Thursday, June 09, 2016

For love of country

You are here: Home » Supplements » Sunday Herald » For love of country
For love of country
Shefali Tripathi Mehta, May 15, 2016
Patriotic spirit

As someone who does not follow cricket, I often find myself alienated in frantic, passionate discussions and watching of the game. What is baffling is how everyone who follows it (that’s almost everyone) seems to deride and even question my indifference. 

This, in microcosm, is how we tend to impose our expectations, notions, beliefs, morality, religion and other passionate preferences on others. Deshbhakti of the zealots makes them spew hate, threaten, beat up, and in extreme cases, even kill those that do not hold the same view as them. Political parties and the media whip up mass hysteria over trivialities for their own benefit.

In the close-to-70-years of being an independent nation, have we learnt nothing of power play? Of how the vulnerable and marginalised are used as pawns to advance personal and political interests? Does anyone barge into the homes of the rich to kill; to check what they have in their refrigerator? An artist was driven out of the country for his nude paintings of goddesses. What about the men who threaten, attack and rape women of minority communities in the name of caste and religion? Those that shame the law and the constitution of the same nation they swear by when they pledge to chop off tongues, beat up, threaten and instigate hate wars.

Why are we so emotional about ideals and symbols but blind to real issues, real people? Why does our blood not boil when a 3-year-old has screws and nails stuffed into her genitals by perverts and her helpless parents are left to plead for treatment in government hospitals — in hospitals run on public money, our money? Why are we not provoked into action because poachers who shoot our wildlife into extinction have access to reserved forests; or because illegal mining continues to strip naked the bowels of our land? Because green spaces in big cities are so easily sold to builders who seemingly have ‘correct’ political connections? Or because industrial effluents and harmful chemicals are allowed to flow into the water bodies that sustain us? Why does it not anger us enough that we cannot hold any government at helm accountable? Why does the love of the country not help us find solutions for the country’s problems? Why does it only make us hate, destroy, kill?

Our enemy then is that voice of destruction, of unreason, of hate, and of violence that manages to outshout all that is otherwise.

An uneducated, tribal man saw the devastation of flora and fauna caused by floods and determinedly, against all odds, singlehandedly planted trees for over 3 decades creating a lush forest. Jadav Payeng of Assam’s Jorhat district saw a problem and did what he thought he could to set things right. For 15 years now, a 64-year-old factory worker, Kamalbhai Parmar, has been running a ‘Footpath School’ in Ahmedabad because the children of labourers, ragpickers and domestic servants did not learn well enough to benefit from the free education they were receiving in government schools. He provides the students with tuitions after school and free meals. That’s how we build this nation, in ways that we can. The debates can go on forever — the micro shredding and incongruously stretched, high-decibel interpretation of the terms nationalism, patriotism, but the fact of the matter is what does our love for our nation move us to do? Is it only the flag-waving jingoism that goes for much of it today? 

Our responsibility

It’s alright to have the chest swell on hearing the national anthem, but what is one’s contribution to the country, toward nation building? Isn’t that how we will measure up? Not just as a soldier who’s ready to make the supreme sacrifice, but as the clerk who is his parent, the teachers and the elders from who he learns, gets support and inspiration. Everyone who does their work sincerely and honestly contributes to nation-building.

From setting things right, standing up for justice, raising awareness on issues and resisting from making or sharing messages that spread hated, every single thing that we do that takes us forward, contributes to building this country. That’s the only way forward for a better world for us to live in.

Bhakti Sharma, 26, went to work in the US after her Master’s, like many young people of her generation, but the desire to work at the grassroots in her country drew her back within one year. Her initial work in villages made her understand that the reason why villages do not benefit from government schemes meant for them is because these schemes are poorly implemented. To do this, she contested elections and is now the youngest educated Sarpanch in village Berkhedi in Madhya Pradesh. She has built the platform from where to begin the work she wants to do.

