The stigma of being a woman

Some of the most poignant moments in my life have been punctuated with moments of incredible courage. Courage from what I have now fully realised are God’s most benevolent yet intricate creations. WOMEN!

From a mother picking up pieces of a suddenly derailed life, to bring up two young boys to be the men they are today..to a wife who at the fag end of a 40 hour labour, just as she was being cut open without an anaesthetic, holding my hand and telling me “It’s alright Prithvi”..I have repeatedly been dumbfounded in realising how much of a lesser being I am in the company of the women in my life.

And today..as my dear friend walks in to the sets to kick start the shooting of her new film (*film name withheld to protect identity of actress*), I once again bear witness to an extraordinary moment of courage from an extraordinary woman in my life! Today..she makes a statement..a statement that will echo through time, space and gender..that no one or no incident has control over your life but YOU! A statement that will now be part of counselling sessions and pep talks around the world. A statement that you my friend..are making in a million unheard voices!

And to those voices I apologise..for at an age and time when I wasn’t wise enough..I have been part of films that celebrated misogyny..I have mouthed lines that vilified regard for your self respect and I have taken a bow to the claps that ensued. NEVER AGAIN..never again will I let disrespect for women be celebrated in my movies! Yes..I’m an actor and this is my craft! I will whole heartedly trudge the grey and black with characters that possess unhinged moral compasses…but I will never let these men be glorified or their actions justified on screen.

Once again..ladies and gentlemen..stand up and applaud for her! Behind the gutsy spunk, there is a vulnerable celebrity who knew well enough what this decision of hers would mean to a life under constant scrutiny. But she also knew..that she had to see it through…for that would set an example..light a torch that will show a path for many to follow!Today she makes a statement..

A statement of extraordinary courage!

Fanboy for life…dear friend..fanboy for life!

Love always,

Prithvi.

These empathetic words would momentarily light up the darkness in the lives of millions of women imprisoned by the shackles of patriarchy, misogyny and male chauvinism. When I read these words, there was a tiny flicker of hope and optimism within me too. However, their impact faded away as soon as I was back to the daily routine of my life in a place where every living moment in a woman’s life is a battle with these oppressive forces. Though empathetic, these words are lone voices in an ocean of numbness. They offer no consolation in a world where the numbness that has replaced the inherent empathetic nature of the human being, refuses to be penetrated by guilt, remorse, shame or fear.

Misogyny was alien to me. Bangalore had never given me a taste of misogyny. I grew up in a liberal world where gender roles were not sharply defined or imposed. Humanity mattered more than did gender roles. At home, my parents never made me self-conscious about my gender. I had as much freedom and as many opportunities as my brother, if not more! The males that I grew up with- family, friends and classmates, were real gems. Most of them thought of girls as delicate and fragile beings that needed to be treated with tenderness, and I absolutely cherished this sentiment.

As a child, I visited Kerala during my vacations, but the gender bias did not significantly permeate my world for the simple reason that I was practically a tourist visiting God’s own country! I was attracted to the physical beauty of this land, its character and its cultural richness. This obscured the real picture that characterized the lives of women in this land – a land that was renowned for its creative potential and cultural richness. As a child, I was spared the restrictions that bound the lives of my female cousins. I found them odd and uninteresting, and I would therefore take to the company of my male cousins who were high spirited, fun-loving and full of mischief- traits I related to. My aunts often discouraged these traits in me. ‘Unfeminine‘, they would remark. But I was too busy savouring the beauty of my world, and did not mind their remarks. So while my female cousins grew up to be soft-spoken, dependent, subservient women who paid attention to how they walked, dressed and talked, I grew up to be somebody with an opinion. Loud, arrogant, unfeminine. These were the labels I earned. However, beneath all the sarcasm they meted out to me, I could sense the denial that drove this sarcasm. At an unconscious level, they felt a certain inferiority in my presence. It was this inferiority that drove them to condemn my personality. This was the case not only with my cousins, but with my aunts too. They were never open about it, but this silent hostility spilled into the way they looked at me, the way they weaved their humour around me, and the way they refrained from any positive remark pertaining to me. I felt alienated in their company; they were united in this silent hostility to me. It was ironical that the men in my extended family were more accepting of my personality and the freedom that I enjoyed, than the women.

I had never imagined that some day, I would actually migrate to this place that reeked of misogyny and where women were treated as lesser beings meant to serve men. From Bangalore to London had been a huge transition, but a welcome one. Both these places had never robbed me of my emotional or intellectual freedom. But London to Kerala was a culture shock. Upon arrival, it was a different Kerala I saw. Not the one I had seen as a child during my vacations.

I could sense it right upon my arrival.

The stares that constantly accompanied me as I went about my chores. They were there when I strolled about idly, trying to keep my mind on the beauty of the landscape that surrounded me, or sometimes, on my thoughts. They were there when I went shopping on my own, trying to keep my mind on the things I wanted to buy. They were there when I stopped to take pictures of sunsets and backwaters. They accompanied me wherever I went, irrespective of whether I walked, drove or took a bus. Irrespective of whether I dressed conservatively or liberally. The creepy stares, the sardonic smiles, the leering faces, the lewd remarks. I found it impossible to numb myself to them and focus on my chores. Sometimes, I stared back, hoping that it would deter them. Instead, they seemed to derive encouragement from my reaction.

