknowledgement. Acknowledgement for what they have done… for us. The sacrifices they have made. The price they have paid. For being the kind of men and women who realise that being a soldier entails a very real danger of being torn apart by bullets or bombs, and yet sign up for the job.

Acknowledgement not just from their fellow soldiers and family members but from the government and the people of the nation. And it is not just our soldiers. It is our cops. Our teachers. Our municipality workers. It is our parents. It is our watchman.

The world has always been divided along class and linguistic lines, but a lack of time and even worse, lack of empathy have exacerbated the problem. And, while it’s true that not all of us have the wherewithal to change the world we live in, we can change one small thing by acknowledging the fellow human beings who pepper our lives. There is a story behind every face and a hero, a mentor, and a guide hiding in the most unassuming of people.

Listening to that retired soldier speak, I wondered how many times I have bothered to acknowledge, honour and celebrate the people who have impacted me. The answer did not reflect well on me. So I decided to do something about it. Being a writer, pretty much all my ‘doing’ is done here – so here is my rather sorry attempt at acknowledging three of the people who made the greatest impact on my life.

My Mother – The Survivor

I never had to look outside of my home for positive role models. They had dinner with me every single day of my childhood. My mom got married young. When she was 17. She wanted to study and become a doctor. Her dad, my grandfather, however, felt that it was important that she get married before she became an old maiden. She rebelled by refusing to write her 12th school-leaving exams. She rebelliously declared, “If you are not going to let me study then what is the point of my writing any exam!”

She was 18 when she had me. When I was in my grade 10, my mother decided that she was going to get her college degree before her daughter did. We were in Chennai (then Madras) at that point of time. She appeared for an examination that was the equivalent of her Class 12 exams and passed and went on to graduate in B.A. Literature from Madras University… two years before I completed my degree in commerce. She then went on to do a Diploma in Computers at Loyola College, Chennai. In her 30s, she started working. And she worked till she was nearly 55. She worked right through her cancer and resultant surgery, chemo and radiation. It wasn’t an easy journey and there was resistance from many quarters. However, she hung in there.

If today, I have the luxury of being an independent and fiery thinker, it is because of what she taught me.

My Father – The Soldier

Growing up in Chennai, many often mistook my dad for a cop, because of his moustache and deep voice. Then they would get to know him better, recognize what a softie he really is, and start laughing with him about the misunderstanding. In today’s world by all standards my father is an ordinary man. His identity today is of a retired airforce man in his 70’s who still continues to live life independently with my mom.

However, scratch the surface and ask him about his youth and the stories begin to flow. Like all soldiers, Daddy loves to tell the stories from ‘his war’. But only to those who ask and show interest. Even then, he will not tell the stories that really matter. The stories behind why he a JWO (which means he was the ground support staff and not a pilot) was awarded the Vayu Sena Medal (a medal usually reserved for the airborne) for gallantry during the 1971 war. His act of bravery involved stepping out into the airfield when it was being bombarded by enemy aircraft and helping Indian fighter planes land and taxi in. He encouraged others to ignore the danger to their lives and do the same too. The medal is discreetly displayed on a bookshelf at home. For many years, he was happy to keep it locked in a cupboard until my brother and I took it out. The photograph of him receiving the award is proudly displayed in my house.

Sometimes when I see him interact with a shopkeeper, or a waiter, or his own grandchild, I wonder if they know that they are talking to a man who displayed exemplary courage and devotion to duty in the face of extreme danger.

My Teacher – The Task Master

I was in Class 5 and even then English was my favourite subject and Christella Ma’am, my class teacher was my English teacher. Halfway through the year we had, each, to work on a project. I had to do something related to verbs or tenses… I don’t remember. What I do remember is breezing through my work and submitting it the next day. I knew… just knew that mine was the best project work in class. I could see the others struggle.
Christella Ma’am took in all our submissions.

The next day we were told our marks. Another kid in class had got the highest marks. I don’t remember if I came in second or third or fifth. I remember I didn’t come in first. To say I was taken aback would be an understatement. So immense was my feeling of being unjustly treated that I marched up to Ma’am and asked her, ‘Why!? Why am I not the top scorer?’ Ma’am looked at me and said, “Your work may have been the best in the class, but it was not your best.”

In that moment, she taught me one of the biggest lessons of my life. Anything worth doing is worth doing, not just well, but the best that you can make it.

It took me many more years and a tryst with a job in a stock broker’s office (for all of a week) before I realised that I wanted to write. But the seeds were sown by Christella Ma’am.

 

The Municipality Worker – This man did not impact my life choices, but he did teach me a couple of things about attitude.

There is this guy I met while visiting my brother-in-law’s family in Nerul, Navi Mumbai. He is, what we all collectively call, the kacharawala. An ironic tag for someone who clears the kachara (garbage) created by us. I don’t know his name. But of all the people I met during this last holiday, he had the greatest impact on me. Why? Because of his attitude. He always greeted us with this big, friendly smile and said ‘Hello didi!’ He didn’t grumble. He didn’t whine. He didn’t look like he hated what he did. And if there is a job that is easy to hate, it is his! Maybe he did hate what he did. Maybe he never thinks about it. Or maybe he is the kind of human being who does whatever he has to do with dignity… a throwback to the kind of human being Gandhiji extolled all of us to be.

