For all the familiarity with the term Depression, it is still shrouded in confusion. For all the exhortations for removing stigma and shame around those who suffer, there is still too little focus on context and systemic causes. Johann Harris is an award winning journalist and best selling writer who has suffered from depression since childhood. He has been taking medications since his teen years and believed that his condition was all about a chemical Imbalance that pills could put right. But his experience with drugs- while it provided some relief, specially early on, did not lead to lasting improvements. It led him to ask what wasn’t working and why.
What he found in the course of his wide ranging investigation is the story of this book.
The stories and data he investigates are surprising and shocking, as well as commonsensical and intuitive – sometimes all together. He looks at the nature of pharmaceutical research and trials and publishing of trial results. He looks at the nature of the experience of grief and other emotional and relational trauma. He looks at social context. He looks at man as part of the natural world. He talks to scientific and scholars and doctors and social workers.
He comes to see that Depression is a lot more than a chemical imbalance that pills can put right for ever. Some of his suggestions for course correction are utopian and because they point to the need for systemic changes, they may sound impractical; and yet there is a core idea in all of it that is possible for us to follow in our lives and interactions.
Given pervasive thoughts of stress and anxiety in our lives, this is a book for all of us, a book that takes a wide angle sweep and a close up into what all of us are now touched by directly or indirectly.
I turned 50 last month, and it was a birthday that felt special and meaningful in ways birthdays had stopped feeling, in the years since my childhood and teen years. In my childhood every birthday felt special. Every number on the age scale was a significant step up. A new class at school, a growing body, an expanding knowledge of the world, and a build up of skills. All very tangible, visible and noted by self and others.
Then came the twenties, and slowly, but increasingly, birthdays were markers that felt like the scores of a crucial, tense cricket test match. After college, each year gone by meant another round of stocktaking, comparisons, deadlines and the body clock. More of the same in the 30s. Birthdays turned ritualistic, performative and repetitive. It didn’t help that my husband didn’t understand what the fuss was about in the first place, and heartbreakingly for me at that time, did nothing at all to mark the my first birthday after our wedding. I caught the affliction and began to forget the date as well, and lost the previous excitement for this celebration for mine or anyone’s birthday, except for those of my children. Largely, a birthday was now only another excuse to throw a party and pretend this was something more than just another day.
After decades of this jadedness, my own excitement and sense of reaching a milestone on my 50th took me by surprise. For days before the event-which happens to be also International Women’s Day, I felt that old old thrill that used to build up days before a birthday in my childhood. I began to tell people (strangers included) that I was turning 50. I planned different, small, private celebrations to mark the half decade of living a rather fortunate, ordinary and trouble free life. I gifted myself special treats, specifically, for this specific reason.
I know it’s not like I did anything special to be 50 – I cannot take credit for being born, or for the supply of breath and everything else that keeps me alive. I owe much of that to my family. My parents specially can pat themselves on the back for giving me the best life they could, and then some more. And yet there is a feeling of achievement at having come to an age I could only think of as being monumentally old and unimaginable, when I was a small child.
You can tell yourself many things about middle age in your 40s. But to me, middle age, aka the 40s felt like a no good half-way house. 50 is surer, crisper, clearer. It is over the fence and over the hill in every best way possible, done and dusted.
Here’s to new beginnings for the freer happier me, who is closer today to what I thought I should be, and never imagined I’d find at the ripe round number of 50.
Amit curses the Delhi summer. He has been away for two weeks in misty Arunachal Pradesh, and his body seems to have forgotten how to transit back. Endless heat and dust and paseena, and the Metro carriage full to bursting are not conducive for a man to keep his cool. The thought of the new semester at college from tomorrow doesn’t hold its usual eager charm. Not after the setback to his doctoral plans. He doesn’t really even want to do the PhD; it isn’t the label he cares for. All he wants is to read, to discuss, and to teach. But he has to earn his keep in this world.
“Thand rakh yaar” is a lofty idea favored by his trek guide Dorje, back in the mountains, but that is so impractical here, velcroed to each other’s reluctant bodies as they all are. It may be better to get off and wait for another less crowded train, thinks Amit, and steps off at the next halt.
Peak hours in the sky too, he notes, looking at the airplanes that streak across the kaleidoscopic evening sky, up above the Qutub Minar and the Mehrauli forest. It is almost sunset, and the hydrogen fireball that powers all of life is slipping out of sight. It has been twenty years since Amit had his first look the Qutub Minar and the fascination has not faltered. He still gets his students out here for quite a few lectures, and spends winter weekends at one or the other monument lawns across the Capital.
Amit slips his backpack off, and sits down on a bench. The bag is beginning to weigh him down in the heat. It has been a long day since he left Itanagar early in the morning. The Pepsi he bought at Delhi airport is still somewhat cool, and he sips the leftover before chucking the bottle in the dustbin. The trains come and go, blasting him with a rush of hot air. The crowds of passengers are thinning, he can see.
“No extra baggage. Empty what’s no use.” Dorje’s words come back to Amit as he opens the cover of his bag and lifts out a thick spiral bound document. This is the useless baggage he has carried all through his holiday in defiance of Dorje’s instructions and checks. It is his PhD proposal. The one his HOD has rejected two weeks ago. Amit has not opened it these two weeks, and he has thought of little else, while in the midst of awe inspiring earthly wonders and novel experiences with different man-made systems in a new place. He knows he will not be doing anything with it now. What use is it to dwell over what cannot be? The deadline for submitting a proposal looms ahead in a few days. His HOD has left the university, handpicked for a place on the Council of Historical Research. Some committee to re-look Indian history or something such, Amit heard, after his proposal was rejected and the HOD’s leaving was announced, all on the same day.
