Moving past our pasts

This is a combination of two unplanned essays. The first was a series of texts I sent to a friend; the second started as a response to an Instagram post questioning the before-after narrative that a lot of us who’ve struggled with mental health or suffered a trauma are familiar with – does it put undue pressure on us to be doing well, now, all the time, now that there’s been a successful intervention? The Instagram post was specific to the transgender experience, but it resonated with me, as I’m sure it did with many others (check out ind0ctrination on Instagram – she’s a medical student, artist, and activist who happens also to write beautiful, compelling, complex pieces on her experiences). The texts came together so beautifully and naturally that I felt they deserved to be shared (and remembered something Rega Jha said about how some of her best writing was hidden away in conversations with friends and late night texts). The Instagram comment felt like an organic follow-up. As a whole, this feels rather like a letter to myself.

Avoid thinking in absolutes and binaries like this: you either have your mind or you don’t; you’re either fine or you’re not; before, when you were normal, and now when you’re not – and so on.

I completely empathize with why you do so. For a long time my narrative about my life was that it was cleaved cleanly in two – before everything changed (I lost myself) and after. It’s tempting to cling to a version of yourself that you think was stronger and healthier and more capable of handling life.

But if there’s a clear before, there’s a clear after, and you have a destination to get to – something you can sense even when you can’t see it very clearly, because you know from experience that things can be different.

I had to let go to move forward. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it, because you can never go back. The truth is that it’s easy to romanticize a past in which you weren’t struggling, especially as time goes on. But usually we struggle for a reason, and it’s not to go back to a previous equilibrium.

As long as I was stuck in the past, I wasn’t free to live my life. I had to understand that, and it took a long time. Because the more that time passed, the more I wanted to cling to this time in my life that was vanishing. It was a foolish thing to do, because I was coding “normal” as the life I’d experienced when I was 12, 13, and adult reality and adult happiness are different things. I imagine that this would be true at any age though. We’re never the same as we were.

That said… don’t throw away everything. It’s always good to remember better times, to remember that you’re capable of feeling good and sharp and so on. Perhaps what you should do is avoid being wedded to that version of yourself as being the reason for those emotions or that goodness. Instead of – I was happy because I was that way – I can be happy, and I will be again. I have proof that it is possible for me. In the future, there will be a stronger, healthier foundation to my happiness, and I will be stabler and more resilient than I was before.

I would never snatch that comfort from anyone. I always thought one of the things that got me through was that I knew what it meant to be perfectly happy, even if I couldn’t always recall it in the moment. I mean you have to know that there’s better in store. Otherwise, why try?

The past was good…for the past. We can still be grateful for it. It’s what we were ready for then. Now the turmoil we are handed, even when it least seems like it, is turmoil that on some level we were open to exploring because who we were was no longer enough. We take on these challenges because we want very deeply to be better versions of ourselves. And we know that there are things we must resolve before we get there.

There are many before and afters in my life: before anything was wrong, and after, when almost everything was. Before I went to college and after, when things finally started to change for the better. Before medication and after. Before counselling and after. I’m certainly not the same person I was two years ago, and I’m immensely grateful for it. I’m healthier and happier and moving everyday towards the best version of myself. And yet, and yet, there are days when I still think that I might sink endlessly, never to surface again.

Acknowledging the magnitude of the struggle and the shockwaves that continue to impact our lives even as we think that the worst of it is behind us – this is important (but be careful to remember that you are far more than your struggle). It’s equally, if not more important to celebrate and celebrate and celebrate who we’ve become and how far we’ve come; how incredible it is that even back then, we kept pushing forward so we could get to this day, even though we didn’t know what it would look like on the other side. There can never be enough celebration, I think, because we ought to keep reminding ourselves that we’ve managed the impossible (I’ve far exceeded the expectations of my past self). We will never face a more daunting enemy than ourselves, and that we stand here, victorious, is a testament to our strength, resilience, and courage, in moving resolutely towards joy and hope…

“Like Water For Chocolate” by Laura Esquivel – review

Like Water for Chocolate (novel) - Wikipedia

“When the talk turns to eating, a subject of the greatest importance, only fools and sick men don’t give it the attention it deserves.”

