Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Question of Marriage

There is an age when the question of marriage pops up frequently and you wonder whether the time is ripe for such a decision. Friends tell you that when the time comes, you’ll realise while family members are, of course, not too concerned about such inner feelings – entering a certain age automatically qualifies you to get married.

It is difficult to argue against the idea of marriage. Not everybody appreciates the idea of living a reclusive life, away from family and society. There are surely merits in the arrangement of marriage, otherwise this institution would not have survived centuries.

It is almost a tad romantic to think that friends will be there forever with us to share our sentiments. It does not happen overnight that your long lost friend actually looks long lost and you wonder what conversation to strike with him. Familiar topics like marriages within the group, job opportunities, boss bitching and small family talk form the main conversation and then suddenly, you realise that you have run out of words to talk to your good old friend.

As you look back at the passage of time, you realise that things have indeed changed. There are things that you no longer discuss among yourselves, there are family secrets and specific timings to call up friends or not call them.You come to know through rumours that someone’s become a dad and you feel sad that even a news of such importance is not informed; a small realisation that time has moved on. And then friends too become all too busy to visit your place or worse still, welcome you. The writing was always on the wall but you refused to look at it – you know my friends are not like that; we will always keep in touch and all that…

The BIG QUESTION remains – Why marriage? Legal sex is a very simplistic answer but yes, that is surely an important aspect in a country with a repressed sexual climate where S-E-X remains a word that is still discussed in hushed tones (of course, we have still come a long way). But this cannot be a sustenance tool in the long run and there has to be a better reason to get married.

Parents do not work overtime at finding alliances merely to ensure that their offspring’s base instincts are met. They use the word COMPANIONSHIP – the spectre of finding yourself lonely; the prospect of returning from office everyday to an empty house and bed, which cries for attention. The TV, books and Internet become appendages that you start to hate but use it for the feeling of being connected to the outside world – a world that is virtual and is separated by miles and miles of space.

Parents do a good job in driving home the various scenarios that could trouble you. Amma would say:
1. You meet your friends whenever each of them gets married and after sometime when everyone’s married but you, what will happen? Sounds like a question on permutations and combinations
2. What happens if you fall sick – we will not be there throughout to take care of you. Medical angle introduced here but what if “she” falls sick?
3. Maybe you can finally eat South Indian food daily at home, even when in Mumbai. Chance to do away with my dabba, now only if “she” knows cooking
4. We are getting old. Who will take care of us now? Will “she” take care of me in the first place
5. Don’t we want to see the face of our grandchildren and play with them? Oops, this a double whammy scenario- not just wife but even a kid, will lead to performance pressure

Is it difficult to live in this vacuum? Not initially but slowly the thought drives you sad and frustrated. Now, becoming a celibate is a way out but clearly, that it is easier said than done. We are not ready to give up family and society life for a harsh world that requires inner introspection – takes time to introspect and accept realities of life.

In Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, the protagonist decides to become an ascetic and leaves his family and friends in search of the TRUTH. He wanders aimlessly, gets sucked into a life of wealth, greed, lust and attachment until he finally realises the TRUTH. He realizes that the TRUTH has never changed but it needs one to undergo certain experiences to understand the TRUTH. Marriage is, probably, a hard taskmaster but what lies ahead requires one to go through this phase – to learn the meaning of attachment. In a simplified way, if you need to become the Monk Who Sold his Ferrari, you need to earn the Ferrari first.

Let me quote from a blog I just read which gives a different perspective to the thought of love and marriage:

Many of us have been exposed to the idea that love should be romantic and sweep us off our feet. While this is a natural part of any relationship, the true test of our love comes from our willingness to explore this world with another person; to not only share in the delights that we encounter but also to negotiate the bumps in the road together

Entering into a committed relationship is in fact a spiritual journey that we undertake with another person. By being able to love and care for someone else with an open heart, we will find that we can reach a greater level of personal transformation, evolving along our path and learning powerful not otherwise be able to do on our own.

There will always be doubting Thomases (including myself) but the best way to approach an issue is to experience it first hand and not feed on a third party’s perspective. Each person’s perspective is different and to assume that we can think through every topic logically and analytically may not help in solving it.

Forget the philosophy, loneliness can hurt and the manifestation is not always on the surface; dig deep and the need to call out and share your moments and thoughts with someone is always there.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Fiscal Rope Trick

It is Diwali time but there is a general pall of gloom sweeping the surroundings. The world economy has slowed down and consequently our economy has braked- so many of our investments have come to a nought, just become some smart alecs sitting in plush offices in US have put their dough in the wrong places. But why do we need to pay the price for someone else’s blunders of avarice?

We were told that an integrated economy is the way ahead. As the world trades more, we will all progress but did somebody forget to tell us that when there is a slowdown we all have to suffer? The stock market, irrational as usual, has come down from the Manhattan towers to the slums of Dharavi and is plunging further still.

So, all that requires the entire world economy to stumble is a few bad loans in US, is it? I mean is this the stable growing economy that we are talking about? Economists have told us for years that Markets are intelligent enough and will correct themselves and that regulations adversely affect the market. Free trade and free movement reflect positive growth but then free falling recessions, bad debts and wages also come hurtling back in bad times.