Amit knows a new HOD joins tomorrow. Someone from Oxford, relocating to India. Some Dr. Amandeep Sandhu. Amit has not bothered to read the circular in any detail. How does it matter now? He wonders if it might be the time to move on, to apply for a place in a university abroad, what with the ghar wapsi of so many from there. But for now, he still has to find and submit a new topic for his PhD thesis. Brave New World may be his favorite book, but using it as part of historical scholarship seems too brave an idea, even in this new workplace. Amit is sure he cannot – or does not want to – think of something else soon enough to make the deadline. He is not a quick turn around person, in most things. Almost everything about Amit is slow, considered, and gentle. “Thehrav hai ladke mein”, as his Daadi used to say.
Amit leaves the document on the bench, closes the bag, and lifts it on his shoulders. Adjusting the weight, he scans the platform. A train is headed his way, its headlight dancing a racy number on the tracks. The pages of the document flutter in the powerful draught pushed ahead by the speeding train. Amit watches the pages straining against the hot air. For two weeks Dorje has urged him to drop all that is not needed. Dorje knows all about survival, about what to carry and what to leave behind. Amit lunges for the document, and flings it on the tracks. He boards the almost empty compartment.
Amit has always been happy to be outside the limelight. Doing his work quietly, doing it well, and finding the time to indulge his pet hobbies of trekking and sketching monuments. As a history lecturer in a government college till recently, he has been quite out of the race for publishing in professional journals, and is never found jostling for a seat on the conference circuit merry go round. He is popular with his students, as he is a kind and concerned teacher. He is liked well enough by his colleagues, and is a great cook and keeps a well stocked bar at his rented flat. But everyone senses there is an Amit they can never touch. No wonder he is still a bachelor, they say when he is not within earshot. Who spends their free time always in the library, always at bookshops, always reading at home? And then not even publish papers?
Amit keeps his fiction ambitions to himself. He cannot face the endless questions any mention of his one published historic fiction brings. You wrote a historic love story? Are you a romantic? Why aren’t you married? When are you getting married? What are you writing next, why don’t you write more? Why don’t you focus on academic writing more? Why don’t you do your PhD? Hardly anyone he knows outside his students’ circle has read the book, though.
Everyone has ruled out that he is gay, finding he makes no distinctions between the way he is equally courteous to both men and women. But they all agree he is too fussy, and a bit strange. He has opted out of all whatsapp groups even though he has a smartphone. He objects to jokes that laugh at men, women, married, single, queer, Punjabi, Madrasi, Gujarati, Bengali…. Irish, Jews. Well, some people are just born serious, they say. But he is a nice sort, they all agree, Means no harm. So they leave him alone, except when they invite themselves over, and he lets them come and feast on his food and drink his wine and then politely asks them to help him do the dishes. They don’t mind, not particularly. At the university he has now joined, in fact, he is a sort of trendsetter. At every party at all faculty homes he is invited to, the guests help clear up and do the dishes. He has so far avoided moving to campus housing. The Metro is a boon.
Amit stretches his tense and tired body. Legs outward, back against the seat back, arms upward. The coach is empty, practically. The contained spaciousness inside the carriage feels soothing and cool. There is one woman seated near the exit. She is reading a book. He cannot make out which one. Amit finds it fascinating that she hasn’t looked up at all from her book since he has stepped in. He hasn’t been able to take his eyes off her, though he is trying to be very discreet about it. The train has slipped underground and the windows face a black emptiness. Amit makes himself turn his face in the opposite direction.
He must think of what he has to do from tomorrow. Now, this HOD, who is coming in. He must be savvier and sense the ideological leanings of this one before he does anything about the new proposal. The thought feels like a heavy burden. A stifling of everything Amit lives by. He does not wish to put anyone under a microscope, to feel them out like a hunter. He feels cornered himself, shrinking with the familiar sense of being held back. His father and his uncle pressing their hands on his shoulders, and shaking him. “Why can’t you help out in the summer holidays? When will you learn this work if all your time will be spend stuck to a useless book?” Surrounded by cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents and neighbors in their modest chawl room near Opera House, Amit has spent a lot of his childhood outdoors, walking the streets of South Bombay, and then indoors at the dark and cool public library a few blocks away, and in the Irani Café across the library after library hours. A studious boy, who preferred to discuss books about imagined scenarios that didn’t involve buying and selling fast moving commodities, he has been secretly pitied and publicly scolded for his lack of smarts all his childhood.
“History! Who studies history, for Narayan’s sake…what will you do, be a school master? And live in a village?” The family had been shaken by his choice of a college out of town. “Delhi? Junglee place it is! They eat non-veg all the time, and drink whiskey and beer. Why are you doing this to us, haven’t we let you do your silly book worship without making a fuss all these years? Keep reading, keep writing your little articles. Peanuts you get paid for them, but we don’t want money from you. Why ruin your life now? Correspondence B.A. is possible, why don’t you do that, if you really want the degree so much?” It is hard for Amit to feel his own breath. He stands up with a small jump. The woman’s head jerks towards him. “You alright?” She stares at him with questioning brown eyes. Her voice is like the flow of the rivers he has been boating across till just yesterday. Perky, and quick and sweet.