This is easily the most melodramatic book I’ve read in a long time. It’s exciting, thoroughly entertaining, and fantastical (a large splash of magic realism) but I found it ultimately somewhat frustrating. Set against the backdrop of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-17, Like Water for Chocolate is the story of Tita, who as the youngest daughter of three, is condemned by an absurd, archaic family tradition to remain unmarried and take care of her mother, Mama Elena, until she dies. She falls in love with Pedro at fifteen, but is forbidden by the unbending Mama Elena to marry him. Mama Elena does, however, give Pedro permission to marry her other daughter Rosaura, which he agrees to, in order to stay close to Tita. Tita is a passionate and brilliant cook who sees the world through her knowledge of the kitchen, and each chapter begins with elaborate recipes that are interwoven into the narrative. Food both reflects and precipitates emotion, playing an instrumental role throughout the book.

As someone who doesn’t have this kind of intimate relationship with food and cooking, I was fascinated by the tenderness and sensuality in the descriptions of these elaborate, meticulous recipes (playing an active enough part in the story that they didn’t bore me or feel like interruptions). There’s an operatic, fable-like quality to the writing, with hyperbole, vivid imagery and evocative metaphors. I was particularly struck by this one:

‘ “…My grandmother had a very interesting theory; she said that each of us is born with a box of matches inside us but we can’t strike them all by ourselves; just as in the experiment, we need oxygen and a candle to help. In this case, the oxygen, for example, would come from the breath of the person you love; the candle could be any kind of food, music, caress, word or sound that engenders the explosion that lights one of the matches. For a moment we are dazzled by an intense emotion. A pleasant warmth grows within us, fading slowly as time goes by, until a new explosion comes along to revive it. Each person has to discover what will set off those explosions in order to live, since the combustion that occurs when one of them is ignited is what nourishes the soul. …” ‘

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(Spoilers)

But while passion, sensuality, and love are major themes of the book, I struggled to connect with the central love story between Tita and Pedro. While the book is not strong on characterization on the whole, the lack of dimension to Pedro makes it particularly hard to root for them. To me Pedro came across as weak, cowardly, and selfish. We must love him simply because Tita vehemently insists that she does. The good Dr. John Brown, introduced in the second half of the book, seems so much like a better alternative that the inevitable union of Tita and Pedro at the end is, honestly, unsatisfying. The other characters are also fairly one-dimensional. Mama Elena, despite some revelations to the end, is an evil stepmother type villain. I was almost offended by how cartoonish Rosaura is made to appear in contrast to Tita. I loved the arc of the other sister, Gertrudis, who is kidnapped, straight out of the shower and buck naked, by a soldier; and ends up becoming a general in the Revolutionary Army. Unfortunately, we don’t get to spend much time with her.

There is a part in the book after Tita leaves the ranch where bandits attack the ranch and rape the maid Chencha. Apart from the abrupt tonal shift, I was disturbed by the cursory treatment of the matter. We barely hear anything about the effects on Chencha. The narrator seems simply not to care.

On the whole, the book’s approach to romantic love as a sweeping dramatic passion that simply cannot be denied is one that I find it hard not to roll my eyes at, although I recognize that it is a genre conceit, and to some extent you have to suspend disbelief and accept the premise(s) (I also had trouble with the main premise of Pedro marrying Rosaura to be close to Tita – why on earth would one willingly submit themselves to that kind of indefinite torture?). With this kind of story, you have to allow yourself to be swept along, but there is something in me which resists and demands sense, making it hard to become fully immersed. I want compatibility, goodness, characters able to hold a conversation, some sense that people might be able to co-exist happily together, not just “passion.” Perhaps if I were a teenager, it would be easier to withstand this kind of dramatic grandstanding.

I enjoyed reading this book – loved the magic realism and style of writing, but the weak characterization and asinine love story detracted from it somewhat (although I recognize that there is a larger theme of individual love/agency vs. traditional authority).

Paroxysms of grief

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An all-time favourite photo. Graduation, May 2016

Grief has caught me unawares, sneaking up on me on a day on which I’ve felt strong and independent, driving myself around for the first time. It crashes in on me, engulfing me in that wrenching sorrow that comes with the fresh awareness of the finality of loss. As I press my knees closer to my chest, I think: I will never see the most beautiful smile in the world again. And I will never call anyone Nanna again.