On India’s Independence Day (August 15), he greeted us with a ‘Hello didi! Aap clubhouse nahi gaye? Janda lehra rahein hai aaj. Achcha hai.” [Translation – Did you not go to the clubhouse today? They are hoisting the flag. It is good.]

Above all, I remember the vibe he spread. He was a happy man and it made me happy to just say ‘hello’ back to him.

There you go – that is my list for now. Do write and tell me about the people who have impacted you. If nothing else, definitely spare them a thought and a prayer.

 

 

 

Negotiations With God

This was written some years ago – when I was neck deep in fear. Am finally ready to share it. Part of my resolve to grow into a writer who will not hold back her truth – be it embarrassing or painful.

2009

It is the call that most women dread. The one from their doctor. The one where a clinical yet sincere voice tells you, “We have found a lump.” The regret in the voice is genuine and sincere. But the doctor had just got started. “Actually three. In your left breast. And there are six nodules on your thyroid glands.”

As you see the matrix of life rotating clearly around you for a second you’d happily swap all the sincerity spilling over the mobile, for a guffaw and a gotcha! from the other end. No such luck! This is not a prank call. It is real. And you feel yourself grow cold.

It is amazing how calm one can be when one is told that you could be staring down the barrel of a gun that may be loaded with those dreaded cancer cells.

I was at work when I got the call.

I remember calmly agreeing with the doctor that most probably they are just benign growths.

I had three lumps in my left breast and a few nodules on my thyroid. What are the chances that all of them were benign? She did not say it, but we both knew – minimal. You have to be bloody lucky.

I remember standing up and saying to nobody in particular that I needed to stretch my legs. I remember walking to the corridor that ran outside my office and resting my head against the glass panels, near the elevators, that looked out at the outside world. No one else’s world seemed to have come to a crashing halt. People were busy rushing to their meetings, talking on their phones. Maybe some of them carried extra cells, and did not even know it!

The glass panel felt cool against my forehead. But I was burning with a strange fever and fervor now.

I have never believed that very deeply in detailed prayers and rituals. My prayers have always been simple – ‘Thank you.” That’s it. I have never wanted much in or from life.

Yet as I stood there resting my head against the glass, trying to absorb the cool of the glass into my being, I started negotiating with God. She is only 4. Keep me alive till she turns 18. No… 18 is not enough. I have to teach her about life, self-worth, love, strength and belief in oneself. I need time till she is at least 25. Keep me alive long enough to teach her all that is important. Keep me alive till I have hugged her and loved her enough number of times that she will have the memory of it seared into her soul. Keep me alive; take my breasts, lymph nodes, glands and whatever. I don’t mind. Just keep me alive till she is old enough to manage life without me.

That was five years ago.

The three lumps and the six nodules?

All of them were benign! I was the bloody lucky one.

I cleaned up my act for a bit. Ate healthy and exercised a lot more. I quit a stressful job and took on a less stressful one.

Two of those lumps disappeared. So did five of those nodules. No treatment. No surgery. Nothing!

2013

Yesterday I got another call.

The remaining lump in my left breast and the thyroid nodule have grown. A sudden unexplained leap in growth. More tests. More procedures. More negotiations with you-know-who.

April 30, 2016

 

20160418_095454

A simple reminder from my daughter.

 

 

It has been two years since the second scare and I turned out to be bloody lucky the second time round too. This time round I have heeded the lessons better. I have worked towards clearing the stables – emotional, physical and spiritual.

There are some of us who grow without too much of a struggle. Then there are people like me who have to be dragged through life’s classrooms to understand the lessons on offer. It is amazing how despite being aware of time being in short supply we squander it with such impudence. We should know better! And yet… we let it slip through our hands. Oh sure, we are busy. We all are busy. But how many of us are busy doing what we love… at least for a few hours in a week?

2016 has somehow been the year when I grew up. It has been a year of reckoning. Not because I hit a milestone birthday – that was three years ago. Somehow this has been the year when I have become more aware of the unrelenting passage of time. This has been the year when I stopped making excuses for not chasing my most closely cherished dreams.

This has involved going for my walks regularly, going on treks (and scaling some inner walls and mountains), making plans for my eventual move to the Himalayan foothills (even if it involves dragging a reluctant husband and daughter uphill), working (and I mean working, not dabbling) on my novel, and speaking my truth and learning to say ‘Yes’ to all the things that I am dying to do but, which scare the living daylights out of me, and finally, saying ‘No’ a bit more often to things that don’t reflect me.

Maybe it will just save me from further negotiations with God.

Travelling alone – not so unsafe after all…

Ever since I returned from my trek, I have been boring the ‘eyeballs off’ the people I know with my ongoing chatter about the trek. However, this is not about the trek per se. Well… there may be a reference or two.

This post is about perceptions and reality; with specific reference to travelling in India. Especially if you are a woman. Especially if you are a woman travelling alone at night.

