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 the 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.


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.












raising a toddler on a ship


Until he had to go to school, my son grew up on ships as his dad’s a captain on oil tankers. As far as he was concerned, the ship was home, and the entire deck with its pipes and companionways was his playground. A sturdy swing had been made for him using pilot-ladder steps. It hung from one of the innumerable pipes running along the main deck.

On transatlantic voyages, where there was practically no traffic, he would spend time on the bridge with Sergei, the second mate, whose watch it was from 12:00 noon to 4:00 p.m. He would eagerly rush upstairs with his collection of plastic balls and he and Sergei would toss them to each other. I would plant myself before the radar screen and keep a watch for stray ships, which Sergei found hilarious, but indulged me nevertheless.

Soon, my son was comfortably calling out “Kedai match” (phonetic spelling, I don’t know Cyrillic) in Russian, meaning ‘throw/catch the ball’. He differentiated between ‘bolshoi match’ and ‘malinki match’, big ball and small ball. In a few days he began greeting people with ‘Dobrevecher’ or ‘Prev-yair’. One day he said “Spasibo fo’ changin’ bubb” to the electrician when he replaced a fused bulb in our cabin! It was amusing to hear him say “Dosvidaniya” in a sing-song voice while leaving the salon after dinner. He addressed all Russians on the ship as ‘dhyadhya’, meaning uncle, much to their delight. At the New Year’s party he picked up ‘Snoven godhaam’ and enjoyed teaching the Filipino crew to say it. I miss those days so much, it’s almost a physical ache. There’s nothing more fun than watching an excited and happy child grow!

Meanwhile, he spent about an hour at tea time with the Radio Officer and a couple of others in one of their cabins. One day, he came back reciting the alphabet, “A for alpha, B for bravo, C for Charlie, D for delta, E for echo …” all the way up to Z for Zulu! He would have to unlearn this, or they may not let him into pre-school in India, I thought!

An African proverb says it takes a village to raise a child. I often wonder how the various ‘villages’ my son grew up in through his nomadic early years have influenced his approach to life. I mean, a large part of his early childhood was about getting up in the morning, peeping out of the porthole and saying “Whe’ ah we today?” We would take him out to Chuck-e-Cheese in ports in the US, mainly for the ball pool he loved, and to various zoos, parks and McDonald’s in other countries. For those few hours he would be like other children, playing with peers instead of adults. Just when he got used to seeing the same view from our porthole for three or four days, it would be time to sail out. The port would get a mournful farewell as it receded into the distance. I still remember his sad, disappointed little face saying, “San Funando, Twinidad gone. Faaaw-away”, and rotating his little hands outwards over and over.

‘It takes a village’ reminds me of Hilary Clinton’s book, which in turn reminds me of how my son regarded the Clintons as part of our family circle. Those days, TIME and Newsweek magazines were, more or less, our only contact with the outside world. We got them once a fortnight or so, when we reached a port. And Bill and Hilary were often on their covers.

Once, when Immigration officers came aboard in the US – as is the usual procedure – to check our passports, my son pointed at one of them and announced “uk ike Kin-thun.” “Looks like Clinton,” I duly translated for the benefit of the man pointed at. Everybody burst out laughing and agreed that he did resemble Bill Clinton, while the man asked incredulously, “He knows Clinton?”

The TIME and Newsweek magazines were my son’s property. He hoarded them in his toy chest with his other books. When we had people over for drinks some evenings he would bring them out and introduce Bill and Hilary to everyone. He called them Biy and Ee-uh-yee, and I often had to explain to mystified people that he couldn’t pronounce ha, la and ra. Soon, he took to explaining, “I can’t say uh, uh and uh, an’ so I ko’ uh Ee-uh-yee!”

Russians, Filipinos, Indians, the Pakistani chief mate, Saad, whom I haven’t mentioned here, the Turkish Mr. Halaq who stayed on board for a few days on official work – they were all one large family to my son. Everybody was an uncle, and he could visit them in their cabins any time and be welcomed and fussed over affectionately. It was a happy life. His problems actually began when he had to continuously deal with small human beings in school!

Empty nester

I thought I had left it all behind. The angst, ennui, weltschmerz – whatever you call it. Yes, I had resolved my dissatisfaction with the real world by the time I graduated from college. I had stopped yearning for an ideal world where people lived in peace with one another. I had, indeed, become pragmatic.