The news has been full of banks queuing up to collapse in a pile, companies cutting down expenses, B-Schools getting candidates placed wherever they can and TV channels making merry with stories on various fiscal ruins. The Indian Aviation Industry is crying for help and we are all concerned that flight trips have got more expensive but in the midst of all this, our son of the soil remains silent. He wonders what the fuss is all about; many of his colleagues have been committing suicide every year and all that happens is that magazines like Frontline feature articles on them and Sainath rants about government (in) action. Is our pain of greater concern to the Government than that of the farmer who suffers in silence?

Gordon Gekko in his famous “Wall Street” speech remarks Greed is Good and we all believed in it. It's a zero sum game, somebody wins, somebody loses. Money itself isn't lost or made; it's simply transferred from one perception to another. Yes, we realised that he was the villain in the film but once the movie was done, we went back to the rational exuberance of the markets.

The Market is God, it decides fates and it is fun as long as the destiny follows a path of flowers; the moment, the road starts crumbling, we look for scapegoats- the government, the brokers and all the innumerable people who have put money in places where it has just been sucked in through and through. Everyone is to blame except us the poor investors- we just wanted to make some extra money, don’t blame us...

Maybe, just maybe, it is time to decelerate and ask ourselves whether we are moving in the right direction. Introspection comes only during crisis and the world needs earthquakes to question some of its holy cows who have long eaten it hollow. Socialism is a bad word now but as a concept it still has relevance. When Jet Airways decided to fire many of its employees, many felt the pinch because it was much closer home and we reacted strongly to the high handedness of the management but for years, farmers in Vidarbha and Andhra have been suffering a worse fate but they are confined to the occasional blips of our conscience.

Aravind Adiga exposes the dirty side of social and economic disparity in The White Tiger but many have been critical about the fact that it dares to talk about the dark underbelly. As the country marches ahead relentlessly, inspite of the Gods, do we need to talk about them – the ants that are crushed when the Elephant Dances are of little consequence to us. Shining India cannot talk about dirty India, can it? Think of the big picture we are told – somebody has to suffer in the larger interests of the nation and we agree as long as it is not any of us in the firing line.

The current India is akin to the US of the 60s; there is an entrepreneurial instinct which pushes continuously cutting through yards of red tapism. So, the focus is on growth and profits and these alone – people and environment are not of much importance. So, you have more and more construction work happening, cars multiplying and spends increasing. This is an India dazzled by the glow of its own success that turns a blind eye to its areas of discomfort.

Why does a country that is home to advanced high-tech and manufacturing companies still have about 400 million illiterate people and high unemployment? Only 65% of the population can read, and in the villages that number falls as low as 33%. There an almost complete disconnect between the 300 million, high-flying Indians, living in lavish luxury and intoxicated by their own verbosity over globalisation and the remaining 750 million of their countrymen, many of whom seldom get two square meals a day. The "trickle down" theory remains a theory for all practical purposes.

But would this slowdown act as a pill which would awaken to the disasters that are in store when pure economics rules over emotions and compassion? Some lessons to be learnt and some philosophies to be shed and a directional change is required and this crisis will probably cause nations to do that. Capitalism or no other -ism is a final solution; a middle path needs to be evolved and hopefully some things will change now.

Probably things are not that bad despite what Rajdeep and Co may say. We have gone through greater disasters but then in this era of shock and awe reporting, we see all the effects of this slowdown magnified in front of our eyes. Yes, we need to do a bit of pruning down (For the first time in 3 years, I am going home by train instead of flight) but then, it does not hurt to lie low for some time, doesn’t it? Let the market takes it own course............

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Being Gay is no Gay Matter

Recently, the Union Home Ministry submitted to the Delhi High Court that “Homosexuality is a social vice and the state has the power to contain it. Decriminalizing homosexuality may create breach of peace. If it is allowed, the evils of AIDS would further spread and harm the people. It would lead to a big health hazard and degrade moral values of society”.

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, enacted by the British in the late nineteenth century, criminalizes what it calls, ‘sexual offences against the order of nature’. It does not clearly elucidate what comprises “against the order of nature” but same sex relationship is considered under its ambit in India.

The Union Health Ministry, however, has a difference of opinion and wants to scrap this act. Is homosexuality against the laws of nature? Just wonder if some people sitting in Delhi have decided that it is unnatural and so, it should be banned. Of course, there are many people who believe that this is unhealthy and needs to be treated.

Definitions of social vices are very subjective and there is no clear cut consensus on the vices that require to be controlled by the Government (if they ever needed to be). But our custodians of culture have decided that homosexuality is a definite no-no. I wonder if there are any statistics to prove that gay hood is a threat to the society in any way. If homosexuality is a social vice, then what makes heterosexuality any less holy?

The argument that legalizing homosexuality will lead to AIDS and other STDs is flawed. Banning it has lead to the situation of gays not finding an outlet to meet partners, except in dark shady corners, another type of ghettoisation. The fact that this is not legal has led to a sense of palpable sense of fear and a lack of a safety. There is no legal or medical help/counselling available to these people which makes matters worse.

What is the basis to determine what is natural sex and what is not and who determines this? There are probably many gays and lesbians in our midst who are hiding their sexual orientation because of the fear of being ridiculed and harassed. We have been brought upto believe that only opposite sex relationships are in sync with nature; possibly because marriage was linked only to procreation (Actually, with the levels of sex education in India, sex itself is dirty, so forget the question of homo vs hetero).