Nation-building begins with fixing our homes and families, communities, workplace. It begins with teaching our children to be honest and assertive; and to live with integrity and empathy. Nationalism should mean giving back to the nation; working, volunteering in ways that are not for self-interest alone. Nationalism, then, should be our civic responsibility.

This civic responsibility can be fulfilled in small, workable ways. The Bhopal I-Clean Team is a group of dedicated people who spend a few hours each Sunday to clean up and beautify some part of the city of lakes. This team is inspired by Bengaluru’s The Ugly Indian — a group that ‘spot fixes’ small parts of the streets each week. There are volunteers who take time to read to the blind and write exams for them and for those with other physical disabilities. A quiet clerk in my former office celebrated all birthdays in his family, including those of his little children, in an old age home.

Anti nationals & traitors

Our shouting is louder than our actions,Our swords are taller than us, This is our tragedy.
— Nizar Qabbani, poet & diplomat

It is astonishing that criminals, cheats, tax defaulters; those that spread hate and acrimony in the name of religion and caste; and those who create barriers for the people living on the margins are not considered traitors or treated with the same disdain as those that are suspected of chanting anti-national slogans.

The insatiable hunger of a few for wealth and power makes them go blind to honesty and integrity. They twist rules and laws of our democratic institutions to steal from those that are struggling to make their ends meet. Traitors and anti-nationals should be those who cannot rid their minds of gender stereotypes and stand in way of letting women live fulfilled lives. They are the ones who cannot stand a chance at fair discourse, and in their desperation to see women beaten, counter them with sexist, degrading personal attacks, especially on social media.

The media that seems to control our thoughts and voices has managed to polarise us by creating useless binaries of discussions that have no bearing on critical issues. We are so swayed by loud, emphatic speeches and by our own political allegiances that we cannot but take sides. Our support of parties, and not ideologies, creates conflicts. 

What is the breaking point of our political loyalty — annihilation of our own identity, the voice of our conscience and intelligence in the mindless defence of political interests that are not even serving us, our country? We have to stop taking sides blindly and perceive issues for what they are, and not how they are brought to us, coloured in narrow interests by people who do not have our or the country’s best interests topmost.

They do the country proud

To act with intelligence and integrity, to channelise our anger into improving things is how we become and prove that we are the proud citizens of a great country. Brave Indians like Manjunath, who stood up against the oil mafia, and Barun Biswas, who took on a gang of rapists — both paying for it with their lives, are martyrs and deshbhakts of the noblest order.

There is an exemplary tradition that I witnessed at one of the country’s premier institutions. With its top-notch faculty and academic resources, it offers education on a highly subsidised fee — the reason why it attracts students from all over the country — a lot of them from distant towns and villages, and from economically weaker backgrounds. But the entrance exam for a seat here is highly competitive. Nowhere else in the country can poor students hope to study from the best. So guess who gives them that helping hand? 

Every summer, before the entrance exams in May, students of the university coach these aspirants. During hot summer afternoons, sitting on the floor of the Students’ Union office are at least a hundred or so youngsters, being coached patiently in all subjects by graduate students of the university who take time out from their own studies, sometimes even between 2 exams. I have never seen or heard of this tradition anywhere else. Those that have received the opportunity want others like them to come up, too. This is a tradition, a mindset that we have to embrace for the love of this land.

Monday, February 22, 2016

I want to break free

You are here: Home » Supplements » Sunday Herald » I want to break free
Shefali Tripathi Mehta, February 21, 2016

The Social Approval Trap

Until I read Tim Challis’s two-year-old blog post titled ‘Why my family doesn’t do sleepovers’ recently, I had not heard anyone speak against sleepovers. An empty-nester now, I still feel a pang when I hear a young mother excitedly planning one and sometimes wonder if my decision to never allow my child sleepovers was right. 

All kids do it is the only reason I feel I may have made my daughter forgo a childhood experience. My reasons against it were to do with my gut sense and wisdom. I know the daughter may have felt left out; she may have been bullied too, but I also know that she understood my reasons, and in the long run it may have instilled in her an important lesson for life — the need to not fit in always.  