Amit glances around. He is embarrassed. He sits down again and shakes his head at the woman. “I am sorry”.
“No problem. But are you okay?” She pulls a bottle of water out of her bag and stretches her arm towards him. He gets up and walks towards her across the compartment. The water is chilled, the bottle is some sort of thermos. It feels lovely. Comforting.
“I am a bit stiff. Just back from a long trek.” It feels nice to stand, to stretch up a bit on his toes, to flex his hands and arms at the holding rail.
“My station is up next.” The woman is standing next to him now, putting her book into her bag. The red spirals are scribbled over, but there can be no mistake. It is the book he hasn’t been able to get of his mind, Brave New World.
“You are reading my favorite book in the whole world.” Amit hastens to tell her, as the train slows down. His own voice is quickening, his heartbeat racing.
The woman smiles and her eyes shine at him. “Wow, it is my favorite too. I go back to it all the time. I am Amu.” Her skin is soft, her hand small and her grip firm, and Amit catches a whiff of khus. The doors slide open and she takes her hand away from his, and steps out. The doors slide shut even as Amit takes a step forward and shouts out his name.
She is waving at him and laughing as the train moves away, and Amit hasn’t felt this light and happy in years. He will meet her again, he is sure. She will find him. He will look for her. She seemed to be an office goer, from her rather formal blue pantsuit. Back from a business trip from somewhere abroad, going by the airline tags on her bag. He pulls at his earlobes. His station is two stops away. He begins to hum a tune. It is the first time he has actually talked to someone on the Metro.
Amit’s morning lectures are over. The new HOD had called a staff meeting over lunch. Amit is the first to arrive, a little before the said time. The office assistant is arranging chairs around the large worktable. In his Bengali accented Hinglish he tells Amit, “Woh bahar gaya, phone ka signal bery bad. I go tell you here. ” The office looks completely different from the last time Amit has visited. There are books piled on the wall mounted floater shelves. The walls are otherwise bare but have a new coat of bright yellow paint. Cartons still unopened are crowded into one corner. Amit moves towards the pile of books. He cannot stop his hand from reaching out. It is incredible, but there can be no doubt. It is the same book. The same scribbles on the red spirals. He opens it. In black ink, well-formed words proclaim “For Amu. With hope, love and blessings, Dad.” Amit is shaking, holding the book close to his chest. A faint whiff of lignin, and then khus. A voice he has not forgotten since last evening whispers softly in his ear. “You didn’t tell me your name in the train, so shall we start with that now?”
“Good afternoon Dr. Sandhu”, calls out Amit’s colleague Sameer’s loud voice. Amit turns from the bookshelf and watches the woman from the train move to a chair around the table. The HOD is about to start the meeting with her staff.
At six years of age I had my first intimations of a future me as an adult. I imagined myself walking along in a place of adult power and importance- maybe an office or a school, dressed in a sari in some moments and in pants in some others. I was no longer a child who was clueless and had to be cared for. I was the one in control, in the know. Things ran the way I wanted them to.
This was soon after my first ever hospitalisation due to a complicated brush with chicken pox. I had been quarantined in a sprawling military hospital in Devlali and had seen only professional adult people for some days. People who seemed to have the power to get me through a terrible illness. I felt confident because they were so confident. I wasn’t lonely even though it was the longest I had been away alone without my sibling or my parents.
A few years later at age ten loneliness was a lingering backdrop to all I did. I was a paradox of introversion and strong opinions. Soft spoken of voice but cutting in my critical views. Socialising felt fraught and yet was essential to an army brat who so often shifted school and homes. I wanted to go away to a boarding school to have some constancy. To feel more in control. No doubt I was unduly influenced by all the Enid Blyton I devoured those days. My parents wrote to a few schools. The prospectus arrived in post from Simla. My brother protested when he heard what I had asked for. Said he wouldn’t ever go. My parents said okay then she cannot go either. I was so mad at him, at them. I can go alone, I said. They said no, That Inhad no idea how tough that would be. That when one was young one always needed someone known and familiar to be with us in new places, in times of change. And that they could only ever consider sending us away together else not at all. I didn’t say much but now I wonder if that must have been the beginning of something. I started stepping out more as my own person. I made a friend who was all mine away from the common group we had played in so far. I started going out on my own at playtime. I started reading books separate from him. I started wanting a dog for a pet. I picked up a puppy from a neighbor’s pet’s litter and walked home naming and renaming him all the way. Mummy made me take it back without even letting me step into the house. I told Suman didi no matter, I would get a pup first thing when I had my own house as a grown up.
I got my wish a few months after my marriage. It was almost an after thought by my non dog/pet fancying husband. A sort of peace offering, from the new litter in our building ka parking lot that I was taking care of with some neighbouring teenagers. It was a surprise to see her brought home, and I was confused about keeping her. I felt her fragile life in my arms and was equal parts terrified and smitten. Baby Doll was the four year old boss of our home when we welcomed our first born. When she passed away at fourteen years, after progressive organ failure, I promised myself I would never bring a pet into my home again. But I had not been a good reader of my own heart, a second time over. The kids (now there was Keya too) were insistent in their demands. I read something about how pets help shy and introverted people. How they can make a special needs child more confident. I longed for the loving playfulness that thrived between Baby Doll and the kids and all of us. The fabric of home had a dog sized tear that only seemed to sunder more with time. I stayed firm and made sure we did lots of things together. Outdoor games. Indoor games. Picnics. Cooking. Movies. Books. Holidays. Studies. Painting. I told myself I needed to get out more. I volunteered at school. Acted in a play. Rejoined yoga class. Attended a Stock Trading class. And the trainer said she was also doing a Bach Flower course next, would I like to join? It was for emotional healing and didn’t include much psychobabble, and it would not do any harm. Why not try it? Why not, I said.
