Why Sushant? We already miss you…

I woke up to the sound of drizzling on this late, cold morning in Western France. I picked up my cell phone lazily, which by this time was already exhausted from screaming its lungs out in an attempt to wake me up for the last couple of hours. I don’t know why I tend to set alarms for early morning when each cell of my body knows (and I swear it does) that I have no intention of waking up at that time.

As is habit with me, I opened Google to check for news about India, something that helps me reassure myself that things are under control and that no panic is yet necessary. Through groggy and half-opened eyes, I happened to see a picture of Sushant Singh Rajput, the young and charming Bollywood actor. ‘Must be some new dating story about him’ I chuckled to myself. As I scrolled below, couple of other pictures of him appeared. I knew something was wrong. All media groups will not publish the same dating story about him, right? There are still some sensible guys left out there. Straining my eyes to read the letters below the picture, I read something that I have not yet been able to believe. As I write this piece, I still hope that I break out of my reverie only to be laughed at, with someone telling me ‘Are you kidding? That was just a bad dream! Stop watching so much drama before going to bed!” But unfortunately, a part of me tells me that it will never happen. The harm has already been done.

Sushant killed himself by hanging from the ceiling of his apartment this afternoon, India time. As the police swarms his residence in Mumbai, there is speculation that he was depressed and on medication for the last couple of months. ‘Depression got him too?’ I murmur to myself, as vivid recollections of my rough brush with the dreaded D word flood my head. I had a young baby to care for, just few weeks old and I had already convinced myself how worthless I was and so unworthy of using up oxygen and space in this beautiful world, full of deserving and wonderful people. As I shake those painful memories off, my mind goes back to Sushant.

A long, slim body, and long, dark hair that he charismatically managed from time to time, by jerking his head sideways and his characteristic sheepish smile, which could make you blush, no matter your age or gender. He was the guy-next-door, someone just like you, who had set out to achieve dreams that sounded too good to be true. The same dreams that Indian society teaches us to never have, to avoid dejection and pain in the end. But not only did he make it big in life, he also instilled in all of us, a hope that we could too.

As I am reading more and more about him on the internet, curious and confused, I am thinking of how I often compared his smile to my brother Ashish’s. A ladies’ man, as Ashish is often referred to in the family – given his popularity among the opposite sex right from school times – would smile just as sheepishly each time I asked him about his latest crushes, too excited to keep silent and too scared to reveal the truth to his elder sister, who had direct access to the parents. And now when Sushant is gone, it feels like a personal loss. Someone I knew and loved is gone.

My supposed knowledge of theology (of things that happen after we die) gives me comfort as I think of him being in a better place, full of light and joy, and all that. But you know what hurts – the thought of not being able to see, hear and witness the happiness and longevity of another human being, who exuded life and enthusiasm from every inch of his body. This is punishment, isn’t it? He may be fine in another world, but are we, those that stay behind, knowing rather well that this could have been averted, with just a little more care, concern and empathy? Of course, we didn’t know him directly, but somebody did, right?

As I hear people share theories about how the rich and influential classes, celebrities and the like are more prone to mental illnesses, I cringe in disagreement. Just because their lives are more public and glamourous than ours, does not make them any more susceptible to such illnesses than the common man, who struggles to make ends meet and worries about paying monthly bills. Maybe we like to tell ourselves that fame, luxury and extravagance cause greater worry and anxiety than not having any of these. Well, it’s probably rationalization of the sense of misery we experience in our mundane lives.

Depression is a serious mental illness that is expected to affect one in four people in the world at some point in their lives (WHO, India). Nearly about 4-6% of the world’s population experiences symptoms of depression that include feelings of guilt, hopelessness and loss of interest in once-pleasurable activities, making it the largest single cause of global disability. In India, the figures are much more disturbing – one in 20 Indians suffers from depression, making it the most depressed country in the world, followed by China and USA. To make matters worse, the social stigma associated with mental disorders and the belief that they tantamount to ‘madness’, prevents people from opening up about their troubles and seeking medical help.

Sushant’s untimely demise raises an important question – in that section of society that we believe has it all – looks, popularity, a plush home, larger than a middle-class person can ever dream of owning in his lifetime, branded clothes and accessories, a huge fan-following – is there even a remote possibility that they ‘lack’ something? For this is what we have always believed, right? He or she killed himself…they did not have money to repay their loans, did not have the looks to get married to a person of their choice, did not have this, that. But Sushant had everything. Right?

Wrong. Even when his possessions and early success may have created a class divide between him on one side and the common people on the other, the fact remains that all said and done, in the end, we are all vulnerable human beings. We are all broken inside, and we need care, company and a shoulder to cry on. Class, or social status plays no role here. Our status as humans supersedes it all.

I just wish someone had been there to listen, to check on him or to just reassure him that no matter how rough life seems now, things will eventually straighten out. But again it’s easier said than done – depressed people hardly speak. They withdraw themselves in their shells, shielding themselves from public glare. I remember how weird I acted when I felt blue – closed, moody and erratic. Smiling and laughing for no apparent reason, only to end up crying for hours, again for no reason. How can people come to your rescue when they do not know you are in trouble? Or worse when you repel them, shooing them away for any little concern that they may show you?

I think in the end it is a matter of persistence. As the new digital way of life separates us from one another only to ‘connect’ us virtually, the pandemic and the isolation it has caused has brought us on our knees. The noise, drama and the relentless chatter we took for granted in our day-to-day lives has suddenly faded away, leaving behind ghastly silence, that forces us to face our innermost demons, that we have never even acknowledged in our lives.

We have little choice but to remain on-guard at all times. No one may ever come and tell us that he or she is unwell or lonely or anxious, but we must develop that ability to feel what it is that they are experiencing deep down. Let’s keep texting them, telling them that we are here for them, and that no matter how hard they shoo us way, we are just a phone call away. To indicate our availability is enough. Even when we may not be able to reach them when we want, they may, when they like, without any fear of shame or judgment.

I miss you Sushant. Stay happy wherever you are. You shall brighten up that place too, I am sure.

I wish I never had to write this piece in my life.

Image taken from Google images.

My take on Thappad, the movie

Thappad (literally, a tight slap in Hindi), has been one of the very few Bollywood movies I have awaited since its release on 28th February, 2020. Being out of India has had its advantages for sure, but having to wait for good movies to appear on Amazon Prime and Netflix is among the few disadvantages.