I still remember how helpless, weak and frightened I felt within, despite the brave exterior that I tried to put up. In truth, I had always wanted to flee from such situations. But because I couldn’t, I had to hold on. When I was finally alone, I would cry like a frightened child. I couldn’t imagine going through this, day after day, unable to escape.

My father had completely introverted by then, and lost all ability to connect emotionally. Of course, it was only later we realized that these personality changes were part of his illness. I had a passive and helpless mother, who empathized with me, but could do nothing about it. In the early years of life in Kerala, our relatives visited us occasionally. During one such visit, we set out on a trip to Pazhassi dam. This was in the year 2007. My relatives were in one car, and me and my mother followed in my car. I was driving. On that day, I had plugged my earphones and was listening to music. We were on a stretch of road that was wide, but full of potholes on the edges. So we kept to the better side of the road and drove on. Traffic was very sparse. At some point, I lost sight of the car in which my relatives were travelling. So I speeded up a bit. A rickshaw was just ahead of me and the driver was driving at snail’s pace. I honked so that he would give me space to overtake. But he didn’t. He slowed down further and kept blocking my way. In some while, I realized he was doing it on purpose. At one point, I could see that there were no potholes ahead and the road was really wide. The man didn’t expect that I would overtake from the left. I swerved sharply to the left and overtook him before he realized what had happened. As I sped off, I put out my hand in a gesture of ‘What the hell?’ and sped off. But imagine my surprise when he speeded up too and drove so fast that in no time, he was in par with me. We were now nearing a little junction and he overtook me and blocked my way. My relatives were waiting at the junction for us. They got out of the car and came towards us. Meanwhile, the rickshaw driver started abusing me. I retorted back, asking him why he had deliberately blocked my way all along. Imagine my shock when he made up a cock-and-bull story about me troubling him and splashing slush on his rickshaw. Meanwhile, other rickshaw drivers had gathered. This man, encouraged by their presence, screamed at me,” Car, goggles and earphones! Remember you are just a woman!” I remember the pain of that statement. It struck me then that I was dealing with someone whose general resentment of women had provoked this. His denial towards the fact that I was a woman, and ‘yet’, placed in better circumstances than him, had triggered this behaviour. My pain was doubled when my relatives apologized to him on my behalf and repeated in my ear what he had mouthed: “You may have been right, but don’t forget you are a woman. So stop defending and quietly get into the car.” The unfairness of it all made me want to leave Kerala that very moment. But that certainly wasn’t the end.

Ten years have passed since I moved to Kerala. In these ten years, I have come across misogyny in its myriad shades and forms. In Anjali Menon’s words: “Violation of one person by another. Of space, of body, of mind, of respect, of identity. On screen – off screen – everywhere.

Little boys, not older than ten years of age, passing derogatory remarks at women much older. Many an instance where an elderly colleague assumed that women from metro cities were desperate and available. The horrifying stories I heard from the nursing aids in the hospital as to what went on in the hospital during their night duties. Many of those women were too scared to complain. Somehow, they had learned to avoid, pretend, protect and cry silently. But none of them had the courage to speak up.

The peers who assumed that being single reflected an attitude problem- an inability to bend to the male ego. The work superiors who were kind and empathetic to married women irrespective of how incompetent they were at work, and impossibly difficult with single women. The numerous instances of being troubled on the road when I drove with no male by my side. Neighbours who refused to involve when it really mattered, and who passed judgmental remarks when it wasn’t their business.

Never before had I felt so painfully aware of my limitations as a woman. Until I moved to Kerala, I had never looked at my gender as a limitation.

Ten years have not made these battles less painful. However, they have helped me realize the magnitude of the situation. My life in Kerala is built on two planes. The basic plane is one of struggle and suffering. Of oppression and hopelessness. Of loneliness and illness. Of physical and mental exhaustion. But erected on this base is a world of joy and hope. Of meaning and purpose. Of fantasy and beauty. Of humanity. One fuels the other. The more intensely I feel the negativity of the oppressive forces, the more I am moved to bring about a change. That change is my motivation. It is what enables me to endure.

Over the years, I have realized that a powerful revolution is often the outcome of silent and persistent work. Work that doesn’t attract too much unwanted attention, but work that nevertheless achieves its goal. Empower people psychologically. Secretly, silently. Without making it too obvious. Weave the message into a simple heart-to-heart conversation. Into activities. Into thoughts. Influence people’s thought process. And most importantly, to remember not to give up. At one point, such a revolution ignites spontaneously.

I believe and hope that I shall leave this world a little better than how I found it.

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In search of criticism

Until I had written a book, I did not know how easy it was to get your ‘talent’ showcased in a newspaper. Until then, I lived in the notion that the newspapers somehow found you. I did not know that you had to go to the newspaper.

