Singapore

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This is my third visit to Singapore and Singa-poh getting better only lah!

Gardens by the Bay is a new addition to Singapore’s tourist attractions that has come up after my last visit. It was worth spending an afternoon seeing all those beautiful flowers in the giant greenhouse designed by someone who genuinely cares about plants: Tan Wee Kiat, who stepped down from the post of CEO ten days ago, but will fortunately continue as adviser.

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It was the Chinese new year and there was the dragon dance, the light-and-sound show and all the other festivities associated with it in the evening. The place was jampacked with both locals and bus loads of tourists.

Another day, my husband and I went on a 10km hike through the McRitchie Reservoir trail. It was mostly in the shade, but not dense, because it’s a secondary forest that has sprung up on previously-farmed land. It was surprisingly similar to the part of the Appalachian trail hike we had been on in 2014 at the Delaware Gap in New Jersey. We saw an iguana up close a couple of times, an adult-sized one that silently slunk away, and a young, smaller one that hadn’t perfected her camouflage skills yet.

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There was one tree called the Terap that I found interesting because the leaves it produces when it’s young are so different from those it produces when fully grown. The young tree has large pentate, flamboyant leaves that look free and happy, while the adult tree sports small, sedate leaves of a conventional shape. Just like the difference between the imagination of small children and us adults, I thought.

Singapore does care about it’s trees, plants, animals and insects. On our way back we dropped in at the tiny butterfly park in the airport and managed to see a few that hadn’t yet snuggled under leaves to rest, though it was late by butterfly standards as per the notices in the park that said they would be active only between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm.

 

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entropy

A friend sent me this link today. It’s about therapeutic writing.

http://www.allysonlatta.ca/interview/more-interviews/conversation-with-dr-james-pennebaker/

Now I know why I write the stuff that I write. Much of what I write is simply catharsis. I already know that most people are not interested in it, which is why I don’t talk about any of this to anyone! But I have to get it out of my system. So it goes here. I know this is a safe place because I’m not inflicting it on anyone, because they are not obliged to read it. There is that 1 nanosec wasted when they see it pop up on their screen and groan “Oh no, not her again!” I apologise for that to everyone right now.

This is how it usually happens: I read the newspaper in the morning (my generation still does). Something in it gets on my nerves and I have to write it out of my system because there’s nothing else I can do. Or, it triggers some old unresolved existential worry and I drift with it into an uncomfortable space in my head. I make myself a cup of tea and try to put the thought aside. It usually works and I move on to doing other things.

Then I might get a whatsapp forward from my friend whose husband is in the army. She has a stock of good scary ones like the water situation in Cape Town, data security compromised by linking something to Aadhar card, or some terrible news from the Pak or China border that she gets on her army wives’ whatsapp group. This sometimes sends me back to square one, and I might advance my mid-morning cup of coffee by an hour.

Today was a little different. I met my friend Jay at the lake on my morning walk and we walked together at his frenetic pace with me panting along, and he talked about how screwed up India is, and why do they keep calling it secular when it simply can’t be.

I came home, got into the zone, and wrote this. Warning: Not fun, read at your own risk.

Schisms >> entropy

  • Though the Constitution declares that India is a secular country, it’s hard for India to be one.
  • Secularism denotes a separation of religion and state, the government having nothing to do with people’s religions.
  • But the sacred frequently bumps up against the secular and puts the government in a spot.

Take the case of Goolrokh Gupta. A Parsi married to a Hindu, she was not allowed to participate in her father’s funeral rites because she married outside the community. This has been the norm for centuries in the Parsi community: people who leave the fold through marriage are excommunicated. Distressed, Goolrukh approached the Gujarat high court for justice. When the high court judgment didn’t favour her she took it up to the Supreme court. Meanwhile, my Parsi friend Rozbeh tells me that Goolrukh is wrong and the court has no business to decide she isn’t.