In the class a participant passed around the picture of a new Spaniel pup who seems to miss its mother and cried often. The course teacher suggested flower remedies for the pup. I asked where had the pup come from. The new master said there were still two left in the litter and I might want to go see them. So some days later we had Truffle and Siberioo with us. Siberioo was Keya’s pet, supposedly, and Ken claimed Truffle. In a couple of days we realised they were both not quite well. They had the dreaded Parvo virus and within a week of their coming home to us, golden furred Siberioo was no more. His tortured tiny form lay still in my palm as the sun’s first rays slanted through the glass window. Truffle survived, recovering from the brink but he has never been quite fully well since. The vet and other people suggested that getting him a companion quickly would be good idea. I looked at five year old Keya and how kind and brave she had been with the sick pups. With Baby Doll she had always been somewhat hesitant, intimidated both by the bigness of her size and the loudness of her bark. And being the smallest and latest arrival in the family Keya could not quite yet do much for Baby Doll. Taking her for a walk was beyond her, as was handling her feeding. She would watch her older and bigger sibling do all that and wonder at her own smallness and Baby Doll’s power. l asked the vet to look for a pup. A month later we welcomed Oreo to our home. He was the opposite of Truffle in every way. A carefree singing dog that could beg for food the whole day long, and was genial and kind to everyone except other building dogs he met in the lift. Averse to being picked up or brushed. But very fond of climbing on every sofa chair carpet and bed and cuddling up on cushions and pillows to sleep. Truffle is much more particular and aloof, but will happily snuggle onto your shoulder if you lift him, and likes to be the Raja. After the initial bossing around, Truffle accepted Oreo in the home but never let him forget he had come in here before him.
With these two tiny pups, Keya too came into her own in many ways. She could feed the pups, and handle them in other ways. They were tiny and manageable for her. She gained confidence as she started taking them for walks. She learnt about discipline as she trained them. My years of no-dogs-on beds rule was done away with by the children.Truffle and Oreo started sleeping on my son’s bed. When he went away to college they went back to their own little beds for a while till Keya allowed them to cuddle up with her. It is now almost ten years since we got these two home.
End of last year Oreo was detected with a malignant carcinoma. It was removed surgically. The day of the surgery as Oreo recovered from anaesthesia and the pain, Truffle was by his side, at times just snuggled up to Oreo’s flank and at times licking him in what I can only assume was a gesture of care. As is my habit when the pets or kids are not well, I let him rest on my bed. I let him treat my quilt like his own little cave and refuge and am getting used to his one sided don’t touch me please kind of wish to be near us. I remember how being helped to the bathroom by Dad had brought me incredible relief and strength after my own first caesarean. Being physically held makes love real. Being held is what we can always do first for another being who suffers, and it what we can still do when we can do little else. Even when it is the kind of holding Oreo seeks- our being near him but not really catch him tight or squeeze close.bMore like letting him plonk himself where he likes, while we squeeze and adjust around him.
Touchwood the rest of the tests done on Oreo have been clear so far and he seems to be fine in every way. The vet and others we have shown his reports to say he is so old and really there is not much to do medically that would change anything. We tell ourselves he has lived well and we can only love him all the more for however much longer he is with us. So there will be no stopping Oreo from continuing to make himself at home on my bed. Never mind that now Truffle too has followed him there. Things do feel a bit like a crowded railway platform late at night though. Guess this is the grown up life. And I am not in control.
I mostly made acquaintances and not friends in my 20s and 30s. On the matter of friends I was settled for life, I thought. I didn’t need new friends. Not the real, know you inside out type, at least. Deep intense friendships from high school and college were enough. Who had ever heard of grown ups making new friends anyway, back then? With the old friends we had wondered at the world and its puzzling, often scary ways. We had shared dreams and fears. We had been vulnerable and strong together. Now was the time to make something of ourselves in the grown up world.
Most of my friends were not geographically close anymore, and I missed their constant unplanned presence in my life outside campus. I had moved homes and jobs. That made it harder to not miss my circle of close buddies. I did hang out with new people. There was the office gang, and a fun boss with whom I discovered so much of Delhi’s cultural heritage. There were the old college friends and new colleagues I went travelling impromptu with.
But something was shifting. The new connections had an adult formality to them. I made friends in the new neighborhood too. They were girls who had nothing in common with me in background or education. But we liked each other. With them it was all about learning to fit in and not stand out. It was nice to not be always alone but it was not fulfilling at all.
I call it the year of my anomie. It was horrible.
I was buried deep in books, preparing for the civil services exam. And commuting hours daily in a chartered bus across New Delhi to another new job. I remember sharing my sense of missing the constancy of close friends with my best buddy from university. She had also been my co-worker at our first job. Now we worked in different places. She told me it was childish of me to hanker after old friends. I should focus more on making a career and not yearn for friends, she said, with some irritated puzzlement. In today’s parlance I guess she meant I had a lot of adulting to do. She herself was busy with a new job, an old boyfriend and an impending marriage and had no time for reflections on the lost rhythm of old friendships.