The first eye opener in this regard was my experience with an organisation I had joined as a volunteer. The members would organise events, and get channels or newspapers to cover the event. The tragedy was that the event would often be designed for this very purpose- something that would catch the attention of the media. But as an insider, I was witness to the fact that the event was the beginning and the end of a so-called social transformation process. The process was never prioritized; the members had got addicted to the transient publicity that the events generated. This was also the reason why I eventually quit the organisation.

I subsequently attended a book launch where I met some authors and journalists. It was here that I realised it was all about the right contacts. I remember coming home and leafing through the pages of the author’s book. Except for the poetic verses that were woven into the plot, I found the book rather mediocre. At the launch, somebody had compared the author to Kamala Das. That was painful. My experience of this book launch was so different from the book launch of a Malayalam author I had attended some months ago. Free of superfluousness and pretence. The speakers were mesmerising. It was there that I had first learned of Doestoevsky’s role in the formulation of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. I had left feeling elated and inspired, and reunited with literature. In contrast, this book launch made me distinctly uncomfortable. I felt an urgent need to leave the place. 

At the time, I had many questions playing in my mind with regard to my own book. What I really needed was some genuine criticism. So though I longed for a hasty exit, I waited until I could hand over copies of my book to some of the people I had befriended, hoping that some of them would be kind enough to at least read the book and offer a genuine feedback. But it turned out that most of them took that opportunity to talk to me about their achievements and the status they enjoyed as authors and journalists. I came back home, feeling rather disappointed. It was only when I visited writer E.M.Hashim the next day and had a long conversation with him that I found myself restored to my optimistic and inspired self.

That night, I wrote a long e mail to my friend VV. I suppose it  strongly reflected my disappointment. I went around, seeking potential critics, unaware that VV had been deeply touched by my mail. My friends only had good words to say, partly because they were my friends, and partly because they were naive with regard to what constituted a good book. The professionals refused to comment. Some just pretended to be busy. Others were really busy. Yet others promised to read and let me know. But every time I met them, they only renewed their promise.

At long last, I stopped this pursuit and reflected on the whole scenario. Why was this book important to me? Because there was a truth in it- a strong message to society. Wasn’t there some way I could get the message across, without worrying about the status of the book or my status as an author? 

That was the turning point for me. I changed the course of my journey. With help from some beautiful souls I met in this journey, I initiated a campaign, targeted largely at college students. 

At some point, VV had called me and put me through to a journalist he knew.

“Call him now and tell him about your book. Be open and honest. He is a no-nonsense person. He will give you an honest opinion. If he likes the sound of your book, he will take it up. If he doesn’t, he will say so.”

By then, my expectations were rock bottom. Nothing to lose, I thought. I suppose he liked the sound of the book when I spoke to him about it. It certainly was a first of its kind. Nobody had looked at these films and these characters from this perspective. So he asked me to mail him the book. I sent him the book the very next day. Then there was no news from him.

By then, my campaign was gathering momentum. I was talking not just about films and mental health, but about fantasies, dreams and fairy tales. I could see that my thoughts had evolved further and I was on an exciting path of growth. So I started focussing more on how I could deliver the essence of my book through this campaign. I had never before had the courage to speak in Malayalam on a dais. But now, I was ready to speak in English, in Malayalam- whatever the audience and the situation demanded. It had become so important for me to deliver this message that I slowly started losing fear.

And then the phone call came.

“Do you remember me, doctor?”

I did. It was the journalist. I guessed that if he was calling me, it would be good news. And it was. So my book finally made it to the newspaper. But what made me happier was his honest criticism:”I didn’t get back to you immediately because when I received your book, it came as a terrible disappointment. The typographical errors, the layout, the structuring, the splitting of paragraphs, the styling, the chapter titles- everything was a mess. It deterred me from reading. So I read rather slowly, but when I completed reading, I was intrigued. By the analysis of these characters- something that hasn’t ever been attempted before. Especially since these are films that are known to every Malayalee. All of us have seen these films. My suggestion is that you republish with a professional publisher, and most importantly, translate it to Malayalam. That will have a wider reach- something the book deserves. What you need is a ruthless editor.”

Following that, he asked me many questions that made up for a delightful conversation because it is only when people ask critical questions that we think of our book from different perspectives. 

What we need the most in life, is a genuine critic. Not somebody who flatters us. Not somebody who demeans us. But somebody who holds up the mirror for us and reflects who we really are. It is this reflection that we must embrace.

To love, and to be loved

Trying a hand at fiction…

I had seen the message notification in the morning, but I ignored it, certain it was from some random stranger. It was evening when I finally opened it.

“Happened to read your publication. And also the feature in the newspaper. Beautifully written! Keep writing!”, it read.

The profile picture was that of a little girl, clinging to a man who was in all likelihood, her father. I zoomed the picture and realised that the man in the picture was none other than Faisal. 

I felt a sudden pang of nostalgia. Memories of London suddenly flooded my mind.

London is not a chapter that I open often. Not because I dread the memory, but because I cherish it way too much. Like the presents we cherish and open only when we are alone and free from preoccupation. I like to open it slowly, gently, and with much feeling. And then hold it close…become one with the memory.