Our government can’t be called secular. It is very much involved with people’s religions. While some say that the government is promoting Hinduism, it could also be seen as promoting Christianity through the Joshua Project that I wrote about in my last post. It could even be seen as supporting Islam if you go by the minority appeasement politics it has indulged in for decades, and its recent noisy debates about triple talaq and pilgrimage rights of women. The newly added triple talaq clause in the nikahnama will hopefully prove a win-win situation for the government and the community. Then, the government has banned the Jain practice of santhara as being a form of suicide and Jains have taken out protest marches against the verdict. Last month the long-drawn-out Padmaavat row happened because of some Hindus trying to browbeat the government. How can a government stay secular in a country where religious beliefs keep clashing with laws and fundamental rights?

A lot of unrest in India is because of religious issues, including caste. The Hindu caste system is well known. If you google it you get 10,50,000 results. It is deeply entrenched. Nobody can hope to find a solution soon, or want to find one, because caste groups vote en masse and are useful to political parties as they are.

Schisms occur in every group, religious or otherwise. They almost work like castes, actually. Broadly speaking, Buddhism got divided into hinayana and mahayana, Jainism into svetambara and digambara, Islam into shia and sunni, Christianity into catholic and protestant long ago. Later, more splinter groups appeared.

Navdeep, a Sikh friend, told me just yesterday that there are castes in Sikhism too, something I didn’t know. My Sindhi friends, Kantha and Renu, say there are four castes among Sindhis, divided into higher and lower. In India there are even low-caste Christians who are converts from lower castes of Hinduism, ­­­called Dalit Christians. They have their own separate churches and priests and marry among themselves. My Christian friends, Nina and Rachel, deplore this as there are supposed to be no caste divides in Christianity, but candidly add that nobody in their families would marry a Dalit Christian.

None of this was intended to happen when each of these religions began. Every religion started off nice and pure, then got corrupted over generations like the first sentence uttered in a game of Chinese whispers, then split up into castes, sects or denominations. You see this happening in whatsapp groups too, often within days or weeks of their being formed, when you see a list of so-and-so lefts, and the group admin can’t do a thing about it!

It’s entropy. It happens to everything.

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I guess we all have our little nests where we feel safe – our communities – but if the tree falls, all our nests will be destroyed…

So, well, that’s the way it is in our country. We are a highly imperfect society, but we haven’t been doing too badly. We just have to keep resolving issues as and when they arise, and may have to lock horns with the government every now and then over some strong religious belief held by our community. ‘Secular’ is a borrowed idea, it simply doesn’t apply here.

Note: all friends and conversations real, names changed for their comfort should they happen to read this.

(Photo by Sandeep Vatsa)

 

things which make for peace

BENGALURU: Catholic bishops across the country have raised concerns over “…false messages of conversions are being spread on whatsapp and facebook to instigate communal violence.”

One of the bishops says:

“There are growing concerns and anxieties among Christian community members as the country seems to be going one-sided or on the verge of being affiliated to a particular religion.”

This is from today’s edition of The Times of India.

This is not going to happen. Newspapers may report a few incidents, and television anchors may hold highly-charged debates, but if you look around your own city or town, beyond your own little bunch of people, you can see that our country is doing well enough in terms of religious harmony. Nothing like the Goa Inquisition is going to be unleashed on Christians by the Indian government.

India is a pluralistic society. Most of my closest friends are Christians. We talk freely about religion as we accept each others’ belief systems. Nobody wants to instigate communal violence, though communal violence is often a fallout of a fight over something else.

Religion is not what it used to be fifty years ago almost everywhere in the world, and if you actually want to go by what is propagated via whatsapp and facebook, no religion can claim the moral high ground. I am sure people from every religious group, including religious heads when they were younger and not-yet-so-wise, are guilty of saying nasty things about some other religion, if not on social media, at least in their own drawing rooms.

When I think or write about religion it is always from the perspective of truly devout people who want to live right in God’s eyes. I’ve shied away from acknowledging that it is more of a political tool, and has always been one, because religion is sacred and empowering for billions of people, and I didn’t want to desecrate that by saying it is anything other than spiritual. In kind and open minds and hearts, religion is blessed, deeply meaningful and unifying. I believe that disparaging someone else’s god already makes you a bigot and your bias disqualifies you from judging any religion thereafter.