On a visit to an out of town college friend I met her new circle of colleagues and friends. Finally, after two years, here was the atmosphere I craved. The collegiate camaraderie. The company of people like us. The sense of home-coming was strong and seductive. And of course, delusional. But I had fallen in love. Suddenly it didn’t matter that all my friends were far away. Romance has that way of filling you up. The web of your connectedness feels expansive like the ever-stretching universe, complete with its own black-holes of no return. A misunderstanding around the new developments pulled a common friend down the vortex of non-friendship. New constellations were formed. Possibilities loomed.
I married and moved to another town after a tumultuous year of courtship. The only friends there were his work colleagues and their collective (mostly new) friends. The work of adopting them as my/ our friends began. From a very individualistic, one on one friend maker I tried to become good at being a part of a gang. Letters and then email and then mobile phone calls became a lifeline back to the ‘real’ friendships of a simpler more innocent time. For the first time I started holding back from sharing with my old friends, even while staying in touch. I guess I was hiding from myself in a way. A wifely loyalty and mother’s guilt fought to censor friendship’s candour.
Over time, across the world, I kept making up and and breaking up with more new friends. The ones who knew me only in the avatar of wife, mother, home-maker and corporate worker. For years, through my 30s I honed the art of making and keeping ‘situational’ friends. One of those bonds has lasted for over twenty years. But most served to fit in a specific sphere and time of my life.
In my 40s I reconnected with a lot of old college and high school friends. I found it was like we had not moved away at all. The years in between and all the highs and lows of life we had faced seem to make us like each other more. The acceptance seems to have turned more authentic, the trust stronger, the wish to stand by and for each other even more spontaneous. Even black-holes yield to the pull of friendships formed in one’s youth. After more than twenty years, friendship has triumphed over misunderstandings, strongly rejecting lies and meanness. Censorship has been put aside. Candour rules. You don’t fake it and you don’t make time or space for the fake-ness of others.
In my late 40s I have come full circle about friendship. I have begun to make new friends just like I did in my high school and college days. By being just me, sans roles, sans reserve, sans censor. The most active churning of friends in my life is happening now. I am also finally my own best friend, which makes it so much more fun to be friends with others.
If my son had expressed the slightest reservation, this would not be a public matter. I could only be so open standing on his shoulders! What a rock, that young man.
What an ADHD assessment for my son has meant to me. My piece in Daily O today.
Its has been said about me, in various shades of approval, praise, judgment, criticism or condemnation that I make too many friends, and too easily. I can only see this is a blessing. Friends have been my go to for too much for too long. Friends across all spectrums of age, interests, personality and life situations have played a big role in all I am.
Friends come in all types, and friendships come in all shades. Some last for a few fleeting encounters. Some are seasonal. Some come unbidden, and leave of their whim. Some seep into you like breath. While I like and enjoy all connections, I cherish most those bonds of fondness that last beyond situational exigencies and fleeting personal tastes and trends. Friendship that can hold its centre when time and circumstance make past certainties unfamiliar, is an elixir.
I have been told forever that I am an introvert. I live a lot of my life in my mind. I do not belong easily to groups. I am not a party person, certainly cannot be a social butterfly. But when I meet with an old gang of familiars, it is not just another social formality to structured around small talk. A shared past breeds comfort. It reaffirms acceptance. There is support offered, trust treasured, help given and help taken, fears faced and courage acknowledged. Co-travellers on this journey of life, we look out for each other. We walk different paths but we seek similar destinations. It is a bond that holds tighter with time, even while it uses no ties at all. In its maturing mutuality we each find recognition and a reflection.
Almost all the good things I learnt outside of what was taught to me by family, books, school and college, have come to me via friends – gardening, cooking, health support, alternate healing, investment advice, even business help, mentoring and networking. But the maturing of old friendships has brought the biggest treasure of all. The gift of acceptance.
So this is my salaam to all old friends. For looking out for me, listening to me, sharing your lives with me, and holding me in your acceptance. Yes, you are a blessing.
Most ladies of my mother’s generation never called their husband by name. Most women in my generation have not held hands with or made willing and happy eye-contact openly in public with their husbands, except to glare or signal something urgent. Many of us in any generation before or after my age cohort have not had a romance before marriage, and even less had a ‘love-marriage’.
But to watch our films one would think every street corner had a dozen love stories blooming. Actually, they may have bloomed in secret, but the path of true love never did run smooth in our part of the world.
Into this culture of romantic lack comes the glamour of married, fully legitimate and socially approved romance, with the filmy version of Karwa Chauth. It is the stuff of dreams. What is not to like? And then, along comes liberalization and the big push on consumerism. A heady cocktail of unarticulated, burning desire meeting unlimited supply. A match made in consumerism heaven.
Thus unfurls the yashchoprafication of an old, outdated, regressive and cautionary tale of patriarchal control.
Today, I wonder how many of the modern, financially well off women who fast and feast on this festival know the story that forms the bedrock of the rituals they follow in the name of celebration?
When they say they should have the choice to celebrate their marriage and the love in their marriage, do they know what their choice endorses?