Why is homosexuality a social vice that needs to be banned? How different is it from hetero anyway? Funny, that the government thinks that homosexuality leads to AIDS while hetero is fine. Condemning any form of behaviour which is not in tune with our perception of what is right is pretty easy. It may not be easy to digest the idea that people of the same sex can actually co-habitate, because of years of conditioning. It is important to at least empathize with the plight of people who cannot express their love lest they are harmed by society.

Being a homosexual does not mean you are a pervert or you are promiscuous (neither of these qualify to be termed as “criminal activities” anyway). If sex is a natural expression, can the government intervene and tell us what is natural and what is not? If it is natural, then you don’t actually need anyone to tell you that, right? It should come to all of us naturally….

Definitions of morality are culture specific and do not have any universal sanction. Morality policed by society and laws no longer remains “natural”. If two consenting adults are involved, does the government have any locus standi to intervene and tell them how to behave?

There is also the peril of pushing Indian society into an increasing state of intolerance, where there is only one set of beliefs that is culturally acceptable, therefore legally sanctioned, and anything that goes against it has to be suppressed and criminalized -all justified in the name of culture.

Media and society perceptions weigh heavily against them making it difficult to express their true nature. After all, who would want to suffer the ignominy of being featured in the exclusive 24 hour broadcasts by TV Channels? Imagine a parent accepting the fact that his son is not actually want to get married to a girl; how scandalous. Society standards require you to marry a person of another sex only and so, many probably live "happy married" lives, supressing their "natural" instincts.

In Brokeback Mountain, Ang Lee beautifully portrays the relationship between two men and their intense love. I did feel uncomfortable watching them kiss (I went with a male friend to the movie) but I realize that maybe I could not fully fathom their relationship because of my concept of love. Now, maybe there is more maturity, and I appreciate the fact that the movie broke new ground in looking at love just the way it was and keeping gender equations out of it.

While writing this, I wondered how I would react to the situation if someone in my friend circle is a gay. And then I realize that there could possibly be a gay in our circle but we have never known and would never know. Why would the poor guy ever admit and fear being ostracized by the rest of the group? Same sex relationship would have the same kind of vagaries, fallacies as well as beauty of a man-woman relationship.

Would a day come when the law and society looks at people as individuals who can take decisions in life themselves and not be coerced or conned into believing that there is somebody else sitting within our midst who can judge what is right and what is wrong for us? We are all responsible for our lives, so why let someone else decide what we need to do or don’t need to do?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

A Multi-Cultural Identity Crisis

Yesterday was Onam and I am back at home in Hyderabad on a weekend break. Many people spam me with SMSs wishing “Happy Onam” and several other creative lofty messages. The TV is full of celebrities talking about their memories of the festival – going to temples, spending time with family and the food and all that. Perfectly normal I guess especially because nostalgia always feels good – it is always the present that feels unbearable but if someone were to ask me the same question, I’d be wondering what my memories are of Onam or for that matter, any other festival.

Diwali and Dusshera are no Malayalee festivals (despite what the rest of India thinks) but as a child, bursting of crackers and holidays was fun and the festival name did not matter. And now at 27, all festivals seem to be the same – office holidays and nothing to do but spend time browsing or watching TV. I wonder whether some of us celebrate festivals merely to feel a part of our society; the feeling of being all alone in the crowd (the Malayalam phrase – Aalkuttathil thaniye- remains my favourite expression) can be depressing.

All this makes me ask questions about my cultural identity as an individual. Why do people think it is weird that you don’t actually have any special liking for your festival and look at it as just another day in the office? I find it difficult to justify this and then home grown Keralites are happy to throw snide remarks at non-residential Keralites for ignoring their cultural nuances.

Living in Mumbai now as a non-Marathi speaking person is perfectly fine as long as you are not a celebrity. Even Big B and his wife have to spell out their love for Marathi to avoid being boycotted by the oldest hooligan family in Maharashtra. Somehow, I fancily wished that either he or somebody in the industry would stand up for my right to speak the language of my choice in this country but other than the Commissioner of Police, no one ever did.

Instead, the Big Man apologised and even said that his wife spoke chaste Marathi and the papers reported how so many Bollywood actors could peak Marathi fluently. Christ, did it matter if they could not? Does this make them less eligible to stay in Mumbai? The "forced" resilience of the poor Mumbaikar is not of only the Marathi Maanus but of all the hassled people who are part of this metropolis.

A friend volunteered that if you go to the South, you need to speak their language, then why not in Mumbai – this is the classic Tamil Nadu effect where the image of TN overshadows the presence of other states (I can recollect a colleague of mine telling me in jest not to speak “South Indian”). I am not going to stand up for any state’s interests but does it even matter if someone in another state speaks their language or not. Forget about MNS; we probably are too much in love with our linguistic identity to care about the feelings of others, whether it is the lungiwallah or the UP-Bihari worker.

Coming to religion, there was an NDTV or CNN-IBN report that I had seen recently that spoke about the difficulty that Muslims found in finding a house to stay in the cosmopolitan melting pot Mumbai. And I’m sure, it is not restricted to only Mumbai but many parts of India where we have such a negative perception of Muslims because some motley group of jokers masquerading as protectors of Islam are killing people everywhere. Does the skull cap and beard put us off so much that we are not willing to trust anyone from their community?

