crossing paths

I could hear someone talking loudly when I neared the little fitness park at the lake this morning. It sounded like a speech. No, it was more like a sermon. People were exercising on the machines as usual. Nobody seemed to be paying attention to the man. In fact, it looked like they were avoiding eye contact with him. He went on, nevertheless. As I got on the cardio-walker to get the morning stiffness out of my legs, I tried to figure out what was happening here.

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He was saying he loved to hang out at this lake whenever he came to Bangalore from Delhi, his hometown. He told us we were lucky to have the famous Bangalore climate. True, it was a beautiful June day. Then he began talking about yoga. I zoned out for a bit. When I got back to listening he had moved on to how Indians should not be divided on the basis of religion because all religions are routes to one god and all religions are about being good human beings…

He spoke in Hindi to an almost exclusively Tamilian audience, most of whom neither know Hindi nor wish to learn it! At least, that’s the impression given to the rest of India by Tamil Nadu politicians. Luckily for him, though, most Bangaloreans know some Hindi. He ended his talk with an extra-loud “Bharat mata ki…” and waited for the crowd to respond exuberantly with a “Jai!” The exercising people gazed at him in bewilderment. He smilingly cajoled his listeners into shouting “Jai!” Finally, people smiled tentatively and shouted “Jai!” after him three times as going along with him was the easier way for a bunch of sleepy people at that early hour.

A man slowly got off his machine and ambled over to the preacher. He asked in very basic Hindi, “Do you think there is a god?”

The preacher answered with a smile: “I don’t know.”

“Then why are you talking about him?” There was an edge to his voice.

People stiffened and looked warily at each other.

The preacher kept his smile in place and said, “See, we are having a discussion, we are not going to get angry.”

The man backed off a little, then muttered, “We are always being told to pray to god, to not fight. So when the rest of the world keeps progressing, we keep praying, nothing else…”

He walked off to another machine. After a while he called out to the preacher, “What happens to people when they die?”

The preacher again said “I don’t know” in his mild tone.

“Oh, shouldn’t people know where they are going when they die? You should…” He slid off his machine and bore down on the preacher.

One youngster, apparently anxious to head him off from an aggressive confrontation, called out to the man in a neutral conversational tone, “Why don’t you read some books and find out? Don’t you read?” I expected him to round on the kid but he shook his head and said “No”. He slowly looked around at all the people watching him. He seemed to be in a daze, as if he had just come out of a trance and realised what he was doing. Then he turned on his heel and walked away.

Meanwhile, the preacher had started singing a song in Hindi. The lyrics were on the same lines: Indians are one people, all religions lead to one god, all religions try to make their followers into good people. He was on his own trip in a happy place inside his head, where subtexts and undercurrents didn’t exist.

I left the fitness park and continued down the path to finish my walk. When I passed that point again on my way back he was still singing, and people seemed to have accepted him as a part of their lives for one morning.

Meanwhile, I thought about the other man’s questions. He was obviously fed up with god and didn’t have the patience for platitudes early on a weekday morning. But the preacher was evidently in the middle of a peak experience and had a strong urge to share it with the rest of humanity, and he happened to pick our quiet fitness park for sharing his joy and goodwill!

The paths of people unknown to each other crossing like this, unexpectedly, to create uncomfortable situations, is the stuff of sitcoms, not of an early morning walk in the park. As I walked towards my car, the moment when the man’s face registered annoyance at the preacher’s “I don’t know” stayed stuck in my mind, with the rest of us frozen in our places like a tableau on a stage.

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paradise lost

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I’ve been here for nearly six weeks now and it’s starting to feel like home. Actually, Kuwait City is a lot like how Bangalore used to be. Bangalore of the seventies, the city where I wish I could live more than anywhere else in the world. Paradise lost, to borrow a phrase from Milton.

Present-day Bangalore is constantly worrying about water from the Cauvery river running out, and of having to share it with Tamil Nadu. There’s plenty of water here.