Religion is a power structure from a different era, like monarchy, and religious heads are loath to let go of power, just like European monarchies are. Apart from this, the need to increase the number of followers is also a practical consideration, so there’s some safety if there’s an internecine conflict involving religion, or even a world war, though the stated purpose is the betterment of the individual who is invited to join a religion.

As far as I can see, everyone is freely following his religion in this country for the most part. People have the freedom to propagate their religions too. I’ll give a single example. There exists a US-based project called The Joshua Project whose stated aim is to christianise all of India. The organisation was granted permission by the Indian government to operate in India in 2002. Its members are apparently even given special missionary visas.

Its activities have not been obstructed in any way for the past fifteen years as far as I know. I’ve often wondered how this project benefits India, and why the government permitted it, because I don’t see other countries allowing similar projects to hinduise, islamicise, sikhise, zorosterise, buddhisise or jainise their countries. There may be concerns in the Hindu community regarding this, we don’t know. In this era of fake news how do we know that the messages the bishops say are being spread on whatsapp and facebook are true or not?

http://indiafacts.org/joshua-project-study/

https://www.quora.com/What-is-the-Joshua-Project-How-is-it-impacting-India

To quote from The Washington Times, 15th Dec 2006:

“Officially, Christians comprise 2.3 percent of India’s more than 1 billion population. Unofficially, he insists, the number is closer to 8 percent”, he being a man called Thangiah who preaches in Bangalore. It’s only a ball park figure, but he wouldn’t say this without some idea.

Perhaps the bishops should look at the freedom Christians have in India compared to, say Coptic Christians in some countries, before making vague allegations directed against “a particular religion.” Please? This is as good as it gets, unless they are looking for Utopia. Let’s not destroy this country over religion. We’ve managed for a thousand years, so surely the bishops can address the issues raised by others and get on with it? Those people may have genuine fears too, fears that could be dispelled by the bishops’ answers.

“Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another”( Romans 14:19). This applies as much to us now as it did to the Gentiles and Jews then, especially in the context of the Indian belief in vasudhaiva kutumbakam, which means ‘the whole world is one familyin Sanskrit.

 

 

lonely in an empty nest

Years ago, when I first heard about Bhutan being more concerned about the Gross National Happiness Index than about the GDP, unlike the rest of the countries in the world, I thought how idealistic and lovely that was. The king of Bhutan seemed to have his heart in the right place.

The initiative by Teresa May to appoint a Minister of Loneliness feels somewhat like that, though I also get that there is a practical necessity to take care of the more than ten million people aged over sixty-five living in the UK, many of them staying alone. This is a great idea if it can be implemented effectively.

As a psychiatrist I often see people who are desperately lonely. In recent years there’s been a spurt in the number of one group of people from tier-2 cities and small towns coming for a consultation. They are parents of techies working here in Bangalore, visiting their children. They usually have one or two more children that have settled down permanently in the US, so all of their children are physically distant.

This is roughly how the story goes. In phone conversations one parent, say the mother, tells her children that she feels sad a lot of the time. So the son/daughter that lives in India invites both parents to come and stay with them for a change of scene – spend time with grandchildren, go on a short holiday, etc. While here in Bangalore, they decide that she should have a psychiatric consultation to treat the ‘depression’ so that she can go back home in a happier frame of mind.

This group is a new demographic in India: parents of people who have moved permanently to the US or elsewhere. These people’s problem is a catch-22 situation. They have worked hard to ensure their kids’ success, including a farewell to India, and are now left alone and lonely precisely because they have succeeded in sending their kids to greener pastures far from home. If the kids hadn’t been so very successful, they would have been living near them, but perish the thought.