But now, I found myself at the doorstep of this memory, unprecedented. I was hesitant. I hadn’t talked to anybody about those years for a long time now. There are memories that I like to carry in my mind as raw perceptions. Perceptions meant to be felt. I didn’t want to touch them and spoil their beauty with analysis. So I refused to share them; I never talked about them. I felt they were alive only within me, and they would die the moment I let them out. On every occasion that I unwrapped them, they overpowered me and rendered me speechless. In the dark solitude of my life, they often made me feel rich.

I ruminated on this text message for a long time, unsure of how to respond. It was like a little comet that had landed into my world from that land of fantasy. I thought about my life then. It was so full of people, so full of love. But after the lonely battles I fought and the numbness they left behind, I wasn’t sure how I was to respond to the warmth of this text message. Its warmth made me glad, but there seemed to be an infinite distance between the numbness that had become my natural state now and the emotions that this text was calling for. There seemed to be an infinite distance between this numbness now and the emotional excess that defined me in those years. I had changed beyond recognition. Necessary for survival, but at the expense of a precious part of me that I seemed to have permanently lost. Except within the confines of my mind.

I was struck by the child’s face in the picture. She had dimples and her curly hair was tied up into a pony. Faisal held her hand and she clung to the security it provided her. The picture was blissful. I could sense the deep meaning the child instilled in Faisal’s life. She was Faisal’s world. It made me happy. Happy that his life had not taken a bad turn after we parted. Happy that he had what I could never have given him. I suddenly felt free.

“Thank you, Faisal. I was surprised to hear from you. Is that your daughter in the picture? She is very cute”, I replied to him.

His reply was instant:

” Thanks for replying. You are a wonderful human being. Yes, she is my daughter. I did not have your contact details. I stumbled on your publication one day and tracked you down. Congratulations for all your achievements! I am so happy for you!”

I could sense the happiness in those words. Once upon a time, we were really close to each other. I could decode the emotions that fuelled his words. I could sense his joy now, at having found me. His uncertainty and silent quest had come to an end. He had found me and I had responded. He was at peace with himself.

“I am an ordinary human being, Faisal. Leading a very ordinary life. London feels like a distant dream now. I cannot believe I lived there once!”, I replied.

“You are a determined person. I feel you can achieve anything you set your heart on. I remember your inclination for writing and art”, he wrote back.

Achievements. The word always makes me smile. From the perspective of the system, I am more of a rebel and a failure, than an achiever.

I replied:

“Most achievements come from being a nobody, Faisal. When I moved back from London, I had no plans. It was suffering, loneliness and misery that I moved back to. But I guess that enriched me as a person. I saw much that I might not have seen otherwise.”

“Can I talk to you?”, he asked.

I suddenly felt uncomfortable. I wasn’t ready. 

“I need some time, Faisal…”

“Don’t worry about the call if you are not comfortable. But I am honestly very happy with your achievements. You have done very well in life!”

I wondered why I wasn’t ready to talk to him. The last we had spoken was in 2005. After that, so much had changed. I had changed as a person. There was so much I hadn’t wanted to talk about, after London. How could I explain my journey thereafter? I couldn’t. I think the one journey that is best left alone is the journey of suffering. Somehow, that is a journey that you cannot risk talking about- the journey that broke you until you were born again. That journey is so sacred that you do not wish to undermine its value by verbalising it. I cannot talk to him about the millions of wounds that now lay within me. Wounds I had painstakingly sealed, all by myself. I was more comfortable with my mask. 

I thought back to my life with him. I remember what had brought us together. It was the journey of pain and suffering that he had travelled and that I could see in his eyes, though he spoke about it matter-of-fact. His father’s early death had put an early end to his childhood. He had learned to deny himself the pleasures that children of his age indulged in. He had witnessed helplessly his mother’s solitary struggle and that had seeded in him the urgency to grow up fast and shoulder the responsibility of the family. These circumstances had shaped his attitude to women. He was driven by the need to protect them and to shoulder responsibility. However, he believed that beyond this, a woman had no needs. As our relationship progressed, the monotony of it weighed heavily upon me. The beauty in my life gradually faded away. His inability to engage meaningfully and find joy in the little things in life- in conversation, in nature, in travel, in hobbies and art- it suffocated me. I found them all vanishing from my life. I felt a huge barrier come between me and the world. I found myself sinking into depression.

I found it hard to communicate this to him. Especially since it wasn’t something he could change. It was probably rooted in the fact that he had alienated himself from all these joys very early in life. For him, achievements were pleasure. And that was understandable. But my personality thrived on these simple pleasures. I couldn’t do without them. Perhaps, if he wasn’t so caring towards me, it wouldn’t have been difficult for me to communicate this discordance in our personalities. But he was a wonderful human being and he cared deeply. That made it difficult.

While I was struggling to find the right words to communicate, he surprised me one day by speaking out my mind.

“You are in conflict. You feel suffocated being in this relationship, but you find it difficult to step out as well.”

He sensed it. I remember the melancholy in his tone when he said this to me and my heart went out to him. 

