It so happens that the book I finished today, Chicago by Alaa Al Aswany, and the movie Dev Bhoomi that I had started watching two days ago and finished just now, set off thoughts that converged and kept me occupied all evening.
In both the book and the movie the main characters are in their sunset years, looking back at decisions taken decades ago to leave their countries for better lives. They yearn to go back to the point where the road forked and look at the one not travelled, to paraphrase Robert Frost.
In Dev Bhoomi, Rahul Negi returns to his Himalayan village after forty years and is met variously with wariness, hostility, relief and joy by the different people who used to be in his life before he left for the UK.
He appears so ill at ease, so displaced, aching, regretful, occasionally hopeful . . . A range of nuanced emotions flit across his face, consummate actor that Victor Banerjee is. A step taken at one point in his youth, and he is left thinking of the road not taken for the next forty years. What torture!
In Chicago there is severe confusion and regret regarding the path taken, the one that actually led to the dreamed-of success! The characters – of whom there are quite a few transplanted and homesick ones – go through identity diffusion, loneliness, and a sense of not belonging to either home country or adopted one.
Despite the stilted dialogue and the translated feel that never leaves you through the entire book, you appreciate the conflict between their intense nostalgia for the established societal rules that decide things for them back in Egypt, and the freedom that makes them frighteningly responsible for every decision while living in the US.
You face a fork in the road several times in a lifetime. You choose one. All the paths you couldn’t take are alternative lives you might have led. No matter which one you choose there’s only so much you can do in one lifetime, even if you max out your talents and abilities and make every second count, use every minute being productive. No route is guaranteed to be the right one; even in hindsight you can’t tell if any of the others might have been the right ones. And right does not mean perfect because some things will still go wrong anyway.
When I have the crazy urge to look back and “What if . . . ” about my choices, I ask myself what is it exactly that I hope to gain from the exercise. It’s pointless to dwell on what I could have done differently, because things have turned out well enough.
“What if . . .” is fine if I go into a pleasant reverie in an idle moment, in which case I drift lazily through my parallel universe, enjoy the change of scene, and come back recharged when I finally stop dreaming. Even when I hit the brakes, they work like Tesla’s regenerative braking, using that energy to charge my batteries!
More people are in therapy now than a generation ago. Some benefit from it, some don’t. Not everybody is comfortable opening up to a stranger, something I totally understand, because I would find it hard to bare my soul to someone in the transactional way in which therapy occurs in practice. That is why I empathize readily and try to put patients at their ease. It is also why I feel for those who are mortified at the thought of opening up, and weep hot tears of shame after they do.
It was in 2009 or so that I began to notice that therapy had limitations. Sometimes therapy didn’t help a patient at all. Sometimes it created a new set of problems for the patient, usually interpersonal, which made me question what I was doing wrong.
At that time I could not find much useful research on why therapy might be ineffective or harmful. I went over the notes of my sessions and summarized their outcomes as honestly and objectively as I could, trying to figure out how therapy worked, or didn’t work, for different patients.
A combination of psychiatric medicines and psychotherapy using an eclectic approach benefitted at least 80% of patients. Some patients said their medicines were very effective and they didn’t need to know what was wrong with them, and that it was enough that I knew what was wrong with them!
But when patients did benefit from therapy, I was never convinced that it wasn’t only because I had seen many more summers than a lot of my patients had, plus I had looked closely at the inner lives of hundreds of people over the years. Then, was it more of experience and less of method that mattered? It’s hard to tell, because for a professional in any field, domain knowledge becomes second nature, something taken for granted.
Many types of therapy exist, with rigorous rules laid down for their practice. But I still see therapy as quite subjective because, no matter what a method is in theory, it finally passes through the medium of the therapist’s psyche and is influenced/modified by the person she is and the antecedents that made her who she is. It is not as simple as cooking from a recipe, though, in that too, the nature of ingredients can differ due to local factors and the final product can turn out different than what is expected.
As a psychiatrist I am expected to be neutral when a patient tells his story. But I have to separate the chaff from the grain in his jumbled outpourings, for which I have to judge what is chaff and what is grain. A certain amount of subjectivity creeps in right away. And every prompt and um-hum might seem a micro-judgment to him, regardless of my neutral tone and expression.
The deepest currents of meaning and knowledge take place within the individual through one’s senses, perceptions, beliefs and judgments . . .
This requires a disciplined commitment to remain with a question intensely and continuously until it is illuminated or answered . . .
– Clark Moustakas
Psychotherapy as a treatment modality is necessarily, inherently, a heuristic process for a psychiatrist attempting to tune into a patient’s frequency. She first has to put herself in his shoes to see where he is coming from.
I am well aware that I can fall prey to cognitive biases in this heuristic process: availability bias, confirmation bias, egocentric bias,framing, representativeness – and all sorts of unconscious ones besides. And, sometimes, I do. Just as judges do, despite having strict laws to base their judgments on, because judges are also human, and deal with the unpredictable doings of other humans. An investigative interview conducted by police to gather information can also falter if a suspect is hard to read, or ready to confess to anything he’s accused of, out of sheer anxiety.
There are hundreds of variables in the complex therapeutic relationship between psychiatrist and patient that influence what is said and what meaning is taken. The patient is not a passive recipient of psychotherapy; he is a thinking person who is weighing what and how much he can tell his doctor.
Intuition, thin-slicing, tacit knowing and non-verbal communication are as important as what is being said. Sometimes I pick up on a tell and pursue it with surprising results, but cannot explain how that happened, not even to myself. If I were contributing data to an evidence-based study I would feel restricted because staying with a script would mean not following up important leads that I catch in the spaces between utterances, the non-verbal parts.
I have often been guilty of positivity bias and shown more optimism than a patient’s situation merited. I have had to check my inner Pollyanna several times when empathy and wishful thinking briefly eclipsed facts.
So, basically, I have to watch out for my own biases all the time.
I recently revisited the problem of negative effects of therapy after a 20-year-old girl told me that she had confronted the adults in her joint family about the sexual abuse she had been subjected to by a family member as a little girl. She had not wanted to, but an older cousin who had been similarly abused by the same person had convinced her she should. She felt exposed, angry and confused, because the adults ‘trivialized’ it – played it down – exactly the way she knew they would.
In the earliest years of my clinical practice I might have naïvely suggested exactly what the cousin had, with the expectation that her mother at least would support her. And I might have counted the unhappiness and anger she felt when that didn’t happen as some sort of ‘negative effects of therapy’.
Now, this young girl wanted to transcend that experience, build a successful career, so that the memory – and the perpetrator – became insignificant in her life. She didn’t want to talk about it. In fact, she said, “I will not be a victim and give him so much importance”. To deal with it in her own way was her prerogative; sometimes therapy means leaving well alone. True, time might never heal a wound completely, but neither might therapy.
There’s more literature published on the negative effects of psychotherapy now than what was available to me in 2009.
