hikikomori

There are many lost kids out there. They are either dragging their feet in college for years after they are supposed to have finished, or have graduated but are disinclined to apply for jobs. Some of them take up jobs that are far below their ability and qualification. They use the paltry pay as pocket money and continue to stay in their parents’ home, neither asking for nor contributing anything.

What bothers parents most is the stonewalling, the refusal to engage in a conversation about it. The worst cases are where the kid stays holed up in his room with a laptop, does not come out even for meals, and raids the fridge at night.

There is no word in English – nor is there one in the DSM-5 ­– for this. However, the Japanese have a word for it: hikikomori, which roughly translates to acute social withdrawal. Hikikomori are adolescents or adults who have withdrawn totally from society, not leaving their room for weeks or months on end.

This phenomenon has been studied most in Japan because the country’s demography, culture and current job situation have apparently turned many youngsters ­– and adults – into hikikomori.

Who are these reclusive youngsters who quit mainstream life? This is a generalisation based on kids I have seen in clinical practice. A hikikomori in India is most likely to:

  • belong to a middle- or upper-middle-class family
  • be described as ‘sensitive’ and more inclined towards the arts, though he might hold a degree in science, business or law
  • have been sent to the ‘best’ educational institutions, hence expected to ‘succeed’ spectacularly by everyone, including extended family, a daunting situation that he is not up to facing
  • have done extremely well in school but poorly in college
  • have a recent history of failure, either academic or in a romantic relationship
  • not want to attend family events because he’ll have to explain why he is doing nothing
  • muse about whether all the slogging through school and college was worth it because life is pointless
  • tell you he’s reading philosophy and it makes more sense than the boring lectures in college
  • say that he sleeps during the day and sits up all night because it is peaceful

All these young people unhappily searching for meaning and direction, looking for peace, trying to hide from nosey relatives to protect their parents’ honour . . . It’s sad. Why is this happening to our kids?

One reason could be that they never got a chance to find out what they wanted from life because parents had set the course for them. To give parents their due, most see education as a means to a career and a steady income, not necessarily an exciting job. After all, they are funding it. The tussle over choice is now a common Hindi movie trope, and Indian parents are hopefully re-thinking Education.

Anyway, right now we have to do something about these apathetic kids. Without motivation there’s no impetus to go anywhere, get a job, do anything. So they stay in their rooms, numb, lost in their own world.

The apathy you see in hikikomori is not different from the apathy of a patient with a lesion in the prefrontal cortex, because that is the part of the brain that buzzes with ideas and energy to explore new possibilities.

One part of the prefrontal cortex gets you energised to make a plan; another sets the tasks for carrying out the plan; another executes it; another part monitors the execution; another part moderates your emotions. The foremost rounded part of the brain, the frontal pole, coordinates all of this, plus input from some other parts of the brain. So there can’t be any progress without energisation, the starting point for action. This is apathy, and it manifests as withdrawal. That is what neuroscience tells us.

Psychology says there is a deficit of Theory of Mind, i.e. difficulty understanding others’ intentions, and how their own behaviour impacts others. This is the same kind of deficit one sees in people with autism spectrum disorders and schizophrenia! So, the tendency to withdraw rather than confront might be a stable trait, that is, hardwired in the personality. Anyone trying to help a hikikomori re-integrate into the mainstream would have to consider this limitation.

There is no established way of dealing with hikikomori as yet. We probably have to connect with them, find out what energises them, light a spark and hope the other steps in the prefrontal cortex follow. We have to be supportive until they are ready to test the waters. This is not easy and it takes time. It might not even succeed. Meanwhile, we need to reset our priorities vis-à-vis raising children before we start giving these unhappy people labels or creating a new category in the DSM-6.

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an outlier

 

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A statue of Buddha in Phnom Penh with a rare expression of intense concentration, unlike the serene expression one usually sees on his face

I have no idea whether most people in the world are happy with the work they do, or what drives them to do what they do.