Last week, there was a lot of media coverage on Salman Khan’s family celebrating Vinayaka Chaturthi and how secular his family was. He also gave us a couple of sound bytes on how the family believed in all religions and secular principles. Just wondering how media would have covered the story if he or any other Muslim were to complain about the din and ruckus being created in the name of this Hindu festival – a perfect communal angle spoiling his image and creating space for MNS and the rest of their ilk to make a commotion.

For all our progress in our economics, just tell your parents that you love a non-Hindu [Corrected as per Deepdowne's comments below- a person from another religion and not just a non-Hindu] and would like to marry her and all hell breaks loose. After all, we are torch bearers of our religion and cannot afford to pull down the hopes of our community. Remember the Rizwanur Rahman murder case– where the police and the families worked together to separate the couple, leading finally to Rizwanur’s suicide, a wonderful example of “Shining India”. There are so many people who are willing to die in the name of religion but very few who want to live in its name.

And then, there is this nationalistic feeling that engulfs so many of us, especially during cricket matches. The yardstick of patriotism is measured by how much you stand by your country or its narrow interests and beliefs. When I hear cinematic cliches like “I am an Indian first and only then a Hindu/Tamilian” and other patriotic outbursts, I cringe in my seat. Yes, I am an Indian but something stops me from screaming this from roof tops. I am born to an Indian couple and therefore, an Indian but this by itself is no achievement or symbol of divinity. But we do invest a great deal of pride in being born here and even deride other nationalities and cultures – US has poor cultural values, Singapore is less than the size of Mumbai etc.

In debates, we stand by the greatness of our country and its cultural diversity and historical greatness but how does that matter? Arvind Swamy jumps on the burning Indian flag in Roja to extinguish its flames and I wonder how the audience or defenders of our nation’s interests would have taken it if Mani Ratnam were to show the hero sitting silently even when the flag burns. There would be a PIL, surely, demanding that Mani apologises to the nation and deletes the scene for hurting the feelings of millions and of course, violent protests. There is always a vociferous group of people waiting to get hurt at the drop of a hat and taking the rest of the nation to ransom, all in the name of protecting our poor democracy.

These are times when symbols of patriotism become greater than the patriotic feeling itself. So, Manmohan’s India prefers to trade with Myanmar’s junta and welcome the Chinese premiere rather than stand up for Aung Sang Suu Kyi or the Dalai Lama – c’mon, aren’t our economic interests more important? Is there any point in supporting such lost causes?

Do I need to identify myself as someone who speaks a specific language, belongs to a specific region, a specific religion/caste or even a specific country? I feel like renouncing any form of identity that links me to any of these features and call myself just a human being. Living as a human being is a blessing which we need to cherish and there’s no greater common point that exists between me and anyone who reads this, except the bond of humanity.

As Gandhi says – “If you want to give a message, it must be a message of LOVE”, being an educated Indian Keralite upper caste Hindu is not very different from being a poor Somalian uneducated Muslim; at the end of it, we are human and we all need love. And this loves needs to transcend barriers, barriers that we have created so that we need not share our happiness with the rest of the humanity.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

My Tryst with Vipassana

I’m back from my 10 day trip to Igatpuri, back to the realities of the world where people talk and human beings exist at a totally different plane. If I really have to write down my feelings, it would honestly be difficult; I have tried to structure my observations about the experience in the form of a private interview with my Self – more in keeping with the kind of life that we lived there.

(The Golden Pagoda at Igatpuri)

So, now that you are back, how does it feel?
What do you think? Like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix or the Monk who sold his Ferrari (Smiling) Actually, the only feeling that I can use to describe the event after the 10th day is the feeling of lightness. Maybe, somewhere, the heart has grown a bit soft, has melted and it feels a bit peaceful or maybe it’s a placebo temporary effect; can’t say.

You have got the answers to your questions??
Friend, I remain zapped; getting answers to my questions!!! I don’t think I know my questions clearly enough, forget the answers...There is probably a feeling of some change internally but I’d not like to sit on judgment on it now itself, let’s give it some time.

Fair enough, then let’s discuss the nitty-gritty a bit more. The 10 day silence – how awful was that?
Actually, it is a 9 day Arya maun (Complete silence – no gestures or actions or eye contact and not only an absence of words). During the 9 days, you can still talk to the assistant teacher or the management regarding any problems on the technique or the arrangements and all but you must avoid all communication with others.

On the 10th day, the silence is broken and you spend a day in the centre without the vow; the idea, as I understand, is that exposing oneself to the world immediately could be a bit of shock.

But a 9-day silence still seems quite a punishment. Wasn’t it tough?
Honestly, it was not that tough. You are in an environment where everyone is a stranger and silent and there is no external stimulus of any kind that could make you feel like talking – you know no TV, internet, books, magazines, music. But you do a lot of talking to yourself inside; you probably do that all the time but never realised it. Come to think of it, I think I did enjoy the silence – some challenges can be inspiring.

So, you’d have thought about family, friends and office???
Actually, it was a random flow – no, not flow, avalanche is a better word – of thoughts and nothing much in specific. I hardly ever thought of office which surprised me, considering that my world seems to start and end with it. Quite a few thoughts, on the first few days, on near and dear ones but otherwise it seemed only about myself. I know this sounds pretty selfish, but then I guess that’s the truth. Deep down, maybe that’s the only thing that matters (sighing)..