These are some of the negative effects of therapy listed by various researchers. Most psychiatrists encounter them and find ways to reduce their impact.
Worsening of symptoms: Symptoms can worsen temporarily in the first 2-3 sessions because old scabs may be peeled off, leaving old wounds exposed.
Treatment failure: The worst cases I have seen are those where someone unfamiliar with mental illness has failed to diagnose a psychotic break and has tried to reduce the patient’s agitation with ‘counselling’.
Emergence of new symptoms: Patients who present early in the course of a mental illness can develop new symptoms unrelated to therapy, e.g. obsessions being addressed in therapy could turn out to be prodromal symptoms of schizophrenia. Acting out, common during therapy, might be reported as an alarming new symptom, or worsening caused by therapy.
Heightened concern regarding existing symptoms: The line of questioning leading to a diagnosis can be unsettling for a patient. Explaining the biological or psychological basis of symptoms helps, also outlining what can be done, treatment-wise.
Suicidality: a patient treated for depression sometimes snaps out of inertia and finds the energy to plan and execute a suicide. So all involved – doctor, patient and the people the patient lives with – must be alert to signs. In some cases, depression might be the only visible part of a deeper disturbance, and the provisional diagnosis might not point to the possibility of self-harm.
Occupational problems: People sometimes function best on high alert, juggling multiple balls and deftly keeping them all up in the air, albeit at a steep cost to their mental health. If a patient is distracted from this hyperfocused state too fast with the intention of reducing anxiety, he might lose focus and drop all the balls, and this can cause serious problems at work. Therapy takes time.
Stigmatization: This can happen when a patient shares the fact of his treatment with people he believes are his wellwishers, but they use it to control him instead. He might be disillusioned and need support to hold on to the gains he has made.
Changes in the social network: Self-awareness and insight are products of therapy. A patient might distance himself from toxic people and develop healthier social ties. This could have negative effects on his support system, yet be positive for his growth.
Strains in relationships: If a patient gains new perspectives and seeks a more equitable relationship, a close family member whose self esteem is tied up with his sick role might react angrily and put a strain on the relationship.
Therapy dependence: A clarification at the beginning that therapy will only be for a short time – the way a plaster cast is retained only until broken bones are healed – can pre-empt dependence.
Undermining of self‐efficacy: Some people fall in their own estimation if they see themselves as needing to be propped up by another person. A psychiatrist must watch for this and prevent damage to a patient’s self-image.
Recent studies have concluded that adverse effects occur in 5-20% of patients, and 50% of patients show no clinically significant change with therapy. Most of the published research is based on patients being treated by therapy alone. Since psychiatric treatment is a combination of phamaco- and psychotherapy, our patients ought to be doing better than what these numbers show . . .
Psychotherapy is not like fundamental Physics. It’s a human interaction, with all its imperfections. If anything, mental illness is closer to String Theory in its simplest form! Most psychiatric symptoms are an exaggeration of normal thoughts and feelings, like the vibrations of strings that make them look like particles. They can be toned down with medicines and psychotherapy.
Calling therapy an art would make the treated patient a product. Calling it a science would mean that a patient’s recovery is backed by strong measurable evidence and the results can be replicated in another patient by repeating the process. How is that possible, when each patient, his circumstances, as well as a therapist’s own inner life are all in flux all the time? The approach has to fit the need of the moment and a lot depends on the rapport between doctor and patient.
It is difficult to observe the effects of psychotherapy on patients – the way one might study the effect of heat on copper sulphate crystals – because the therapist factor greatly affects the process, as does the patient’s capacity for introspection and abstraction. For that matter, even pharmaceuticals do not have the same effect on every patient and, therefore, a list of possible idiosyncratic side effects comes with every medicine.
Therapy is only possible because the experience of being human is common to all of us. We have all been there, or been somewhere like it.
‘It came upon her now, as it always had done: a happy flood of feeling, a wild unrest. This moment counts. This moment, and no other. That old man with a crutch, that woman crying, the boy with a spinning top, those lovers smiling: they were part of something known and shared and remembered, an oft-recurring richly coloured pattern. The child who fell in the gutter was herself and so was the the girl who waved from an upper window, “This was what I was once, I’ve been them all” – that aching heart, that burst of sudden laughter, those angry tears, that bubble of desire.’
– From Mary Anne, by Daphne du Maurier
So, the ability to synthesise the disparate facts of an anxious or depressed patient’s life into a cogent whole that he confidently recognises as a better and manageable version of himself is perhaps neither an art nor science. It is a perspective, or a skill, like the ability to do mental math like a whizz, or the ability to visualise a prospective movie frame by frame while reading a novel.
A psychiatrist ultimately uses her personhood as an instrument to empathise with the patient; she syncs her mind with the patient’s, then disengages herself to analyse the information objectively. It takes time, effort and a lot of introspection to get closer to the unachievable target, perfection, on the lines of ‘aim at a star and you’ll shoot high’. Even so, some unexpected developments – side effects – can occur in the process of therapy and must be dealt with as par for the course, the way we do with medications.
We’ve been driving out to some of those pleasant places situated roughly between 60 and 100 km from Bangalore on some Saturdays ever since the lockdown ended last year. Driving down the smooth highways is as much of a pleasure as reaching the destination, something unthinkable ten years ago.
We start out around 6:00 a.m. and stop for breakfast on the highway at a place that has outdoor seating, and the waiters are masked. We keep our masks on, except when we are actually eating. Most often, no other table is occupied, so we are social distanced anyway.
A plate of piping hot idli-sambar, or a masala dosa, with a tumbler of coffee, and we are on our way to a memorable visit to some nice dreamscape. The Deccan plateau is dotted with hills strewn with massive boulders, that make for a climb that is neither easy nor hard, but just right to give us a great workout and a sense of achievement. The view from the top is enough to make one send up a prayer of thanks for being a Bangalorean! And the cool breeze up there? Heavenly!
There are no crowds at any of them, especially as we arrive before 8:00 in the morning. And we are back home by late afternoon, before Bangalore’s awful traffic starts jamming up the roads, after a scrumptious lunch at a restaurant on the highway. We normally make a game of spotting a good eatery and predicting the quality of the fare on offer before pulling over. We have never been disappointed!
Here are some snapshots.
Thottikallu falls: Bangalore Urban district, 35 km south of Bangalore
This was our first outing. We made the mistake of starting out late in the morning, and the place was crowded. Entry to the falls was restricted so we walked along the river and peeked at the falls from a distance. Actually, just being out in the open after months of lockdown was itself exhilarating enough for nothing else to matter!
Shivanasamudra falls: Mandya district, 133 km southwest of Bangalore
Again, beautiful but crowded place, but large enough to keep a safe distance from others who, like us, were reveling in their new freedom. Shivanasamudra is like Nandi Hills – all of us Bangaloreans treat it like our backyard and drive up whenever we feel like running away from Bangalore’s noise and air pollution.