About fifteen years ago a doctor working in the same hospital as I requested me to see her son because she was worried about his career plan. The boy was a 23-year-old graduate from one of the best engineering colleges in India. He had rejected a paying job that he got through campus placement and chosen to join an organisation that worked for the upliftment of slum dwellers, for a small monthly stipend.

He was self-assured and calm during the conversation. There were no psychiatric symptoms at all and nothing to suggest a personality disorder. He believed that what he was setting out to do was right for him. He was also clear that he wasn’t going to be a financial burden on his parents.

Subsequently I met many youngsters like him and began to realise that it wasn’t uncommon for people of this generation to do something like that.

Most people get degrees that lead to jobs. They look for jobs that pay well and give them a few perks as well. They enjoy the office atmosphere, the company of co-workers, the work itself and the pleasure of an independent income. They look forward to the future. As I said, that’s what most people do.

So who are these outliers? When someone tells me about one of them this is how it often sounds:

  • There’s no rush for him to get a job as he doesn’t have student loans, because his parents are affluent;
  • He doesn’t have to earn and save up to buy stuff because his parents gave him everything even before he thought of asking – spoilt kid, born with silver spoon, doesn’t know the value of money;
  • He knows his parents have enough assets that he will eventually inherit, so he never has to work in his life;
  • He will eventually marry a rich girl and get money from the bride’s parents as well!

When I actually get to know the youngster I discover a wholly different inner world, where none of these are on his radar. They are the minutiae of his life that he barely notices. If he is charming and relaxed I might take a little time to make sure he’s not a clever manipulator skilfully pulling wool over my eyes. Instead, he is intense and rarely cracks a smile, and never attempts to please. There’s an air of urgency and earnestness about him.

I wrote about the brain’s reward centre in my last post. It is apparent that this boy’s brain doesn’t recognise a good job and its perks as a reward. His reward centre seems to urge him to do something that makes a difference to people in need: helping the poor seems more fulfilling to him than writing code.

Did the ‘mature’ defence mechanism of altruism develop naturally in him through childhood because he was raised in a peaceful home, without much conflict with his natural empathic disposition? That is, protoaltruism of parents giving rise to generative altruism in the child. Or is this pseudo-altruism covering up his issues? Altruism is a mature defence mechanism, but a defence mechanism nevertheless.

The concept of altruism has always seemed fraught to me. Sometimes I think it’s better not to look too close when some good comes out of someone’s altruism, though I wonder if it will ultimately harm the doer, but the doer will not recognise it as harm because – wait, is he a masochist! Okay, okay, that’s enough. I simply don’t go there.

Why did Prince Gauthama leave his kingdom, palace, wife and infant son and ultimately become the much-revered Buddha? His background and the sequence of events that led to his renunciation have never been a cogent enough argument to convince me that it was a sudden decision. Maybe it was brewing in his head for years before he took the step.

Perhaps something similar happens to youngsters like the boy whose story I began this post with. A kid gets into a professional college at eighteen in India. That’s too young. In the four years at university he might discover that he isn’t cut out for it. By the time he works out what else he would rather do, four years pass and he’s in the final semester. He decides he might as well complete the course and get the degree and figure his life out later.

How people’s brains are wired is a combination of genes and environment, the way you can create many shades of green by mixing different shades of blue and yellow, adding black or white – or even orange – to get any number of shades. The phenotype doesn’t automatically tell you the genotype. How did you get this particular shade of green in this painting? No idea!

The daily newspaper has been featuring one or two ‘Lockdown heroes’ everyday. If I were to ask these generous people why they did it they might say: “I like doing this, I like helping people.” I wouldn’t want to ask, “Why do you like doing this?”

Everybody’s insides look the same on the operating table – unless there is a diseased organ – and the depths of everybody’s mind might too. So anyone’s answer to “Why do you like doing this?” is bound to disclose self-interest and take away from the warm, fuzzy, happy altruistic feeling. So, “I like doing this” should be morally good enough to qualify as untainted altruism.