After having heard so much about the movie, particularly from women friends and those in the family, I finally got the chance to watch it last night after my son had gone to bed. I wasn’t sure if it was the best content to watch right before going to bed (I am very susceptible to intense emotional-drama type of dreams) but I did not want to give up on the chance. God alone knows when I may find this time again, I told myself and gave into the temptation.

The background:

The movie is about a happy, young couple who live in a posh villa in upper-class New Delhi. The husband, Vikram is ambitious and has seen quick success in climbing the corporate ladder. He hopes to soon be promoted to a much-desired managerial position in the UK, where he and his wife are all set to start their new lives. His wife, Amrita is a beautiful and dedicated home-maker who has out of her own choice, decided to manage the home while her husband earns the bread. She wakes him up every morning for work, serves him tea and breakfast in bed, packs his lunch box, takes care of his mother who lives with them, waters the plants, maintains the house. She does practically everything to provide to him the infrastructure he requires to do his ‘part of the deal’ well, i.e. work well, stay happy and have a comfortable life. Having let go of her own career in life, his goals are now hers,– to climb the corporate ladder, have a nice and comfortable life in the UK, have two children and enjoy life.

All is well till the day of the fateful party when in a fit of rage, he slaps her hard across the face. In the middle of the party which had been thrown to celebrate his upcoming promotion and relocation to the UK, he receives unpleasant news from his boss over the telephone. Overtaken by rage and courage falsely-induced by alcohol, he begins to argue with a colleague also present in the party. Realizing the consequences of this altercation, let alone the public spectacle Vikram is creating, Amrita begins to pull him by the arm to take him away. He asks her to stay away a couple of times but when she does not relent, slaps her hard across the face. People look on, including her parents, no one knowing what to say to her.

Her vision of her marriage and relationship to Vikram changes in an instant. Even as she goes about her daily chores, something inside her has changed. Her smile doesn’t appear as frequently as it did earlier. Her gestures towards Vikram, for instance serving him breakfast or seeing him off for work each morning become more mechanical than induced by emotion. He tries to explain himself citing work pressure and misrepresentation by his company’s management, but never apologizes as such.

Finally, one day, Amrita decides to leave for her parents’ place till she feels better-equipped to handle the situation. Vikram is upset and accuses her of making a mountain out of a mole-hill. He feels that she is stretching that slap event too far when in fact she should be trying to help him through his office troubles. Amrita’s parents console her, her mother silently hoping that things will eventually fall in place and the couple shall make peace again. Her younger brother suggests that she should go back for it is ‘just one slap’ and that ‘these things happen. He was upset!’ The only people who understand her need to introspect and even so her ‘right to be upset’ are her father and her brother’s girlfriend.

Finally, Amrita decides to divorce Vikram. Her lawyer, a young and successful woman also trapped in a loveless marriage, asks her innocuously, ‘Divorce for just one slap?’, to which she replies ‘The slap changed everything. I don’t love him anymore.’

The movie then takes the viewers through a myriad of emotions as Amrita fights a dirty legal battle with her husband who accuses her of being manic depressive, crazy and a reckless alcoholic. To make matters worse, she finds out she is pregnant. The movie ends with an apology from Vikram to Amrita who acknowledges the fact that he never really looked into her needs, all the while focusing on his own. The couple separate and Amrita agrees to share custody of her child with her husband and his family.

The slap that the movie revolves around changed many lives. It has a domino effect on a lot of people around Amrita and her husband who are now forced to acknowledge the elephant in the room and question their own thought and behavior patterns.

Here are some things about the movie that struck me as particularly appealing:

  1. The emotions of Amrita’s parents: As a sobbing mother discusses Amrita’s future with her husband, she tells him that it is necessary that Amrita forget this event and move on with her marriage, for ‘women must make sacrifices.’ To this her husband asks, ‘Did I ever expect you to make any sacrifices? Did I ever ask you to give up something you liked?’

The mother smiles and wipes a tiny tear in the corner of her eyes and says ‘I loved to play the harmonium as a young girl and had to give it up to manage household responsibilities after we got married.’

‘Did I ever ask you to stop playing?’ he asks gently. ‘But you also never asked why I stopped playing….’ she says.

  1. The lawyer’s conflict: The conflict that Amrita’s lawyer faces in offering her legal and emotional guidance is so beautifully portrayed. Trapped in a loveless marriage to a high-society narcissist, she seeks love outside of marriage with a younger man who lets her be herself, enjoys looking at her when she eats orange ice candy on long drives at night and sticks her neck out of the car window as the car races in speed.

On the one hand, she suggests that Amrita forgive her husband and avoid legal recourse given how messy and time-taking these things can get. On the other, she silently praises the courage of this young, middle-class woman who claims no financial support from her husband she has fallen out of love with. Not only does she silently hope that Amrita come out victorious of this abusive relationship, but also questions herself as to why she must remain in the cage and not fly out like Amrita to regain her self-respect and happiness, something she eventually does.

  1. Vikram’s dilemma: Vikram is not a bad man or an evil character. He is a loving husband who cares for his wife, her needs and treats her as an equal in their marriage. In a fit of rage, he slaps her. As she struggles to come to terms with what has just happened, he tries to explain to her how ‘normal’ these things are and that it happens in every marriage. In fact, he argues that if Indian women were to leave the marriage for ‘just one slap’, nearly half of all Indian marriages would be over. When Amrita explains to him how robbed of self-esteem she feels after that incident, he begins to behave like the victim himself, in a sense that seems to make Amrita guilty of putting her emotional needs before his. She is made to feel guilty for ‘sticking to the slap event’ when in fact she should be helping him come out of the disappointment at work. When Amrita tells him how she has fallen out of love for him, he reminds her that she is not perfect and that he had agreed to marry her ‘even when she did not know how to cook.’
  2. Vikram’s mother: She too is a silent spectator to the slap at the party. After Amrita makes up her mind to leave the marriage, her mother-in-law with whom she shares a very emotional bond tries to persuade her to ‘let go of that incident. Women must make sacrifices to keep the family together’ she says.

‘Are you happy?’ Amrita asks her in return.

‘Well, if the family is happy, I seek happiness in that. At some point, women must stop caring about what is personally satisfying to them.’