But the old feeling that was a part of my growing-up years seems to have crept back into me last year. Or the year before. I was just getting aware – it was gnawing at the edge of my consciousness – that I would soon be an empty nester. Okay, it was still a couple of years away, but the thought of my youngest leaving for college filled me with dread. How would the world treat her? Before I knew it, I was on this trip reviewing what sort of mom I had been, and had I done things right by her or not. I started writing it all down and that’s how all those Parenting blogposts happened, over just two months. DSC00651

I don’t even know when the irrational wish for the country and the world to be a Shangri-La for her took over my being, but I started fretting: about the state of India, the world, religion and violence, genetically modified foods and lots of other wholly unnecessary things, I now think. Even the happy-ish posts and photos on my blog are often compensatory; they follow particularly pessimistic write-ups. The weltschmerz was back, but in a form I didn’t recognise, because this was to do with wanting to send my special little girl out into a perfect, safe world.

Just yesterday it occurred to me that this is what I’ve been doing. I’ve been using this blog as a place to dump all the anxiety associated with the big change an empty nest brings. No more laughing over bits of school gossip, meals together at the table, neatly-pressed school uniforms, ear rings and hair bands appearing in odd places, off-key music practice pieces and frustrated yells from rooms – all the little details that make a home, home. More of the kids’ stuff than mine going on. I’ll have to find ‘my stuff’ again. The Me I was before I became Mama doesn’t exist, and the present Me is a modified version that’s been beaten into a new shape by happenings and people.

We were talking about College Applications yesterday, my big-little girl and I, when I realized, almost like an epiphany, that she’s ready to fly the nest. I felt a deep calm settling into my heart. Yes, I was ready to let her go.

And the weltschmerz left me like a genie charging out of an uncorked bottle, and disappeared.

She’ll be fine. And so will I.


Kids and the internet

Americans once sprayed killer fungi from helicopters over opium poppy fields in Helmand in Afghanistan. This is what Nushin Arbabzadah says in her book Afghan Rumor Bazaar.

They wanted to destroy poppy crops because American kids were falling prey to opium addiction.  This was their way of dealing with the source of the problem as they saw it. Afghan families who depended solely on poppy for their livelihood were affected by the spraying, but that’s another story.

If we were to metaphorically spray killer fungi on the rot on the internet, who would pay the price? Who creates the rot? Who controls what ends up on the internet? Who invents games like ‘rape games’ and puts them up on the net?

Disgusting as they are, there is obviously a market for these games. They are out there because they are a source of income to someone.  They exist because some people consider them recreational. As a free society I suppose we cannot interfere with the maker’s creative freedom and his constitutional right to earn a living.  Words like ‘creative’ and ‘freedom’ do not have boundaries that everybody can agree upon and are, therefore, grey areas for lawmakers. There is no provision for metaphoric killer fungi to destroy metaphoric poppy fields of people who depend on them for a living.

Most youngsters apparently do outgrow these ‘games’, and playing them doesn’t leave lasting effects. This may hold true for those kids that get into college, graduate, find jobs and establish careers and lives. These are sharp kids whose brains probably tire of such mindless games. At some point they may stop to ask themselves, ‘What am I doing?’ The same goes for children who have grown up learning to respect themselves and others, children with a conscience.

But, what about the not-so-bright and the unemployed with time on their hands? Worse still, what about delinquents and perverts who get hooked on these games?

So, if the onus is on parents alone, how do we shield our kids? By blocking sites? Ha! Whom are we kidding? Children are capable of finding ways around these tricks, everybody knows that.  What else, then?

“It depends entirely on the kid”, said my 19-year-old niece emphatically when I asked her. “My friends have nice parents who trust them so much – I have been to their houses and met them – but these kids do dreadful things I can’t even tell you about. And they don’t feel bad at all. When I ask them how they can do this, they say, ‘It’s okay – who’s going to tell them?’ I also have friends with rotten parents, but they are so decent, it’s unbelievable!” A 21-year-old boy told me “I think I didn’t do a lot of things when I was in college because I didn’t want to betray my parents’ trust in me.” A 15-year-old said with utter sincerity, “I love my dad and mom – I will never do anything to make them ashamed of me.”