That conversation propelled me to try harder to stay in the relationship, but I realised that the natural course of our relationship was headed towards separation and so, it was futile working against the inevitable. Our relationship staggered as we found ourselves caught up in confusion, insecurity, guilt and agony. That made us a little bitter. When we parted, we were bitter. But now when I look back, I realise that bitterness was superficial. It was only human- a transient emotion that was necessary for us to find the courage to part ways without damaging our self-esteem.

I remember the freedom I felt when I stepped out of that relationship finally. I remember sitting in a sidewalk cafe on a cold winter morning, eager to feel the warmth of the sunshine. I remember feeling the joy as the warmth of the bleak sunshine percolated into my senses. I remember feeling ecstatic at the aroma of coffee, at the sight of people walking on the sidewalks, at the sight of the ferries on the river. I remember feeling alive again.

But today, when I read his text message, I look at Faisal against the backdrop of the years after London- the years of loneliness and suffering. It is gratitude I feel- for what he gave me, and for what I haven’t had in my life for the last several years. 

Not that I miss him. Or that I repent or regret. But today, I see the abundance in him; I see his worth. And it makes me happy to see that he got what he always deserved and longed for- a family to come back home to, to call his own.

This makes me appreciate the irony of life. We don’t need happy marriages. What we need is truth- in our relationships, in our emotions. Unfortunate are the ones who lose love and their ability to love, to traumatic relationships.

The epidemic of numbness

Apart from all the challenges that children are exposed to in the artificially simulated world in which they live, they must also face the challenges thrust on them by life.
When confronting stress, our children lack both the environment and the equipment necessary to handle stress efficiently.
What is the environment in which a child is placed today? In their fast-paced lives that revolve around endless goals to chase, they have neither the time nor the mental space to allow themselves to feel the impact of a trauma.

The first step in confronting stress involves allowing oneself to feel and internalize the trauma. It is only when we internalize reality and generate without resistance the unpleasant feelings that may be induced by this reality, that our mind is pushed to rise and respond to this trauma.

One must allow oneself to fall when one is wounded. It is when we fall and feel our wounds, that we become aware of their intensity and nature. It is only then that we tend to them in the most appropriate manner. It is only then that they heal and we rise. We rise, learning what we are capable of, and what we are not. We rise, discovering strengths we never knew lay within us, discovering weaknesses that we had never recognized as limitations. We rise with awareness of reality. And this rising is what life calls for. 

But our children no longer have the time or space to allow themselves to feel. They cannot afford to fall, for then they fall out of the rat race. So they run with their wounds, numbing themselves to the urgency of these wounds. Our children learn the easiest way of handling stress- they avoid feeling the pain caused by the trauma. They anaesthetise their wounds and run, not realizing that though the pain is dampened, the wound is a reality. They run, oblivious to the wound that cannot endure much more. Then they fall, unable to get up ever again.

This avoidance response to stress is becoming increasingly common in our children today, causing significant harm to their psychological development. 

In addition to the lack of time and space to feel, our children also lack the emotional resources that are necessary to process negative emotions. 

The most important emotional resources are human beings themselves. Our fellow human beings can teach us much through the sharing of experiences. We unconsciously learn from our fellow human beings the art of dealing with the challenges in life. Family and friends are the most important emotional resources. However, our children no longer engage in heart-to-heart conversations with family and friends. They are taught to build high walls in a competitive world, therefore having no access to other lives. 

The alternatives are stories- our literature and our films. Literature is the chronicling of human experience, and our children have much to learn from stories. But reading is a forgotten hobby. Our children have lost the ability to read anything that exceeds their limited attention span. Also, reading has transformed into goal-directed behaviour. There is no longer the ability to engage with a book, unsure of what one might find. Our children are taught to choose books that aid them in their competition. All other books are tagged as worthless. Once upon a time, there was perhaps not a human being who did not love stories. Today, we are breeding an entire generation that has lost the ability to revel in stories and be moved by them. As for films, our children prefer entertainers over emotionally enriching films.

They refuse to engage with anything that involves slow, meaningful perception for they have lost the ability to savour this category of perception. 

The consequence is that our children resort to practised numbness- a phenomenon that eventually becomes a permanent part of their personality and behaviour. Unable to be enthralled by the simple joys in life, unable to nurture a fantasy, unable to dream, our children resort to instant gratification. Drugs and alcohol are the solutions they take refuge in. Shopping sprees, chocolate binging, addiction to the internet and to gadgets- these are all addictions that our children seek in order to merely ‘feel alive’. They are so numb that they need such high pleasure acts to feel anything at all. The failure of relationships that we see today, is also a reflection of this numbness.

Numbness is the epidemic of the modern world. Even in the context of mental illnesses, where our mental illnesses were once to do with emotional excesses and overt fantasy, today they are to do with emotional deficiency and with lack of a fantasy. 

Depression’ is a fashionable label that science ascribes to such diseases. In the language of literature, depression is the inability to feel the beauty in life- the inability to be enthralled or moved by the simple phenomena in life. If the current trend continues, it wouldn’t be long before human beings are replaced by robots- highly intelligent beings with the inability to feel anything at all. 