  1. Amrita’s brother: A modern-day, open-minded young man, Amrita’s brother wants the best for his sister. While he hopes initially that she will talk things out with her husband and things will be fine again, his heart is broken when he sees his sister hell-bent on a divorce. This well-meaning brother worries for his sister’s future – how will she sustain herself? How will she manage all by herself? How will the Indian society treat her with the label of a ‘divorcee’ hanging on her head? It will be much easier for Vikram to re-marry, but what about his sister? Will she end up all alone?

His behaviour moves from caring to persuasive and eventually aggressive when he sees things get out of control. In the end, he is seen by his sister’s side in the family court during the paper-signing process.

  1. The domestic help: This is by far the most interesting character in the plot. Amrita’s house maid, a young, frail woman, is routinely beaten up by her husband and humiliated by his mother who lives with them. In fact, the house-help very cheerfully narrates these tales to Amrita each morning as she arrives to work. She loves to dance and watch dance shows but clearly these luxuries are not really meant for her. She goes to work each morning, earns money for the family, gets beaten up and yelled at and accused of being sterile. When she witnesses Vikram slap his wife, she becomes more accepting of her own husband, finding comfort in the fact that ‘He is after all, not so bad. All men beat up their wives.’ Towards the end of the movie, she is showing beating her husband back who gapes at her in surprise.

At the end of the movie, I kept asking myself repeatedly, ‘Was Amrita right? Could she not have given it another try? May be it would never happen again. Who was to blame? Who was responsible for the demise of this marriage?’

I have many answers, most of them conflicting. I don’t know whether globally-speaking Amrita made the right choice, but I do know that for the person called Amrita with specific personality traits and standards of expected behaviour, this was the right choice. Just as each individual is different, so are our boundaries and expectations in terms of being treated.

Ultimately, it is the individual that is responsible for self-preservation and protection of one’s own dignity. If Amrita chose to uphold it, how can one claim that she was wrong? It is right that she ‘could’ have tolerated more, but does that make it necessary that she ‘should’ in fact tolerate more? Just because we can do something, do we always do it? She may have forced herself to live with him, but what about living with herself, in her own mind and body? Is it possible to hate yourself for having suffered a blow to your self-esteem and still tell yourself that you are happy, because things could have been much worse? I do not think so.

Coming to who was to be blamed, I think there is no one correct answer. There are so many people who share this blame – we, our parents, our ancestors, our belief systems, distorted expectations from relationships, social structures, faulty lines of thinking that we developed decades ago and continue to follow for compliance is easier than change. With these distorted lenses for viewing things, we may see the perpetrators as victims and the victims, as perpetrators. Who knows who is right? May be no one is.

“There are three sides to every story: your side, my side, and the truth. And no one is lying.”

Robert Evans

Image taken from Google images

Battling hard COVID days with Baby-sitting Wednesdays

I have been rather baffled by the ‘need to stay indoors’ in the last couple of weeks. The restless being that I am, staying in one room for more than 20 minutes begins to cause trembling in my legs. The prospect of staying at home for weeks sounded paralyzing. And indeed it turned out to be.

As the COVID panic rose, I kept calm. I knew that no matter what happened, work wouldn’t stop. The economy couldn’t stop running, right? Till one day we were all informed about the closure of all businesses, including business schools. In addition, there was no time limit attached to the announcement. More that the confinement, this uncertainty of its length was worrying me.

As life got confined, my life-style changed drastically. I was not required to wake up early, go to work, go to drop my son to school, running breathlessly after his speeding bicycle. I was doing practically none of the things I had once wanted a break from. If that was the case, I should have been having a ball. Isn’t it? But that wasn’t really the case. As the speed of life gradually came to a screeching halt, the noises outside of me waned. As silence grew, the noises within me began to grow louder. The same noises and disturbances that I would shove under the carpet of my ‘business’ or lack of time, each time they popped up and caused me to think.

This silence, this absolute nothingness around me had begun to take a toll on me. Each morning I would wake up late, not because I was tired or sleepy, but because I was too scared of waking up and finding myself in the middle of that same nothingness. Where was all the action? All the drama? All the voices – the pings of e-mails, telephone calls on the office landline, random and useless promotion calls on my phone? I was beginning to miss them now. In only a week, my sleep quality had turned very poor and I had developed dark circles under my eyes.

Things changed one day when I decided to consult a very close friend and neighbor, Helene. Since I arrived in France and moved into the apartment I live in, I met her and her family. Scared of nuts and bolts and light bulbs and electric switches, she and her husband have gladly accepted to have me as their apprentice in the art of plumbing, assembling furniture, minor repairs, cleaning hacks, gardening, parenting and so much more. After all these months of being in their care, I have come to realize one thing – if there is a problem, Helene has a solution.

She is the most silent women I have ever met and I often wonder how and why she decided to be friends with me. After my 20 sentences, she speaks one word. Initially I would feel very awkward (rather guilty) about this inequality of words exchanged. But eventually both of us got better at dealing with each other.  Coming back to her problem-solving abilities, she is a born planner and organizer. She volunteers for tens of organizations here and there. She has a planner stuck to her refrigerator which records dates selected for groceries weeks in advance. She is a natural thinker problem-solver. When I narrate my concerns to her – big and silly – she listens very intently, her eyes narrowing, scratches her eyebrow, and a long ‘hmmm’ leaves her lips.

Usually this ‘hmmm’ is succeeded by rapid movement- she gets up, walks, opens some drawer in her apartment and pulls out something (a piece of paper, a flyer, a visiting card) and hands it to me. Believe it or not, most of my operational issues have been solved this way. Sometimes she makes phone calls for me in French, which includes calls to the emergency doctor when I am too sick to speak (or remember French), or to the locksmith (once when I lost my apartment keys).

Let me come to the point – Helene is my lifeline and I never hesitate to say that, both to her and her husband (sometimes he gives me a weird look when I say that).

After about 10 days of staying indoors and battling with my own demons, disheveled and disillusioned, I knocked at her apartment door. She answered the door and immediately knew something was wrong.

“What happened Akanksha? Are you OK? Haven’t you slept well?”

“I haven’t slept at all Helene. Help me please.”

Her husband came out of the kitchen out of nowhere and looked at me with eyes full of question marks. His expression made me recall what I had said and I felt so stupid. And it is perfectly in these moments of immense shame that I lose my French vocabulary.