To sum up in the words of the same 21-year-old quoted earlier: “There are too many variables: parent-variables and kid-variables. All sorts of permutations are possible, so you can’t predict which way a kid will go. Also, some kids have an inborn sense of what is right, and parents don’t have to invest much effort in them. Then, there are kids who are trouble, no matter how good the parents.”


I first heard the word anomie when I was a postgraduate student. A little French word that described a profound feeling of disconnect that people experience when life goes so out of control that it starts to feel meaningless.

I remembered the ‘meaning of Life’ discussions with friends at undergrad college. None of us had read the philosophers; nobody did anything but study science in the years leading up to medical college those days. Some of us had heard of nihilism, but we didn’t subscribe to that. We had been brought up to believe that God watched over us, and there was a reason for everything that happened. For that reason we didn’t despair; we soldiered on with a ‘que sera, sera’ attitude.

Newspapers now frequently carry stories of teenagers taking their lives out of ‘despair’. And readers anxiously wonder why this is happening to our kids.

In the nineteenth century a French sociologist, Emile Durkheim, used the word anomie to describe the feeling of alienation, the disconnectedness that one feels when there is a mismatch between a personal goal and a social one. There is a breakdown of social bonds between the individual and his community.

This, I suppose, is what those youngsters feel: expectations from parents and society are either different or higher than their own, filling them with despair and a sense of failure, with no inner strength to deal with it.

If a kid who wants to be a pilot is forced to take up a course in Medicine, what happens to his personal goal? Won’t he feel isolated from his classmates who are obviously passionate about Medicine? Won’t he feel a disconnect with himself, his own identity, and ask “Who am I, really?” How does the future look to him?

If a kid growing up in poverty wants to get rich but can’t get admission into a college to fulfill his dream, won’t he feel a lack of meaning and direction? Won’t he feel lonely, desperate and angry? One can quite imagine why some youngsters get talked into get-rich-quick schemes and have run-ins with the police. Strain Theory, based on anomie, explains it as a discrepancy between common social goals and legitimate means to attain those goals.

In recent years norms have changed. There was a time when it was usual for a child to pray before leaving for school. No one does that anymore. Most city children don’t anyway. A child never gets a chance to learn how to connect with his innermost self every day, for that’s what prayer is partly about: connecting with and learning to believe in ourselves, deriving strength from a benevolent God who we imagine is watching out for us. Over the years a source of strength is lost, leaving . . . what? When a teenager encounters a setback in school or college and ends his life because he can’t deal with it, we are shocked. How did he become so fragile? Shouldn’t he have been more resilient? Shouldn’t he have been stronger?

The German philosopher Frieidrich Nietzsche said that belief in God acts as an antidote against nihilism, against despair, against meaninglessness. Why is Moral Science no longer taught in schools? In our country we have never had difficulty dealing with dichotomies; though we give science its due, we believe in a force beyond science too. We start scientific seminars with five dignitaries lighting a lamp, and having someone sing an invocation to God to ensure the seminar’s success!

Emile Durkheim also said that traditional religions provide the basis for the shared values that an anomic person lacks. These values give him a sense of rootedness, a connection with his community, and a faith in God, so he has both people and God to reach out to in a crisis. He doesn’t sink into the terrifying emptiness that is anomie.

Over the years I have received phone calls, mostly in the middle of the night, from young patients on the verge of giving up on life. Each time I’ve sensed that they are in a place beyond depression, an empty place where nothing seems to matter. They cry in such anguish that I know it must be very, very frightening. I imagine anomie feels like being all alone in a rudderless boat on a rough sea, in complete darkness, the oars already yanked out of your hands by the wind long ago.

The American philosopher, George Santayana described faith as that ‘splendid error, which conforms better to the impulses of the soul’. He apparently wrote this when he mourned his loss of faith. Faith may be unscientific, but so what? As long as it works when a kid needs it. . .

Encouraging a child to have faith in God may help him through the tender adolescent years when he needs support. As I’ve said elsewhere in my blog, religion can be seen as a scaffold to stand on while he’s building his value system brick by brick; he may discard it when the stronger structure of his adult personality is firmly in place, if he wants to.

Note: The paintings in this post were made by two young patients of mine to express their sense of isolation, despair and inability to control what they were going through.


Children have reasons for what they do

A self-portrait by my daughter

A conversation I had this morning with my teenage daughter brought back this old memory. An incident that had made me want to kick myself at the time, firstly because I had made my daughter cry, secondly because I had read the situation completely wrong.