Alright, so, what was the daily routine like?
We were supposed to wake up at 4 AM in the morning and then do a 2 hour meditation from 4.30 to 6.30, either in our rooms or in the Group Hall. Breakfast was served from 6.30-7.15 and the next session commenced at 8. After an hour of meditation, you could choose to continue the same in your room or stay in the Hall. Lunch was served at 11 AM and then after the required break/siesta, the next session was to start at 1 PM. Again meditation and then snacks at 5 PM, followed by the next session at 6 o’clock. Then there was a must see/hear 1.5 hr video recording discourse by Guruji (Shri S N Goenka) at 7.15 and then you retire to your room by 9.30 night. The same schedule went on for 9 days.

So, you basically, eat, sleep and meditate that’s all?
Well, that’s all I suppose; I also walked a lot during the breaks, especially after the lunch. Other than the regular breaks, you also had a 5 minute break after an hour of meditation. Maybe if the schedule had much more time in between, it could lead to a lot of boredom.

The Ashram food; what about it?
Guess, it was a bit surprising; I kind of liked it. It was less spicy and not much masala (for obvious reasons) but it was pretty decent – tasted better than my office food. But there were quite a few people who did not like the food but then you can’t make everyone happy. The fact that there was no dinner served (the last food was served at 5 PM during the snacks) was a concern to a few but then since you are not actually doing any great physical work, ideally, that should not have been too much of a problem.

Tell me about the meditation – that was your only activity during this period!
For the first 3.5 days, we practised Aana-Pana meditation; involves focusing one’s attention first on the sensation of breath passing above the upper lip and in and out of the. Then the Vipassana technique was taught on Day-4 where you observe the various sensations in your body ranging from heat, cold, throbbing, vibrating, tickling and any possible reaction, which are sensitised by the Aana-Pana meditation. The idea is to merely observe the sensations and not react to them.

Sounds pretty trivial a thing to do for hours..
Breath and energy flow is considered trivial by most of us because education has never taught us the use and relevance of this activity. At a very high level, every reaction or emotion that you exhibit triggers a sensation in the body but you are not sensitive to realise that. As soon as the sensations are felt, we are supposed to move our attention from the top of the head to the feet, and so on until we have scanned each and every part of the body. Most important is that we cultivate a sense of impartiality and equanimity to all sensations.

If we experience pleasant, subtle sensations we crave for them while if we experience gross, unpleasant sensations we develop hatred towards these sensations. We need to observe these experiences and treat them impartially; all things are impermanent and our suffering is because of our sense of attachment towards these feelings- negatively or positively.

And did you feel that magical power or whatever it was during this period?
Actually, I struggled for close to 6 and half days to figure out what I was doing and it was only after the teacher (an affable French gentleman named Yves Guichard) corrected my technique that there was a change. I did feel a lot of energy flow (gross and subtle) after that and that felt great but of course, the point is that the flow may be great but you must never develop any ego because of that; it kills the very purpose of the entire sadhna. Maybe being a Reiki practitioner, it may have helped but even then, it did take 7 days to make some progress.

Actually, there’s no point in discussing the sensations or the experience and calling it magical and all that; subtle behavioural changes are not very evident immediately but have a much lasting effect and merely taking about seeing light, vibrations, and energy is purely superficial. Each person’s experience is different and these cannot and should not be compared, otherwise you’d have people searching for mysterious electric, electromagnetic, vibrating, thermal and what not effect without understanding the final purpose.

You think this could make a change to your life and that more and more people should actually learn this...
It is too pompous a presumption that I have changed (when I can’t even explain the change) and henceforth, things would be different. I guess, the seeds for some change have been put but nurturing them is upto the student and that’s what determines any progress in this regard. I think more people should try this out and experience and then decide whether they want to go ahead with it or not.

But let’s be clear, the 10 day experience is not easy. You need to leave your family behind, stay alone like a bhikshu and follow a grind of early morning waking up, no talking, meditating for a greater part of the day – not exactly what you describe as a holiday. I myself had this urge a few times to run away from there during this period but then jaon bhi to kahan? I used to look at each Day waiting for the Day 10 to arrive but eventually, you kind of accept it. In hindsight, you kind of feel so much better but can’t say the same during this period. Anyway if you are determined, you can do it, if so many others can, why not you?

How was the crowd there? Mostly of a higher age group maybe..
Funnily no..There was a few guys fresh out of college, somebody doing his PG, quite a few employed and about my age, a few couples and all kinds. My neighbour was a young Australian who had his own bakery business in Navi Mumbai; there was this 45+ Muslim guy, the son of an Imam, who looked just 25 and was some kind of a fitness freak; another guy in his late twenties who was broke and just travelling to various places; another guy was a filmmaker who had co-founded an organisation to promote social change, a media manager with a private TV channel – all an interesting assortment of characters with nothing much in common.

Ok. But how would someone sit for hours, close the eyes and meditate? That easy??
(Laughs) Sorry, no such pretensions at all. Lots of thoughts went around in the mind during the first five days during meditation in the hall with the eyes closed. And even after that the mind would keep wandering wildly from one place to another but then somewhere in the midst of all this wandering there are periods of powerful concetration too. The initial breath observation and the complete silence did play an important role.