Antargange: Kolar district, 64 km east of Bangalore
We climbed up many flights of steps that led to a small temple complex. Behind the temples was a trekking trail to reach the caves that Antargange is famous for. The climb involved feeling for hand- and footholds to clamber up and around rocks. It was between easy and moderate, very satisfying.
We didn’t go into the caves to avoid getting into unventilated spaces. Local people selling water, bananas and cucumbers along the way told us there were no corona cases there, but we kept our masks on and kept our distance.
Kailasagiri: Chikkaballapura district, 77 km northeast of Bangalore
We reached Kailasagiri at 8:30 a.m. We were the only people there! We thought it might be closed, as it was a public holiday for Sankranthi. We looked it up online and found it would open at half past ten.
As we sat on a low wall not sure what to do, we saw motorbikes coming out of a lane every few minutes. So we went to check out what was up the lane and ended up walking uphill for 3.5 km.
The trail opened on to a flat wide space where there was a small Anjaneya temple that housed a stone slab with a 1000-year-old carving of Anjaneya. The temple archak told us it had been dug out from under a huge anthill and consecrated. A larger temple was under construction.
From this point one could climb up the rocky hill to a fort at the top but we decided to do that another time, as the trek under an overcast sky had been fulfilling enough for one day.
Haddinakallu: Tumkur district, 104 km west of Bangalore
We parked at the base of the hill and learned from locals that we had to leave our shoes in the car and go up the hill barefoot as they regarded the entire hill as holy. There was a tiny shrine right there near where we parked, and one more a little way up, apart from the temple right at the top.
Feeling the ancient rough granite underfoot was nice, actually, despite the occasional pointy little stones I sometimes stepped on. There were no trees, no shade at all, so it was a tiring climb to the top. The view was as spectacular as expected. We could see our parked car so far below that it seemed like we would never be able to get back to it again!
Coming down, the granite underfoot was scorching hot and we tippy-toed to the car as fast as we could. It was a very hot day. Even the cold water we had carried in thermoses didn’t slake our thirst. We stopped at a sugarcane juice gaadi a few km down the road and I felt this was perhaps what amrit, the nectar of the gods, tasted like!
Lepakshi: Anantpur district, Andhra Pradesh, 124 km north of Bangalore
Lepakshi is just across the Karnataka-AP border. There’s a temple complex built by the Vijayanagar kings in the 15th century. It is like Hampi on a much smaller scale and has the same super-peaceful Hampi vibe.
Lepakshi is where the bird Jatayu fell when Ravana attacked him in the Ramayana. Lord Rama tried to revive him saying “Get up, bird”, which is “Lepakshi” in Telugu. There’s a huge sculpture of Jatayu and a nicely maintained park around it.
On this trip there was no trekking or rock-climbing. Just walking through the ancient temple complex, then around the Jatayu Park and the nearby Nandi Park was nice. We came across unexpected little pockets of beauty: a small lotus pond, bougainvillea in every colour along the path, clever work by ancient stone masons where they had moulded the slabs to follow the contours of the hill on which the temple was built – interesting little things like that.
And there was a Hangyo ice cream kiosk selling the creamiest kulfi, most welcome on a hot Andhra day!
Achalubetta: Bangalore Rural district, 73 km southwest of Bangalore
Acchalu is a tiny hamlet, a cluster of 15-20 little houses. We asked a couple of women how to get to the top of the hill behind their village and they said, “follow the electricity lines”. Perfect directions!
We climbed up nearly to the top without meeting a single soul. It was unseasonably warm, so we decided to turn back a kilometer or so shy of the hilltop.
When we passed a flat-ish part of the trail I picked up a long straight stick and tried a ‘javelin throw’, wholly inspired by Neeraj’s Olympic gold medal! As someone who used to be a javelin thrower in high school I was thrilled to watch it trace a beautiful arc and land with its point hitting the ground. And when my kid shouted, “Ma, you threw so well!” I felt a surge of podium-level joy!
When we came down to the village the women we had met earlier asked if we had enjoyed the climb. They smiled broadly when I gave them a thumbs-up and said I’d love to buy a house in Acchalu and live there.
Makalidurga: Bangalore Rural district, 58 km north of Bangalore
We asked the young couple next door if they would like to join us with their toddler. They were thrilled at the prospect of an outing where the little one could expend some of her boundless energy.
Luckily, the first part of the trek was a walking path, minimally inclined, not strenuous at all. It was fun watching the kid exclaim over everything she had been denied in her corona-controlled young life. She kept picking up mud and letting it slip out between her fingers, enjoying its texture. She ran up and down the trekking trail, then settled down on a large rock and began to seriously build cairns!
We turned back when we reached the part where we would have to negotiate rocky paths to climb uphill.
A railway track passed through Makalidurga and a pretty red train, a long one, went by, much to the little girl’s surprise and delight.
Avani: Kolar district, 94 km east of Bangalore
The high point of the drive to Avani was the flame-of-the-forest trees in bloom in the near distance. We got down to take a closer look at one particularly beautiful one.
The legend of the Sita temple in Avani goes back to the days of the Ramayana. It is said to be the birthplace of Lord Rama’s sons Lava and Kusha. The many temples in the complex, as I understand it, were built in the 10th century by a Kannadiga dynasty called Nolamba that I had not heard of before.
As we were there for trekking I didn’t really take in enough of the history and architecture, something that I intend to do another time. The climb was worth it, though – good exercise, good view from the hilltop.
Madhugiri: Tumkur district, 105 km northwest of Bangalore
The fort at the top of the hill was closed because of COVID. We strolled around parts of Madhugiri town near the fort and absorbed the town vibe, watching people go about their business. The feel of a town and city are so different, so it was a nice change from Bangalore.
When we came upon this crossroad a flurry of rapidly changing images rushed through my mind, of places I had been to as a child, villages I had passed through in more recent years, places I had seen in movies, scrambled with places I had imagined in History classes at school. There was a strange but pleasant sense of déjà vu.
SRS Hills and Kootgal: Ramnagara district, 63 km southwest of Bangalore
We set out at 6 o’clock in the morning and stopped for a breakfast of thatte idli that’s famous around Bidadi. At Ramanagara we got off the highway and drove down a State road flanked by massive ancient trees. I took the wheel on this beautiful smooth winding road that took us through many, many little villages with names that seem to encapsulate a story.
Gollachennayyana doddi. Maybe this land was once owned by a cowherd/shepherd (golla) called Chennayya?
Petekurubanahalli. Was there someone from the Kuruba community who moved to the big city (pete) and prospered and was thereafter referred to as Pete-Kuruba, and then others started referring to his village by the name of its successful son?
We reached SRS hills at about quarter past eight. Like Haddinakallu, we had to climb barefoot but it was an easy climb up roughly hewn steps to the Siddeshwara temple at the top of the hill. And the trail was completely in the shade of a metal awning that extended all the way from the bottom to the top. The view was typical Ramnagara, comfortingly familiar.