And today it is not enough. It is not enough to have memories. It is not enough feel the remnants of his love. It is not enough. I want to see him and hear him and breathe in his cologne. I want to see him in his meticulously pressed blazers and starched shirts with his overnight suitcase. I want to see him in his monochrome pyjamas as he obsessively tracks the stock market. I want to groan as I hear the strains of one of his favourite songs through the door, for the millionth time, although I find it endearing, his ever-fresh pleasure in the things he loves, like a child for whom a thing once wonderful remains forever so. I’m like that too. I love a song the same whether I’ve heard it once or 500 times. I love my books to pieces in that same way too. I probably have swathes of them unconsciously memorized.

Who will I discuss my grand plans with now? Who will understand the thrill of my outsized ambition the way he would have? Who will burst with pride when I finally take that place in the world that he staunchly believed was rightfully mine? Would it even mean anything, to achieve these things, in his absence?

Because I know I will do them. I know that I am meant for great things, that I have a sharp and unusual mind, a deep and searing empathy, a gift for language and the arts.

My faith in the goodness of people is his legacy. My prompt willingness to help is his legacy. A naivete that has been tempered through exposure, age, and experience – but that will never completely die; that is his legacy. I don’t have his unfailing optimism; but I am an idealist. I have been loved by my parents so completely and love is a foundation that will carry you through anything; I am in agreement with JK Rowling on this.

I am his legacy. He was inordinately proud of me, of every little achievement. I might have forgotten who I was, that I was a class topper and that I wrote well, but he never did. And he never missed an opportunity to let people know these things about me, even when I shied away from drawing attention to them, and myself. He thought I wasn’t confident enough, that I underestimated my skill and intelligence. He was right, of course. He genuinely believed I could do anything, be anything; I could be Prime Minister, I could be in the Planning Commission or the Niti Aayog, hell, I could conquer Wall Street if I wanted to (he was definitely wrong about that last one. Somehow I doubt that my “down with the 1%!” philosophy would sit too well with Wall Street).

My dad would eventually come around on almost anything if he thought it would make me happy, even if he didn’t entirely agree or understand. As long as I was sure, as long as I could justify why I wanted to something, he’d show up, with his wallet if he could.

My dad was one of the most alive people I have ever known. He loved life. He loved work. He loved friendship. He loved fun. He loved music. He started out in a tiny job with an insignificant polytechnic degree and climbed through the ranks of various jobs to hold CXO positions. He gave us a lifestyle we never could have dreamed of: vacations in Europe and Thailand, expensive foreign educations.

He believed firmly in merit. Education was the golden ticket. A prestigious education at a name-brand university would give one a huge leg up. I was his academically gifted daughter who confused him with my choices, my socialist proclivities. It made him impatient; be a capitalist first, and then a socialist, he used to say. Meaning: secure yourself financially, be independent, and then you can be as altruistic as you like.

He never could refuse me anything. I rarely asked for anything, but when I did, the answer was invariably yes. Yes, you can. Yes, enjoy yourself. You’re young, now is the time to have a good time with your friends and see the world.

I’ve been told that when I was a baby, I would sleep on his chest. When he left on business trips, I would cry non-stop. Even when I got older his chest remained the most comforting spot in the world. I knew that as long as my dad was around, I was safe. He would take care of me. I was safe.

For days after it happened I could feel him around me. I felt it so strongly, his presence; a blanket of love that enveloped me and comforted me, assuring me that he was watching over us, that he would never really leave me.

It’s hard to believe that he’s really gone. It feels like so little time has passed since we last heard his voice. I wonder if all those long business trips we grew accustomed to prepared us somehow for this strange, sudden, so final a departure: maybe there’s some part of us waiting for him to come in that door with his blazer and briefcase, with stars in his eyes about the people he’d met and things he’d seen.