We have all heard about how unsafe it is for single women to travel in India. Rapists, murderers, and kidnappers seem to prowl the streets of India. This is not to say that women haven’t been kidnapped, raped or murdered in India. They have been. Too many of them.

However, I would be doing a disservice to the people I met and the Indian Railways if I don’t record my experiences.

When I signed up for the trek, I was to tie up with a friend in Delhi and we were to travel to Haridwar by the Nanda Devi Express. A train that is nocturnal in nature as far as the Delhi-Haridwar stretch goes. It arrives in Delhi just before midnight and reaches Haridwar at 3.55am. Similarly, on the return journey, it reaches Haridwar at around 12.45am and reaches Delhi at 5am.

 

Anu haridwar pic

Haridwar Station wore a comparatively deserted look at 6.30 in the morning. Image Credit – Anushree Dutt.

 

 

I have always led a protected life. I have travelled alone, but on flights. I have explored a few European cities on my own during the daylight hours while my husband attended to his work. That is about it. I have never stayed alone… not until I was in my 30s and that too when my husband would go away on duty travel for a couple of weeks. And I have definitely never travelled through the length and breadth of India alone by car, bus or train. Someone, a family member or a friend, has always accompanied me.

In itself, it is not a big deal. In fact, in a way it reflects how much my family loves me. But it has always rankled. I have never been out there on my own. Would I be able to manage if I had to figure it out all alone in a place that mixes chaos and calm, with as much ease as India does?

Two days before I arrived in Delhi, my friend messaged me and told me that she had been diagnosed as suffering from whooping cough, and therefore her physician had advised her against the trek. I was disappointed, as I was really looking forward to enjoying the trek with her and another friend.

It was another moment before I realized that the real problem (or challenge) for me, however, was not going to be the trek. It would be the train journey.

The plan had been for us to meet up in Delhi at my brother-in-law’s place and then proceed to the railway station and travel on to Haridwar. Since there were two of us, it would be an adventure. Nothing to worry about. But alone! Alone in a train from Delhi (Delhi for Pete’s sake people!) to Haridwar, at an ungodly hour! For a moment I did reconsider, changing my travel plans and maybe flying into Chandigarh and making it to Haridwar with the third member of my party. However, that plan did not work out.

It was at this point that I realized that this was my chance. I had always wanted to travel on my own. Here was my opportunity. Sure it was only for a few hours, to be followed by a 10-hour drive with a fellow group of trekkers who I would be meeting for the very first time. Pretty much everyone in the trek team was travelling in groups of 3 to 5. I would be the only one travelling solo. But hey! Perfect recipe to strike up new friendships.

This is not to say that a lifetime’s habits of being risk averse and cautious just disappeared in a flash. No. The doubts were there. So was the fear. Most of us non-Delhi-ites have heard such nightmarish stories about Delhi that we are worried about even going to CP in the daytime. What we forget is that the only stories that make it to prime time and headlines are the nightmarish ones. We forget that for every negative story out there, there must be at least a few dozen positive stories. Stories and people that we never get to hear about.

It was 11.20 pm or so when I was dropped off at the Delhi railway station. A sea of people, most of them asleep on make-shift beds on the station floor, greeted me. The train arrived on the dot. I got settled into my first class AC compartment. (Before you wonder, I did my bookings at the nth moment and no other tickets were available.) This compartment had two berths. I had not had time to cancel my friend’s ticket… so technically the compartment was all mine. However, my brother-in-law cautioned me saying that if the TT (Travelling Ticket Examiner) sees the empty berth, he is within his rights to allocate it to someone else.

After I got settled in, my brother-in-law and his wife left. I locked the door and wondered what I should tell the TT. I did not want anyone else in the compartment. Maybe I could lie and say that my friend was in the bathroom. That way there would be no probability of my having to share the compartment with a stranger.

Now here is something you need to know about me – I was 9 or 10 when I decided to avoid telling lies… as much as I can. (White lies don’t count by the way. Those are the rules! :)) Not for any ethical or moral reasons. But purely for reasons of convenience. When you lie, it never stops with one. You have to utter a few more lies to keep that original lie going. Something that always gets me tied up in a knot, because I invariably slip up, speak the truth at some point or don’t hide the damning evidence well enough, and get caught.

Just then there was a knock on the compartment door. It was the TT. He checked my ticket (which had my friend’s and my name) and then asked me where my co-passenger was. I opened my mouth to say ‘bathroom,’ and instead said, “She could not make it.” Bugger!

I now had no choice but to tell him the whole truth. So then I requested him that he not allocate anyone else to the compartment as I was travelling alone. And if he had to allocate it, to please, please make sure it was to a lady. My head was already abuzz with thoughts of how if I screamed for help in an AC compartment, no one would be able to hear me. The TT smiled and said, “Don’t worry Madam! Aap darwaaza lock kar do. Aap akeli lady hai, issiliye, hum kissi ko nahi bhejenge.” [Translation – You lock the door. We will not send anyone else to share the compartment since you are travelling alone.]