To come back to the altruistic kid in question, every engineering grad doesn’t aspire to be a Nadella or a Pichai. Sure, the idea takes a little getting used to for parents, because everything you read and hear says the opposite. Parents need to believe in their youngsters and support them in finding their niche. Usually nobody has the clinching argument in these heated family discussions, neither parents nor kid, because the moot question is what will happen to the kid’s career in the – unknowable – future.

 

getting there

 

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My daughter got her first job a couple of months ago. Sigh . . . That part of parenting, raising a child from infancy to adulthood until she gets a degree and a job that she’s happy with, is over. The moral dilemmas around parenting are thankfully behind me.

Parents get a lot of flak for pushing their children to compete. When mine were in school I tried to dial down the pushing to ‘just do your best, it’s going to be fine’. There was no way I could raise my children in India and tell them not to worry about doing well in school if they were to eventually get into good colleges. The main thing was to keep it constructive and never stress them out with neurotic goals.

Competing is one way of channelizing aggression in a positive way. A little aggression is part of human nature, though the word is used in common parlance to mean uncontrolled anger and violence. Aggression is an inbuilt survival skill for warding off threats to our being, for protecting ourselves. As long as competition is coupled with good sportsmanship – in any sphere – it’s fine. Parent-induced angelic goodness doesn’t work in the tough world of children. It just makes the child timid, a target for bullies, instead of making her confident.

As a parent I was torn between raising my children to be ‘good’, and teaching them to be canny in a not-so-safe world. Somehow, sullying their innocent little minds felt like a crime. There was always a conflict between toughening them up, and leaving them vulnerable by keeping them blinkered against the unfair side of life. Over the years, learning from both, my own children and the kids and parents I met in clinical practice, I concluded that it was important to keep things real and be practical, sacrificing lofty ideals where they might do more harm than good. It was about finding a balance.

Frankly, I don’t think there’s ever been a time in human history, since the establishment of civilisations, when there was no competition. Competition has to be measured, though, and shouldn’t turn a child into the kind of insensitive go-getter that kicks and shoves everyone else aside to get ahead. So it is important to encourage cooperation as well: share, be nice, listen, wait your turn, say thank you. The world needs team players. Competition and cooperation, along with jugaad ­(resourcefulness) and duniyadaari (the art of dealing with people) are what we try to pass on to our children, along with formal education and soft skills. I might add – jugaad is much more than problem-solving skills, and duniyadaari is much more than interpersonal skills!

Despite our best efforts to give children a good education, 80% of Indian engineering graduates have been declared unemployable by the National Employability Report 2019. Eighty percent! This is a statistic that has bothered me ever since I saw it. I find myself thinking ‘there must be some mistake – this is unbelievable’. How hopeless it must make those young people feel, after struggling for years to get into college and graduate with a decent GPA. The thinking among educationists has recently shifted from STEM to STEAM, including Arts in Science colleges, something that will hopefully help our youngsters gain the necessary soft skills. More importantly, we need to raise the standard of college education so new graduates are work-ready.

As a psychiatrist I have seen the despair of unemployed people at close quarters. The only way I can think of preventing despair and self-harm, frequent concomitants of being unable to support one’s self and dependents, is to raise children to be resilient. This is what parents could do during children’s school years if they weren’t themselves putting undue pressure on children to get impossible grades and build incredible résumés. Resilience training has been tried in a few Indian schools and published articles are available.

It’s also important to teach kids to deal with failure. This is not as hard as it sounds. Every child fails at something in his twelve years at school. I used those experiences as opportunities to let my children know it’s normal and acceptable to fail sometimes. Through 2015-2016 there was considerable interest in studying the benefits of failure and there is plenty of information available online. The main thing is that parents and teachers must respond to a child’s ‘failure’ with constructive comments and not shame or guilt the child.

Education is a vexed topic in India. I have read through portions of the draft of the New Education Policy. It seems good, at least on paper. The part about vocational courses especially caught my attention. If vocational courses are taught in a truly practical way, like Germany’s dual VET (Vocational Education and Training) system, they might be the answer to some of our unemployment worries. Obviously, vocational training must guarantee employability, and the jobs youngsters get after vocational training must be remunerative enough.