What we need is not treatment of depression with antidepressants, but preservation and revival of the human spirit- of its extraordinary potential to feel, fantasise and dream.

So where do we begin?

The answer is stories. We need to preserve and revive our stories first. 

Stories for children and stories for adults…

Stories for life…

Stories through books and stories through cinema…

Obsessed with goal-setting!

But having said this, what is the life of a child today?

A child now grows up within the four walls of a plush apartment, in the company of gadgets. He is distant from nature, distant from his natural instincts. There is no play, there are no grandparents, no bedtime stories. The child is walled off from a world of infinite beauty. Walled off from the fantasies that float in this world. Most of his senses remain unstimulated and unawakened; his potential at perceiving the infinite beauty in the simple things that surround him, is permanently lost. Within him is a child that is locked up, a child that has never been allowed to step out into the world…

Within him is the emptiness of a repressed childhood.

The moment the child is old enough to go to school, he is burdened with the painful process of goal-setting. Parents and teachers teach the child to set goals in every activity he pursues…

Study because you must be the class-topper.

Participate in extracurricular activities because you must win prizes.

Learn swimming, dance or music because you must win medals.

Be friends with somebody because there is something you gain from him.

Don’t be friends with somebody else because there is nothing that you gain from him.

Take a walk because you want to burn calories.

In summary, do something only if you can define an achievement at the end of it.

So what is the problem with obsessive goal-setting?

A documentary comes to my mind. The documentary discusses modes of transport, exploring how development has changed the picture of travel and how travel has changed as an experience. It dwells upon a time when man had to walk in order to reach a destination. It traces man’s journey on foot.

A man walks, observes much as he walks, and then eventually sits down to rest. He is joined by other weary travellers. They share their experiences over a meal. Then they resume their journey and part ways. The man seeks shelter for the night at a house that is kind enough to provide him shelter. The hosts receive him with much hospitality. Again, there is a heart-to-heart conversation wherein the hosts and guest share their tales of joy and sorrow. The man engages the children in conversation and play. In the morning, the man bids farewell to his hosts and resumes his journey. He reaches the banks of a river. He joins passengers waiting to hop on to a boat that will ferry them across the river to the opposite bank. The boatman helps them get into the boat and then rows away. The passengers and the boatman strike a conversation. An old man rests his head on his neighbour’s shoulder. After a long journey that has accommodated their varying moods, the boat reaches its destination. The travellers, now exhausted, alight with relief. The man is at the end of his journey. He is weary and exhausted, but enriched by the experiences the travel has gifted him. The journey has transformed him.

As motor cars, buses and trains replaced travel on foot, the comfort and convenience increased, but the experience dwindled. And then came the era of air travel. A man now boards a flight, goes off to sleep, and wakes up at his destination, miles away. The entire experience of the journey is replaced by comfort and convenience. The joy of arriving at his destination is a momentary thrill, as opposed to the journey discussed earlier.

This analogy helps us understand the problems with obsessive goal-setting:

  1. Children learn to fall in love with the outcome, and not with the journey. But, the joy of an achievement is short-lived. So children are robbed of the ability to experience long-lasting happiness, fulfillment and contentment.
  2. They miss out on the experience of the journey. Sometimes, they even take short-cuts to the goal.
  3. The journey is transformed into stress because of the pressure to arrive at the outcome.
  4. The possibility of discovering new paths and new destinations is abolished.
  5. Undue importance to the goal encourages unhealthy competition; children see others as rivals. ‘Who is first?’ becomes more important than ‘What did I learn from the journey?’

Obsessed with goal-setting, children always have one foot resting into the future; they are never still. They are either planning or executing; they are never feeling. They end up replacing their feeling space with thought and action- a factor that is responsible for poor emotional development.

goal

So what are we feeding into our children’s lives? At a time when they should have been exposed to nature, fantasy and the joy of perception, we end up replacing the beauty of this journey with stress. Stress is compulsorily fed into their lives today.

The question that we must next ask ourselves is: ‘So how are our children handling stress? Are they equipped to handle this enormous stress that is fed into their lives?

Nurture a fantasy!

Human life is unique and special. We are the only beings that have the ability to perceive beauty in the things that surround us; we are the only beings capable of being moved.

It is within our minds that the rain is enchanting. It is in our minds that a poem is beautiful. We alone have the ability to be fascinated by a child’s play. We alone have the ability to see the beauty in an individual’s personality. 

This ability to perceive the aesthetic quality of the world we live in, is unique to human beings.
However, though we are born with this potential, it lies dormant within us and must be awakened in the early years of our life. Childhood therefore plays a key role in our ability to see the aesthetics in life.

Childhood has witnessed considerable transformation with the passage of time. When I think of my childhood, the song that comes to my mind is ‘Kannam thumbi poramo’ from the film, ‘Kakothikkavile Appooppan Thaadikal’.

 

 

The song captures the magic of a childhood spent in the proximity of nature. A childhood that was about freedom and the outdoors, with no goals to chase. A childhood that was about reveling in the magic of sight, sound, fragrance, flavour and touch- about endless stimulation of the senses.