Also, the sexes were segregated during the entire period and you actually did not see any female during this period except while walking towards the dining hall but for some reason, I abstained from looking in that direction during this period – some poor attempt at will power, I guess:)

You plan to go there again?
Actually, no plans for anything at all at this point of time; let’s take each day as it comes, who knows how much the world changes before I take another break. Monday and back to office and so back to reality; we will leave it at that.

My Closing thoughts...
This was a 10 day break from routine and eventually, it felt good. This could be due to a change in the routine or due to an actual change at the basic level where I suddenly felt, what should I say, connected with myself, a little bit. Maybe it was the exhilaration of lasting for 10 days and proving some kind of a point to oneself and others. Whatever, it is, the feeling is itself transient and needs to be understood – Trying to develop equanimity towards both happy and sad events; for me, this was one of the most important points that I picked up during this course.

There is also a spiritual ego or baggage that I have been carrying – I am a Reiki healer and have read a lot of books in this regard and all that – but this journey has managed to inject in a more sense of humility and reality. Reading and analysing spirituality does not make for any change or even if it does, it is purely at the top level, the inner feelings remain the way it always was and that needs much more hard work and practice deep inside to change. But then there’s nothing to despair, each journey has its own stream of joy; pick it up and proceed on the next journey...

Saturday, August 09, 2008

In Search of Silence

Come Wednesday August 13th and I am on a 10 day long sabbatical from everything that I am associated with and have been so far in my life. I will be in Igatpuri, a small town which lies between Mumbai and Nasik and whose primary claim to fame is the Vipassana Research Institute.

I call this a sabbatical and not just a break because during this period, I will not only have no access to Internet, Mobile and other forms of communication but I will also have to maintain total silence. 10 days without speech/noise does sound rather stiff, I concede, but then if you have volunteered for a programme, I guess you better abide by the rules. I distinctly remember Amit telling that I speak much more than an average girl speaks in her life (no stereotyping intended) and so the challenge seems just that bit more intimidating!!!!

When I announced my decision to do so, there were all kinds of reactions. Some folks wondered why I would want to subject myself to this torture (getting up at 4.30 AM is also part of the rules); some said that would like to know from me how it feels once I am back so that they could also plan a trip;some wondered if I were not crazy to do so and how my office gave me this leave; some felt that it is too early to venture into such a but most people were of the opinion that I should go for it, it was just that they did not either have the time or the inclination or initiative to try this out despite all the good feedback that they had received.

So, why am I going? Honestly, I do not know; this was a decision taken on an impulse. Mind you, since I first read about it in the Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald, I have been intrigued by the idea. But there is always a huge gap between conception and implementation; the flights of fantasy need wings and it just does not come that easily. Since arriving in Mumbai last October, I, Kunal and Infy have discussed it many times but have been postponing the idea, so hopefully, my trip will spur them on. I guess that on many an occasion, what drives people is their pursuit for meaning in life, advocated by Viktor Frankl, the father of logo therapy.

The pursuit of meaning in life is quite abstract and is not something that someone can explain with logic and analysis because each of us has a different purpose and the discovery of the same comes at different stages. You don’t need to be 45+ to start looking for it; searching for it when the energy levels are high and the passion to explore new territories is there is more important. Age can never be a limiting factor in our search for truth.

Of course, this is not to say that you take a 10 day silence period and you learn the truths in life; I would be kidding myself if I were to even suggest that. However, it is important to listen to myself and try to answer some of the questions that I have been asking myself for so many years now. I have experimented with Reiki, Transcendental Meditation, Raja Yoga and a few other alternate paths but somewhere keep losing track of all these paths. But a traveller should never stop; sometimes, the destination may not be very clear but it is important to ensure that the travel continues. There are many sign posts but we need to identify them and move ahead.

Every time, we introduce each other, we relate to our profession and describe ourselves accordingly – I am Pradeep, a banker who works in XYZ Bank. Funny,we seem to be confusing our lives with our means of livelihood. We need to ask ourselves what is it that we want to do in my life and not what is it that we want to do for our my livelihood; these are totally separate things. Are we confusing our lives' goals with career and personal goals?

If we don’t live for our profession,we live for our family or for things that we derive pleasure in but the soul's craving seems to have gone into hibernation. I guess something from inside always asks questions but in the din of everything around us, we just don’t seem to listen to it. We have, unknowingly, suppressed the inner voice and maybe, just maybe, this short period of solitude will help in throwing some light on understanding the destination.

We met many people who seem so restless with their lives and live empty lives – going to office and coming back and servicing their families but the joy seems to be lost. Life can be quite a taskmaster, I guess, and the small things in life have suddenly flown out of our lives. Will the Vipassana trip make a difference to my life? I do not know but it is still an attempt to try to make a difference in my life which is ambling around Interest Tables, Pricing Controls, Fees, Parameter changes and all those mundane things that make up the life of a Business Analyst in my domain.

The world will be the way it is and we may not be able to change it as per our needs and this leads to a lot of inner turmoil and frustration. We cannot change the world but we can change is the way we face the world and its trials and tribulations. Eventually, I believe, that we need to meet our karmic destiny and there is no running away from that- can we be ready to take responsibility for our lives and not blame others for our problems? All sounds too snobbish, expecting so many things to happen just by keeping quiet but then there’s no harm in attempting to change when you know that you need to, otherwise you will anyway be the sufferer.