Last month I had a conversation with a friendly young waiter at a restaurant. He was from a small town in north Karnataka. He said that boys with engineering degrees in his hometown were not able to get jobs, so he decided there was no point wasting time and money on college. I asked him what he might be doing, like maybe five-ten years from now. He said he and his brother – who was also working at a restaurant – were planning to start an eatery of their own. I don’t think that’s a bad idea at all if the alternative is a college education that confers a degree but can’t get you a job.

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Life Skills are apparently being taught in schools to help kids navigate life better, like avoiding taking up careers they have no aptitude for. These are the ten Life Skills listed by the WHO:

  1. Decision making
  2. Problem solving
  3. Creative thinking
  4. Critical thinking
  5. Effective communication
  6. Interpersonal relationship skills
  7. Self-awareness
  8. Empathy
  9. Coping with emotions
  10. Coping with stress

To this list I would add basic cooking, sewing (at least hemming and back-stitch for mending and minor alterations, and how to sew on buttons), doing laundry, riding a bike, and managing money, if I didn’t think many young people would scoff at their redundancy! I guess people have to individually decide what ‘Life Skills’ mean to them, but these are what I tried to equip my kids with before they left for college.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

this is all wrong

I am dismayed that Greta Thunberg’s detractors have weaponised her psychiatric diagnoses against her. Some have lashed out against her parents too. How did her medical information come to be in the public domain?

As a psychiatrist I have seen parents’ faces crumple when I’ve had to tell them their child has autism, schizophrenia, or some other distressing diagnosis. However gentle and careful I am, disbelief, shock and tears replace the hope on their faces in an instant. After a long painful moment, the shock slowly gives way to resignation.

So I can imagine what Greta’s parents must have felt when their child’s doctor gave the diagnoses: Asperger’s syndrome, OCD and Selective mutism. They had to support her. Without their support, she would have continued to be anxious, depressed and anorexic on the outside, and disillusioned, helpless, and dying a little each day on the inside. I don’t think anyone who has children can fault this child’s parents.

I personally believe Greta’s fears for the earth have a strong basis in science. Her fears for her future resonate with me because I have thought of the same things on behalf of my children, nieces, nephews, friends’ children and all the fresh, exuberant, youngsters that I see on the streets and on television, livening up the more jaded lives of adults all around the world.

As she has pointed out, we adults don’t have our entire lives ahead of us. While we’ve had it good, we have degraded the planet. They are the ones left facing a water crisis, polluted air, an overheated planet, melting glaciers, rising sea levels that destroy entire coastal communities, and floods, storms and earthquakes. Scientific knowledge to deal with these already exists. As Greta says, “I want you to unite behind science. And then I want you to take real action. Thank you.”

I am relieved she has taken a stand on behalf of her generation. But I would like to share what I have been telling myself whenever I started to worry on my kids’ behalf. I needed to tell myself this because I don’t have Greta’s courage.

  • Earth’s climate has always been changing. Climate alternates between being warm and wet, then cold, glacial and dry for several thousand years at a stretch. They are called Marine Isotope Stages. We have been in the current warm, wet period for the last 14,000 years, the Holocene epoch. We have data covering the last 2.5 million years. What’s happening could be partly a natural process.
  • Organisms on earth co-evolve with the environment – the Gaia hypothesis. Human beings weren’t always here during the 4.6 billion years of the earth’s existence. We are only 70,000 years old (though a human bone found in Morocco is estimated to be 300,000 years old). We somehow evolved and came to be, just as other species of Homo somehow became extinct.

The point is, nobody has been around long enough to know exactly what will happen to the earth towards the end of the Holocene epoch, whenever that comes. We didn’t come with an Instruction Manual on how to use Earth. But we can’t continue to plunder and brutalise our planet – that much is certain – morally and pragmatically, even if not on a scientific basis.

To get back to her psychiatric diagnoses, I am not sure if the diagnosis of OCD is still valid. It might have been a provisional one based on her unceasing rumination about the climate crisis at the age of eleven.