The Karwa Chauth story I know is a cautionary tale for women. It stresses in no uncertain terms how marriage was a woman’s sole security and refuge, under the benign grace and fidelity of her husband.
This grace and fidelity though, is most precarious, the story warns. It could be lost at the slightest slip. So you have to be very careful you never let your devotion falter, least of all in favor of your own physical needs or your paternal family’s ‘misguided’ concern over you. Husband comes first, last and everything in-between. After all, you derive your existence and role and validation only as his wife.
So, the story goes…
Once upon a time there was a girl named Veerawati.
She married a brave and handsome chieftain and was delighted with all her finery and the position of a chief’s wife. But this was a spoiled and pampered girl, the little sister of seven doting brothers.
The brothers often took her to visit them back in her parental home. And there, during her Karwa Chauth fast, this girl was going to faint with weakness and hunger. Her brothers, concerned for her, tricked her into believing that the moon had risen, when it had not, and made her break her fast.
Barely had she taken some food and drink, that her misdemeanour brought a curse on her marriage. Her husband fell ill/ was wounded in battle and fell into a coma. Veerawati realised her mistake, and repented and prayed and begged gods and goddesses …and they said ok, he will not die but after many years, if you are good and fast well, he will awaken to life again.
So, began the PUNISHMENT of Veerawati, and her penance.
She took care of the husband, fasted properly every year…and took out the pins which pricked his body. When the last pin was left, she went out to arrange for her fast…in the meanwhile, the maid came and removed the pin, and the husband woke up and in his jumbled up memory, mistook the maid for the wife (maybe it was part of the continuing curse of punishment for the wife). Darn!
Now, the wife had the husband alive, but not with her! The maid became the wife, the wife now was the maid. Still Veerawati devotedly served him as a maid, and sang a song all the time about the switching of two dolls…at length, the chief asked her what this meant, and she told him the whole story. Then finally, he recognised her , and all her seva bore fruit and the husband – wife were re-united.
Bad Veerawati. Bad brothers who led her astray from her devotion.
What do we choose when we sing this katha as we pass the thaali around in the Karwa Chauth Puja.
Are we Veerawati? Should we be? Do we want to be her ?
If the modern KC following woman has no truck with this story, I wish she would drop the Veerawati song and katha from her thaali round and her moon gazing ritual. I wish there was no ‘touching the feet’ of the husband.
I wish we were a society more open to romance in our lives overall and did not need the cover of filmy fantasies which glamorise misogyny, to fulfil our dreams.
I am no fan of Chetan Bhagat (CB). The mediocrity of craft in CB’s books keeps me away from them. His tweets and columns and speeches are often terribly offensive and rather unintelligent and crass.
I cannot wish him away just as I cannot wish away the reality of Dengue and Chikungunya. Some try, of course.
UK-based journalist-writer Salil Tripathi says “He exists for readers who are new to the English language and new to the idea of reading.” Author-columnist Santosh Desai agrees, “It marks a breakthrough of sorts – writing in English becoming popular in a mainstream sort of a way, moving away from a desire to exclude, speaking to a new set of aspirations with simple but resonant stories, cocking a snook at elitism.”
Moving away from a Desire to Exclude! I am not going to focus on the Desire, but lets just go with the word Exclude. Along comes CB and INCLUDES. Of course he has devoted fans, won’t you, if you spoke for and to someone, about things that they mull over, dream of, and if you took their thoughts as worth any attention? When the arbiters of ‘taste’ and ‘art’ and ‘culture’ made these multitudes feel not quite ‘suitable’, not quite ‘in’and ‘just like them’?
Ranting against CB might do a lot of things for the one who rants, and for those who go “yeah!” with those rants. It does not change anything for those who are his fans and readers. It makes them love him all the more. It shows, in fact, a rather close-minded, one size fits all mentality of entitlement among the ranters. A smugness that comes from a lack of any examination of their own position.
A refusal to understand or acknowledge that there are logical, real reasons behind his success, and not CB’s magical ability to ‘fool a generation of readers’ is an arrogant refusal to face colossal shifts and new fault lines in our nation. It is a refusal to see who holds what kind of cultural, economic and social power.
So, I‘d go beyond. I’d like to offer explanations, understanding, and hold out a hopeful call for a more creative response to the world’s realities.
I am a compulsive student of society. So I take an interest in what makes CB click so well with millions of my desh-waasis (English and non-English reading), and many in foreign lands too. (Yes, his books are translated in to many Indian and foreign tongues- French and Japanese included). He opened a new market segment for books, created a new breed of readers. He does not necessarily have to be the one who helps them evolve as well. Bacche ki jaan loge kyaa? He is not God, even though his stamina and self-belief might make him a demi-god to those who don’t know better.
In sneering at CB, we also sneer at his readers. Why be so snide and superior about us versus them? What do we have to offer them, instead, that will be resonant and connecting? Which voice will speak to their yearnings, and can someone help them find a more sophisticated and refined, nuanced awareness of that yearning?
Respect another’s experience and life view, because it comes from a different place. Would you be you had you been in their place? Too much to ask, I know. I got carried away. Why be so serious? WHY ever not?
Market forces understand consuming power. Money talks. Sales figures are the kingmakers. What is to rant about? Don’t like what the system throws up? Want to rant against the real root of things, and not the symptoms, maybe? Rant against the forces of consumerism, which turn everything into a market product. Give it a thought.