As this had been an easy climb we drove another 20 km to Kootgal. In the eighties, a trekker friend and I had gone as guides with my younger sister and her friends to Thimmappanabetta near Kootgal on a night trek. We had had to put off the trek because local people told us there were bears about at night. So we had slept in the bus stand at Kootgal and walked to Thimmappanabetta in the morning.
It looked exactly the way it did then! I was glad to see the immutable Kootgal rocks standing stolidly in a world where everything changes too rapidly for my comfort. From one side we got an aerial view of the neat little village of Kootgal.
Mandaragiri: Tumkur district, 62 km northwest of Bangalore
The Jain temple was closed due to COVID. We climbed to the top of a monolithic granite hill, an easy climb. We walked through the foliage and reached a lake where there were already a lot of people.
I saw a dog chase and catch a baby bird by its wing. The mother bird followed the dog, twittering anxiously. Without thinking, I chased the dog. The dog dropped the baby bird and dived into the undergrowth, and the baby bird flew away with its mother. Then the dog came out and hunted around for its prey and slunk away in disappointment . . . I was left with the unhappy feeling that I had intervened in something that wasn’t my business. Then I noticed that he had a collar . . .
Avalabetta: Chikkaballapur district, 91 km north of Bangalore
We left home at 6:00 a.m. as usual and had breakfast on the way. Bright patches of flaming orange and yellow marigold fields flew past our windows every now and then, and we couldn’t resist pulling over once to admire them and take snaps.
At Avalabetta we parked the car in the area that has been recently cleared for parking cars and bikes because of it’s sudden popularity with trekkers. Then, on an impulse, we decided to stroll a little way down the narrow mud road leading to the next village. The surface was terrible but there was a rusty board saying the government planned to pave it . . . It really should get down to it asap. Villagers on motorbikes passed us every few minutes on our 2 km walk and it was obvious they were struggling to keep their balance, especially on the parts that were very much like scree, dangerously slippery.
There were little patches of wild flowers all along the edge, and tufts of lemon grass that had a definite citrus smell when I crushed a blade between my fingers.
After walking for 2 km we turned back and went to the beginning of the trail to climb the hill. It wasn’t very challenging as it was just a nicely paved road leading to the temples at the top. There was a Sunday crowd (that’s why we normally trek on Saturdays) so we kept our masks on and didn’t stay long.
At one point I stopped to ask a young couple coming down how much longer it would take to reach the top. It was a very short conversation (‘Where are you from?’ ‘Bangalore. And you?’ ‘Also Bangalore’) but the boy self-consciously inserted “we’re married.” I was astonished, but caught on fast enough to say, “Oh my, I’m not the moral police here!” They laughed loudly in relief but looked sheepish at the same time.
Citizens of Bangalore have been asking the government where the 20,000 crore rupees allocated for road improvement have gone.
Most have concluded that the money is being spent only on roads in the CBD, repairing and beautifying the same stretches over and over.
Every morning, I walk down one of the beautiful sidewalks that stretch out in every direction from my lane, feeling selfishly grateful for the Smart City Project.
Coupled with our famed weather, mornings are wonderful, and walking 5-6 km is a cinch!
As the newspaper article only quotes disgruntled people I feel obliged to add my voice. As a satisfied citizen. I have waited for sidewalks for decades! Walking in other cities, from Los Angeles to Paris to Kuwait City to Ulsan, I have envied residents their pavements. Finally, now, it’s my turn to enjoy them!
These photos are going to be a record of this time, a time when beauty briefly returned to my part of the city, the short honeymoon phase before the BBMP, BWSSB and BESCOM will dig up these roads and sidewalks and leave their usual debris of jumbled cables, unused pipes, broken tiles and heaps of sand, cement and jelly stones interspersed with discarded paper cups and plastic water bottles left by workers.
The second picture, the one in the centre below, is of Primrose Road. This narrow lane was part of my route to work, but I always drove – even though it was less than 2 km – as there was no place to walk.
A lot of work still needs to be done. But each day brings some improvement, so I’m hopeful things will only get better.
They are like a re-enactment of things that have happened before. Or, my imagination has been jolted into overdrive by the horrific events of the last few weeks.
In the Afghanistan-US collision I imagine I hear echoes of the first encounter of Out-of-Africa Homo sapiens with the local Homo neanderthalensis nearly 70,000 years ago. The US and Afghanistan could very well be divergent evolutionary systems and have nothing in common . . .
I imagine the Rohingya in Burma, Tigrayans in Ethiopia, and other clashes taking place right now on earth, also echo the remote past and reflect fault lines. Are there deep intangible differences between ethnic groups that can’t be bridged because they can’t be named, described, understood and resolved as they’re beyond the reach of language?
Our common ancestor evolved from chimps in Africa about 7 million years ago and his descendants migrated to different parts of the world in waves. Then, over time, adaptations generated genomic signatures of natural selection. That’s the working hypothesis anyway.
At least 21 human species existed on earth at different times. These species were different from Homo sapiens, and interbreeding between some of them happened thousands of years ago. All the other species died out, but left some of their genes in the cells of different groups of Homo sapiens.
It’s well known that some populations living now have 2-4% neanderthal genes from Eurasia, and the indigenous people of Oceania have 4-6% denisovan genes from Siberia. How do these manifest?
For example, I recently read somewhere that scientists have found a Neanderthal gene variant on chromosome 3 that significantly increases the risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms and one on chromosome 12 that appears to protect against severe COVID-19. If certain genes can influence the functioning of the immune system, other genes might influence nerve cells that control thought processes as well?
Are there actual evolutionary differences in how people’s brains are wired, the way we think and behave because of differences in genes inherited from different remote ancestors and subsequently altered further by adaptation?
Surely it matters, considering that genes decide who we are and what we prioritize in life! Are we aggressive as an ethnic group and need to attack other countries? Are we squeamish about killing and bloodshed? Are we greedy and acquisitive? Are we insecure and need to subjugate others to feel good about ourselves?
We don’t consider all members of the species Canis familiaris (dog) to have the same personalities and proclivities. We associate certain traits with certain breeds, like Mudhols are fearless, Rottweilers are aggressive, Labradors are easygoing, etc. But we agree that they can all be trained to fit our purpose if necessary. If there were a democratic canine world, canine rights activists would insist they were all exactly alike in nature, and would brand them racist if they disagreed!
Wolf, Dog, Coyote all belong to Genus Canis. They can interbreed and produce fertile offspring. The offspring will have the characteristics of Genus Canis but the species differences will be on a spectrum.
Wolf – Canis lupus
Dog – Canis familiaris
Coyote – Canis latrans
So why do we regard all Homo sapiens as similar in nature just because we all belong to the Genus Homo? What if different ethnic groups of Homo sapiens carry genomic signatures of remote ancestors like heidelbergensis, neanderthalensis or erectus that influence their behaviour? Agreed, it all started thousands of years ago, but that doesn’t mean the averaging caused by the mixing has reached steady state and we are now cookie-cutter identical!