We always have a reason for doing or not doing a thing — the worst can be because everyone else is. Why always blend in? We’re not clones, nor robots. Why go against our grain just to stay within the circle of social approval? It is those who have had the courage to stand away from the crowd that have shown us the true worth of life and living. So the question we must ask every time we are called upon to act or decide is, why am I doing this? 

Blending in

I notice just how many urban, middle class children wear braces these days. Not all have crooked teeth that require aligning, but every child (and their parents) wants perfect teeth. Whatever we can attain within the accepted parameters of appearance, we try to — colour of skin, shape of nose, lip or body. Irreversible psychological damage is caused to people when they are shamed for not being like others. For all the uproar over letting a child be, we know how people who are different are alienated. There is no merit in being quiet or being a listener — a shrinking violet, one is branded.

A young person who wants to take even one year off to figure out life and calling, is compared to peers in jobs and universities. Someone who refuses to be part of gossip groups is considered arrogant. A male friend who wanted to be a chef was pushed into doing ‘anything else except that’, and two decades later, he has still not found his bearings in any job. He continues to cook exceptionally well for friends and family. Another friend does not drive. I cannot imagine how many times he must have been derided for it. In any way, a person tries to be their own nature, they are made to feel less by others. By and by, the world prods and pushes us into becoming who they want to see, and we lose who we are. 

The need in people to fit in is associated with their self-worth, and it is believed that those with lower self-esteem and confidence are crowd followers. People who bow to peer pressure fear rejection. All of us fear rejection in varying degrees. Acceptance is what we want most. 

Thinking for oneself, the one quality that sets each of us apart is unfortunately almost always confused with being selfish and inconsiderate, especially in Indian families. Children are always ‘told to do’ because elders know best. Traditionally, ‘listening to elders’ has been a matter of deference. Even today, in most families, children and youngsters are not encouraged to discuss their points of view. Important decisions are made for them by parents and elders. A lot of young people go through life without questioning much; growing into adults incapable of making decisions on their own. 

Ill-equipped to think for ourselves, we resist change because change requires decision-making. This feeling of helplessness makes many of us put all the faith that we should have in ourselves, in godmen and swamis. We want them to make all our decisions for us. We don’t want to be accountable for our own choices.

Social approval
People are more content when they are true to their nature. The reason for strife in families and social ills like honour killings, dowry, gender discrimination and female foeticide are all the result of our need for a social face to blend in with all the other faces. The stories of how we suffer because of this mindset are familiar and keep repeating themselves.

A high-schooler once told me that she was finding her studies so hard that several times during the day she shut herself into the bathroom and cried without letting her parents know. Her parents wanted her to be an engineer and she had little aptitude for math. Today, she’s a budding media professional who quit mathematic in college and pursued the subject of her interest. Were those torturous years worth anything? How do parents cope when children take extreme steps when thus pressurised to study, take up jobs, or marry against their will? Why must we scar our own psychologically for societal approval? Myhousehelp’s married daughter ran away unable to bear the circumstances within the family. 

The lady was distraught. But, as soon as the daughter returned, she was coaxed into going back to live with the abusive husband and mother-in-law. The mother refuses to accept that there can be another way out of the situation. She is ready to bear the mental agony of what may happen to the daughter, but not the social stigma of having her live with her. So many young women, ill-equipped to live on their own and earn, find themselves in such helpless situations, and unable to cope, many end their lives. They are not always from poor or uneducated families. Whoever tries to do something different runs the risk of ridicule, social ostracism and failure. “Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear.” (Susan Sontag, writer, filmmaker).

Harbingers of change
At another level, this lack of conviction manifests in the absence of moral courage — a helplessness to do what we should, but can’t because no one else is. Courage comes from convictions and convictions formed from being told to, do not constitute a good grounding in morals. We look away from the crying person on the street because no one else is stopping to ask; we pay bribe to get work done because that is how everyone else got their work done; we do not speak up when a person in power claims their right out of turn. Every time we do not react to acts of corruption or injustice, we succumb to this pressure. It lowers the moral fabric of the nation.