Sadly for the ‘English’ types, CB got on to the hotline too easy. And then the gods of the market put all their armies at his disposal. He keeps going. It pays him handsomely. Why would he do any different? Once he hit the mark, non-book markets came to cash in on him. He sold out. Given his clout should he choose better? Maybe, maybe he can’t. Would you? Have others? Give it a thought!
Look at the basic premise that the advertising and marketing industry works on. Seriously, GIVE IT ALL A THOUGHT. A lot of thought.
It is a free world, people. No, it is a ‘free’-market world, specifically. When CB first came into the market he had a unique and novel product. Five Point Someone spoke to a segment of youth about things no one had publicly talked about, but which were ripe for articulation. He did it soothingly, gently, without making the reader uncomfortable. In the newly liberalizing Indian middle class, comfort was at a high premium.
My neighbor told me excitedly that on reading this book, she felt she could understand where her husband came from, a little better. And she thanked CB for it. This was a Loretto school educated Delhi University girl married to an IIT IIM boy. That segment may not be his core audience anymore, but give the devil his due- he spoke to someone’s heart.
CB has moved on to other topics. He picks the stories carefully; with studied deliberation I am sure. Then, he plays the market. He touches on pain points but does not go for the jugular. He gives you resonance, but does not break your heart. That is his choice. And the reader’s too. We cannot rant against that. C’mon, not everyone wants to be shown all the skeletons in their cupboard. You cannot give babies real knives and scissors to play with. There are a few who are born to high art. For the rest it takes growing into. The consumer society public discourse and media does not help that growth. It wants to paint a utopian, no difficult questions scenario, where every answer is achievable, every problem solvable with something readymade off the shelf. Like it is with the situations and characters in CB’s novels. Or it wants to scare you about impending doom. There is no nuance.
Give it a thought.
Having seen that he could catch reader’s attention, and a slice of the book market, CB turned bolder. Tier two and tier three towns, the lesser known engineering colleges and regular graduates with dreams fuelled by liberalization and globalization of the job-market were a big market hungering to hear about people like them. People whose young lives had changed in unimagined ways in a matter of very few years. The narratives of their parents were a misfit in their new world. Nor could they relate to the writers who wrote in ‘elite’ English for the elites readers. This was the setting ripe for One Night @The Call Centre. Lets not forget, this was the time when “most people like us’ sneered at those taking up call center jobs.
How judgy is it of some of us to decide that people different from us must adhere to our tastes and not like what connects with them?
The thing that strikes me most about all the vitriol raised by the CB haters is how little of it is actually useful literary criticism. Quite lacking in anything educative for the seeker of good reading guidance, or for someone looking to develop a higher order taste in reading, and offering nothing to help readers understand what makes CB a poor writer. There is word in Hindi that I think of when I see the outrage against CB. ‘Tilmilahat’. It captures the essence of the reaction.
I saw the film Two States with a ladyfriend who loved the book and the film because it was the story of her life. Who is to judge the value of her fondness for what holds meaning for her at such a personal, deep level?
I found my tailor reading Half-Girlfriend. I asked him what he thought of the book. He said he found it realistic, and enjoyable. I got a copy and read it (it was a drag, honestly) to know what was working for this book. As a piece of art, and for its craft, I could trash the book. But I admired it as a product. Could have been better. But then, CB never claims perfection. Just that he sells. DDLJ sold. Dil Chahta Hai sold. Both left me cold. But they were cult hits, I keep hearing. Why? Give it a thought.
On a recent visit to the parlor, I was reading Ramachandra Guha’s massive tome, India after Gandhi, while getting a pedicure. The boy attending to me was a young lad from Madhubani, sweet and curious and confident. He talked in English, and asked me to correct him if needed, so he could improve. He asked questions about the topics in the book. We discussed the role of mass media, book publishing, the role of English as the language of power and knowledge. And I wondered if there was a simpler, easy to read version of this history book I could recommend to him. I am sure the same boy could read CB. And that is the underserved market we have in this country, hungry for so much. Junk will be lapped up as greedily as long as it is available and somewhat understood. As of now, all this pedicure boy can perhaps reach for, in English, is CB. Will there be a better book for him to read in English soon?
I want to end with this old quote from … http://danieldmello.blogspot.in/2010/03/why-we-hate-chetan-bhagat.html
“CB’s work is mediocre….it isn’t snobbishness to find a piece of work mediocre and reject it for being so. But as to the question of holding the creators and their fans in contempt for patronising mediocrity, and denying them any form of attention, that’s just wrong, and could well be snobbishness….. Some of them read his books because they don’t know any better or they don’t enjoy reading good Indian fiction or contemporary international literature, or even the classics. No wonder then that they worship Chetan Bhagat. …. Is this Chetan’s fault? Of course not. He didn’t force all these millions of Indians to buy or read his books. He simply used his natural talent to write within his capacity, and the masses happened to love his work. Why blame Chetan for the reading habits of the masses? Our anger at Chetan Bhagat’s success could actually be our displaced anger at the masses….. if you’re a lover of good literature, and are amazed by the constant attention CB gets, my advice is to ignore it. That’s right. We are an evolving society. Until we all evolve to a point we we appreciate good literature, we should realise that there will always be some people who will enjoy reading CB. What’s more, no one’s forcing you to read his books. “
For those who still want to stay angry, is being angry and full of hate all we can do? Can we instead turn our anger to something more positive, creative and better?