‘No, non… I meant.. je veux dire…’ I had no idea what stumbled out of my mouth. But one thing was for sure – I was sounding like a total jerk.

To avoid elongating that moment of looking and feeling like a clown, I forgot about her husband and regained attention to the problem at hand. ‘I need to have a schedule Helene..I am really struggling to keep my sanity. I need to do something, to have deadlines, to feel more responsible. Can you help?”

“Hmmm…” she said, her green-brown eyes rolling up as she churned thoughts in her head. After a minute or two, she got up and began to walk rapidly towards the chest of wooden drawers in her living room. She opened the first drawer and drew out a sheet of paper. From a distance, I could see something like a grid or table drawn out with a pen. As she came closer, I read the first word on the sheet, right in the middle – planification (English: planning).

She sat again on the wooden chair right in front of me, her long legs crossed. She studied the paper carefully, her brow furrowed.

“Would you like to baby-sit Akanksha?” she asked, looking me in the eye.

“What? Which babies?” is all I could manage to say. Managing one bored child at home was already giving me the time of my life and she was talking about more.

“So..” she began…Another neighbor in our apartment and I have decided to take turns to keep our children on alternate days. (This neighbor she was talking about has two children – a 4 year old girl and 11-month old boy, while Helene has two daughters, aged 9 and 5). Monday and Tuesday are mine and Thursday and Friday are hers. We keep the children from 9 am till roughly 17.30 just like a typical school day in France and also feed them lunch and the evening snack. Wednesday is…”

I just had to cut her in the middle of her sentence. “But Helene why would you do that to yourself?” was all I managed to say only to later realize how silly that must have sounded.

She smiled and said “It’s my responsibility to minimize the discomfort the children experience once school re-opens. If I let them drift away from normal life in laziness, it will be very hard for them. And I can’t do it alone. I need friends I can trust. That’s why I decided to have this arrangement. This way guardians get some time off to relax and work online and at the same time, children savour new experiences and good food. By the way, Wednesday is still free. Would you like to participate?” she asked, her eyes full of anticipation.

“Of course” I said and I couldn’t believe that I did.

Trust me, this has been a difficult yet wonderful decision of my life. Each Wednesday, 4 children come to us – three girls (9, 5 and 4) and a tiny toddler. Helene or the other neighbor Valerie come to assist. I remain on my toes cooking for the kids, baking with them, planning activities for art and craft, and of course changing diapers. But it’s liberating, this experience. Thanks to this ‘deadline’ in my life, the apartment must be cleaned every Tuesday, groceries done and meals planned. On other days, my son goes to these other two families and has the time of his life, cooking popcorn or playing games that are not his and therefore, more interesting.

My bond with Helene has strengthened. I show up at her doorstep each time I have the desire to have coffee in a place other than my own apartment. I have made another friend in the apartment, Valerie. She plays chess with us and answers my relentless questions about the French language. My son Vikhyaat who has been rather uncomfortable with having visitors at home so far now looks forward to Wednesdays, though he hides toys he doesn’t want to share with the others on Tuesday nights.

As France awaits de-confinement in the weeks to come, I worry about my ability to continue to baby-sit.

Thank you Helene! You make my problems worthwhile.

Image taken from WordPress images

Liberation

I am plunged under the water,

Gasping for breath,

athe water rushes into my lungs.

I can see bubbles on the water surface,

They are coming from my mouth I think.

My hands and legs make desperate efforts to swim,

Something that only shoves me further below.

I can see the rays of the sun,

Shining like diamonds on the water surface.

I raise my hand to touch their warmth,

But today’s not my day.

I bid the sun goodbye.

I’ll probably never see him again. In this lifetime at least.

I’m startled by a white pebble,

That sends fervent ripples in the calm waters right above my head.

My eyes are still open, but I can no longer see the bubbles,

Nor am i struggling for breath anymore.

It’s so calm and quiet now,

And there’s a warm purple light everywhere.

I feel as light as the air itself,

Which carries me on its shoulders.

I am here, there, everywhere,

All at the same time.

This time I’m not under the water,

I am the water.

I am also the white pebble,

That creates ripples on the water surface.

I don’t see the sun rays anymore.

I’m fact, now I’m one with the sun. We shine together.

It’s strange how fearful I was of this wonderful outcome.

God knows who had taught me to be afraid of my own liberty?

This is life.

Death was that which existed before.

Image taken from Google images

Discussion 4: Self-loathing

What is self-loathing? How does it feel?

It is the feeling of dislike for the self, for things we do, for thoughts we think, for the body we carry and for everything that is associated with the self. While a small degree of self-loathing is normal for all of us, for some it may get out of proportion with its persistence and intensity resulting in psychological and mood disorders such as clinical depression. That is what we are really discussing here.

Self-loathing is the feeling of being rotten at the very core and being damaged beyond repair. Life feels like such a burden for people who self-loathe. I do not know about the hell that religions talk about after death, but if there is hell on earth, it is the perception of life to a man who self-loathes. It is the worst punishment one can inflict on oneself.

Self-loathers feel breathless in their inner reality in which all seems grey. To make matters worse, when they look outside for support and emotional well-being, their dislike for the self soon catches up with them there too. Such people are highly likely to feel like a burden to the world, an unnecessary creation the universe would be better off without. Ask them for their reasons to rather not exist and you will be surprised at their creativity. It’s not like they are out there to fool you or gain sympathy – they genuinely believe that they are good for nothing.

So if one was to take a comprehensive view – they find peace neither within nor in the outside world. They are trapped in their own bodies that itself is trapped in an unfair world that doesn’t seem to care.

Why do people dislike themselves? Isn’t is like silly to dislike our own selves when we know we’ve got to live with ourselves all our lives?

Very good point Son. While it is rational to be at peace with ourselves for exactly the same reason that you mentioned – we have got to live with ourselves – but for persons with a persistent dislike for themselves, this may be difficult to implement. If only such persons could think clearly, self-loathing would not occur in the first place.

There are many reasons that shape our personalities as we grow up and also account for why we love or dislike ourselves. The primary factor I believe plays a role here is our conditioning as we grow up. As children, we do not choose our care-givers and family. We are raised in a certain environment that is in turn shaped by the personality types of the people contained in it. If I am raised by extremely critical parents or care givers, it is highly likely that self-doubt stays with me even as an adult. I may question everything I do and may sometimes even tell myself that ‘They were right. I can never do anything by myself. I am a total loser.’ If I am repeatedly told that I am an awful swimmer as a child, it is highly probable that after a point, I will accept it as my unshakeable reality and even stop trying.