Perhaps she couldn’t process the discrepancies in adult doublespeak. There is often a conflicting subtext in adult conversation and behaviour, for example talking angrily about a neighbour at home and then greeting her with pleasure on the street. Children get confused when adults say something and do the opposite, more so if the child’s autism predisposes her to concrete, instead of, abstract thinking. As Greta said in one of her speeches to her parents’ generation, “You lied to us. You gave us false hope. You told us that the future was something to look forward to.” This, coupled with an autistic child’s intense preoccupation with a narrow range of interests, explains why she was obsessed with climate change.

An additional diagnosis of Selective mutism might be unnecessary because Autistic Spectrum Disorder itself would make it hard for Greta to indulge in social chitchat, unless she was a normal talker before. She has described how she went into a deep depression after she learnt about climate change and realised that adults were not doing anything about it: “I stopped talking. I stopped eating.” 

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I watched Greta’s speech – “This is all wrong” – at the UN Climate summit two days ago. She made her point. But there are other problems in the world that she is completely unaware of, not only because of her age, but also because she lives in a country that doesn’t have these problems.

Sweden has a population of only 10 million while India, for example, has a population of 1.37 billion. These people need to earn and to live. They need jobs and money.

On 23rd September, when Greta was probably preparing her speech for the UN Climate summit, I read this in the same day’s issue of The Times of India.

https://auto.economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/industry/opinion-tackling-indias-auto-slowdown/71251927

One would think Greta Thunberg and the economist Ritesh Kumar Singh who wrote this don’t live on the same planet. He is thinking of how to help people with jobs so they can live, while she is thinking of how to keep the planet viable so they can live! These are the two viewpoints that need balancing.

Greta should know that her views have been taken into consideration by people of both her parents’ generation and her own. Things will not change overnight, but they gradually will, with a combination of individual and community effort, plus suitable legislation and international co-operation. The first step is acknowledgement, which she has got us to do.

In that sense, she has been successful. Maybe it’s time to go back to school. She can still keep an eye on things, continue to contribute her views and nurture the movement she started. The generation that takes the baton from us will devise better systems, I’m sure.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/apr/23/greta-thunberg-full-speech-to-mps-you-did-not-act-in-time

 

 

 

 

 

animal cookies

When I read the daily newspaper I often wonder at how religion complicates things in India. Only yesterday I was thinking what a quagmire we have turned our country into, with people of almost every religion doing things that defeat the purpose of religion per se. Why didn’t we put more effort into dealing with quotidian issues instead?

Then came news that a Sikh teenager had been abducted and forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan, and handed over to a random man as a ‘wife’. In India, parents start looking for a bride outside the community only when they can’t find a good-looking, educated girl from among their own. Is the situation similar in Pakistan? We would approach the girl’s family in a more civilised way, though!

Let me relate a childhood incident to illustrate why this scenario is practically incomprehensible to me.

My great-aunt was a high school teacher in Mangalore. She must have been in her mid-fifties when I went to stay with her in the Dasara holidays in the fifth grade. Her part-time maid’s daughter, Jessie, also ten years old like me, would spend a little time fetching and carrying things for her mother when she did the housework. Then, before we could go out to play near the well under the carambola tree, she would sit down with us to pray when my great-aunt did her morning pooja.

One day she told my great-aunt that she wanted to be a Hindu. My great-aunt said, “No, child, you have to be faithful to your God. He has taken good care of you and your anna, amma and akka. And don’t you think your church father will feel bad if you stop going to church?” When I think about it now I’m surprised how spontaneous, simple and unequivocal her response was. Some people do believe they are doing something of moral value by replacing others’ religious beliefs with their own, so it’s wonderful that she wasn’t that sort.

Propagating one’s religion is a constitutional right in India. Except that it is dishonourable ­­to take advantage of innocent people like this little girl. One needs a home, a full stomach, good health and some money in the bank before thinking of the needs of the soul. So people who have met their basic needs on their own, and who are therefore confident and ready to explore their higher needs, are the ones to be engaged in a public discourse if one wants to honourably propagate one’s religion.