Typically, the father might be a retired bank manager, or something similar, his only goal throughout life having been to earn and save, so his kids would have a better life. The mother might be a homemaker whose life revolved around her children and home. Of course, they are genuinely happy and proud that their children are successful, but this wasn’t exactly how their own lives were meant to pan out, was it? How did life as a happy family end so fast? That’s the unspoken question in their eyes.

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Their kids’ successful lives are now being played out in a faraway country. They miss seeing their grandchildren grow, they miss being part of their children’s lives. They see them in pictures on whatsapp, talk to them on facetime, go stay with them and experience a small slice of their lives, and return to India to their silent, empty homes. Some get green cards and emigrate, but I’m not sure that can work for everyone.

Separation. Sadness. Loneliness. It is the zeitgeist. The days of three-generational families are long gone. In the bigger Indian cities there are apparently NRI Parents Organisations to help meet the social needs of people whose children have settled abroad, but not in smaller cities and towns.

There’s only a little bit I can do for them, like listen, give a couple of practical suggestions, and draw their attention to the good things in their lives here.

There is so much written about how social connections and volunteering are the most effective protection against loneliness, but this is easier said than done for many of the people I see. They already have plenty of relatives, neighbours and friends for company. But the hole in their hearts can only be filled by the children whose faces they long to see, and whose stomachs they long to fill with good home-cooked food. When their children visit with their families, they find themselves unable to connect with their grandchildren because there is nothing Indian and relatable about them after they cross the toddler stage, and there is often a language barrier as well.

What usually happens at the end of a consultation is that they ask if they can meet me again, because talking has made them feel better. I say of course they can, and they look relieved. They come back a couple of times more before they have to leave Bangalore. They talk, they just pour out their feelings. Existential despair is not far beneath the surface, and I see that what keeps them from being overwhelmed is the firm belief that they did the right thing by their kids. I guess I tacitly reinforce this one strength they have, and I guess that helps. I don’t know for how long, but I hope it endures until they find something to get involved in when they get back home. Angst is part of the human condition and everyone goes through bouts of it in some form, some time. There is no diagnostic category for loneliness in DSM-5 because it is not a mental disorder, and loneliness is not the same as clinical depression, though it can lead to it over time.

So, well, I think having a minister in charge of garnering information on loneliness – and what to do about it – is an idea whose time has come. It is a public mental health problem, not a psychiatric one, so the approach taken by Teresa May to gather input from various sources is sound. In terms of how this idea applies to India, I don’t know. It is likely to be low on our government’s list of priorities because of two reasons: one, there are much bigger issues like farmer suicides, and two, there are far fewer people living alone and lonely in this country than in the UK.

Two months ago my friend Ruby and I met a 79-year-old British woman, Marion, who was on a visit to Bangalore. We spent a a little time chatting in a coffee-shop near by. The next morning she came with me to the lake when I went for my daily walk, a camera slung around her neck. She busily took pictures, her new pastime. I came to know she lives alone with her cat, Daisy, near London. She has a group of friends around her age who meet in a hobby circle every week, and since longevity runs in her family, she’s got relatives who are really old too… When I e-mailed her to wish her at Christmas she told me she was going to Southampton to spend the holiday with her brother who is in his eighties. So I quite understand how this could work in the UK, for everyone nearing eighty may not be as spry and self-sufficient as my new friend.

 

a smorgasbord, not a set menu

Part of the lore passed down orally in my family was that Jesus lived in India for many years. That he was an avatar of God, like Rama, Krishna, Buddha and others before him. That he lived in the Himalayas in his youth and learnt about samadhi from Indian rishis. That he was therefore able to survive after he was lifted down from the cross and placed in a tomb. That he returned to India and lived to a ripe old age in the Himalayas. And that his tomb is in Kashmir.

It sounded too far-fetched to me. Surely a young boy wouldn’t leave his home and family in the middle-east to come and learn about spiritual practices here, so far away, through high mountain passes and biting cold? And if he came here as a youth how did he die here at eighty? When did he preach in his own country then? I simply pushed the story to the back of my mind with the rest of Indian folklore.