People, when transplanted into a different environment, assimilate within one or two generations. In effect, they get trained exactly like dogs do. Maybe neuroplasticity offsets inherited traits, or maybe these traits lie dormant and don’t manifest unless triggered by insecurity, distrust, fear or anger, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
Of course, I don’t want to stereotype citizens of any country. I don’t suppose they are all like the dictators or oligarchs ruling them, but I don’t know their national character, or even if they have one, and can’t make a case in their favour either.
Citizens anywhere can only protest, and taking out processions doesn’t work in any country, which is why governments allow street protests in the first place! The subaltern history of any place is summed up as a footnote: the citizens rose up against the state but the uprising was successfully quelled by police with lathis, teargas and firing in the air. Simply put, citizens don’t count, especially if a country is not democratic.
The Chinese government has accepted the new Afghan set-up with no reservations. I do wonder if the Chinese leaders and the Afghans that currently hold sway tap into a deep intuitive knowledge of one another’s minds. I mean, do they recognize themselves in the other and instinctively know how to transact business with them?
India doesn’t have that best-friend thing with any country, though some say we do have a genuine connection with Russia and Israel.
We see how India completed several civil projects in Afghanistan over the last 20 years but didn’t forge a friendship. One can’t force friendship – it’s like college roommates, some are merely roommates while some become friends for life. What we had going with Afghanistan is closer to the former.
Treaties, pacts, partnerships, MoUs, promises and assurances don’t carry quite the same meaning and sanctity in all cultures. People with fewer scruples may use them as expedients, bait, or devices to achieve immediate goals. The US is either as innocent as a child getting into a car with the ‘nice’ man he just met, or incredibly stupid, or there’s a clever foreign policy that is beyond the understanding of ordinary mortals, or there’s a conspiracy involved. It’s hard to believe the US didn’t know where its ‘aid’ was going for twenty years.
Perhaps the aftermath of the 20-year Afghan war is to Americans what our 1000-year history of being under relentless attack is to us, hopefully making them a little more circumspect in future while dealing with people who live by a different set of rules.
Words like president and minister in the context of a government in Afghanistan sound contrived because people holding those posts have different qualifications and job experience in our world. Since it is not an elected government, the nomenclature doesn’t sit well with many of us. All they want is the $$$$$, the bag of goodies they feel entitled to receive from the international community, and everybody knows it.
But the images coming out of Afghanistan of malnourished and sick children, vacant-eyed mothers sitting by the hospital beds of their little ones, women howling in pain on being beaten up, these are tugging at people’s heartstrings all over the world.
We empathise, because we’ve seen this before, whenever there is an upheaval somewhere in the world – Serbia, South Sudan, Burma, Honduras, Chechnya, Ukraine, Spain, etc. – and in the history of our own country. Hopefully, the $1billion collected yesterday for food and basic necessities for the Afghan people reaches them.
Every Indian has a representation of Afghans in his mind starting from school days. Our image of ourselves has been shaped by how Indian rulers of those times responded to attacks from the northwest, chiefly from Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. And our core idea of Afghanistan is based on a whole lot of niche facts from History classes.
As 7th and 8th graders we were shocked by the savagery of Afghan invaders described in our textbooks. These accounts are based on what was written down by the invaders. They could be distorted by subjectivity, translation or victor’s bias. Or maybe that’s the truth, that’s exactly how they did happen.
Apparently, nothing was recorded by those whose lives were too disrupted by the maelstrom to muster up the will to record the events.
These are some of the invaders from Afghanistan that we had to learn up a lot about in school. After plowing through a few chapters it was like watching something play on a loop on a TV screen in a hotel lobby. They all began to sound the same!
Ghazni: 10th /11th century
Ghori: 12th century
Jalaludin Khilji: 13th century
Timur: 14th century
Lodi: 15th century
Ghazni’s ruthless ransacking of temples, especially the Somnath temple that he robbed and razed 17 times, bewildered us.
And the Rajputs patiently rebuilt it each time! What drove them? Perhaps a sense of duty, coupled with acceptance of the temple’s destruction as either God’s will, the attackers’ ignorance, or a test of their own faith. Fatalism is in our genes and we do sometimes behave like automatons if we are exhausted from being hit on the head too many times. Anyway, the temple still exists.
Ghori conquered India thanks to the original Jai Chand whose name is now a pan-India metaphor for a traitor. But, as children, we felt ashamed that an Indian betrayed our country. After Ghori, his slaves, and then their slaves, ruled India for nearly 100 years! To rule only meant to exercise supreme authority. Royal qualities were not required, so it didn’t matter who sat on the throne! So, this was the oxymoronic Slave dynasty.
Jalaludin Khilji killed the last ruler of the Slave dynasty and declared himself king when he was seventy. He was killed by his nephew-cum-son-in-law, Alauddin, so he could be king. His dynasty lasted for only 30 years and is best known for destroying the Nalanda University.
The Khiljis were followed by the Turkic Tughlaq dynasty whose exact origins in the northwest are not known. But one of them provided generations of Indian school kids with much needed comic relief in the emotionally draining History classes that mostly featured cruel people and a lot of bloodletting.
Tughlaq is now a metaphor for someone who makes costly decisions that are doomed to fail, and everyone but the Tughlaq can foresee what is going to happen!
Timur: Timur captured and looted all the towns from Kabul to Delhi, killed with abandon, ruined and destroyed everything in his path, and then, on his way back, plundered the towns he had missed on his way in, like Meerut, Hardwar, Kangra and Jammu. He has the distinction of causing the deaths of 17 million people, i.e. 5% of the world population at the time.
He took away gold, silver and precious stones from India. I wonder what happened to all the treasure that reached Afghanistan from India. Maybe the Chinese will find it when they start digging, once they get the mining rights they’re angling for!
Lodi: Lodi was a Pashtun Afghan. He and his descendants were a harsh and bigoted lot and did exactly what their predecessors did. Ibrahim got his brother assassinated so he could occupy the throne, something we simply accepted as one of their rites of passage by the time we reached tenth grade and had been force fed this stuff for four years.
The Lodis destroyed temples and built mosques on top, another standard procedure, which made remembering facts about each of these people both easy and difficult while studying for exams, because they all blurred into one turbaned, bearded, mustachioed, sword-brandishing hulk on a horse.
So this is the historic Afghanistan-India relationship we inherited! Reviewing these events from the safety of 500-1000 years into the future makes it’s easier to talk dispassionately about them, the way historians write about Attila and Bleda the Huns’ onslaught on the Roman Empire in the 5th century, or the Norsemen’s on medieval England.
But, as school children, these stories upset us enough to prefer Amar Chitra Katha comics. Many of these comics were about kings like Prithviraj Chauhan who fought back, valiant rulers who were dismissed in one short paragraph in our textbooks. Until last month’s Tokyo Olympics India never appreciated the efforts of people who didn’t win in a competition or war!