And then, finally, escaping from the cacaphony of the urban madness called Mumbai (could be any other urban decay) is necessary once a while to retain your sanity. You cannot reflect back when you drive in fifth gear; you need to slow down ..... 10 days of serene silence can never harm anyone, can it???

Saturday, April 19, 2008

That thing called Mental Illness

About a couple of months back, I spent a week in a psychiatric hospital in NIMHANS in my capacity as a part of a patient’s family. This is not my first experience with psychiatrists, having stayed earlier in Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences for about 3 weeks in a similar capacity.

And it brought about the best as well as the worst in me. The feeling of frustration and anger was pretty obvious but the experience did open a window into another world – a world inhabited by people just like you and me, those who dream and those who just have lost the capacity to dream.

A hospital is not exactly a cheerful place of existence and a psychiatric centre can be even more difficult. All the patients in the ward are present there on account of some mental illness which cannot be understood by others.

So you see people there living in their own worlds disturbed by our actions and lives. Staying there in a timeless existence in the midst of people who are not in the same frame of mind as some of us can be a very reflective process.

The human mind is a complex animal and you’d be surprised by the thoughts and fears that plague many of us. But society ordains that we should not express our fears; after all, it makes us less manly.

Suppressing or controlling emotions is only an escapist action; we need to acknowledge them and it calls for a certain degree of change that we may not be willing to do at this point of time.

I am willing to spend money and refurbish my flat, service my car but I am not willing to rejuvenate myself; just too caught up with short term goals to be worried about long term ones.

It is the classic Chicken and the Egg Syndrome - Once I take care of my wants, I will look at myself but what if it is too late???

The difficulty of dealing with mental illness is in understanding and relating to the patient’s troubles. Unlike physical injuries that are pretty evident, mental injuries are too deep rooted to penetrate. Many of us have mental injuries which require attention but we refuse to acknowledge them.

Some of these injuries, if not attended to, manifest themselves in the form of major illnesses or at the least in various forms of unexplained irritation. Depression is a medical term, for God’s sake, and not merely an English word to signify a lack of cheerfulness. Definitions of beating the blues and down in the dumps may not be enough to explain the issue.

One of the biggest problems associated with mental illness is the stigma associated with it. People just do not want to discuss their illness with anyone. A mental illness is not perceived as just another disease that needs treatment. What cannot be seen cannot be understood and so the patient stands isolated and misunderstood.

The way people interact with people who suffer from these illnesses make you feel sad; it makes you ask why is it that we think that mocking at someone’s misery is the only contribution we can make. Jokes on the mental state of people no longer sound that funny. I guess seeing the problem from a close proximity gives a different perspective.

People who came to visit us at the hospital would wonder what the problem was. Was it actually a problem that required hospital treatment or was it just a state of mind that required cheering up? Some nice people did propose that maybe, just maybe the family is not doing enough to cheer up the poor man - clearly, easier said than done.

Living in a state of mind that looks at world in a state of void gives a sense of unexplained emptiness. Have we all not gone through situations in life when we suddenly go blank and think that the world is collapsing around us? What happens if this state of mind remains for a long time and occupies all our emotions?

People have called us up to understand what Depression actually means. Do people feel sad or anxious for no particular reason at all? It should come as no surprise that so many of us go through these phases but are unaware of them. Medical science and society have not enlightened us enough to understand the problem and acknowledge it.

Please understand that the problem of depression is not something that you can just “snap out of” as most people would like you to believe. Like any other serious medical condition, it needs to be treated.

As family members or friends, it is very important for us to be supportive of the patient’s predicament. All is not lost and it is important that we stand by the man. He needs all the help that he needs; please do not abandon him and call him mad or lunatic.

Medical care works only if there is a genuine concern attached, otherwise, all you can come up is with a short term solution. The feeling of being unwanted is quite painful and you may feel it one day, without ever being ready for it.

Anyone, just anyone, can suffer from depression, and it should come as no surprise that one of you who is reading this suffers from it. But are we ready to understand that there could be a problem and we may have to consult a psychiatrist? I know it could be potentially embarrassing to be known as someone who has a problem and needs psychiatric attention.

But then is the embarrassment (if any, mind you) so high that you are willing to subject yourself to hours, days and weeks of mental misery for reasons unknown. And then, most importantly, it’s your life; why should you allow someone to dictate what you need to do in your life?

I am not too sure of the statistics involved but it seemed pretty tragic to me most of the inmates in the hospital were youngsters – people in the age group of less than 30. Is this an ominous sign of the mental state of the people of our generation who are cramped mentally and do not have sufficient support structures to help themselves out.

We are moving ahead in life but the progress that we make is at a velocity that can be dangerous. The people who are not able to handle this momentum are at a danger of finding themselves discarded. Most of us are actually in favour of this survival of the fittest theory except when it comes to our people. And then the reality hurts and it hurts bad.

It is not totally unimaginable that one day we find ourselves suffering from this problem but are not willing to accept it. After all, how can I suffer from depression? Isn’t it one of those elitist ailments that calls for meaningless therapies? There are many of us who are in this state of perennial rejection who would eventually wonder "Why Me".