“Bitten”

Here’s another old piece. A rare, finished story, written from a prompt during an acting workshop I briefly attended (The tree was standing tall, but leaves were falling. A girl was enjoying herself under the shade. I saw a boy approaching towards a snake. Suddenly, with a log, he tried to strike …) Jan, 2017

The tree was standing tall, but leaves were falling. A girl was enjoying herself under the shade. I saw a boy approaching towards a snake. Suddenly, with a log, he tried to strike the cobra. He missed! Instantly, the cobra turned towards him and reared its hood, hissing viciously. He stood still as a stone, paralyzed by fear. I took an abortive step forward, but it was too late. With a cry of pain, he fell to the ground. The cobra slithered away. The girl and I shrieked at the same time and rushed towards him.

The boy had lost consciousness. There were puncture marks on his leg, but no blood. The girl had his head on her lap and was weeping hysterically. I had heard that snake bite victims had to be treated within two hours or the wound could be fatal. I also vaguely remembered reading something about a tourniquet. Apart from that, my snake-related knowledge was frustratingly sparse.

“Pull yourself together,” I commanded, sharply. “We have to get him to a hospital immediately.”

The girl’s breath caught on a sob. “W-w-we d-d-don’t have a v-v-vehicle.”

I held my cell phone up against the sky and squinted at it. There were no bars.

“Do you have a phone?”

There were no bars on hers, either.

We were three hours from the nearest town and at least as much from the nearest hospital. We had trekked into a forest in the Western Ghats with a tour guide. Although we were a large group of more than twenty, we had gradually dispersed. With an hour or so to sunset, I stopped at a tranquil spot near a magnificent tree with strong, ancient boughs. If I’d paid more attention in biology, I’d have known its name. I settled on a large rock a safe distance from the tree (who knew what creatures nestled in its depths?) and, thinking scattered thoughts about school, biology and creatures, dozed off. Waking up intermittently, I saw that a young couple had joined me. I watched them, wondering languidly if I’d ever been that young. The girl said something to the boy and he wandered off. I dozed off again, and when I woke up, the first thing I saw was a snake and a boy with a log.

“Are you from here?”

The girl, having calmed down a little but still emitting tiny sobs, replied that she was.

“And are snake bites common here?”

She seemed to remember something and her sobs picked up in frequency and volume again.

Alarmed, I changed tack.

“Just keep an eye on his breathing while I check to see if there’s anything about snake bites in here.”

I retrieved the pamphlet we’d received before starting out and scanned the pages. I hoped we’d find something, because my tourniquet idea was suspect. I suddenly remembered where I’d read about tourniquets: an adventure novel in which the victim’s sister ties a tourniquet around her brother’s big toe (the site of injury), cleans the wound with a knife, and then sucks the poison out with her mouth after making sure that there are no cuts or sores in her mouth. I shuddered.

“Nothing here except ‘Call an Ambulance,” I said, throwing the pamphlet to the ground in disgust.

My companions were nowhere to be seen. The girl had ceased crying and was now staring ahead blindly. The boy was still unconscious and barely breathing. The sun had set and it wouldn’t be long before it was completely dark. Who knew what we’d face then?

I knelt down and gently took the girl by her shoulders.

“Listen, I know you’re upset and scared. But you need to keep it together for his sake. What do they do here when a snake bites someone?”

She looked at me and the haze seemed to clear a little from her eyes.

“We have to make sure his leg is still.”

There didn’t seem to be much danger of it moving with the boy still passed out. Still, we tore a strip off the girl’s sari and fastened his leg to the tree.

“Ok, what else?”

She swallowed.

“We could tie a band around his leg above the wound, but then if we don’t get him help in time-”

She paused here as if the rest was too hideous to say and stroked the boy’s fine black hair, defiantly healthy.

“He could lose the leg,” she whispered.

I looked at my watch. Fifteen minutes had already passed.

“Alright,” I said briskly, “here’s what we’ll do. I’ll keep him as is and monitor his breathing. You try to get back to town as fast as you can, and hopefully you’ll meet someone on the way who can help. In the meanwhile, I’ll have to tie the tourniquet. I don’t know how long it will be before we can get help, and better his limb than his life.”

The girl took a shaky breath and nodded. She looked better now that we had a plan of action. I kept my reservations to myself. If the cobra or something else returned, of what use would I be, with my rheumatic limbs and slowing reflexes? And I had my doubts that the girl could get to town and back in the dark in time to be of any use.

No point in thinking about that now.