Needless to say, I did not sleep like a baby.  Not because I did not feel safe. But because I did not want to miss the station. How I envy those seasoned traveller types who can comfortably nod off anywhere, anytime! Eventually, I did arrive at Haridwar.

Getting down at Haridwar, in the middle of the pilgrimage season (or is it always the pilgrimage season here!) I found myself surrounded by the hinterland experience and ambience. I decided to hunker down in the waiting room till 6.30am when the trek team vehicles were to pick us up. The waiting room was everything that movies make these waiting rooms out to be. Crowded. Dirty.

There were families and individuals who had come for their pilgrimages. Guys who had just arrived from wherever, walking around with a towel wrapped around their protruding bellies, after taking a shower in those dirty-as-hell waiting room bathrooms! Two little babies who could not settle down comfortably. Families who had taken up those uncomfortable metal seats en masse – like a package deal.

As I settled in I realised that I needed to use the bathroom. Dirty, wet messy affairs, there was no way I could carry my day bag with my tickets, money and mobile into it. And forget the rucksack. For a while, I decided to just grit my teeth and bear it. No way I could carry bags into those bathrooms! But when nature calls, she calls.

So I asked this lady sitting next to me to watch my stuff and went away. I came back, half expecting her to have decamped with my goods. But she was still there. So was my stuff.

Later, I wanted to charge my mobile but the only plug point I could fix my charger with its square pins into was in one corner. I was seated in the other. In Dubai, I would not have thought twice. The notion of safety and security is so ingrained into us that most of us would casually leave our mobiles charging on an unattended restaurant table if we had to. But in India! I plugged in my mobile. The railway employee who sits in the waiting room (presumably to help the passengers) bolstered my mobile with a few blankets so that it could charge smoothly and without any interruption. As I went back to my seat, a lifetime of being told to be careful and not to trust anyone, especially if you are alone, was pushing against the need to close my eyes for a few minutes. Finally, sleep won. When I opened my eyes, my mobile was still there. So were my bags.

A week and a lifetime later, when I returned to the Haridwar station for my return trip to Delhi, it was again an ungodly hour. I had managed to cancel my friend’s ticket. The train arrived and I walked up to the TT and asked him about my seat number. I was about to go into the spiel about how I am travelling alone blah blah…! Before I could say anything, he checked my ID and said, “Aap akeli lady travel kar rahi hai na? Aapke saath ek family travel kar rahi hai.” [You are a lady travelling alone, right? Your co-passengers are a husband-wife team.]

I don’t know if the Indian Railways have a system whereby they try to accommodate single female travellers and ensure their safety the best they can. Some may even think that I received this treatment because I had tickets booked in the first class AC compartment.

I, however, don’t think that is the case. Four of my friends who too were returning on the same train (different compartments), also found the railway authorities helpful. Two of them had confirmed tickets and the other two were on the waiting list. However, they had flights to catch the next day. Again the authorities helped them out.

We hear the negative stories of rude officials, corruption and lack of safety on a daily basis. I wish the stories of helpful officials, kindness, and a supportive system would also be spread with the same alacrity.

This experience also made me realise how many fears I have been lugging around with me since childhood. Most of us growing up in the 70s to 80s grew up with a litany of ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that’, ‘that’s not safe’, ‘don’t even think of it’, ‘don’t go there’, ‘are you mad!’, ‘come back before it’s dark’.

Messages that encourage a safer lifestyle for sure. But these very same messages also ingrain in us a deep-rooted sense of caution intermingled with fear… denying us a shot at adventure. The differences between adventure, and risky behaviour get blurred. We were taught to not just be risk averse but also adventure-averse. Now as I slowly stretch out and deliberately do things that scare me, I realise that most of the fears that I have held on to are as ephemeral as the mist on the mountains. They melt away and let you see a few meters further as you walk towards and through them.

Mindfulness, and a Slice of Heaven

As a child I could sleep standing. Any time of the day.

It was a quality that drove my parents insane. It was a quality that I was secretly proud of. Having a child put paid to that. However, as she grew older and more independent, things began to return to normal. I could sleep through the night without a hitch. And then something happened. I couldn’t sleep through the night. Occasionally it was because my kid had a nightmare or was unwell. But increasingly it was because of… nothing. I was awake.

Desperately trying to fall asleep. Refusing to get up and accept defeat in the face of a friend who had always stood by me but who had now just… pffffftt… disappeared!

The results were obvious – fatigue, irritability and lack of productivity.

The causes were not so obvious – deficiency of vitamin D and mindfulness, and an excess of social media. Addressing the vitamin D deficiency was the easy part.

Maybe it is a sign of the times we live in. The constant sense of being rushed. The balancing of multiple roles and responsibilities. The juggling act that we fail at on a daily basis.

For the last few months, I had been getting increasingly overwhelmed by it all. This amorphous ‘it’ was also eating into my focus… taking me away from my writing. And while I had decided on not making any new year resolutions, an idea I was toying with since January this year was to quit all Whatsapp groups. I am in one too many. Unfortunately, for me, I am not good at ignoring messages. But I could not just quit. What would others think? Will they be offended? How will I know what is happening?