My actual introduction to Christianity was at the age of nine when I began attending a school run by Christians. A school day started with Chapel every morning, and I learnt a lot about the religion over the years.

Born Hindu, I never had to commit myself to any one image of god because we had a pantheon in our pooja ghar, or altar. And when we went to other parts of India we worshipped at temples of gods who weren’t even on our altar, because all gods of all religions are representations of the only god there is. My parents said that a holy place was a holy place regardless of religion, because people bring only pure, clean thoughts and prayers to their holy shrines, and all places of worship are therefore imbued with holiness.

Growing up, I did wonder about the multiplicity of gods in Hinduism, unlike in other religions. Hinduism is monotheistic, but people worship god in hundreds of different forms. They invoke god in the form that traditionally represents what they need fixed: like goddess Lakshmi for money worries, analogous to the Christian patron saint, St. Nicholas; or Saraswathi, the goddess of music and art, who is similar to St. Cecilia, the patron saint of music; or any of the gods – like Ganesha, Hanuman, Krishna, or Durga-mata in desperate situations, like St. Jude, or Jesus himself. Prayer is just a matter of reaching out to god in his most relatable form in the circumstances, either directly or through an intercessor.

The name by which I address god doesn’t matter, nor does it matter if I don’t engage with him at all. I can be an atheist, which will make me a nastik Hindu, or an out and out materialist, which will make me a charvaka Hindu, none of which are bad or wrong; they are just where I happen to be on my karmic path. I can even worship Jesus as my ishtha-devatha (god of choice) and follow the path of bhakti yoga (path of love) and still be Hindu. Looking back, this is what I probably did for a couple of years in my teens when I read the Bible, went to church and subscribed to an American Christian youth magazine called Young Ambassador. All this fits in with the claim that Hinduism is not a religion, just a way of life, which can leave a child quite confused.

As a young adult, the Hindu way of thinking gave me freedom to not commit myself irrevocably to a fixed set of beliefs. I was wary of being expected to handcuff myself mentally to things I had stopped believing in, something that happens when you permanently accept any dogma. Religious syncretism allowed me to change or modify my beliefs when I understood something better while dipping into the teachings of different religions and philosophies, and I made up my mind that this was how fluid it was always going to be.

Being a medical student, one side of me said it was just neurones and synapses that process information continuously and throw up new patterns of thought, perception and emotion, and nothing was real, especially not god and religion. Another side of me said it was more than that, beyond science. There was room for that internal debate too because I didn’t have all the answers then, nor do I have them now.

What was my takeaway from learning the teachings of Jesus as a child? By clearly distinguishing between good and bad, they simplified the world for me at an age when I wasn’t yet able to grasp the complexities and nuances of Hinduism. Having been introduced to two religions simultaneously I saw the world of abstract ideas about life and god as more of a smorgasbord than a set menu. Theism, as I still see it, is only useful if it enables us to live in harmony on earth, and not quibble over the name of the Maker or form armies to kill each other in his name.

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In 2002 I came across Jesus the man, a book by Australian historian and theologian, Barbara Thiering. One bit I remember from this book is that Jesus and the two men who were hanged along with him ­­– Simon Magus and Judas Iscariot ­– were brought down from the crosses on Pilate’s orders. They were then imprisoned in a burial cave where Simon, who belonged to a community of healers called the Therapeutae, revived Jesus. He survived and was taken to safety, a few days after which he left the country.

Around the same time I read Jesus lived in India by Holger Kersten. This book is about Jesus’ coming to India after the crucifixion. Apparently he lived to be eighty and was buried in Rozabal in Srinagar, Kashmir, when his life ended. The ancient inscription on his tomb says Hazrat Issa Sahib meaning Tomb of Lord Jesus. And it still exists!

I didn’t think of any of this for a long, long time as I was busy with profession, children and home.

Then, a few days ago, I read The Lost Years of Jesus by Elizabeth Prophet. This concerns the time Jesus left Jerusalem with a caravan of merchants at the age of thirteen and lived in India till the age of twenty nine: the lost years that are not accounted for in the Bible.