A childhood that taught us to fall in love with the touch-me-nots that cowered under our touch, the moist earth on which we walked barefooted, the lanes fragrant with the scent of the chempakam and pala flowers, the rustling of the coconut palms, the lullaby of the rain and the croaking frogs that put us to sleep, the sand castles we built and the mud cakes we pretended to bake, the mysterious glow worms that lit up the darkness of moonless monsoon nights, the howling of foxes that cut through the silence of the night, the little fish that we tried to catch in the canals, the taste of the steaming hot pancakes with their coconut-jaggery stuffing that melted in our mouths, and so much more.

Our childhood was a paradise. Nature awakened our senses to the infinite beauty in the world and taught us the art of using our senses to perceive this beauty.

Apart from nature, our childhood was also shaped by stories– the stories that our grandparents narrated to us. Sometimes, to distract us enough so that we would eat our food absent-mindedly. Sometimes, to put us to sleep. And then, when we were old enough to read, there were the stories we read in books. Beautiful books that had pictures in them.

stories

In the stories we grew up with, there were forests and rivers, there were animals and birds, there were human beings, Gods and demons. They were portrayed as beings that felt, thought and dreamt like human beings. I was enchanted by their secret lives- a life that was not visible to us human beings. It was as if the stories let me into their secrets. A secret that I became part of.

As children, we believe in fantasies. As we grow older, we gradually lose this ability. A child must therefore be exposed to fantasy. Only then is the fantasy firmly rooted in our minds.

These stories helped me see fantasies in the world I lived in. To my young mind, the trees, stars, river, animals and birds had a secret language- a language that was not about words. I learned to talk to them, and to listen to them in my mind. As a child, this was my little secret- the ability to silently converse with the universe. That ability is rooted in me. To this day, I can hold silent conversations with the universe, and perceive the beauty of this phenomenon. It lights up my soul on the darkest of days.

Childhood must therefore gift us two things:

Sensory stimulation, awakening our senses to the immense beauty in this world

Create a fantasy world in our minds, built from the reality of the world we live in. Only stories can accomplish this.

The film ‘Kakothikkavile Appooppan Thaadikal’ is unique in that it is woven around a childhood fantasy. Murali, an orphan, is abused by his caretakers. His young mind is fascinated by the story of Kakothi– a legendary female character who kills her tormentor in an ultimate act of courage. Perhaps, Murali’s young mind finds liberation from the torments in his own life through the legend. When Murali encounters Lakshmi (Revathi), humming a tune on the harmonium, wearing a stone beaded necklace, his young mind fantasises her as Kakothi. This fantasy forms the basis for his adoration of her and the deep-rooted bonding that develops between them eventually. To Murali’s young mind that believes in the fantasy of Kakothi, there is nothing more joyful than this fantasy turning into reality.

kakothi

If we were to closely analyze the role models we choose and the relationships we form in life, we would realize that most are to do with our unconscious fantasies- these people often represent fragments of what we dream of being ourselves.

So why is fantasy so important?

First and foremost, fantasy fosters imagination. If we give our children beautiful fantasies to believe in, they will always see immense possibility in life. No matter what adversity surrounds them as adults, they always have a fantasy to come back to. That defines their motivation. This is beautifully illustrated in the above-mentioned film where both Murali and Lakshmi are surrounded by adverse circumstances, but they live their lives with much zeal, optimism and happiness. To them, every day is rich with possibility. They find creative ways of dealing with people and with challenges. Their mischief and pranks are expressions of their creative potential. They transform every day into a perpetual celebration.

In life, imagination is a more valuable tool than intelligence. Only if you have the ability to fantasise, are you alive until you are really dead.

Secondly, it is this fantasy that teaches us to dream. If we are moved enough by a fantasy, we transform this fantasy into our reality. We thus define a dream.

The happiest adults are those who have kept their childhood fantasies alive and transformed them into reality.

Perhaps, there is nobody in the world who is not familiar with the characters of Mickey and Donald. Almost a century after its creation, these Disney characters continue to be loved by children and adults, worldwide. Walt Disney found the inspiration for these characters in his childhood fantasy.

His most famous creation, Mickey Mouse, is a universally recognized cultural icon. And his numerous films celebrating the triumph of the little guy and the simple charms of small-town life captured the imaginations and fueled the dreams of six generations.

Walt Disney’s childhood was anything but idyllic. His father was a strict disciplinarian who thought nothing of taking a switch to Walt and his brother Roy to administer “corrective” beatings that became a part of their daily routine. Young Walt found an escape from his father’s brutality through drawing. With pen and ink, he created his own little fantasy world where life was always beautiful, people were always happy, and, most important, he was always in control.

Disney hit upon the idea of creating a new cartoon character based on a mouse that had lived in his office in Kansas City. As Disney liked to tell it, “Mice gathered in my wastebasket when I worked late at night. One of them was my particular friend.”