When she was about three, my daughter got her first Magna Doodle. She used it all day, drawing and erasing, completely absorbed in it. Next day I saw that the cord attaching the stylus to the board had been cut. I asked her what happened, and she said she cut it with scissors. I immediately reacted, quite sharply, “YOU used the scissors? You could’ve hurt yourself . . . didn’t I say you mustn’t?” She burst into tears, her little body heaving as she sobbed. I held her close, comforted her, and she calmed down a bit, and so did I.

Then I asked in a way she knew I wasn’t angry anymore, “Why did you cut it, darling?” She pointed to the corner of the board farthest from the corner where the cord was attached and said, “My drawing was going till here and the pencil didn’t reach…”

My poor baby – she had a valid reason! I gave her a hug and said, “Sorry, sweetheart, Mamma didn’t know that. Mamma was scared you could’ve hurt yourself with scissors”.  Then we joined the cut ends of the cord with a piece of strong twine so it was longer. I replaced the stylus in its slot and said, “There now, it won’t get lost”. She looked happy because she felt she had been understood and her problem solved – at least I hoped so.

And I  felt that, at some level, she had understood Mamma’s fear too. Even granting that was just wishful thinking, what had passed between us was a step towards understanding each other better, towards building trust.


Copy of DSC01520   

In earlier times children began working with their parents when they were quite young. Their contribution was necessary, as every member had to work to take care of the family’s day to day needs. Also, it was a time for parents to impart skills to their children, like farming and handling livestock, grinding grain to flour, sewing, etc. Everything had to be done manually, so every pair of hands counted. Children saw their parents work hard and respected that. Often it was a three- or four- generation household. Watching their parents tend to grandparents and great-grandparents, children pitched in as well.  Helping their parents, though done as a matter of course, instilled a sense of belonging, of being needed, of having a clear role in the family. This gave them the self- esteem that is much talked about today as something to be consciously achieved.

The biggest difference between then and now is that childhood is prolonged, at least up to the age of eighteen. Children are financially dependent on their parents and live with them, but don’t contribute significantly, especially in affluent middle class families. They don’t need to, because there are maids to see to everything. The question of helping parents at work doesn’t arise unless there is a family-run business. In many homes, both parents go out to offices to work at their jobs. Children don’t see their parents work and don’t know what they actually do in their offices. Bonding is over meals, outings and vacations, which is why many little children believe money just comes out of ATMS.

So, bonding between parents and children in affluent middle class families does not happen over interdependence and shared work anymore. Children know they are valued because their parents show their love in many ways, but the self-esteem this brings is different than the one that comes from the satisfaction of being an important contributing member of the family. Even now, in lower income families, especially first generation city-dwellers, youngsters attend to housework, go to college, get jobs and proudly take care of the family’s needs thereafter. Confidence and a strong sense of self-worth are written on their faces.

Parents often give children responsibilities like making their own beds, watering plants, setting the table for dinner, etc. but clearly these jobs don’t convey “Mom needs me”; they only convey “Mom wants me to learn to be responsible” at best, and “Mom likes to control me” at worst. Consequently the only ‘work’ that is expected of a child from a middle class family is that he does well at school. This is fine if the child likes school work and is good at it. Or else, this can be a source of friction between parent and child, usually when he gets into his teens. School curricula are ‘one-size-fits-all’ and children who have a different type of intelligence (Howard Gardner first suggested that there are 7 types of intelligence) may not do well academically. Then what? The child is bound to feel awful about letting his parents down in the only area he is expected not to. He is ashamed, and angry with his parents for not being able to understand what he is going through. He can’t find a way to counter their baffled “but it can’t be so hard – other kids are doing fine”, and even more difficult to respond to the imploring “You have everything – your own room to study undisturbed, extra tuition, the car to take you to school and back so you don’t have to get tired travelling by bus . . . all we want you to do is study well and get good marks. . .”

It’s things like this that damage a child’s self esteem. When he reaches adolescence he simply gives up trying, and covers up with bravado or a blasé attitude. He projects an air of confidence, even arrogance, and acts ‘cool’. Parents often seek professional help at this point, when communication between child and parents has completely broken down.

An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Therapy can never be as good as having got it right in the first place.