To quickly summarise, Jesus apparently spent six years in Eastern India in Hindu centres of learning like Puri, Rajagriha and Kashi. He later moved to Hemis, a Buddhist monastery in Leh, Kashmir, where he lived till the age of twenty nine. The Buddhist lamas refer to him as a Buddha (= the enlightened one), the Buddha Issa.

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I visited this Buddhist monastery at Hemis in 2007 on a family vacation to Leh in Kashmir. This is where Jesus is said to have spent the lost years that are not accounted for in the Bible.

Records of his teachings, as well as his biography, were maintained in the Hemis monastery in Leh in Kashmir. A Russian journalist, Nicolas Notovitch, heard about them by chance. He went in search of them in 1887and had them translated from Pali into Russian. His book, The Unknown Life of Jesus Christ, was first published in 1894.

The existence of these documents was subsequently verified by reliable people, viz. Swamy Abhedananda (1922), Prof. Nicholas Roerich (1925) and Madame Caspari (1939), the details of which are in Elizabeth Prophet’s book.

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The questions I had asked as a child were answered. But more than that, thanks to trying to make sense of all that I heard in school and at home regarding god, I had concluded that swearing allegiance to any religion was not necessary. Cherry-picking from all of them was fine.

There’s this quote from ancient Indian literature called the Puranas: “Like a honey bee gathering trickles of honey from different flowers, the wise man accepts the essence of different scriptures and sees only the good in all the religions.”

Despite the differences in what religious fundamentalists say, at the deepest level we all feel the same thing in terms of what god, or the idea of god, is supposed to do in our lives: be there for us when we need him. Sometimes it’s easier to anthropomorphise god, and that’s fine too. The problem arises when a group of people act as though their virtual image of god is a photograph that god physically posed for, while others’ images are morphed ones of an imposter!

 

 

 

 

Kulbhushan Jadhav in Pakistan

Why are people surprised by the way Kulbhusan Jadhav’s mother, Avanti, and wife, Chetan, were treated in Pakistan? Wasn’t it obvious that the whole charade of compassion and humanitarianism was only to score a small point in preparation for the next hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague? I’m surprised that India is surprised!

This was the verdict passed by the International Court of Justice on the 18th of May 2017: “Pakistan shall take all measures at its disposal to ensure that Mr. Jadhav is not executed pending the final decision in these proceedings.” I remember how well our Harish Salve did on that one!

Indians are apparently upset by:

  • the type of security check that the women had to go through
  • that they were made to change out of their nice clothes into something more suitable for use in Pakistan
  • they had to remove their mangalsutras and bindis
  • that Chetan’s shoes were stolen!
  • that they had to speak to Kulbhushan with a glass partition in between
  • that Kulbhushan’s mother was repeatedly interrupted with the instruction to speak to her son in English!
  • that they were harrassed by Pakistani journalists

All this was apparently done to intimidate the two women. I watched them on TV. What I saw was two strong women drinking in the sight of their beloved son and husband, not an iota of fear or intimidation on their countenances. These are Maharashtrians, descendants of people who stood up to both the Mughals and the British. They aren’t scared of anybody!

Regarding the above points:

  • Arsalan Bhatti, a Pakistani journalist, clarified on Indian television yesterday that he would have had to undergo exactly the same kind of security check if he had to enter the place. If this is true, fine.
  • Arsalan also said that the women changed their clothes of their own accord. Perhaps they did. Pakistani officials taking such a keen interest in what these ladies wore seems rather comical to me. Anyway, I’m sure Kulbhushan didn’t even notice what they wore, because he would have been overcome by a whole lot of mixed emotions in the circumstances.
  • I confess I’m mystified by the need to remove mangalsutra, bangles and bindi. Either it’s just garden-variety paranoia, or they are confused by women who aren’t completely invisible. Again, I doubt that either Kulbhushan or his mother or wife gave this much importance. This was too deeply emotional a meeting to worry about shringar.
  • Shoe-stealing is a common crime. Why do you think there are people posted outside our Taj Mahal to guard our shoes when we walk into the monument barefoot? This is probably a shared cultural issue, one of the things that make other countries hyphenate us as Indo-Pak.
  • The glass partition through which they had to see Kulbhushan was probably to discourage hand-holding, hugs and other forms of PDA. It could be a cultural thing in Pakistan. But seeing each other in the flesh, after seeing them only in their memories, must have made the glass unimportant and non-existant to them all.
  • Do Pakistani men speak to their mothers only in English? I guess it’s just an idiosyncrasy, or a colonial hangover. I have heard people in India address their moms as ‘Mother’ in English while speaking in their mother tongues. This is usually dismissed as a silly affectation.
  • The Pakistani press apparently harrassed the women. I suspect that the journalists were hoping to hear truth for a change. However, right after an emotionally charged meeting like that, the women were unlikely to have registered anything more than the noise level.

There’s one thing I want us to ask ourselves: Why don’t we believe Pakistanis when they say that they were being considerate and compassionate? Just because their ways don’t conform to our idea of what constitutes decent behaviour, it doesn’t mean that they are lying. Perhaps this is how compassion and consideration are expressed in Pakistani culture.

Different cultures have different standards. After the Brexit vote I remember being surprised by how quietly Cameron resigned and Teresa May took over. The English did not make a spectacle of themselves on the world stage and court disrespect and derision. This meeting between Kulbhushan and his wife and mother could have done with a little dignity. What a pity it had to be conducted in such a shoddy and cringeworthy manner by the Pakistani government, though, going by their protestations to the contrary, they are not even aware of having done so!

 

our choices – and mental health

I feel like a Grinch writing this in the festive season, but the ‘Sale!!!’ signs are getting to me, because that’s all festivals seem to be reduced to. Buy, buy, buy.

I used to think advertising was about spreading information about a product, but now I know better. It’s about keeping us discontented and hankering for more. If we get tempted by advertisements and go broke there’s no one to blame – we did have a choice, right? So, if we aren’t alert, we actually have as much choice as a child with an open cookie jar within reach!

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While on the subject of choice, look at this: everyone knows that wearing a helmet while riding a bike can protect their heads in case of an accident. But nobody in Bangalore wore helmets even when the statistics were heavily publicised. In September 2015 a law was passed to force motorcyclists to wear helmets. Though it stands to reason, people didn’t take that to mean that the pillion-rider should also wear one! So in January 2016 another law was passed to that effect. Not that it always works (pic above).

IMG_6706Now something has to be done about the helmet-less little children who ride in front of the rider (as in picture above), or squeezed in between the rider and pillion-rider! And people who carry their helmets in their hands (as in pic). 

Ideally, everything should be left to choice and common sense, but it doesn’t work. So, when push comes to shove, the government takes over and decides for us. So there’s no choice, no absolute freedom really, to break our head in a bike accident. The same thing happens with freedom of speech, freedom to live legally in a country with the right visa, and other freedoms we misuse.

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World peace. Human rights. Poverty alleviation. A government that has been voted to power in a democracy. NGOs. Philanthropists. All these words suggest that there are nice people making fair choices for humanity as a whole. Altruistic folks who want to mitigate human suffering and make the world a peaceful and equitable place. But how much choice do they have when faced with ruthless lobbies that influence government policies? Especially when the lobbyists are more important to the economy. Peaceful, contented people are not good for the economy, people who keep money in circulation are.

Think what might happen if an activist fought for our garment industry workers’ human rights in India. Or someone owning prime land in Bangalore refused to sell it to a builder with connections. They would get warning calls from unknown people, and then some. And a journalist trying to expose a business-government nexus that hurts ordinary citizens is always a sitting duck. No, these well-meaning folks don’t have much of a choice. Lobbyists always get their way because the government knows which side of its bread is buttered.