As I see it, our religion on Earth doesn’t matter. People address the one god by different names is what I think. So all religions are fine so long as they don’t intrude into the lives of people following other religions. This is what Sri Krishna says to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita:

  • As they approach me, so I receive them. All paths, Arjuna, lead to me.
  • Those who worship other gods with faith and devotion also worship me, Arjuna, even if they do not observe the usual forms. I am the object of all worship, its enjoyer and Lord.

That there is only one god is not an exclusively Hindu belief. All religions preach that there is only one God, at least as far as I know. The disputes are only over what name He should go by, and which of the books He has co-authored should take precedence over the rest.

I’m not surprised that many people have turned away from religion today. Practiced and preached in the right spirit religion had a chance – many chances, in fact – to make the world a better place. But religion has been petty and divisive, when it was actually meant to bind us together in peoplehood. Right now, gathering more people into any religious fold – even if it means poaching from other religious groups – is part of a bigger game plan in which gullible participants are mere pawns. Or, it’s a political activity to build vote-banks. Even poor old Bernie Sanders unwittingly fell into the vote-bank religion trap yesterday while addressing the annual convention of the Islamic Society of North America!

Perhaps accepting people as they are, without bigotry and put-downs, is enough for us by way of religion in the social sense; personal religion can stay private. Especially if the alternative is to hang on to a bunch of dogmas that make us discriminate against those who believe in a different set of dogmas. Dogmas have meaning only at a superficial level. As the Gita says, just as a reservoir is of little use when the whole countryside is flooded, scriptures are of little use to the illumined man or woman, who sees the Lord everywhere.

Jalaluddin Rumi makes it simpler:

ANIMAL COOKIES

God gives the things of this earth

a certain color and variety and value,

causing childish folk to argue over it.

When a piece of dough is baked

in the shape of a camel or lion,

these children bite their fingers excitedly in their greed.

Both lion and camel turn to bread in their mouth,

but it’s futile to tell this to children.

Decades later, I still feel glad that my great-aunt was so forthright in her response. Any other reaction would have been exploitative and made her a lesser person. And my takeaway from the same incident would have been vastly different!

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graduation

Tomorrow my daughter graduates from college.

She’s going through all the emotions that come with that: elation, mixed with a sense of loss as she leaves behind friends and the much-loved campus. There’s that deflated feeling, mixed with relief, brought on by not having classes to go to, homework to finish, or exams to prepare for. There’s anxiety about getting a job, one that isn’t just grunt work, and one that comes with a decent pay cheque.

I remember going through similar feelings when I was graduating. The future looked both exciting and daunting. And I felt totally unprepared. Sometimes I even felt like an imposter. As an intern, when a patient asked me for an opinion, I thought “Oh my, this man doesn’t know I’m not a real doctor!” In the beginning the only thing I felt confident about was changing dressings of patients in the post-op wards! Gradually, starting drips, drawing blood samples, suturing up lacerations, delivering babies, assisting at surgeries by actually being helpful rather than infuriating the surgeon, writing up case notes professionally, dealing with patients’ queries, all these became second nature. It took only about a year for me to approach work eagerly feeling “hey, I can do this!” This is what I want my daughter to know: after the first unsteady toddler steps it gets easier, less confusing, less scary, more fun. And yes, you’ll make new friends.

Now, many decades later, I look at the lives of my friends from medical college and see that everyone has found success in their own way. They’re quite satisfied with the way their professional lives have turned out.

In India, the kid that gets recruited by Google from an IIT through campus placement interviews makes front page headlines. He is like the only flower that has bloomed in this picture. I took these photographs on Santa Monica boulevard in Beverly Hills a few days ago. I guess all the plants were planted at the same time but only one was in bloom when I passed by that day. I bet the rest have blossomed over the past few days. It’s possible my kid will disagree and place herself in the 2.1% on the Bell Curve that did not bloom well . . . As a mom I can only point to the 95% on the same diagram and hope she doesn’t decide to be contrary. So, this is my message to my daughter and all the kids graduating along with her this weekend:  It’s okay, you’re going to be fine . . . but it might take a little time.