Then I came across a friend who had quit social media and was happier for it. And I came across a post by a Facebook friend who had quit Whatsapp groups and seemed alright. It was like the universe was sending me messages. So a week or so ago, I quit the groups. I also reduced my time on Facebook.

The first two days I was like a junkie desperately sneaking a peak at my mobile. One or two friends had messaged me directly. Mom and dad had messaged me supporting my decision. Another friend had gone into a panic thinking she had offended me resulting in my decision. Otherwise, silence.

The initial sense of being adrift was however soon replaced by something deeper. The sense of being overwhelmed… of being available 24/7 had receded. I am beginning to enjoy the quiet time. There is a strong sense of reclaiming myself, my space and in many ways, my soul.

Of course, I don’t know what is happening in everyone’s lives anymore. But surprisingly that has not caused me any harm.

I also finally gave in and downloaded an app that guides one through basic meditation. Yesterday, I did some meditation with my 10-year-old before bedtime. The results were almost magical. Yesterday night, she had a good night’s sleep after a long time. No nightmares, no coughs, no midnight bathroom breaks. And, after a very, very long time, I slept well too. Out cold by 10.30pm and my eyes flew open at 5.30am! The rest of the time I was asleep!

The joy. The humbling joy of a good night’s sleep.

This morning I packed the husband and the kid off to work and school respectively. After lazing around I walked into the kitchen to make my morning cup of tea. I did not feel like making a proper breakfast, so settled for a basic sandwich. But I was not in the mood for brown or whole-wheat bread. I wanted to celebrate the quiet in my head. I wanted processed carbs and something sweet.

And then it happened. I had laid the two slices of white bread on the table. The Gods conspired in my favour and the butter was just right and I spread it evenly on the two slices. Spread some mint chutney and sandwiched a lettuce leaf in between. Toasted the sandwich lightly. Strained my tea and cut myself a slice of chocolate cake that I had baked for my daughter the previous day.

I placed the cake, sandwich and tea on a tray and took it into the living room. The sun was streaming in through the French window that opened to the balcony. I set the tray down on the floor and sat there on a slightly chilly wintry morning in my patch of sunlight. Deep breath. The sun’s ray’s warms my skin. I bite into the sandwich and experience true happiness. Heaven. My piece of heaven. There is something to be said about mindful living after all.table-1031148_1920

S for Success. S for Suicide.

A 17-year-old from New Delhi, a 16-year-old swimming champion in the making from Ghaziabad, nursing students, IIT students, medical students, engineering students, students who went through the grind of SAT and GRE and GMATS to get admission in the premier educational establishments of the world – what do these young people have in common?

They have a similar sounding suicide note in common.

Invariably these deaths, result in the usual cacophony about a system that is failing all of us. Which I am sure it is. However, to place these deaths at the unheeding doorstep of the system is extremely short-sighted in my opinion.

In an interview to The Telegraph (http://rense.com/general67/sdui.htm) P. V. Sankaranarayanan, of Sneha, a charity that runs a helpline for students in Madras spoke about the questions that haunt these children. “The pressures are manifold,” Sankaranarayanan said. “Will I gain my required marks? Will I satisfy my parents? Will I get on my preferred course? And if they don’t, often the feeling is of overwhelming shame and guilt.”

It is the beautiful Indian middle-class dream. Get an education and make something of yourself and help improve your own life and that of your family. This has been a dream that has survived with very few changes over the years. Sure, medicine and engineering are no longer the only way out of the daily mind-numbing grind of existence that life can be for a lot of people. (And, no you don’t have to be poor to be desperate to get out of your situation in life.) However, the dream lives on, fuelled by the midnight light being burnt by our kids and paid for by us.

As parents, almost every single one of us wants the best for our kids. A great career, a happy marriage, kids, success, a flat or two, a car or two in the garage, jewellery in the locker and money in the bank. That’s it. And we work for that. Boy, do we work hard for that dream!

So our kids grow up watching us chase the future – their future. Most never get to see their parents living in the present… except maybe when they are watching a TV serial or a cricket match… in which case, it is not even their lives they are living and celebrating! This is how it was when my parents were growing up. This was how it was when I was growing up. And shame on us, this is how it is when our kids are growing up. But the great middle-class dream is sacrosanct. It lives on.

And yet, too many of our kids are killing themselves, unable to bear the burden of our dreams.

 

help

Image Courtesy: http://www.patheos.com

 

I cannot begin to imagine what the family of a suicide victim must be going through. Truth be told, I don’t want to imagine or ever know those feelings. But the recent spike in student suicide rates reminded me of another death. A suicide, a few years ago, by a Grade 10 kid in a neighbouring emirate.

The parents realised something was amiss when the school called them up to find out why the boy had not appeared for his Grade 10 final board exam. The parents were shocked. He had left the house on time. But the kid had not gone to his school. He had gone to another building in the neighbourhood to hang himself. He took this final step because he was convinced he was going to fail his 10th math exam. You see, he didn’t even attempt to write the exam. He killed himself a few hours before he even appeared for the said math paper. It wasn’t failure, but the fear of failure that caused him to take such a drastic step.