I used a towel from my bag to tie a tight band around the boy’s leg. I set his head on my lap, as it had been on his sister’s. It occurred to me that I didn’t even know his name. Poor kid. The moon was full and vigorous, in mockery, but the stars twinkled in sympathy.

Then I waited.

After one of the most harrowing hours of my life had passed, in which I’d prayed, begged, supplicated, raged and strained my eyes in increasing paranoia, I saw some figures approaching.

Please God.

I’ve never felt as relieved in my life as when I saw that the girl was among them. I was fairly weak with it. No doubt, if I’d been standing, my knees would have given way.

The girl ran ahead and put her fingers to the boy’s throat.

“He’s still breathing,” I said, quickly.

The men behind her were carrying a stretcher and came up soon after. They hoisted him onto it and hurried towards the waiting ambulance.

I wasn’t going to hold back now.

The girl and I both got into the ambulance with the boy.

“I think he’ll be just fine,” said the nurse, kindly. She examined the snake bite and slowly loosened the band.

“There’s no venom in the bite. It’s just shock. He’ll be completely fine by tomorrow.”

Note: I looked it up to make sure, and I based this off of what is called a “dry bite,” in which no venom is injected. I do my research!

A thing of beauty is a joy forever

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Found an old application essay, and thought it was worth sharing:

‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever.’

I can’t recall when I first heard this truism, but it has always struck a chord with me.

A perfect sentence. A thrilling note. An exquisite detail.

Something once marvelous is forever so; I never cease to find the wonder in something that truly moves me, and so it is that I can read the same book countless times or love the same composition ten years after I first discovered it.

For me, it is essential to find beauty. That rush of euphoria from a grand symphony, the thrill of a perfect stroke in a painting, the warm gladness of a perfect phrase, the liberation of a masterful dancer – whether through others or myself, it is how I make sense of the world. It is through art that we attempt to find meaning, to understand ourselves, our habitats, and to aspire to ideal states of being. Through art, we transcend the mundane and commonplace; through art, we find the poetry in the mundane; and through art we become something more than ourselves, connecting to the universe and becoming a part of the whole, no matter where we come from.

Human beings have a need to be moved. In a time of seven-second ‘videos’ and memes, we rarely acknowledge this. The great paradox of the Internet generation is that everything excites us and yet nothing does. We are always sharing the latest phenomenon, aiding its virality – then forgetting it instantly. We would rather be witty then profound, and even profundity can be a commodity. Wonder, basically, is not fashionable.

For me, there is a wealth in literary classics and diverse antiquities. In Austen’s Anne Elliot, I find a sister. I love the spirited heroines that pepper our books, but my temperamental doppelganger is quiet, hesitant Anne Elliot, who is really so much more than she shows the world. I love all kinds of music, but nothing touches the very core of my being like classical Indian music. If you truly understand it, we’ve mastered the art of catharsis in our ancient forms. When you are moved entirely, you feel purer, freer.

[I don’t know why I chose Anne Elliot. I love her, but my true literary doppelganger will always be Anne Shirley]

We used to understand the human yearning for meaning, for purpose. In my view, we also understood that hedonism was a dead-end, unsatisfying for the soul. In Indian epics and in classical Indian art forms, I see a grappling with these questions and a profound quest for what lies beyond. In the transcendence of art itself, I think we instinctively grasp that there is more to life than meets the eye. The euphoria of art is a gateway to an understanding of the soul.

[Just want to say here that I don’t think this is exclusive to Indian epics and art forms by any means, but I am fascinated by them]

And yet, art is playful. In our brief existence, it is important to laugh and dance.

I want to remind people that we are capable of intense joy if we see the beauty in living – a tough task, but one I only know how to undertake by providing passage to a world of Art.

Mortality, Courage, and Meaning

Note: I started writing this post on November 10th, a week after I read When Breath Becomes Air. I had some trouble finishing the post and abandoned it. Recently I have been thinking that I ought to write about the CAA, NRC and the Modi government’s appalling crackdown on student protesters, especially in Jamia Millia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University. However, my understanding of politics is rudimentary and others have said it far, far better than I ever could (but I am trying and maybe someday). Suffice it to say, it is horrific, and whether you are Indian or not, you should educate yourself on what is going on. Eventually, perhaps, I will do a round-up of resources on what is happening. In the meanwhile, here are my reflections on mortality, inspired by Kalanithi’s moving and ruminative book. 