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There are fountains dotting the city like in the Bangalore of my childhood. Not a single river flows through this desert land, but the government has set up desalination plants for citizens to get a plentiful supply.

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There’s plenty of space to drive on city roads. No potholes. No jams. People don’t dare run a red light. And the best part is that there’s ample free parking everywhere, the way it used to be in Bangalore.

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My husband and I go for long drives out of the city after dinner and on weekends. Going for a drive after dinner was very much a Bangalore thing to do in the seventies and eighties. The drives here have a magical quality for me, mixed as they are with nostalgia for a way of life that has been gradually stolen from me by Bangalore’s transformation into what is called an IT hub. Those days, no matter which route you took out of town to the open spaces on the outskirts of Bangalore, traffic flowed smoothly and the air smelt fresh.

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We walk a lot because it’s something we love to do, but can’t do in Bangalore any more. The sidewalks are wide, with no missing slabs or uneven bits to trip you up. And well-lit too, if you want to continue walking after dark.

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And no jostling crowds. Again, reminds me of home in the seventies, when I walked to friends’ houses, hobby classes, movie halls — just about everywhere.

I feel bad to say this, but I can’t help thinking of all that I encounter on a morning walk in Bangalore now: construction debris, thick black wires (snaking across the sidewalk, wrapped around trees and lampposts as ugly eyesores, or dangling from trees), packs of snarling stray dogs, garbage heaps, missing slabs, transformer enclosures. . . During peak hours people ride motorcycles on sidewalks to get past jams, so there is an added risk. Walking through a city should not be a dangerous obstacle course.

I don’t smell air pollution while walking here in the city. Undoubtedly, there is some from vehicular exhaust, but it doesn’t envelop and assault me like a living thing, the way it does in Bangalore. There is no smog, and visibility is therefore great.

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I understand that there are no polluting industries here as everything is imported, and the population is a fraction of Bangalore’s, but that doesn’t justify the kind of pollution we are exposed to in Bangalore. And there is practically no noise pollution here as people don’t toot their horns unnecessarily.

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Visual pollution by way of hoardings, and wires crisscrossing the sky giving Bangalore the appearance of a giant spider web (pic below), are both absent here. The street lamps therefore look beautiful (pic above), untethered to masses of black wire as they are back home (pic below).

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There’s no dearth of electricity here. Streets and buildings are well-illuminated.

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Cultural Center in Kuwait City

I am aware that a lot of fossil fuel is being burned to generate all this electricity, going by the armies of pylons and unending lines of electric cables I’ve seen on the outskirts and along highways.

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This troubles me as an earth citizen and I do wish they would think of ways to minimize wastage of electricity and fuel. But the point to note here is that the government spends its petro-dinars to give citizens basic comforts like bijli-sadak-paani (electricity-roads-water), as we say in India, and clean, safe public spaces with well-kept lawns and walkways.

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Sunset behind an army of pylons on the road to Bubiyan island

There is one thing about Kuwait that I wish would change: overuse of plastic. It happens in Bangalore too, but here it is much worse. Every vegetable you buy is bagged in one thin plastic bag, then all your items are put into big, thicker plastic bags at the checkout counter. Yesterday, the bill for my grocery shopping was only 14 KD, but I came home with eight big, thick plastic bags and eleven thin ones! One big bag held just one bottle of cooking oil and another only a bottle of salad dressing and a small can of baked beans! The clerks at the checkout counter look surprised when I try to fit my shopping into fewer bags and I have to go along with them because of the language barrier.

In restaurants, layers of thin plastic sheets are spread on the table. When the table is cleared after a meal leftovers are dumped on the topmost sheet and it is rolled into a bundle and tossed into a bin. So it’s mixed waste. In some restaurants I do see waiters separate food waste from plastic, though. There is a garbage disposal problem here, too, just like in Bangalore, but it is not as visible as it is in Bangalore.

Some people are aware of this, going by an exhibit I saw at the museum at Al Shaheed park, though  the message hasn’t percolated down to the man on the street yet.