It was a death that shook a lot of us parents and got many of us re-thinking our parenting style, our priorities and the lessons we were imparting to our children.

I honestly believe that the real malaise is not just with the education system – in that it insists on teaching fish to climb trees and birds to meow like a cat. The problem also lies in the fact that while we focus so much of our energy on teaching our kids how to succeed and keep reiterating how special they are; we don’t focus enough on teaching them how to handle failure.

Failure can be our best friend. It can teach us more than success ever will. It will also make us more capable of handling success when it comes our way. Our kids need to be taught that. Most of them grow up surrounded by stories of successful pop stars, sports stars and YouTubers. They may, quite often, believe that success is something that comes easily to everyone else. With age, we learn better.

The current generation has grown up with two things – depending on which side of the financial fence you are on. A sense of desperation and a sense of entitlement. Both demand success. For the child who has grown with a sense of entitlement, success is a habit – either because he or she never fought a battle that was not already rigged in their favour by a well-meaning society and/or lady luck, or because they have never met another who is equal to or better than them. These kids have no idea how to handle a setback in life.

For the child who is desperate, there is no other option but to succeed. Failure of any kind is not acceptable because they believe that they will not get another chance or shot at success. They may be right too! They may not get another shot at passing whatever exam it is they are appearing for… they may never get another shot at success within a limited canvas. But they are wrong in believing that this is the only way out. They are wrong in believing that success is only limited to what they imagined it to be.

We all need to know that oftentimes failure leads to greater successes, if not in the same field then in some other field. That proverb – “when one door closes, another opens” is true.

In a world that worships popularity, likes, hits and shares, we need to teach our kids that it is ok to be normal and ordinary. The definition of success has to extend beyond fame and acknowledgement by peers. In my 20s, I had the wonderful opportunity to work with world famous names. It was an opportunity that was a blessing. But it had another impact on me too. For a while, no matter how well I did in my life, I felt that my life was an ode to mediocrity. In my head, I had equated success with fame. It took me a while to get over that.

As we spend time carting our kids from one activity to another, as we drop them off to yet another tuition, as we motivate, encourage, nudge, push and chide our kids to greater accomplishments; maybe we need to spend a little time telling them that it is ok to trip and fall. They can always get back on their feet. Real failure is when we choose to stay down.

Maybe along with math, science, and an additional third or fourth language, we should teach them about grit – the quality that American researchers have identified as the prime quality and reason behind a well-balanced and successful life.

muchpain

Image courtesy: http://www.metanoia.org

This does not mean that we don’t demand the best for, and out of our children. It just means that we teach them to handle the ups and downs of life. Life is not going to be a series of ‘best moments’ captured on Facebook. It is also going to involve fear, loneliness, anger, regret and guilt.

This is not a commentary on a particular suicide. No parent rears their kid for this act. Sometimes we can do everything right and yet things go wrong. But too many kids have been killing themselves off late. And while we can blame the systems – caste, education, politics – I think that is a simplistic outlook. We can try and change the world. But we may or may not be able to. I don’t know. What we can do is to try and equip our children to handle this world and its vagaries… its beauty and disappointments. And let us not depend on our educational institutions to do that for us.

* This post has nothing to do with Rohith Vemula’s death or the suicides caused by other trigger factors, like depression, mental illness, unresolved childhood abuse, emotional anorexia, racism and loneliness. The focus of this blog post is only on suicides in India triggered by the fear of failure suffered by students.

** You can get more information about suicide prevention hotlines in India at http://www.suicide.org/hotlines/international/india-suicide-hotlines.html.

*** In Dubai, visit https://twitter.com/suicidedubai.

**** Featured Image Courtesy: http://www.theweeklyobserver.com

 

Acceptance

My first post for the year – :). An update into the last 21 days if you will.

2016 has been a ho-hum sort of year so far. Professionally I am doing well – enough writing and editing assignments to keep me busy. A bit too busy to be honest. But the world continues to nose-dive into oblivion, as though hell bent on destroying itself before some meteor hits it. Global markets crash, students commit suicide, terrorists kill innocents, more soldiers die. I could have been talking about last year or the year before that. The news update is the same. We are going to the dogs from the looks of it.

However, on the personal front, I like where I am going. This is the first time that I have not bothered to go through the sham of making resolutions. I have anyway never kept one beyond five to six weeks at the most. But I have started out on things that have been on my to-do list for way too long.

I am going to be a year older tomorrow. There are slivers of wisdom that have pierced my decaying armour of youth. Not that it makes much of a difference. I am still repeating old mistakes and making new ones on top of it. But there has been some growth too.

After nearly 13 years in Dubai, I am finally learning Arabic. I know… shame on me! I should have done this much earlier… but my motto in my 40s is – better late than never.

I have read The Land of Seven Rivers by Sanjeev Sanyal (will be reading that one again), Wild by Cheryl Strayed (highly recommended for lovers of treks and hikes), The Roundabout Man by Clare Morrall (I liked it a lot… the way she writes especially) and have started on The Public Intellectual in India by Romila Thapar. While the Sanyal book was a carry forward from last year (I just had one chapter to read in 2016), everything else was done in the last 20 odd days!! I am amazed.