I once read a line about parenting that has stayed with me ever since: “Your voices shall eventually become the inner voice of your child. So be careful as to what you tell them.”

It is a well-accepted fact in psychological literature that just like genes, trauma and biases are also transmitted along families. Rigid beliefs and biases that are repeatedly enforced in families can stay with children all their lives, in addition to being passed on to their children in the future. For instance, in some countries, fairness of the skin is associated with beauty for women. Girls born with dark skins in such communities may grow up believing they are ugly and unworthy. When this belief is reinforced time and again in the family, society and the general environment around them, this becomes their internal truth.

These women are not stupid – they have just been conditioned to believe something right from the start. As they grow up, this belief is only likely to get firmer and affect everything in their lives, ranging from small decisions in their daily lives – the choice of colors they wear, the type of make-up etc. – to the bigger things such as their view of themselves, their confidence levels, their ability to express themselves etc.

So you’re saying its permanent damage then? It cannot be reversed?

It can be, but with conscious effort only. Such erroneous and toxic beliefs can be broken only with two things – the desire to step out of this toxicity that lies within and the willingness to challenge the faulty beliefs that lie dormant within us.

The most effective way to step out of this internal hell is to broaden your exposure to include people with belief systems other than those you have grown up with. Such people, only if they can be trusted with our feelings, can help us see things for what they are. They can help us challenge our own notions of right and wrong that were dumped by other persons upon us rather than being created out of our own minds.

Let’s continue the example of this dark-skinned woman above. What do you think would happen if she was to travel to a developed country in the West which is dominated by white-skinned people? She will be pleasantly surprised to discover that not only was she ‘magnifying’ the importance of the color of her skin so far in her life, her skin tone is in fact desirable to the majority of women in this new country who spend hours under the sun trying to get a tan, but instead end up burning their skins.

Unless we see the life from another angle, we can never dissociate reality from perception. This is exactly what exposure does to a person.

What if I cannot change my environment immediately? What if exposure for me is not possible at the moment? Is there no way out for me?

If for some reason, you cannot change your environment – start with something smaller – open up about your feelings to someone you can trust. Talking about how we feel not only helps release the burden of our thoughts, but sometimes helps us find answers in the most unexpected of places. Keep a journal, write your feelings down. Try to evaluate patterns in your own feelings. Are there any particular triggers around you that make you feel worse about yourself?

A life-saving book I strongly recommend to everyone who finds life too difficult to live (and that includes all of us at some or the other point in our lives) is Feeling Good: The new mood therapy (Dr. David Burns). It helps you dig deep into the recesses of your mind without the intervention of a psychologist or therapist.

One little nugget of wisdom: Have you ever felt envious of all those happy and confident people out there who seem to be so much in love with themselves? Have you asked yourself why you cannot open yourself up just like them and be just as carefree? Go and ask any of them – they too have climbed this bridge of self-loathing before arriving at their current destination. There can be true self-love without having hated yourself once. That’s where the transformations starts.

Image taken from WordPress images

Discussion 3: Emotionally abusive relationships

We have talked about romance and romantic relationships already. I recall that my mention of my girlfriend not obeying me made you think of abusive relationships. I don’t understand why my words made you think of that. Can you explain what you mean by emotional abuse in the first place?

Abuse is a very wide term son, that can range from very subtle, emotional abuse to very aggressive, physical one. Other forms such as verbal, lie somewhere in between.
No matter the mode and manner of abuse, its motive remains the same universally – to undermine the sense of being of another. Note that this is not gender-specific. Men can be at the receiving end of emotional abuse as much as women, though they typically never out in the open about it.
To undermine the being of someone? I don’t get it. Can you explain in simpler terms please?

To undermine the being of someone is simply the act of denying the individuality and sense of self of another, expecting that other to fit into a frame that we, out of our own whims have designed for them. While it may sound innocuous, trust me it’s the worst form of punishment that slowly eats into the person’s self-esteem, so much so that the victim may at one point begin to doubt his or her own sense of sanity and ability to perceive things correctly.

But how is something like this even possible?

The answer is very simple – through repeated criticism, questioning and doubting. As I said, this is a very slow and gradual process of erosion of self-esteem and the key here is emotional manipulation over a long and extended period of time.

But why would one do that, especially to a person we love and want to be with?

Simply because our society has not done a very good job at educating us about recognizing individual differences and heterogeneity.
Each of us is an autonomous being with the complete set of physical and intellectual tools that are required to get through life easily and conveniently. With this kind of autonomy endowed upon us, each of us thrives to attain certain objectives that matter to us, that make us happy and that drive us forward in life. Needless to say, these objectives differ from one individual to the other.

For instance, to lay 5 different types of foods on the dining table on a Sunday evening may generate immense happiness for one person but another, with another set of interests, may find that a total waste of time. He/ she may rather be content with one dish for dinner and use up the time to read/ exercise instead. Both these persons are correct in their own way and in no manner can be compared or judged for their use of ‘their own’ time. Take this however, with a pinch of salt given that personal choices must not create externalities or negative consequences for others.
The point of this example here was to demonstrate a very important secret to valuing a person – value his/ her discretion in the use of her resources. Please note that these words do not apply to a parent-child relationship. Parents and caregivers are responsible for ensuring physical safety and emotional growth of their children until they are mature enough to be on their own.

Coming back to our discussion, each one of us, assuming rationality and basic common sense, has a sense of direction unique to him. To judge the person needlessly and attempt to change him, simply because his ideas of life do not match with ours is abuse, whether or not expressly mentioned.

But if I love someone, don’t I want to show that person the way forward? What if I feel the other person is wasting his/ her resources and acting carelessly? Should I not intervene? If I do, you may think I’m being abusive?

To want to intervene if you think your friend/ partner is misdirected is a wonderful thing. It only indicates your concern for the person. But think of this – much more than the intention to help matters the mode of offering that help. If you respect the individuality and sense of self-worth of the other person, you could gently bring the subject up with him/her, explaining the cause for your concern. But remember – this should be in the nature of a suggestion and not an order. If the person feels obliged to comply, it is not a suggestion at all! On the other hand, if you were to be pushy with her, criticizing her ways and explaining the superiority of your ways of thinking instead, her sense of identity will immediately feel threatened, whether or not she will be able to change her ways. Over time, such questioning of her actions and line of thinking will begin to erode her sense of worth, a damage that could last all her life. This personal damage will eventually eat into your relationship with one partner unhappy and hollow.