Meanwhile, we read Tagore’s short story Kabuliwala every year from 8th to 10th grade, either in English or in Hindi. We warmed to the big Afghan as he affectionately teased the author’s little daughter. We felt his pain when he shed tears for his little girl back home in Kabul.
You might say the pen is truly mightier than the sword if one Nobel-winning Indian writer could make Indian kids forget all the terrible Afghans in Indian history for the moment, and feel compassion for an Afghan trader down on his luck in the 1890s, but honestly, coming across a normal human being from Afghanistan was a huge surprise and a great relief!
In the 1990s we felt sorry for present-day Afghans and were happy that our country was giving them refuge. At that time I was friends with the Afghan refugees who lived next door – Naaz and Nazia – and we spent a lot of time in each other’s homes.
For the past couple of decades we were glad there was peace in Afghanistan, thanks to the US presence. From 2001 India invested US$3 billion in Afghanistan to build roads, schools, hospitals, dams – and even a beautiful parliament building costing $90million.
400 infrastructure projects across the country. Nice!
Now, here’s the thing.
In 2011 we signed the India-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement and Afghanistan got duty-free access to the Indian market. Great. But I can’t find any information regarding what India gained from this deep engagement with Afghanistan!
I typed ‘What has India gained from Afghanistan’ – worded in many different ways to make sure Google understood – in the search bar and it returned 38,20,00,000 results for ‘What has India done in Afghanistan’! It never found the answer to my question! Perhaps private investors from India prospered and that doesn’t appear online?
I would have expected the government to get some quid pro quo for this construction work, like maybe lithium for our solar energy and electric vehicle projects?
The Ministry of External Affairs says we have ‘a people-to-people relationship’ with Afghanistan. I can’t decode that. I presume there is a solid reason for investing in a country that shares only a 106 km long border with us, thousands of feet up in the Hindukush Mountains; otherwise, we are separated by thousands of km2 of hostile land.
We are currently hosting over 20,000 documented refugees from Afghanistan and several thousand undocumented ones besides. We are providing for them, obviously, despite our own impoverished populace being hit by corona and job loss. The refugees say we’ve made a bad job of it – merely saving their lives doesn’t count! Therefore, those who were stranded in a gurudwara in Kabul last week refused to come to India.
As of now, it seems to me that India helped Afghan civilians painstakingly build a comfortable nest in which parasitic cuckoos have now laid their eggs. And the US has inadvertently provided equipment for their protection. The civilians who built the nest want to go to Europe because their nest is now a ghetto. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if any good comes out of what, at this point, looks like India’s vanity project in Afghanistan.
In large families the eldest child is often the third parent, helping mum and dad get the younger ones to follow house rules. She has the privilege of her parents’ trust and almost as much power over them as their parents do. She is expected to never hit back if they pummel her with their little fists or kick her in the shin when she tries to bathe or dress them against their will. She is held responsible for any fracas involving the rest, often getting punished while the smaller children go scot-free. I know, because I was that eldest sister.
With this template, I entered adolescence thinking the government was right in overextending itself to take care of minorities at the expense of the ‘privileged’ majority.
When my siblings and I were in our teens I was battered in a fistfight with my brother who seemed to have developed superhuman strength overnight! Until then I had got by with a long, furled, towel stretched between my fists to use as a nunchaku when attacked by any of the younger ones. But that wasn’t enough when they were no longer little. They just yanked it out of my hands!
In 1990, when the minority Hindu Kashmiris were tormented and chased out of Jammu & Kashmir by that state’s majority, and the government did nothing, I questioned the label ‘minorities’ being applied to the group that was larger, disruptive and violent – the equivalent of my ‘defenceless’ brothers and sisters – for the first time.
In my last post I wrote about the Tuareg people being sidelined in Niger. That seems to be the pattern everywhere: minorities are sidelined, or even persecuted, or annihilated.
Unless, of course, the government accedes to the demands of ethnic minorities at the expense of the majority, as has been done in India. For example, churches and mosques get to use donations made by their followers for their own activities, as well as receive funds from the government, but donations made to temples by Hindu devotees go to the government!! For over 65 years our government had total faith in the gullibility, self-doubt and fatalistic acceptance that has been hardwired into the mental make-up of Hindus over centuries!
As Indian Hindus have a small presence in many countries, most people who have come in contact with them will agree that they are generally law-abiding, make no demands on the government, do not resort to violence, and do not try to convert local people to their religion. Their spiritual values are not rigid and they don’t concern themselves with other people’s gods and religions. Which is why democracy has survived in India, though I admit it is far from perfect.
I am pretty sure that some nations are incapable of democracy because the narcissistic upper echelons can’t imagine being equated to the hoi polloi. But democratically oriented countries propagate it with a missionary zeal, ignoring the fact that the countries they want to mould in their own image prefer oligarchy, so they can hold on to their limitless power over the tribe.
An evolving civilisation in its early stages tends to stick with tribal customs and hierarchies, and no amount of harping on democracy and human rights can change this. It looks like some civilisations refuse to evolve. They mark time rather than march forward, or even take a few steps backwards time and again.
Not even ‘education’ can help a community or nation grow intellectually and spiritually if its children are indoctrinated with ideas of ‘only one god, our god, revere him, serve him – or else!’ As we know, a lot of people who run terror outfits are ‘educated’, as are narrow-minded busybodies who infiltrate stable well-knit communities to spread subversive beliefs, wreck social systems and cause strife.
Terrorism is defined as ‘the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims’. Regardless of what they claim, there is always a political goal, and I think that is the most important part of the definition of terrorism. Once terrorists achieve that goal there can’t be peace for ordinary citizens.
While unlawfuluse of violence is relatively easy to understand, intimidation is harder to define. It can be subtle, like people who aspire to power via religion threatening gullible people that they will burn in hellfire if they don’t toe their line. It’s surprising how naïve people are intimidated by threats like this, but it’s common enough, going by what I have heard from panicked patients who have had a breakdown when thus intimidated.
Minorities like refugees, traders and temporary settlers often request concessions to follow the ways of their homeland in their new country rather than assimilate. They can who-moved-my-cheese their way into political power right under the noses of the hosts if governments give in to all their demands. At any rate, that is how the East India Company jumped from being traders to colonisers in India! What followed was not different from terrorism, really.
Since getting free of the British, India has always had a problem of infiltration from the neighbouring countries they hurriedly hacked out of India along their Radcliffe line, etc. before they left. Plugging gaps in its land frontier – 15,200km of it – is an ongoing process, and hasn’t been very successful so far.
Even well guarded borders in developed countries are not perfectly sealed. Desperate people find ways to get in. And, with time, they become the ‘minorities’ and begin making demands on the host country’s government, backed by human rights activists, while citizens continue to fund them with the taxes they pay.