We need to be constantly aware of our state of mind and emotions to ensure that we do not slip into a depressive state. Of course, this requires those rare moments of introspection that we don't have time for. We need to value or lives much more, don't we?

Friday, January 18, 2008

Born Into Brothels

Amidst all the euphoria of the stock market striking the magical 20,000 figure, all thoughts of dark India recede to the background. It is buried deep inside conveniently forgotten because we just cannot face the reality that we are a part of a world where the Pareto principle reigns supreme.

As I walk around the streets of Mumbai, there are so many maimed beggars that I see but I find it difficult to look into their eyes. Wonder if it is a sense of disgust at the thought of Shining India or a guilt that comes to the fore when I stare at these half naked bodies crying out for help.

Born into Brothels is in many ways a rude reminder to the fact that these wretched poor exist in a separate and parallel universe, without an exit, while far away from all this is the prosperous booming India where we find ourselves. It is a 2004 American documentary film about the children of prostitutes in Sonagachi, Calcutta's red light district, who continue to live on the fringes, neglected and unkempt.

While the state of prostitutes in this part of the world is quite pathetic, the condition in which they bring up their children ensures that the next generation also ends up no better. The mostly illegitimate children of these sex workers are also expected to "join the line” when they reach a certain age (or does age even matter?).

Minor girls are highly sought after in brothels (read virgins needed) and secure good prices, making it very difficult for the parents to let them leave, especially when they represent the only source of income in the entire family.

Zana Briski, an American photographer, visited India in the late 1990s, taking pictures of women's issues in India and at a certain point, was invited to go to Kolkatta to become part of a photography show. She somehow traced her steps to Sonagachi, one of the oldest red light areas in India where approximately 7,000 women and girls work as prostitutes, and that was where her journey started.

Ross Kauffman, her collaborator, joined her later and they ended up making this acclaimed documentary film which won a string of accolades including the Academy Award for the Best Documentary Feature in 2005.

While the women were reluctant to let Zana peep into their lives, the children responded very spontaneously to her efforts. In order to understand them better, Zana lived with them, provided the children with 35mm cameras and taught them how to use them.

It is from the images the children captured and their experiences they had while doing so, that the film's script unfolds. The result is a film that takes us inside squalid brothels and allows us to see the world through the eyes of some of its most vulnerable residents. Shot using a digital camera, we get to know the children through their photos.

Opening with an introduction of its kids and the harsh reality of their lives, the movie follows the children as they wander, cameras in hand, through the streets of Kolkatta. The film also documents Briski's uphill efforts in trying to rescue these youngsters from a seemingly morbid future, and seeks some educational facility that will accept them.

But clearly this is so much easier said than done, as one nun tells Briski when the filmmaker seeks her help in locating a school for the children, "Nobody will take them" because they are the offspring of prostitutes. Some manage to find places in special schools despite these issues but the biggest obstacle remain the children's own mothers and guardians, often protective out of the sheer necessity for survival.

Clearly, the fathers do not even exist in many of these places and even if they do, they remain nothing but faceless pimps, wallowing in their own world of drugs.

Zana also experiences the pleasures of dealing with the Indian bureaucracy while trying to secure a passport for one of her students, who is selected to travel to Amsterdam to be part of a children's jury at a World Press Photo Foundation photo exhibit in Amsterdam in 2002. She moves pillar to post trying to get the relevant documents and after great effort, finally manages to send Avijit, one of the kids, to Amsterdam.

Will the boys also be used as prostitutes in future? The movie is silent about this. There is no scene that is sexually explicit or anything that suggests any form of titillation because of the filmmakers' intent in not wanting to exploit their subjects, which is such a welcome relief. After all, a voyeuristic peep into the world of sex with liberal doses of titillation would sell just as well, would'nt it? And of course, you could justify it in the name of art.

Briski says there is no logical or rational reason she invests herself so completely in this endeavour. She admits in the film that she is no social worker, but wanted very much to help the kids, for otherwise their future was a dismal one lacking hope beyond a world of prostitution, drugs and crime.

Through the ups and downs of this journey of her spirit as she wades through the various aspects of India (alien to her), she learns that there is a limit to which she can make a difference. The problem is much more chronic and providing cameras to a bunch of individuals will not resolve the larger menace.

The credits at the end tell us about the future of the kids taken to a boarding school. Only a couple of them continue to stay in their boarding schools while the majority is taken out by their parents, drop out, or is asked to leave.

I guess the solution is not so simple after all; the red light district has existed for centuries and will exist for centuries more. Is art and education enough to empower these children? Quite possibly no but these are steps nevertheless. Moreover, as a society, we have a role in treating these individuals with respect and not just treat them as scum which needs to be cleaned.

Zana allows us to peep into the world of children, caught in this web where hope is the only way to survive; is it not just so unfair that some people have a natural advantage over the others merely because of their place of birth? Aren’t we so lucky to escape from all this and be able to read this while many thousands are resigned to lives of eternal misery???

Zana and Ross have started an organization called Kids with Cameras and funds donated to them are used to teach photography and educate children across. Even if we are indifferent towards the under privileged classes, let us atleast support such attempts. The audience along with me in the theatre certainly felt a sense of empathy as they applauded generously; hope everyone else feels the same…