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As I said in an earlier post, nothing grows here without effort except date palms. Petunias were planted timed to bloom during Liberation Day weekend, and they did. All over the city.

Geraniums and Oleanders are in bloom now, all carefully irrigated.

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At Al Shaheed park there is such an effort to coax Bauhinia trees to produce flowers (pic below), whereas we in Bangalore can drop a seed anywhere on our fertile soil and have it sprout a healthy little shoot and grow into a tree in no time, with practically no tending.

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But what do we do? We chop off fully grown trees to make way for flyovers of highly doubtful utility.

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Tabebuias in Cubbon Park, Bangalore

There’s one important principle that I feel the Kuwaitis have understood and adopted: maintenance. Erecting buildings, putting up fancy lights and water features is all very well, but what a wasted effort if most of the light bulbs don’t work and the paint job develops patches after one monsoon, and the water feature becomes a cesspool for mosquitoes to breed. This is what happens in Bangalore. Nothing appears neglected here, at least in the downtown area where I stay.

However, there’s one thing Bangalore and Kuwait City have in common at present: a dedicated band of Harley-Davidson worshippers!

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I hope Kuwait City continues to stay this way and I can keep coming here for a break whenever Bangalore feels too claustrophobic. This city doesn’t seem in danger of being turned into an IT hub, so it’s safe from the sort of ruinous growth that the government in Bangalore considers progress and development.

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?

 

 

 

 

after ten years

Ten years have passed.

This is what I had said to Geetha Rao, a reporter with The Times of India, in Jan 2007.

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What has changed since?

The ridiculous term, eve-teasing, seems to have thankfully become an anachronism. You don’t hear people use it anymore. Indians now call it sexual harassment just as the rest of the world does.

img_5469Girls no longer seem to take the blame for ‘attracting attention.’ You hear of girls and their parents filing complaints at police stations without worrying about what their relatives and neighbours will think. It’s just an impression. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the press reports only on people who file cases. Perhaps the percentage of girls taking action has only increased a little, and maybe many still don’t file. Police records may not reflect reality.img_5470img_5470

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More parents seem to be conscious about giving sons and daughters equal opportunities, and fewer parents seem to be staying within the gender roles assigned to them by tradition, at least in Bangalore. I won’t go into the topic of honour-killings, etc. taking place all over the country.

It seems that movies glorifying guys who stalk unwilling girls and ‘win’ them in the end aren’t being made anymore. If I am right, this is major progress, considering two-three generations of boys grew up thinking stalking was a normal courtship ritual.

In this article in 2007 I mentioned “teaching little boys about gender equality.”

In the Times of India, Bangalore dated 9th Jan 2011, I said “each child has to be raised right” with reference to another case of sexual harassment.

I’ve subsequently realised that’s easier said than done. There are so many external influences that shape a child’s character. Parents have to be alert to small changes in a child’s behaviour all the time, without making the child feel watched and controlled. They have to nip potentially dangerous behaviours in the bud by taking away the source of the behaviour, for example access to adult sites on the internet that a child might have stumbled upon. Parents do come for consultation regarding such situations. And then too, there is no guarantee that the child can be straightened out if the habit has become deeply entrenched, or personality development has been severely impacted, for example a teenaged boy who was  sexually abused in childhood.

Bringing about change in society seems a mammoth task to me as my work deals only with individuals, and my sphere of influence is limited. A sizeable proportion of the citizenry seems to believe that women shouldn’t expect to be safe if they want freedom to go out at night. However, public discourse on the topic of sexual harassment is now more open and some citizens are looking for ways to draw the attention of the government and the police to this issue. We might still get there.

unsafe in the city

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In the ­­­last post I wrote, I had inadvertently put myself in harm’s way. I was in a foreign country, I didn’t know the language and I was walking alone on a deserted road with the sun sliding rapidly towards the horizon.

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The walk would have been wonderful if I had felt safe. There was no traffic noise. The pavement was wide and even. The cool breeze and the mellow light of the setting sun added to the sense of comfort and peace that the nuns had instilled in me. It was a perfect evening. But for the silly man prattling away behind me and giving me the jitters, it would have been a perfect walk. He completely ruined the experience for me, and caused me to have nightmares for days thereafter.