Our connection with life is tenuous at best. We don’t know when our time will come; we don’t know when our loved ones will be taken from us. Despite our incredible advancements in medicine and infrastructure, in spite of all our ingenuity, we can still never really predict when and how we’ll go. And yet we live as if we are totally ignorant of our mortality, as if our bodies are not fallible, as if our pretended oblivion might temper our fates. This unconcern is built-in, really; apart from a primordial survival instinct, we don’t tend to spare much thought for the larger existential question of our mortality. This too, is a matter of survival, I think; were we to become overly obsessed with the fragility of our lives, going on with our affairs on a day-to-day basis might become rather difficult, might, indeed, even seem entirely pointless.

I can attest to that. My quiet struggles with futility, meaning, and the purpose of suffering set me apart very early on. And I noticed quite quickly that most people seemed not to be crippled by these existential questions, that in fact there seemed to exist some shield that allowed them go about their lives with tolerable contentment, and that the few of us not blessed with this protective mechanism were raw, exposed, searching, not able to make do.

So mortality is a subject that holds great interest for me (Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal is a huge favourite. If you haven’t read it already, I highly recommend it).

When suddenly faced with the prospect of a too early death, how do you react?

Paul Kalanithi, a promising young neurosurgeon with an illustrious career ahead of him (and an already impressive list of accomplishments behind him), wrote When Breath Becomes Air after he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Paul is about to graduate residency with plans to start a family and job offers from reputed universities; the diagnosis comes as a cruel blow at what should have been a high point in his life, the beginning of what surely would have been an incredible journey.

The book opens with Paul struggling with excruciating back pain and tiredness. On top of this, his backbreaking schedule and preoccupation with work have put a strain on his marriage with Lucy, also a doctor (she’s an internist – a specialist in internal medicine). His suspicions are proved correct when the lab tests come back positive.

Paul knows that he will die – much sooner than he could have anticipated – but for the most part, it is still uncertain exactly how much time he has left. The uncertainty is heart-wrenching. For someone as ambitious as Paul, it means that he is forced to choose between his dreams – to pick what he can achieve in the time he has left. He chooses to graduate (he is so close when he receives the diagnosis!) and to write the book (if not the subject matter) he always wanted to write.

I read ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ practically in one sitting last weekend.

I’ve been wanting to read it ever since it came out, but held off because I was afraid it would be rather heavy. It was, and it did make me sad; but it was also poignant, thoughtful, and philosophical, an aching reflection on how limited our time is and how best to give that transience meaning, and endurance.

Kalanithi never got to finish his manuscript. To some extent, ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ is the result of a loving, painstaking sewing together by Lucy Kalanithi (Paul’s wife) and his editors. There are brilliant stretches and portions that don’t seem quite finished. And yet, it is an engrossing and affecting read.

Kalanithi is an adventurer and a philosopher. He has great dreams and chases meaning and understanding with tenacity, intelligence, and a flexibility that I find astounding. When one path proves not to be the answer, or the complete answer, he is ever ready to to upend everything and head in another direction; something that requires not only tremendous courage but tremendous humility and true intellectual curiosity. He is honest and brave and unflinching in the eye of the storm. And a doctor-writer-philosopher who combines knowledge and passion for medicine with a deep humanity and an appreciation for the Arts and Literature – my favourite kind (of the same ilk as Atul Gawande and Oliver Sacks – what a breed)! A unique vantage point from which to attempt to uncover the mysteries of life, the mind and the universe.

What a loss for humanity.

A tough, but worthwhile read.

Thoughts after a horrific tragedy

Trigger Warning: This post references a disturbing case of rape and murder.

Note: This is in reference to the vet in Hyderabad who was recently gang-raped and murdered, in what feels like a stone’s throw from where I live. It was a premeditated attack – four men followed her to work, let out the air from the tires of her bike, and then waited for her to leave at the end of the day. I, like every other Indian woman, am shaken to my core. So please forgive me if this is a little rough. I’m still processing.