It is not enough for me to wish that my house-help takes her daughter back; it is my moral duty to convince her to help her daughter lead a better life. My father made it a point to attend every inter-caste marriage he was invited to. He said people needed to show support for such social changes. We must give strength to those who are attempting to bring positive social changes. 

If we must blend in, it must be to come together for common good. In a country where most kids (and their parents) still dream of becoming software engineers and landing a job in the US of A, it must have taken immense willpower on the part of Madhu Chandan SC to give up his software job and settled life with family in San Jose, California to return to farm in Mandya, Karnataka. When his passion for farming began to pull him back, he listened not to what others would say or do in a similar situation, but to being true to his own nature, his calling. Thanks to his move, he went on to create fulfilling lives for himself and other farmers. Madhu Chandan SC saw the plight of the farmers in Mandya who were not able to find market for their produce and set up the hugely successful organic farmers co-operative, Organic Mandya.
We are at the cusp of amazing social change — taboos are being broken, people are questioning age-old beliefs. A lot of the credit for this goes to social media networks. Not just are these highlighting stories of amazing moral courage and conviction, they are enabling support for new ideas, thoughts and innovations. People gravitate towards their deeper calling and find support and encouragement from others. 

Recently, in Gujarat, a person invited thousands of widows to his son’s wedding. Widows are kept out of auspicious functions, especially marriages, lest their fate befall those getting married. This Republic Day, in an initiative by the state government, girls with the highest educational qualification hoisted the national flag in Haryana villages, while the state Education Department did not just send invitations for Republic Day celebration to families with infant girls; they also addressed the invitations in the names of the girls. Kudos then to, “The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules... Because they change things. They push the human race forward...” (Rob Siltanen).

Thursday, January 21, 2016

*Friends in small places: Amroodwala

Lights dance if you look at them with your eyes crinkled. I did that a lot. Long, straight lamppost lights would begin to run like confused pinwheels. He eyes crinkled like that when he smiled, which he did a lot - the amroodwala who came in the afternoon pushing his hand-card up the hill where we lived.

Only Mummy called him by his name, we called him ‘amroodwala’ in winter and ‘kelewala’ in summer. For the bananas we had to be sent out grudgingly but when he got the guavas, we ran out at the sound of his, ‘amdoodwalaaa’ to claim the best, the ones that were red inside. The red always reminded me of monkeys. Although our visitors were the ashen-faced, long-tailed langoors that raided the garden; jumped on the terrace and if one of us was careless to leave the terrace doors open, came down the stairs into the dining room to polish off any food left on the table.

So Amroodwala would hold one guava in his fingers like a cricket ball, half-turn it and say, yeh! this one’s red inside. His word was enough. Sometimes he was mistaken and the next day on being told so, he would promptly pick two and say, this one for yesterday and this for today. That’s so generous, I always thought.

The little secret has to be that the red amroods didn’t taste any better. It was just the thrill of discovering a red inside, a chance at luck. And luck, well, it was with the others who were allowed the red masala that he gave on paper – neatly folded into a square. Some could even have the guava ‘made’ by him. Parental warnings rang in our heads as he picked one (unwashed warning) and ran his knife (germs, rust warning) once at the centre and then across – taking care not to cut through to the bottom so the slices flowered open like the tin toy that sold on railway stations – the one which when you pressed the tiller, opened four tin petals to reveal a dancing girl inside. He then sprinkled the guava petals with the red masala (dirty hands, fly-sat masala warning) and handed it to the lucky ones while I carried mind inside to be washed in clean water. I would try and replicate his magic by trying not to cut it all the way to the bottom which I eventually always did; mixing red chill powder with salt to get his red that I never did. Tomorrow is another day, a carefree mind would say. An older one now knows that yesterday wasn’t. 

*The title 'Friends in small places' is from the Ruskin Bond collection that is 'inspired by people who have left a lasting impression on him'. 

Pictures: Shibani Mehta, Chandni Chowk, Delhi 6