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Moving beyond the local, the US had a choice to not sell US$110 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. But then, I guess big companies like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing would have lost out on profits, and their employees been out of jobs. To me, this seems like a good reason for selling, apart from having the Saudis fight their proxy war against Iran in Yemen. Also, perhaps the possibility of lucrative contracts to re-build the destroyed countries, something that usually follows use of weapons of mass destruction.

Choices involving thousands of innocent lives are made based on material gains of some sort, and don’t seem to have any moral underpinnings. That’s how it seems to me, an ordinary Earth citizen, a mere observer of events. Words like ‘big business’ ‘big government’ and ‘big pharma’ make me uneasy because the choices they make can have seismic effects.

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So, is there a place for teaching children to be good girls and boys in today’s world? Believe me, I faced this dilemma all through my children’s school years. By trying to raise children to be good – as ‘good’ is generally understood – are we setting them up to be misfits or wimps and fail in today’s world? Pure 24-karat gold is too soft to be fashioned into jewellery. Lesser metals like silver, zinc or nickel have to be added to make it 22-karat, for it to be crafted into durable jewellery. I think I just hoped my kids would pick up the silver, zinc and nickel on their own in adapting to the world.

Or have we pragmatically scrapped the whole business of goodness and switched to simply teaching them consumerism? Looking around Bangalore’s shopping malls, massive hoardings and the monstrous garbage heaps all over the city, I suspect this is what is happening.

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What bothers me is that Earth Overshoot Day was on 2nd August this year, and has been coming earlier every year. That means, on 2nd August our resource consumption for this year exceeded Earth’s capacity to regenerate them! Ideally, this date should be at the end of December. It was 20th October in 2005, 21st Nov in 1995 and the third week of December in the mid-eighties.

When I look at all those cotton clothes in store windows, I wonder how much water and labour it takes to grow and pick cotton in India. It takes about 35 cotton-bolls to make a tee shirt (a boll weighs 2-6 grams, a tee shirt about 150 grams), I’m told. Why is there such a glut of clothes in the world? What happens to unsold clothes, those left over after discount sales? Actually, I find everything is in excess – like electronics, packaged foods, shoes, LED lighting in malls, cosmetics… I know people are happy to have a wide choice, and these industries generate jobs for millions of people – so is it all right for our generation to overuse Earth’s resources? And is the guiding principle of shopping greed, and not need, because it is tacitly – no, quite overtly – encouraged by our way of life?

I’m not much of an activist. All I do is follow the reduce-reuse-recycle mantra, compost part of the kitchen waste, and stick to need-based shopping, an adaptation of the Hippocratic oath, ‘first, do no harm’. And I send a bag of vegetable and fruit peelings from my kitchen to my maid’s neighbour’s cow every day; at least one cow in Bangalore gets to eat a little bit of something nutitious, rather than discarded plastic bags. One only needs to google images of ‘cows eating plastic’ to know how rampant it is.

I am aware that there are people actually doing things that make a difference in small and big ways all over the world. Vigga Swensen (Denmark) and Justin Bonsey (Australia) are two people whose initiatives I came across recently. Vigga’s is a little tricky as some people may balk at the very notion of dressing their babies in used clothes. Justin’s initiative could be adopted in cities anywhere: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-06-16/ditching-disposable-coffee-cups-war-on-waste/8625018

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The WHO defines mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.’

The WHO also acknowledges that ‘poor mental health is associated with rapid social change, stressful work conditions, gender discrimination, social exclusion, unhealthy lifestyle, risks of violence, physical ill-health and human rights violations.’ We, the ordinary citizens of India, are plagued by every one of these.

Can universal mental health ever become a reality considering the individual choices we make in our daily lives, and the choices that people in government make, whether it is Kim Jong Un, Xi, Maduro, Trump, Netanyahu, Nigel Farage, or the politicians who have led India for the past seventy years? Moreover, will the economy survive the impact of contented people who will not buy expensive branded clothes to feel more confident, join pricey gyms for the ‘perfect’ body, eat at fancy restaurants to upload photos on facebook, buy the latest cell phones for bragging rights, and so on?