But I can tell you more about my case. I never threatened my partner. But I didn’t agree with her ways often. Despite repeated complaining on my part, she never obeyed.

There we go! She didn’t ‘obey’ you. What would you do when she disobeyed or didn’t follow your line of thinking?

I would stop talking to her, what else? But trust me, I loved her and it was for her sake that I was trying to explain things to her. I wanted the best for her.

I understand better now I think.

First, why should she obey you? Is she your child who needs authority to be disciplined? Your intention to help her and ‘get her on track’ sounds genuine, but your means to accomplish this goal were totally out of track.

Second, what do you think you did when you stopped talking to her each time she decided to not comply with your line of thinking? You stopped talking to her. This in turn implies a situation of emotional blackmail. Step in her shoes for an instant. For her, she is in a difficult position of choice. If she does what she likes, she is happy but you are not. If she does what you like, you are happy but she is not. If she does not heed your ‘advice’, you punish her by not behaving the way you usually do with her, something she craves.

Third, you say you love her, and I know that you probably do. But what kind of love is this, that remains conditional on what she does and doesn’t? I love you if you do this and this, but I don’t if you tread this territory. Where does this conditionality come from son?

But what else am I supposed to do? When I love her and something she does upsets me, should I keep quiet about it? What the hell?

I do not suggest keeping quiet about it. Instead, I suggest a re-evaluation of two very important things. First, of the individual differences in your philosophies and second, if required, of the relationship itself. If you tried to explain patiently to her what you do not like in her behaviour, she deserves the right to choose whether to continue such behaviour or not, after an empathetic explanation of why continuing such behaviour is important to her and why giving up on it will be against her sense of identity. If she chooses to continue this line of behaviour, like it or not, you must try to accept it, for ultimately her behaviour is in line with her identity and who she is at the basic level.

However, if her behaviour is out of line with your sense of identity, both of you must re-consider the relationship itself. Compatibility is not only about lines of thinking, but also about how much we are willing to bend in the light of the other person’s needs. And let this willingness to bend be self-motivated rather than forced. The more we force ourselves to give, the more bitter we turn within. Till one day, the emotional volcano erupts and everything is destroyed.

The simple truth of life is that a person who feels at ease with himself and is happy within, makes a wonderful partner Mark! Only happy people have happiness to give in a relationship. And nothing makes a person happier than the freedom to be himself/ herself.

But I wasn’t doing this to her deliberately. I am not a mean person (starts sobbing)..

I know that Mark. But this is whole purpose of this discussion – to understand patterns in our own behaviour, to decode things we have been doing wrong all this while without even knowing..

Life is not over son! It has just started for you. Let’s go for a walk outside. I see the sun shining through the window.

Let me end with the words of poet Kahlil Gibran:

“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, and let the winds of the heavens dance between you. Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls. Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup. Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf. Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone, even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music. Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping. For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts. And stand together, yet not too near together: For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”

Image taken from WordPress images.

Discussion 2: Understanding Love

What is love? What does it feel like?

What a wonderful question! Love is the universal feeling that drives the world. It’s the magical force that keeps the system in order, providing for one and for all…If it was not for love, there would be no care for the child, no fruit for the hungry, no shade for the weary…If there is one thing that describes the fabric that the world is composed of – I would say it is love.

Hold on hold on Mother…I think you got the question wrong. I mean the other type of love, between two people?

Oh you mean romantic love? I should have guessed.

Romantic love is the feeling of complete surrender to the cause of another, so much so that our own identity may melt into that of the beloved. One’s own well-being takes a back-seat and all that remains in sight is the happiness of the other.

What does true love feel like?

Well…even when each one may feel differently when in love, there are some common signs and experiences that have been documented since generations for different geographies and times. For instance, for those in love, time seems to slow down (or even stop). Each passing day without the beloved seems like a mountain to climb. Natural urges such as those of eating, drinking and even sleeping cease to matter. The mind, body and soul are flooded with longing and sadness and it is as if each cell of the body looks forward to only one outcome – union with the beloved.

This reminds me of the Persian poet Rumi’s words about love:

“When I am with you, we stay up all night.
When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.
Praise God for those two insomnias!
And the difference between them.“

Is it true that people are ‘born’ for each other or that they must look for the special one, the one that is created only for them?

I don’t think so. I think that falling in love is not as fantastical as we often think it is. It is a deliberate choice one makes, to surrender unto another, to understand what is important to the other, what one likes and dislikes, what can be done to make the other happy and what must be avoided to make him/ her upset. In love, we let ourselves fall in that dark abyss of unknowns, driven by only one thing – the desire to know the other person better.

While I do not believe in the existence of ‘the one’, I do believe that certain combinations of personality traits and characteristics make people more attractive to one another. It’s not some heavenly matching of traits, but a mere arrangement of their individual strengths and weaknesses that seems to fit in quite beautifully and naturally.

Having said that, if one was to look at a piece of rock with admiration and nurture it all day, it is not impossible to fall in love with it. So waiting for ‘the one’ doesn’t seem to make sense to me. Love as they say, is always in the air. It’s just a matter of feeling it for someone, out of deliberate choice.

What is the secret of a long-lasting, beautiful relationship? What is the magic mantra to make it last?

There is only one secret from the start to the end – the desire to grow and learn together. Good partners understand the need for both to be equal and happy. Relationships are not vehicles for self-fulfillment as is commonly believed, as they are for self-understanding. Who am I, what are my strengths, what events put my patience to the test – these are all answers that an individual can get in relation to another human being.

Relationships foster a healthy understanding of who we are, in relation to someone else, who is willing to hold up the mirror to us, for us to behold our reality. This is not to humiliate us, but foster a better understanding of the self. That’s why a man’s company has been considered a very important element in shaping his personality – if your company, or partner in this case is supportive, he will give you the gentle push whenever necessary and help you push your own boundaries. Abusive and self-centred partners on the other hand, can make you feel pessimistic and hopeless about yourself.