Countries that have traditionally been White majority are now uneasy about changing demographics. When European immigrants became the majority in the Americas the original inhabitants were wiped out, so the White world is fully aware of the danger of being in the minority, of being overwhelmed by people whom they allowed in as guests.
So, I discovered that my towel nunchaku could no longer protect me. Even if it had been the real thing I couldn’t have wielded it like Bruce Lee because I had no intention to kill my brother! So I turned my room into a bomb shelter, figuratively speaking, and used the dining and living rooms for civilized conversation when we had to sit together, what else! We all grew out of our teens and stopped terrorizing one another.
That possibility of civilised diplomatic dialogue between nations has been taken away by events of the past two decades. Trust and respect have both disappeared completely from the international political scene. The spread of terrorism has left us with a choice of upgrading our weaponry or building bomb shelters. Or both. Unfortunately.
A few days ago, I saw on the news that Niger wants France to clear up radioactive waste in the French-owned uranium mines around the city of Arlit.
I was surprised that anyone would leave radioactive material lying around, and that too, France, which generally comes across as a responsible country. Fifty percent of the uranium ore from Niger’s mines goes to fuel France.
I could be wrong, but it looks like no country has a perfect plan for disposing of radioactive waste. There is a stockpile of radioactive waste from nuclear reactors in the world stored in temporary facilities. The intention is to eventually bury it deep underground in cement canisters.
I know that ‘high-level’ waste is less than 3% and the rest is ‘low-level’ waste that supposedly decays and becomes harmless over time, and this depends on the half-life of the element. I know very little beyond that and hope people who operate nuclear reactors know what they are doing.
Three months ago Japan announced that it planned to release treated radioactive water from the damaged Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea starting two years from now. Japan says nuclear power plants all over the world routinely release water that has minute amounts of tritium into the sea anyway!
After the Fukushima incident, some countries like Germany and France have started shutting down their nuclear reactors and are temporarily going back to coal until they can increase renewable sources of energy like wind and solar. Italy closed down its nuclear power plants in 1990 following a referendum. Some countries are opposed to nuclear power and have never set up nuclear power stations.
It seems such a shame, because nuclear makes for a cleaner environment than coal. On the other hand, there have been a total of more than a hundred serious nuclear accidents in the world, five or six of them in India . . .
To come back to Niger, I wondered why a system hadn’t been put in place in the forty years France has been mining uranium there. The locals must have been adversely affected for decades, so who exactly are these affected people?
Apparently they are mainly the Tuareg nomads, an ethnic minority, who have lived in those parts from the 5th century CE. They are spread across many countries – Libya, Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, as well as Niger. They are more loyal to their Tuareg identity than to Niger and are often at odds with their government over the ownership of the land leased out to foreigners for mining uranium.
Like the Yazidis, Kurds and other ethnic groups that are spread across many countries and don’t have a nation of their own, I guess they get sidelined in the affairs of their country.
Some activists have taken up their cause. But I get the impression that the European Union politely listens to their concerns, waits for the spike in public interest to subside, and ultimately doesn’t do much.
Then again, why will the ‘world’, i.e. the G7+EU+/–Russia+/–5-emerging-economies, care about the tribulations of a nomadic tribe that doesn’t contribute to the world economy? The ‘world’ is like an eye, the economy occupies the fovea, and images of events that are seen as dragging the economy down land on the blind spot, the point that ironically connects the eye to the brain! Of course, the fact that I get my ‘news’ from English-language channels and sites decides what I ‘know’, so someone somewhere might be taking action on this and I may never hear of it.
These were some of the thoughts triggered by what I read off the ticker on TV. Then I browsed the net a bit and found that pros and cons are still being debated furiously. While environmentalists have raised concerns about the ‘dangers’ of nuclear reactors and radioactive waste, the World Nuclear Association and scientific journals and blogs have countered the ‘myths’.
So I’m none the wiser!
If I have to choose I might throw in my lot with Science, because I believe scientists take a calculated risk after working out the theoretical framework of anything experimental. And new findings are peer-reviewed and replicated by others. It is not my business to make judgments on nuclear fuel and nuclear waste.
Leave alone nuclear reactors, I wouldn’t have had the imagination to invent a bicycle if it didn’t exist! I wouldn’t think it possible to stay balanced and move forward on two narrow wheels attached to a frame, a thing on which I can stay astride only as long as I constantly work my feet up and down!
When I was a kid we sometimes visited relatives in a village called Kesaragadde near Mangalore during school holidays. Their farmhouse stood in the middle of lush green rice paddies. We would want to run out into the fields like we had seen people do in the movies. How different it was from the narrow road and tiny park of our neighbourhood in Bangalore, how vast and open!
But, no. Our aunt said that villagers who didn’t have toilets in their homes used random fields, so you never knew what you might step on . . . There were many questions about this, like what happens when you need to harvest your crop, or but isn’t it your field Uncle, and why don’t they build their own loos, but mum’s warning look kept us from asking them.
Children’s storybooks from England were the staple when I was growing up, and the kids in those stories hiked through fields, woods and grassy meadows all the time. They camped out in tents far away from civilization. I did wonder, even then, where were the facilities in those wild, lonely places? It was obvious they used the fields and woods too, like the villagers in Kesaragadde, and some of the places they wandered through were private property too. That didn’t make it okay as such, but that’s the way it was everywhere, then, perhaps?
Anyway, I finally got my chance to run up a gently sloping grassy hill in England on a family holiday a few years ago. We passed these beautiful velvety green hills while driving through the Lake District and pulled over into a convenient little bay near a stile. We rushed excitedly up the slope, enjoying the feel of springy grass underfoot, the kids shouting to each other that they could roll down the hill like people did in old Hindi movies . . .
Hardly five metres up, and we stepped straight into piles of sheep droppings! So much for plans for rolling down the slope! And don’t even talk about the scraping of soles before getting back in the car.
For me, a childhood fantasy got a reality check. For the kids, a lesson: The grass might look greener on the other side of the world, but it’s as full of s––– as the grass on your side of the world!
After a couple of days we visited the Linlithgow palace in Scotland set amidst lovely lawns. The kids joyfully ran up the slope towards the castle. They looked so carefree, so exhilarated, such a joy to watch . . . At the top they came across a sign: Keep off the grass.
So, Lesson #2: If the grass looks good, and is not pasture, you aren’t allowed to step on it!
They quickly got off the lawn, disappointed.
And, therefore, Lesson #3: Do well in school, go to college, get a job, buy a house and have your own lawn 🙂 Don’t wait to be ‘allowed’, make it happen!
While writing this, I suddenly remembered that I had visited Kesaragadde with my son when he was four, just for a few hours. I dug out the snaps from that trip. So I had got a chance to walk through the fields after all, and the paths had been clean, and it had been a nice, happy, sunny day . . .
Enid Blyton has recently been accused of sexism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia and lack of literary merit. Well! After 70 years, an organization called English Heritage chooses to reappraise her works through the filter of the current value system. Not my circus, not my monkeys, except that I grew up loving her books in faraway India, and feel impelled to speak up.