I think it’s difficult for men to fully understand how every tragedy, every atrocity, every single violation chips away at our sense of freedom, security, and equality. It’s heart-wrenching enough to hear about such unthinkable violence being perpetrated on another human being; but the very next thought, sometimes to our shame is of our own safety, or lack thereof in a culture that seems to take pride in demeaning us and turning the lens back on us at every opportunity.

But it doesn’t matter really what we wear, what we do, what guardians we choose, what curfews we set upon ourselves. I think that’s been made abundantly clear. When women are prizes to be won – or even worse, objects that must be taught their place (which is that we exist to please men), it’s only a matter of time before each of us becomes another horrific news story, another gory statistic. And I challenge you, for that matter, to find a woman – one woman – in this country who doesn’t have at least one story of violation to tell.

Sometimes I really wonder why I’m still here, in a country that has no respect for women, where I must plan my nights out with military precision in order to ensure that I reach home in one piece.

What misguided sense of patriotism brought me back? And how many more of these assaults can it take before it disintegrates completely and I become another émigré, leading a happy and comfortable life in a progressive European country, no longer having to feel like a second-class citizen?

If this is home, we really have no right to complain when people leave.

Addendum: We are educated women brought up to be liberated and significant, but everything about our environment contradicts this. We realize as we grow up that even “freedom” comes with rules, that we are expected to stay within bounds that we have no say or control over. And this dichotomy is why we are never truly free.

Of course, I am painfully aware that numerous incidents involving Dalit, queer, and transgender women don’t get as much or sometimes any coverage. My education and status are a privilege, and despite my heartbreak and fear, I know they they still protect me.

No one wants to be India’s fucking daughter.

Musical reflections

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A few months ago, I wrote:

Funny how some songs become irrevocably attached to certain moments, conjuring every time the unmistakable emotion of that moment, the exact nature of the scene, sight, sound, even smell.

The first time I heard Kabhi Kabhi Aditi Zindagi, I was struck by how very much it seemed as if it were written for me. Of course there are the lyrics, but it was more the specific tone of the melody, the combined bent of words and tune that conspired somehow to capture exactly the bittersweet, rueful reckoning I was forced to undergo in my brief moments of respite from the sudden, shocking tumult I’d been thrust into only some months prior, sinking and floating by turns.

(I refer, here, to the massive mental upheaval of my teenage years).

I am viscerally affected by music. It sheds light on the rawest, innermost parts of my being, coaxing emotions I would otherwise be embarrassed to admit to. I dream, create art, construct stories and fantasies, come to wordless epiphanies, and am moved to states I cannot describe in words.

Here are some further reflections today, on two pieces from the soundtrack for The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (a soundtrack that I love deeply, that has, on occasion, moved me to tears, and that I have listened to innumerable times):

This might be the piece that speaks to me the most in this soundtrack. That third recurring note lays bare a peculiar ache and keeps at it until I am not sure whether that ache is being assuaged or accentuated but feel compelled to keep listening in the hope that I may finally solve its mystery.

An otherwise wary and reticent heart responds, like a finely tuned instrument, intensely and absolutely only to specific frequencies, masterfully arranged.

This, however, is the one I was searching for (the soundtrack I’ve downloaded has Japanese titles and I can never remember them). Glad to have found it. It is lovely, but a sad, despairing piece to begin with. Then it lifts up from the depths…there is understanding, melancholy, resignation…

The entire soundtrack is a masterpiece. There is a little something in it that escapes me every time, and the effort to capture it brings me back to it over and over. The movie, which I watched a few years ago, is also beautiful, spiritual and yearning and sweetly sad. I think perhaps if you have ever searched desperately for meaning and beauty, it will resonate with you as it did with me.

Someday I will write a fuller, more eloquent piece on what music means to me and what it has done for me. For now, although my thinking is fragmented, I share the nicer fragments in the hope that they spark something…

 

Equity, Equality, and Social Justice: Reflections on Day 4 of the SILT Bootcamp

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Poster made on Day 0 of the SILT (Social Impact Leadership Transformation) Bootcamp

I joined the SILT Bootcamp – “a 6-month part-time programme for young individuals in their 20s” that “aims to fill an important gap by orienting future leaders and changemakers to the sector and helping them discover their place within it” – last month.