A healthy relationship is one of a balanced system of give and take. An unbalanced system in which one consistently gives and the other takes eventually perishes under the load of unequal responsibilities. This is the secret to a long-lasting relationship.

Then what do you think goes wrong? What mistakes do we make?

People enter relationships with broken hearts and traumatized minds, hoping for some magic to happen the day they decide to be together. They believe with all their strength that things will change, their hearts shall heal, this new person shall ‘complete’ them and fill this dreadful vacuum in their otherwise mundane lives. Instead what comes along their way is only disappointment. As time passes, they increasingly realize that they are exactly where they were before, and that nothing has changed.

If nothing has, what is the utility of this new guy I am dating? Did he play no role at all? Disappointment leads to bitterness which eventually results in a change in behaviour. These vibes are picked up by the other partner and things begin to go downhill unless at least one of them is sensible enough to take the time to discuss it through and evaluate things from the start.

Why can this euphoria of love that you just talked about not stay for life? Why must it fade away with time?

Distorted expectations as I said and worse, lack of communication. Business schools spend hours in teaching the importance of timely and effective communication to young brains who seem to faultily believe that these lessons apply to the corporate landscape only. Homes are families are organizations too in the sense of having a multitude of people, each with different personalities, preferences and expectations. It is communication alone that acts as the thread that binds all these diverse individuals together, peacefully, under the same roof.

As time passes, partners begin to lose the pride they once associated with being in the company of the other. As things get more routine with morning coffees to packed lunches to two telephone calls per day, the sheen or the newness of the relationship is lost. The same couples who once could not wait to share insignificant details with their partners in the past, now have nothing more to say, sometimes even avoiding eye contact. Worse, they stop sharing their pain with the other, their disappointments, their expectations and eventually indifference sets in.

Well…I kind of agree. This is exactly what had happened with me and her…but she was so opinionated, never heeded advice I gave her…never obeyed me..

Obeyed you? Really? I think we need another discussion on abusive relationships. Time for a break.

Image taken from Google images.

Confinement and the daily Indian worker

I am the daily wager,

Someone you barely talk about.

This confinement threatens your liberty,

But puts my survival in doubt.

You determined my fate one fine day,

That changed my life in a sweep.

All I had was four hours,

to accept, mourn and weep.

You send planes to get ‘your’ countrymen,

That fly tens of times up and down.

But here I am stranded on the street,

still hundreds of miles from my town.

The fortunate worry about empty shelves,

Toilet paper and red meat.

My biggest fear is to perish,

Of hunger and thirst on this street.

I know you men are educated,

Intelligent and what not.

But did you once think of us,

Who without any work shall rot?

Confine only those who have food,

And a roof over their head.

For even if the virus was kind to us,

hunger will surely leave us dead.

Image taken from Google images

Discussion 1: Being Liked

Son: How important do you think it is to be liked by others? Should pleasing people and keeping them happy be one of many human goals?

Mother: Very interesting question. Being liked by others is certainly a wonderful feeling. It’s one of those over-whelming emotions when you realize that people value you, find you useful or somehow to their liking. While being liked feels great, it can at most be the outcome of an individual’s actions, but having it as a goal could be irrational and draining at best.

But then how will someone achieve something unless it is his/her goal? He must make some effort in that direction, right?

Not necessarily. Think about this. A hard-working banker A may work towards a promotion to managerial level all his life but may never achieve it. On the other hand, there may be another banker B who treats the maximization of banking efficiency at his bank branch as his top priority. He communicates with others, keeps peace with his co-workers, goes out of his way to help others even when it may not necessarily be part of his job description. In a couple of years, when the current bank manager retires, the persistence and thoughtfulness of banker B may prompt collective action by existing bank staff to have him as the new manager.

Compare the approaches of bankers A and B. A had as his goal, promotion, but in our example could not get there. B, on the other hand, did not care about promotion as his primary goal. His behaviour was determined by another driving force – efficiency and collegiality at work. He gets to be the manager even when he did not ‘explicitly’ choose it as his goal. But skeptical and doubtful as we humans are, you may say that in the end, B’s efforts were directed towards becoming a manager. He must have been faking it all this while with all his nice gestures and warmth. He kenw this day would eventally come. Could be. But remember that the effectiveness of actions is directly affected by our intentions behind them. Even if B was a wolf in sheep’s clothing who just tried to act nice to climb up the ladder, he would get defeated in the game as time passed. ‘Persistence’ is the key here. The enthusiam associated with faking and pretending gradually wanes over time. What remains is bonafide intention.

If a large number of people like you, does that make you a better person and similarly, if a majority of them disapprove of you, does that make you a bad person?

Facebook prompts that question in your head, isn’t it (chuckles). Being liked by others does not necessarily make you a better person, but probably a popular person. Similarly, not being liked by others does not make you bad, but may be unpopular.

Think of this – there is a group of terrorists who are aiming at planting a bomb in some busy market in some over-populated city somewhere. They need your help but you refuse. They dislike you. In fact, they hate you. What should you do now? Help them plant the bomb? If you do, you can’t live with yourself and if you don’t, you can’t live with their hatred. Your choice ultimately.

But out of experience I can tell you that in order to be able to feel comfortable in your own company and safe in your own skin, its best to not do things that go against your primary nature. Hating yourself is the worst feeling in the world, worse than the whole world hating you.

In that case, should I not be bothered when a large number don’t like me? Shouldn’t it worry me?

No it shouldn’t. Even if the whole world were to dislike you, it should not affect you more than make you self-question if indeed, there is something wrong about your behavior. If the answer you get from within you is in the negative, please carry on with yourself.  Trust me, even if you were to be God in human disguise, there would still be someone somewhere who will dislike you. If people could crucify the Christ even as he went about healing the masses, who are we in comparison?

It’s not easy however. It is a sick feeling to enter a room full of people who hate you and talk badly about you.

Who asked you to enter that room? Why be in the company of people who make you self-question all the time?

Wish it was that easy as you portray it Mother.

It is…making choices as to who we would like to spend our time with are inherently easy decisions. We human beings are hell-bent on complicating them. Anyway, let’s end it here on this topic. Time for some mint tea.

Bingo!

 

Discussions on the bigger truths of life – Background

The answering machine would just not stop beeping. Already loaded with messages from friends and family, it had been ringing relentlessly for the last few days. He had been in his ‘cave’ for the last couple of weeks, brooding over his recent heart-break. She had left him. She finally had. His worst nightmare had come true. The cushions in his living room still smelt of her…the same perfume that he had bought for her on Valentine’s Day just this summer. Tears welled up in his eyes.