There are numerous examples of such people. People who define happiness. Some celebrated, and others uncelebrated. The ones who have kept the fantasy alive. The ones with the ability to fly on the wings of their imagination…

The Modern Doctor

Art and Medicine, though much segregated in this country, are inseparably bound by the common purpose they serve in the context of human life- alleviation of suffering. While Medicine primarily focuses on physical suffering, art is meant to heal the suffering mind. It is only in recent times that Medicine has also shifted its focus to mental illness as the picture of disease has changed, and a good proportion of disease that finds its way to the doctor’s doorstep, takes the form of mental illness.
However, the irony is that the bulk of these mental illnesses reside in our entrance coaching centres and medical colleges- a fact that goes unrecognized.

The very institutions that are meant to train young doctors in the art of healing, are now pockets of suffering.

Recollect the face of the average doctor today. One can recognize numbness, frustration and boredom in that face.

kk

Dr KK comes to my mind as the prototype of this species. A middle-aged doctor with many credentials to his name and a roaring practice, his day starts at 7 a.m. At his residence, patients have already lined up to see the doctor. By 8 a.m., he has dealt with most of them. For him, each patient translates to a fee.The chauffeur is ready with the car. Dr KK walks to the car, irritated with the stress of the first hour, and frustrated at the thought of the stress that lies ahead.

At the hospital, he sails through the drudgery. The first patient walks in, eager to talk about his illness.

I have been coughing for the last 2 days…”, he starts.

Dr KK cuts him short and ushers him to the couch. The man moves to the couch, hoping that he can resume his story thereafter. But as soon as he reclines on the couch, he finds a thermometer being inserted into his mouth. The nurse notes the temperature. The doctor walks up to him.

I can’t sleep all night…”, the patient makes an attempt.

But the doctor has already placed a stethoscope on his chest.

Take deep breaths”, he orders.

The patient does as he is asked to. The doctor examines him and goes back to his table. He starts to write the prescription. The patient walks to his chair and makes the final attempt:

I have no appetite…

Any fever?”, the doctor asks him, without looking up from the prescription.

I feel feverish, but…

Any difficulty in breathing?”, asks the doctor.

Occasionally, when the cough doesn’t stop, I have trouble breathing….

Take these pills. Come and see me in 3 days time.

The nurse looks at the prescription. A tablet for fever and pain, an antibiotic, an expectorant, a bronchodilator, a vitamin tablet. By now, she is familiar with the doctor’s prescriptions.

The next patient is already in.

Doctor, my leg hurts!

Which leg?

The right one.

You are lucky. Both my legs hurt.

The patient looks at the doctor. His face is serious. The patient does not know what to make of the statement. He looks at the nurse. She smiles at him.

Crazy people. They have no better work. Pain in the legs, hands, head…what not!”, the doctor mumbles to the nurse after the patient has stepped out.

By afternoon, Dr KK has seen at least hundred patients. The repulsion is obvious on his face. But the hospital is happy- he generates numbers. His credentials on his cabin gleam in bold letters. After lunch, Dr KK has a little nap. Then he goes for rounds. He talks and even jokes with the interns and nurses. But with the patients, he is serious and quiet. He refuses to talk…or to listen. Perhaps it is his way of defence- of coping with the numbers. The less you listen and talk, the more you can take.

By the time he finishes rounds, his chauffeur is ready with the car. He doesn’t need to be told; he is familiar with the doctor’s daily routine- a routine that is seldom broken. He chauffeurs Dr KK to the hospital where he is a visiting consultant. He then parks the car and heads off for some evening refreshment. Meanwhile, Dr KK ‘does away’ with his patients for the next 2 hours. By 7pm, the chauffeur is ready with the car. It takes him only ten minutes to reach Dr KK’s home. There are patients waiting impatiently. The chauffeur parks the car, hands over the keys, and steps out of the gate, whistling to himself. He is done for the day, but for Dr KK, it is another 1-2 hours of practice.

Dr KK has no memory of his patients. He is unmoved- by life, by disease and by death. In truth, it is not his patients that he hates. He hates himself- all that he has become. He seems to miss something, but he is not aware of what that is. He lives in the belief that this is what it means to be in this profession. Every day, he resents his life. But the ignorance compels him to continue- with bitterness, frustration and insensitivity.

This is the kind of doctor we often meet today. The doctor who has learned early in his life to ‘switch off’ his mind, so as to be able to handle the pressures of his profession. The doctor who has been taught to believe that work can never be joyful, and that we have no choice but to work, in order to earn a livelihood. The doctor who does not feel the joy of a doctor-patient relationship; the doctor who does not know how to transform his interactions with patients into beautiful and fulfilling moments. The doctor who has replaced this joy with numbers- traded quality for quantity.

These are doctors who have forgotten to live- who no longer know the meaning of life. These are the doctors to whom we entrust our lives and the lives of the people we love.

That is my mother…my son…my spouse on the hospital bed!”, we cry.

But what difference can it make in the mind of such a doctor who is so alienated from life and from human relationships?

It is in this context that doctors like Dr V P Gangadharan transform into Gods in our minds. For they are the exceptions. So what is it that moulds our doctors into these walking corpses that are so alienated from life?