It’s been a wonderful experience so far. I was rifling through my notes and found these (unrefined and somewhat disconnected) reflections from 15th September, when the theme was ‘Equity, Equality and Social Justice’:

What does equality mean to me? (prompt)

Agency, Opportunity, Representation. Access to a secure livelihood and a baseline standard of living.

The right to voice my opinion and be heard. The right to dissent and speak truth to power without fear of reprisal.

The right to safety.

The right to equal treatment regardless of identity.

Equity, Equality, Social Justice: These are complex concepts. Abstract, hard (but not impossible) to quantify, and difficult sometimes to apply to a layered, chequered society with various intersections of identity, power, privilege, and cultural baggage.

Problems are complex but proposed solutions are often straightforward, ignoring nuance and cultural and social complications.

What particularly complicates the Indian context is layers of identity…

Abstract ideals of justice and equality are always hard to talk about when the ground reality is extreme poverty and deep caste-based, gender-based, and communal oppression and repression.

These are very hard to shake…

To get someone with privilege to introspect is not always easy.

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The Great Wave off Kanagawa, Katsushika Hokusai, c. 1829-1833, currently at MoMA

We were to choose a little card the size of a visiting card with a visual on it that we felt represented equality. I chose a card with a giant wave on it – primarily because I was attracted to it. I tend in general to be attracted to bodies of water, whether it is lakes, rivers or waterfalls. I find them calming and grounding in their vastness. I thought perhaps the card represented to me the tide of life: an engulfing wave that sweeps all in its wake, humble and mighty alike, like that great equalizer, Death…

On being silent in the face of injustice

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Ah, beautiful Kashmir…

There are times in which silence – “neutrality” – becomes complicity. A refusal to speak up becomes tacit approval. Which is why the Edmund Burke quote – “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” – is timeless. I know it’s not always easy to know what to do, or even what can be done or how to do it, but it it is worth putting in the effort to find out. We think that in history there must have been times when it was clearly evident that there were evil forces or injustices to be fought. Slavery was wrong – surely that must have been apparent? If we were born before 1947, we’d have been revolutionaries too, right?

The truth is that history is made up of ordinary people like you and me. The movers and shakers were outliers. And what is clear in retrospect is not always so apparent when it is taking place. Evil doesn’t always announce its presence, especially if you aren’t paying attention. It can be an insidious thing, legal, justified, rationalized, part of the systems that are supposed to preserve order and justice.

When it comes down to it, recognizing injustice, trying to understand the inequities and misguided assumptions upon which our “civilized,” “democratic” societies are built is an endeavour that requires deep thought, constant effort, a willingness to confront our own biases and a willingness to be on a perennial hunt for the truth, for what is real and what is right.

And we will be wrong, we will make mistakes, we will be biased. But it is imperative that we try.

Because no one else can do it for us and no one is coming to save us.

Some of the discourse around Kashmir has been heartbreaking, even sickening. I’ve been appalled at the willingness of people to accept and even justify human rights abuses and the undemocratic, unconstitutional manner in which Article 370 was revoked. It seems to me that what underlies this willingness to excuse the atrocities that have been visited upon Kashmiris in the name of “progress” and “development” (if that’s even the real agenda here) is that we don’t really see them as Indians. We don’t perceive them to be citizens like us and we don’t think they deserve the same kind of rights or consideration that we do.

And I think that we don’t believe that it could happen to us. The government has imposed an Emergency state on Kashmir, is locking up opposing party politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens, but we don’t think it can happen to us. We look at Kashmir like someone in a progressive Western country would look at a Middle Eastern country that’s always at war and always in trouble. We think Kashmiris deserve what’s been inflicted on them because they’ve always “caused trouble” and because they’re “anti-national.”

This country has always had a completely misguided idea of what patriotism looks like. But that’s a topic for a different time. Our othering of Kashmiris makes it possible somehow for us to justify, for example, the use of pellet guns, a clear human rights abuse and a travesty that has been commented on by Amnesty and the UN. These pellet guns have blinded and maimed hundreds of people.

I ask, please, that we think slowly, deeply, carefully, about what kind of country we want to live in. I implore you to put in the work, to get to know what’s happening. I have been ignorant myself for a long time, particularly of civics and some of our history, but I am trying. I am trying to be better, trying to be aware, and so should you.

And finally, I don’t believe it is true that there is nothing we can do.