His trance was broken by the fresh message on the answering machine. It was his mother. “Hello Son! How are you doing these days? Haven’t heard from you in a long time…no responses to my calls and messages.” The strength in her voice – she was the strongest woman he had ever known – seemed to be receding with each passing second.  In a quivering voice, she continued “No pressure darling…but you know the heart of a mother, don’t you? She always imagines the worst. Just tell me you’re OK and I’ll be content with that…” Her words stopped abruptly and he thought he heard a faint muffle. Was his mother crying? He couldn’t believe it…he must have made her really insecure.

Throwing the yellow, frilly cushion behind him, he rushed towards the phone.

“Hello Mother!” he said in desperation, silently hoping she was still on line.

“Son!!! Thank you my love! You made my day! How are you? Hale and hearty? I know you’ve been hibernating and that’s normal for young men like you, but all well, right?”

Each word she spoke melted something deep inside him and as she ended her sentence, he began to cry loudly. He had not cried like this for years. Tears rolled, muffles escaped his mouth and his body shivered.

“Will be fine my baby.” was all she said on the other end, her voice now calm and serene.

Couple of minutes passed and his crying became less and less intense, his breathing more regular.

“I wish to talk to you Mother. I really need your advice to soothe my mind. May I?” he asked hesitantly.

“I’m preparing your favourite Mexican dish for dinner. Come right on. Waiting for you.” Said she, her voice laced with anticipation and happiness.

“See you in an hour.” He said as he hung up.

He reached her apartment and unlocked the door with his set of keys. She was seated on her favourite leather high-chair, knitting something long and yellow. He looked carefully – it was a scarf, almost nearing completion.

A wave of rosy fragrance brushed past his nostrils. He looked in the direction of the balcony. Its door was open and in the warm light of the lamp, he could see her roses blooming. There were at least six different colours of them. How does she manage all this? Knitting, gardening, her professional life. And all by herself? He wondered.

She rose to greet him and then hugged him to her bosom tightly. She felt a faint tingling on her shoulder as he breathed slowly and rhythmically. At least he is relaxed, she thought to herself.

After a silent dinner that seemed to have lasted a lifetime, they finally sat down to talk over tea. She had been waiting for this moment to figure out what exactly had been bothering her son. She knew he never was the type who would share his problems with anyone including family and in no way was she taking any chances with her son’s mental health. The real challenge was to make him open up to her naturally and smoothly without acting too inquisitive and pushy. It could turn him off. But she prided herself over this quality – her ability to make people at ease and pour their hearts out. It was not for nothing that she was the uncrowned problem-solver at her organization for decades.

“So how are things Mark?” she asked casually, looking squarely at the mint tea she poured from her Moroccan porcelain tea pot. “Isn’t this the same tea-set we had purchased from Marrakesh? Remember the chaos at that local market? It was a total fish market man!” he exclaimed, his eyes gleaming.

“Of course son! It’s that one. You had chosen the color out of dozens of them. Great choice!”

He sipped his tea, smiling at the tea-cup he held in his hand.

“Mother” he began, avoiding her gaze. “As you already know, I have never been too vocal about my problems, struggles and even achievements. I have always treated my life as something very private, very discreet, so much so that people living under the same roof as me or even sharing the same bed have always been unaware of what it is that I am really thinking about or going through.”

He took another sip of tea and exhaled sharply. “Little did I realise that this need for privacy and desire to manage all my affairs on my own will bring me to this point where I’m not only lost, but also totally isolated. I have no one to talk to, no one to share things with. I lost touch with old friends long ago, believing that I didn’t need anybody. And here I am – lonely, sad and depressed. What’s more, my girlfriend of seven years left me for another man…What could be worse Mother?” he said, looking her in the eye, his own eyes heavy with tears.

“I understand Son. Life is never easy, yet it must be lived…and yes, to answer your question in the end, a lot of things could be worse. A lot of them. So first, thank your stars, and I must thank mine, that they are not.” She said, looking at the intricate chandelier that hung right above her head, in that elegant and spacious living room.

“I want to understand some things from you Mother. I say this in all truth and with no desire to flatter you, but you are the wisest and smartest person I know as of today. Apart from having age on your side and all the bittersweet experiences that come with it, you have seen it all – higher education, a broken marriage, single parenthood, a successful career, travel, wealth – everything. I have seen you cry silently at nights when you thought I had slept, wiping your tears only to read some thick book on philosophy and religion that I have always steered clear of. I have witnessed you struggle to manage time between me and your work and your hobbies and the frustration that accompanied this struggle. I have seen you offer help to others when you were in need yourself. Given my mental state at the moment, I know that it is you and you alone who can talk me through this ugly loop of thoughts in my head that keep me from sleeping all night.”

“How can I help Son? What exactly would you like to know from me? I will hide nothing and tell you everything like one adult talking to another and not like a mother to her child.”

“These are very general questions Mother. I want to understand why certain things happened to me? Why me in particular? I want to understand life better through your experiences, to unlock larger mysteries of life through abstract answers that I believe you can provide. I saw all the assumptions I had about life, love, companionship crumble right before my own eyes. At this point, I am like a sky-scraper standing tall, without a foundation laid in ground. I look normal, talking, eating and behaving normally, but trust me, I am like a walking dead man, totally hollow.

I want to revisit my understanding of life through the eyes of someone I both trust and respect. I want to understand for instance, what life is? What are we supposed to do in it? Is it necessary to live through it instead of choosing to end it when it seems like a dead-end? What is love? What can one do whose partner just deserted him? How can one live with a heartache? Does true love happen only once and that chance for me is already over…How do I deal with rejection and self-hatred? I can blabber endlessly Mother, but please bear with me. My mind tricks me…” he said desperately, clutching his head tightly in his hands.

“Let’s get started Son. Ask me anything you want. But mind this – you shall have all the answers from me. But be mindful that they shall reflect ‘my’ reality, not necessarily conforming to your understanding of things. In fact, there will be times when you may find me crazy and senile and others when you will hate me for my views. But remember, these are my views and there is no compulsion on your side to make them yours. Remember, our experiences shape our reality…So are we ready?”

Image taken from Google images