Newspapers often carry stories of women being accosted or molested or having their outings and peace of mind ruined by men whose attentions they don’t want.

In my city, Bangalore, I have encountered men who stared, or violated my personal space, sometimes even completely obliterating it, by passing too close on the sidewalk for example. Last month, at the Metro station, I noticed a man standing hardly fifteen feet away, staring at me. And there was nothing wrong with my clothes either, just straight cut jeans and a long, loose, full-sleeved printed cotton shirt.

These men are known as miscreants to police, perpetrators to crime investigators, perverts to the general public, creeps to girls, and frustrated losers to married women who expect to be left alone by virtue of their mangalsutras or wedding rings. To psychiatrists they are known as people with paraphilic disorders. Some of them could be diagnosed as personality disorders, impulse-control disorders or compulsives of a sort. But the issue is not tidily sorted. Controversies exist in the mental health field about classifying and managing them.

These are men who will never understand #i will wear what I want. They will see it as a challenge. They may crack risqué jokes about it. To them, every female is fair game. Some of the worst abuses in Hindi and English probably reflect the existence of such people.

I’m aware that there are deviant, depraved and even frankly deranged people around. Just as people with anti-social personality disorder – more commonly known as psychopaths – exist and should be avoided, I believe deviants should be avoided too. They are an ineradicable section of human society regardless of country and form of government. Personally, rather than make myself vulnerable, I try to avoid places where they are likely to operate. Of course, they often strike in the most unexpected places as any Bangalore girl will tell you. I used to think there was safety in groups, but I realised later on that when a mob runs amok, groups get broken up and stampedes and free-for-alls can follow. So I don’t go to crowded places at all. Nor to deserted places. This works for me as it suits my lifestyle. But I know this cannot be a solution for everyone.

I think there is a limit to what the police can do because a large amount of security would be needed to protect vulnerable individuals in a crowd. As paraphilics show no outer signs of their intentions, and commit crimes with their bare hands, what sort of security measures are possible? The US Department of Homeland Security is apparently working on something called Project Hostile Intent to improve airport security. Maybe we need something like that.

Even when a complaint is filed, the victim is often unable to convey information clearly or identify the perpetrator; prima facie evidence is not always sufficient to implicate a perpetrator; cctv footage, when available, is not always clear; forensic evidence may be unavailable, depending on the type of paraphilic behaviour indulged in by the miscreant. And the police have to be fair to the accused and cannot assume he is guilty.

Women are trying to address this problem through various campaigns. Protest marches help raise awareness in an evolving society. They draw attention to the lack of safety in public spaces and the consequent distress women go through. Men are supporting these campaigns too. But everybody has to agree that wanting to feel safe in a city is a normal expectation, and that culture and tradition will not be eroded if women feel safe and free to go out at night. That includes ministers, cops and people who don’t see the need for the sort of freedom being sought by the campaigning groups. Maybe therein lies the rub.

Hopefully, laws will be laid down – and implemented – to check miscreants, and society will gradually change. Or rather, soon change. One day, hopefully, people will learn to live and let live, and not make value judgments about others.

(Photo by Chandrika Rao)

Koel

When I went to close the kitchen window before leaving for work this morning I saw this female koel on the branch of the Ficus tree in our yard.

Koels normally conceal themselves in the dense foliage of this tree but you can hear them screech every morning at dawn. The male, who is jet black, goes Koo-ooo, while the female screams out a series of chik-chik-chiks. Our tree was recently pruned, so I suppose this koel forgot about that and alighted on her usual branch.

I have been trying to photograph koels for a long time now. Once I managed to get a series of snaps of a male koel with my phone as I didn’t have my camera handy. The bird was too far and too high up a tree, so the pictures weren’t good. They could very well have been photos of a crow or a drongo. So I am really happy with this one, especially her red eye.
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