The Dubai Poetics group have accepted two of my poems for their anthology. You can read my submissions Stay a While (https://binusivan.wordpress.com/2013/06/20/stay-a-while/) and Don’t Send Me a Memo (https://binusivan.wordpress.com/2015/01/28/random-musings/) on my blog if interested. Will keep you updated on that.

On the novel front – it did take a back seat to my bread and butter writing these last three weeks. I feel like a procrastinating heel. But am back at it with a vengeance now. Sada – thank you for those links and encouragement.

Sometime last year, I began to enjoy cooking… for about a month. That feeling soon passed. Nothing has changed in 2016. I still don’t enjoy cooking. I think my cook is the most important man on earth. Apologies to the husband, father, brother, Modi and Obama. And off late, I am beginning to hate even regular housework with a vengeance. My new cleanliness motto is… actually, I have two – ‘Chaos and mess beget creativity’; and, ‘It is not dust; it is star dust’.

Incidentally, I have stopped colouring my hair. I am letting it go grey. I want to know how I will look.

So, hopefully, 2016 will be a year choc-a-bloc full of great books, poems, writing, freelance jobs, and maybe, just maybe, a deeper acceptance of who I am.

FORGET INTOLERANCE. LET’S FOCUS ON ACCEPTANCE.

As the year ends, I found that unlike past years I am no longer keen on working on my resolutions list. Maybe because I know I am going to break every single resolution within a few weeks. However, my mind has been mulling a topic for some time now. And I think it is vital that I write this, so that these thoughts and ideas, once set on paper, will stop nagging me. Which is what they have been doing… nagging me.

Intolerance… it was the buzz word of the moment until a couple of weeks ago.

Before we proceed further, I would like to add my disclaimer – I am not interested in adding to the noise in this regard. However, being a writer, I have to write my thoughts down just so that they begin to possess some resemblance of order in my mind – packed as it is with trivia, notions, fears, hopes and ideas, besides my meal plan for my daughter’s school tiffins.

I write from my perspective. The perspective of an expatriate in the Middle East. An NRI. An Indian.

We live in a world where news reaches us with an immediacy that is shocking. The speed also means that the emotions it stokes are rawer and fresher. We are no longer getting angry about something that happened yesterday or last week. We are getting angry about something that is happening right now. And this anger fuels the drama on further, giving the issue new wings of energy to fly on. This can be good, as was proven in the Delhi bus rape case (the juvenile being let out and the act that has been cobbled together in a hurry is a different beast all together). But this can also be bad. An issue that would have died out in a day or never have been an issue, becomes a matter of international debate thanks to Facebook and WhatsApp posts, and tweets.

I am not a historian but am a bit of a history buff. Indian history to be very specific. I am not an expert on world or Indian politics either. But I am qualified by virtue of being an unwilling witness to the madness that our world sometimes devolves into every now and then. The little bit of reading that I have done, has impressed upon me one simple fact – India and the rest of the world have always been… hold your breath… intolerant. We as a species have always been driven by fear. Add power to the mix and you have the most potent cocktail on earth.

Governments are faceless macro beings or machineries if you will, that are fuelled by fear and power. Does that sound wildly new age to you? It shouldn’t. And it is not.

Be it Ashoka or Tughlaq, be it the American or the Iranian government, Romans or the Spanish, Nazi Germany or the Mongols, Israeli or Palestenian, Congress or BJP – governments, unfortunately are driven by fear and power. It is not a fault. It is what it is. Maybe something that is an intrinsic part of our collective DNA. Maybe it is the primitive, animalistic self in us.

Governments are made up of people. People come in all colour and stripes. It’s therefore no surprise that we have been doing a good job as a species in dividing ourselves up. Man-woman, white-black-brown-yellow, aggressor-victim, rich-poor, cultured-uncultured, West-East, Christian-Muslim-Hindu-Buddhist-Jain-Sikh, and nowadays, tolerant-intolerant.

As Indians, ‘Unity in Diversity’ is a slogan that we take pride in. It’s this very diversity that is being considered a problem now. Yet our very plurality means that try as we might we can’t run away from our diversity. We are different. We are separate. And that is ok.

However there is one more division. The only division that truly matters, in my opinion.

Evolved-unevolved. In our thinking.

Most of us are still unevolved. I include myself in that list. Work-in-progress.

Some of us tend to think that if we are at the receiving end of the stick then we are not in the wrong. We Indians are good at this… at playing the victim. We still blame the British Raj for so many of our problems. After all we were, and are the victims. To a certain extent, we’d be right – we are not committing an aggressive or harmful act. But even as victims not causing harm, we can be unevolved, because we propagate thinking that does not serve us in any way… individually or as a species.