Even if some of this harsh criticism were true, I would say her characters simply reflected the mores of those times, or at least what most ordinary people of that time might have agreed with. As someone who has read her books over and over as a child, and later as a mom, here’s my take.
Sexism: That Georgina of Famous Five wanted to be George was not hard to understand. Growing up with brothers who had more freedom, I could see the advantages of being a boy too! Cousin Anne preferred being protected to being free, so she was considered a normal girl, in keeping with patriarchal attitudes that, by the way, are still widely prevalent. Then there was the fiercely independent Henrietta, who went by Henry, in Five go to Mystery Moor, and the fearless Wilhelmina, who went by Bill, in Malory Towers. Wilhelmina didn’t want to be a boy, but growing up with seven brothers might’ve made her boyish.
Racism: There’s ambivalence towards the French in many of her books for sure. She often said that French kids did not have the ‘famous English sense of honour’ and, therefore, lied to get out of things like swimming and nature walks, but in the next breath she hastened to highlight their cleverness, artistic talent, sense of humour and forgiving nature. Actually, her ambivalence comes through more clearly in the characterisation of the various Mam’zelles.
She talked up the Irish, Scots and Welsh who were always frank, outspoken, dependable and righteous people, loyal to the idea of a united Britain, perhaps reflecting Enid Blyton’s own pride in the British Empire.
Circus folk in the Mr. Galliano’s circus series, Circus of Adventure and Five Have a Wonderful Time were multiracial and exotic and she gave them a wide berth when it came to bad manners, a lack of hygiene, lack of integrity, bad grammar (yes! like “didn’t ought to”), and other traits she disapproved of in civilized folks.
Americans were ‘large’ and hearty and addressed people as ‘Honey’. They longed to acquire an English accent. They had big cars and were rich and vain, but also generous.
Enid Blyton did try to balance the yin and yang of a lot of her characters!
However, Indians were caricatured, like Mr. Hohoha of Bong Castle, India, in the Mystery of Tallyho Cottage, or used as a simile to describe a sunburnt White person’s skin tone.
Xenophobia: No. In fact, she was careful to not ruffle international feathers and invented countries like Prince Paul’s Baronia (Spiggy Holes) and Prince Gussy’s Tauri-Hessia (Circus of Adventure) instead of setting villainous kidnappings and murders in real countries. Villains whose names sounded Spanish or German usually belonged to unnamed European countries, though she sometimes slipped up, like making Engler the villain an Austrian in the Mystery of Banshee Towers. But, frankly, nine out of ten criminals were White and British, so I won’t even make a representational list here.
Homophobia: There was hero-worship of older boys/girls by younger boys/girls certainly, but there was nothing sexual, not even the hint of a crush anywhere! Blushing was either due to shyness or because a bolder child had made public a secret talent or good deed of a timid one!
The slight snobbery of the upper middleclass Find-outers was obvious to me because I recognized it here too. They had a benevolent but faintly patronizing attitude towards the house help and the policeman’s nephew, Ern Goon. But the fact that the children were always trying to be fair in giving respect, praise and criticism registered subliminally. It did bring about a subtle positive change in how I interacted with people who worked for my family.
The Famous Five seemed to mix around with gypsies on equal terms though, but mostly because the gypsies were unscrupulous and dangerous. The Five came in contact with all sorts of lowlife but dealt with them with dignity, with Timmy the dog’s help, of course. Even the bickering and making up among them influenced me to behave better when my siblings and I squabbled.
The School stories derided snobbery and strongly advocated looking at the strength of a girl’s character and not her parents’ wealth or social standing. Character was a big deal, a common thread running through most of her books. That, and a sense of honour. Humility was much appreciated. Even gifted girls with musical or artistic abilities of a high standard were ‘taken down a peg’ if they thought too much of themselves.
What I’m saying is that I – and many of my generation – benefitted from Enid Blyton’s books, apart from truly enjoying her stories in the mystery, adventure and school genres. Younger children enjoyed the magic realism in The Wishing Chair and The Faraway Tree series, and fantasy in the Noddy (wooden boy who comes to life, like Pinocchio) and Mr. Pinkwhistle (half man, half brownie) series. I remember how much my sister loved Mr. Pinkwhistle and Mr. Meddle stories when she was in second grade.
There are two genres that I have not seen mentioned in any of the articles that have been in the media recently: Drama, and what could be called Documentary.
There are a whole lot of books, family dramas, from which I imbibed many good values as a girl. Being children’s books, the characters are necessarily black and white, but that doesn’t matter, as I realized during my multiple readings for each of my kids.
Each story deals beautifully and lovingly, but sensibly and firmly, with how families cope when bad luck befalls them and they are beset by difficulties; how they all pitch in and pull their weight; how each member contributes and grows from the experience. The stories deal with relationships and family dynamics, often including extended family – cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents – and farm animals and pets too.
There is a strong emphasis on consequences of actions like lying, stealing, shirking responsibility, laziness, procrastination, carelessness, etc. Some books focus exclusively on the importance and value of friends. Issues of fairness, loyalty, trust, dependability and courage get spotlighted in these.
This is the list of family dramas that I read to my children, simply explaining anachronisms as I went along, like telling them that there used to be dolls called ‘gollywog’ a long time ago. In the welter of gnomes, goblins, fairies and elves, plus toys that came alive at night, I felt it was okay for the moment to not launch into details, given that children are naturally accepting of differences.
The family at Red-Roofs
Those dreadful children
The children at Green Meadows
Six cousins at Mistletoe farm
Six cousins again
I had read a book by Enid Blyton called TheSix Bad Boys when I was 11 years old. It was about neglected children ending up in a gang and getting in trouble with the police, then going through the Juvenile Court. I was deeply impacted – cried buckets – by this book because it is about kids with uncaring, irresponsible parents, something unexpected in Enid Blyton’s books, and something unexpected in my 11-year-old life. I wanted to buy a copy (as the one I had read was from a library that happened to shut down soon after) but it wasn’t available for years.
A few years ago I came across it in a bookstore and bought it. I read it again, as a parent this time. It’s a book that is still relevant, maybe even more so now, and I wish every parent would read it.
In Norse mythology the gods amused themselves by throwing objects at Baldr, the much-loved son of Odin, because he was not susceptible to harm. Loki the evil god handed a sprig of mistletoe to Höd the blind god to toss at Baldr. It was the only thing that could kill him. And it did.
Like Loki, the National Heritage people seem to be handing out sprigs of mistletoe in the shape of a bunch of modern –isms to the blind Höds among us who cannot see the joy Enid Blyton has given millions of children all over the world. Her books have been translated into 90 languages and sold 600million copies!
Do we really want interest in her books to die? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to use instances of her biases to learn and educate, so we don’t make the same mistakes? Or even better, pick up what is good and worth emulating in her characters? Surely, cancel culture is not the most effective use of history.