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 Hinduism doesn’t expect me to accept anything on faith.

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 that I now appreciate. 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 – of all hues – 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!

 

 

 

 

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 nutritious, rather than discarded plastic bags.

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A common sight in Bangalore despite a ban on plastic

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?

18-August-2018

Kudos to these people!

https://timesofindia.com/city/bengaluru/no-to-plasic-these-banks-lend-steel-cutlery-to-reduce-waste/articleshow/65447000.cms

22-August-2018

Earth Overshoot Day was on 1st August this year 😦

30-July-2019

Yesterday was Earth Overshoot Day – three days before last year’s 😦

 

echo chambers and shibboleths

My mother lost her brother in a religious street war when I was a school kid. I’ll never forget her reaction when she got the phone call from a cousin in her hometown. Nor my own shock and horror when I came to know that my uncle was stabbed over and over by a mob of people till he bled to death…

Such incidents still happen.

I wish we could simplify religion into a quiet private activity and not let it spill out into the streets as anger and outrage. And not onto the internet either.

Lies we believe about God’ by William Paul Young, and ‘Being Different’ by Rajiv Malhotra, are two books I happened to read back-to-back recently. Though they were both interesting, they were so different that I could practically feel and hear the clash of civilisations inside my head!

Some of the postulates in both books have been angrily denounced by readers as straw man arguments. How much critical thinking can one apply to something as subjective and faith-based as religion? My view is that most religions – the body of accepted truths, myths, miracles, tenets and stories about important personages in the history of every religion – exist because of collective validation.

The only way everyone in a large group can have exactly the same beliefs is by meeting regularly to validate each other. The meeting place thus becomes an echo chamber where certain beliefs are reinforced, while alternative or competing concepts are not allowed to be discussed. If not for these echo chamber meetings, people would end up with different beliefs over the years based on their own thinking and experiences. Instead, they are pruned to turn out like identical bushes in a formal garden, rather than trees growing freely in a forest. Even though trees are of different types and heights, a forest is a coherent whole, more natural and authentic than a formal garden.

Maybe there would be a better chance of peace if everyone arrived at their own individual belief systems regarding god and religion, and kept them private. I think experiential learning is far superior to received wisdom that is swallowed whole without being sifted and vetted and sent through the filters of one’s own mind. Hopefully, the young people of today will do better.

For centuries, religious leaders have been making rules and putting a stamp of divine authority on them. I do see that these rules help a lot of people walk the straight and narrow path. Religions help stabilise societies and bring out the empathic and altruistic side of people, and that’s a good thing for the human race. Without them the world might have been more of a dog-eat-dog place than it is. That much I concede.

But I think beliefs should be fluid enough to change with experience. For example, an innocent child who has been taught that her family’s god is the only real god will eventually notice that her friends’ gods are equally real to them. How will she deal with that? She has to change her idea of god. Will she be allowed? Why was she even taught something so divisive in the first place?  It seems to me that group gods are shibboleths that unite some people, who together exclude other people by declaring them either wrong or inferior.

Considering how much talk there is of human rights in today’s world, choosing how one wants to imagine god should be a basic human right! Yes, elders have to teach things to children, but I’m not sure this sort of indoctrination is teaching. Elders could perhaps use their wisdom better by introducing their family god to their children, then telling them that others may see god differently, and assuring them that this is perfectly okay.

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As Rajiv Malhotra says in ‘Being Different’, the only way billions of people can live peacefully on earth is by mutual respect towards each others’ religions, not by mere tolerance. Tolerance is the ‘ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with’ (Oxford English dictionary). That is, you put up with them and conceal your annoyance behind a wall of tolerance.

In a pluralistic society nobody can say when that wall of tolerance will be breached. All it needs is one careless remark by someone, or sometimes, nothing at all. Perhaps the simmering negative energy of tolerance reaches critical mass and erupts. We then have those sickeningly familiar scenes of violence and bloodshed, cops and ambulances, placards and flowers and wakes, on primetime news. In 24 hours the whole incident will be replaced by some other breaking news, and only those who lost loved ones will remember the incident for ever.

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