Give it a thought.
Yesterday I had an epiphany about man’s eternal pull to the mountains. It was triggered, fittingly, by the words of a Bhutanese landscape planner on Youtube. He reinforced something already felt in the deep dormant layers of my own knowing, never quite fully understood and owned, unsaid by me so far.
The man from Bhutan talked about how he can never fully physically feel at home anywhere else the way he does in his mountain kingdom. That the body makes its home as a part of the physical landscape and sometimes so does our soul. And how mountains, to his mind, did this precisely because of what seems their distancing features.
While they are no doubt difficult to get to, and beset with a lot of natural extreme conditions and access problems, it is these very qualities of impregnability that lend a sense of a charmed, protected and even secure sense of self to those who live in the cradle of the high peaks. I was pulled back to just such a discovery I and a friend had shared, years ago, to our own surprise. We were on a long road journey in the relatively remote and wild Central Himalayas, driving down to the plains through high, rugged peaks on roads that on one side hugged steep slopes going up and on the other side ended in deep and sharp drops into a raging river below. Tough as the terrain was, we found ourselves in a sort of flow after a while, and the winding road and the constant turns of the wheels became nearly as normal and natural to us as our breathing. We were one with the land, with the road and with the journey, and it was a happy time.
Then after a whole day’s drive, the road stopped curving quite so much and started stretching out straight in front of us. The cliffs and drops on our sides gave way to small mounds and rocks and then endless vistas of flat green and brown and man made blocks placed together. Almost at the same time, my friend and I looked at each other and wondered aloud, that though the driving was now easy, what was this odd sense of loss, a sense of being adrift that we were experiencing?
What we felt missing was the physical embrace, the cradling, the scaffolding of the ever-present looming massive bulk of earth, the rock solid presence of those peaks, and not just the beauty, not just the grandeur and snowy brilliance or the verdant bounty of the mountains.
Listening to the Youtube recording, I heard the landscape design expert say that for him and his country folks, the terrain of their mountain kingdom was their biggest source of sustenance and SECURITY! And he further went on to say that those mountains were indeed the protectors of the people in a very real physical sense in olden times, and today the culture still sees them as such. Well, I say !! This was just so like what I had felt – that the mountains were somehow holding us safe, enclosed, enfolded, with all their curves and highs and recesses and valleys, and when we reached the plains we were left wide open and on our own – so distant from the large, benign, overarching physically powerful entities that are the mountains.
I wonder if any of you have also felt this way, or feel a connection with what I am saying. The mountains, to me seem to be about arriving, settling in, and falling into rhythm. They are about being rooted, about being one with something solid and unconquered and perhaps never fully conquerable. They are also about a certain surrender, a certain acceptance. They are saying, like little else can, that this is it, this is here, this is now.
So tell me, do you feel that any place, any physical landscape that pulls us, pulls us for a similar reason, or is the pull of every kind of landscape feature a random matter of simple sensual or sensorial appeal? What would those of you say who love heading out to the sea rather than the mountains? For me, the sea is all about another kind of a trance, about losing sense of time and boundaries. It is about being literally, adrift. The mountains are all about being rooted. Present. Is it the same for some of you, and how is it different for others? Do keep the thoughts flowing…..
Comfort food. A very sought after experience, aptly called so as it gives us much succour when we are out of our comfort zone, be it with the changing seasons, our low key health, the crisis points of daily life or bigger, epoch making tumults of the times, or just the long winding road of a holiday.
Any food can be comfort food, if it evokes the emotions of wellbeing, familiarity and cosiness. I am told comfort food is food we grew up with. food that mom made. I disagree. Comfort food may be all that, but it is also much more, for me. It is all food that can bring me comfort. A sense of ‘ all is Well’. Of being safe, of being tended to with gentleness, of being in a warm embryonic comfort zone.
As I felt with a plate of sizzling, fresh off the oil french fries made during a mini cloudburst, in the warm and dry comfort of our mountain home when we were forced to be homebound by the forces of nature. The taste of those fries took us out to wherever we wished to be, while the roads remained blocked for days, and our plans of a trek and a chopper ride into the higher reaches of the mountains remained elusive. Then again, comfort food for me need not be food at all, it can be a drink too. Like the ice cold lemonade made with fresh spring water which is sold at Teen Dhara, the mandatory halt for refreshment on the long drive uphill on the NH 48 from Haridwar to Badrinath, which we also pass en route to Birdsong & Beyond. The tangy seasoning of that drink takes away the dull tiredness that by that point in the long and heavily winding road journey begins to seep into the muscles. And comfort food can sometimes be totally alien too, something you have never known or tasted and yet, when you have it for the first time, it feels like having come home. Like the time I had the typical Bengali dish of fish curry with Panch Phoron tempering. Nothing in my Punjabi upbringing had prepared me for those flavors. I had never tasted Rui macch before. And yet it was love at first whiff and a life long commitment at first bite. A dish of fish curry made that way will make up for almost anything for me, anytime.
Journeys, being a step outside our set routine life, are perfect settings for comfort foods. Travel takes us out of the familiar, and off the beaten track travel takes us more and more into the unknown. Connecting with comfort food is one way of establishing touch with the familiar, the enfolding cosiness of being loved and cared for, which can sometimes be missed by travellers crossing the frontiers of the known, while seeking the unexplored.