How many of us can honestly say that we have not ourselves or our family members have not said something that dismisses another community or puts another religion down or laughs at someone because of their beliefs. “All whites are racists.” “Indians are poor and unclean.” “Fat people are lazy people.” ”Those with darker skins are less beautiful.” “Those who eat meat are dirty.” “Girls are a burden to their parents.” “All Muslims are prone to violence. “I could go on. We have all done it – to different degrees. Every single one of us.

Some, inspired by their experiences and the people they meet, end up thinking about their old thoughts and deeds, and evolve and grow in their thinking. But we still find ourselves slipping.

When the terrorists attacked Paris (a modern, Western city as opposed to a place that has become accustomed to bomb blasts – can you even begin to acknowledge the sheer monstrosity of that sentence?), quite a few of us devolved. Stepped back into fear. Let in only Christian refugees! Don’t let in any refugee – they are all terrorists! Donald Trump trumped us all in his call for a return to a narrower way of thinking and living. Scarier still was the fact that his hate-fuelled words found such strong support in a country that prides itself for its pluralism and open mindedness!

Trump. BusinessInsider.com

The new face of intolerance. http://www.businessinsider.com

When Shah Rukh Khan, and later Aamir Khan made a controversial remark, India quickly lined up into two main opposing teams. One team felt they are right and India is going to the dogs. The other team felt that they should leave India and stop being so unpatriotic. In Aamir Khan’s case, a core comment which did not even emphasis the word intolerance (he kept using the word despondent) resulted in a storm of accusations and counter-accusations that stank of just one thing – intolerance.

278705-aamir-srk

SRK to Aamir: Let’s limit all our comments to our movies. We are too famous to have personal opinions of any kind… especially if they are of a political nature. Image courtesy: http://www.zeenews.india.com

Funny isn’t it. We can’t tolerate criticism. We can’t tolerate our country. We can’t tolerate each other. We are now officially intolerant about intolerance. The irony!

There was a sub-section in both the teams that felt that it didn’t matter whether they agreed with either of the actors or not, but that they had a right to their opinion, however they should have been wiser about sharing it and explaining it – given their influence on the public. But as usual, the voice of reason was hardly heard.

Be it the coverage of OROP or the act of returning their awards by writers and the farce that it resulted in after a while, it makes one wonder – ‘where is the voice of reason?’ All of these are just the current revenue creating sound-bytes that will be replaced by the next big thing.

orop_2439112g

Soldiers like this elderly gentleman and my own father, a veteran of the 1971 war are left wondering, if they will ever get to benefit from the OROP. Image courtesy – http://www.TheHindu.com

In the meantime, a few more of our soldiers died, some spies were caught, a few more kids died due to starvation, another woman got raped, the rains continued unabated and almost drowned a city but not it’s spirit, young men and women grappled with unemployment across the globe, somewhere another drought-hit farmer hanged himself because he could not bear the burden of being alive anymore, another bomb exploded somewhere killing innocents, India tried to walk the tight rope between development and protecting the environment, and refugees keep dying in their quest for a life.

chennai-rains

It took a while and a few trending hashtags before the rest of the country and the world woke up to what was happening in Chennai and Cuddalore. Image courtesy – http://www.wirally.com

You know what is intolerant? The fact that these are issues we are not even interested in. We turn our head and heart away. It is somehow easier for us to get emotionally invested in issues with a ‘superstar’ attached to it or when the details are so gruesome that we can’t but be shaken by it! Is it because many of us consider (at some deep subconscious level) even news to be an extension of ‘entertainment?’

I understand the world has been asking a lot of us. Our quota of sympathy and empathy is being dug into like never before. But these are exactly the times when we need to dig in deeper and pause, and consider all the angles and aspects, and then take action.

It is easy to be swept away by the negativity. To believe that the world is going to the dogs – being taken over by intolerant bigots, racists and jihadists. But I live in a country, where my neighbours are British, Australian, Iranian, Emirati, Pakistani and Lebanese. Without fail, no matter what happens wherever, we have always been civil to each other. Kind, polite and friendly. The Iranian and Lebanese kids are good friends, bound by their age and common Middle Eastern heritage. The Emirati gentleman always has an encouraging smile for my daughter when he comes across her dressed in her ‘gi’ as she heads out for her martial arts class. The Pakistani women are lovely ladies full of questions and conversations. The British lady is a proper lady and reminds me of those friendly, grammatically correct version of the British that we often saw on Indian television screens in the 1980s. She always has a wave and smile for all her neighbours. The Australian guy is married to a Lebanese woman and loves to take his little boy swimming. I am not mentioning the Indians, the yuppie mixed-race British couple and my Nepalese security guard.

But I am not a fool. There is intolerance. But I am thinking, and this is a notion-in-development, that as long as the interactions are one-on-one, individual-to-individual, human-to-human, soul-to-soul, we are a pretty decent lot. Nice, warm, friendly and civil.

But when a group of us from one place get together, we start playing games. You versus me. Us versus them. Like in a playground. Kids ganging up against each other. Cliques. Suddenly we are not nice and friendly individuals, but groups… races, countries, minorities and majorities. Maybe it is time we set all this aside and just focused on being a community.

Forget about tolerating each other. How about just accepting each other for exactly who we are?

Happy New Year!