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Saturday, September 20, 2014

Of feeling safe

So how does one define feeling safe? Being in a safe region? Being in the arms of someone who makes you feel secure? Being in the home one grew up in? Being comfortable wherever they are? Being in a place that is protected?

This is not something that I have really thought about in details ever before. But this is something that has been a matter of great significance to me in the last few days.

I am on an assignment in a region that is considered "unsafe" by parameters defined by a certain world geographically and politically more powerful and secure. I do not know what these parameters are, I do not know how these "secure" worlds define the safety that people from this region feels. Or whether they think that the people of this region do not consider their lives precious enough to be protected, their families are more dispensable and their happiness and joy more compromisable than mine.

To ensure that I am safe and secure, I am put up in a highly secured housing complex that has electric fences running around it and manned by guards 24/7. I am driven to my work and to all my chores (including grocery shopping) by a company provided car. I am not allowed to take a walk outside my housing complex by myself and I am not allowed to travel outside the capital city. If I am in a shopping mall, I am accompanied by my driver always, pushing my shopping cart around or taking me to the ATM to withdraw money. I depend on the driver on the route he chooses to drive me to office or to drive me back. I am not allowed to drive myself around or take any form of public transport. If I need to travel to remote areas for project work, I need to take prior approvals and will mostly be driven by my company provided car.

I have never felt so unsafe in my whole life...

With all these security measures taken to keep me secure in this region for the duration of this project, why is it that I feel so unsafe?

I tried to analyse this observation further. I have done my bit of travelling. I have been to unknown places all by myself for the first time. I have been to precarious situations and managed to get myself out of those. I have travelled at night, by myself, in train compartments through foreign countries where I did not even understand the language. I have walked through dark lanes in some notorious parts of my country and have managed to come out unscathed. I have travelled at mid-night in NY tube with drunk hobos. Was I plain lucky all those times? Was I foolish to have done that? Did those experiences teach me nothing but the fact that I am an idiot to have found myself in those situations?

May be, yes. But may be, just may be, I survived all those situations because I allowed my natural instincts to settle in. My inherent sense of survival was sharp and vigilant and that made me feel confident and secure about my surroundings. I do not have that now. If today I am attacked on my way to office, I will never know how to get myself out of the situation. I will simply be dependent on my driver. 

So truely what makes someone feel secure? Not the fact that they are in the arms of their loved ones, but the fact that they know they have the option to protect themselves in their own way if required? Not the fact that they are living in a secured complex, but the fact that they know their surroundings and can find their ways out of it? Not the fact that they have financial security but the fact that they know how to use it?

I have always tried to look at life and the experiences that it offered as opportunities to know myself better, to appreciate this life that I have and to be a better person. This is also an experience that I have never had before. I would like to think that at the end of it I will get some positive learning out of it. But for now, I hope, I do not end up being paranoid so much so that I do not feel secure anymore once I am back in my natural surroundings and lose my basic instincts of survival.

Are people who live here not happy? Are the kids who go to school everyday or the youth who go to the discotheques do not feel secure? When is it that you feel safe? And when is it that you do not? Should one really allow someone else or some set of procedures to define their respective safety and security? What are your thoughts? Please share.

*I typically refrain from writing vivid personal experiences in my blog. But this is an observation that's been bugging me and my blog is the only place where I let out anything that affects me, so please bear with this ranting if you find yourself here.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

They sigh...

He rests his trembling hands on the table. The veins form a complex network of tributaries and distributaries. Some throb for seconds, uncontrollably. He tries to steady them. The satin tablecloth lies under his fingers, wrinkle-free, cold. He glances at the flowers in a small vase kept on the table, the cutlery and the dishes. He looks around; the tall pillars, the crystal chandeliers, the immaculately decorated chairs, the hushed conversations, the measured clinks of forks and spoons, the mild Bach, the suits and the designer clothes. He tries to steady his hand further.
A kid comes running to him. Plate full of scones, poached eggs, muffins and croissants. Places it in front of him. “Grandad, eat some.” He smiles nervously. The items on the plate look foreign to him. More plates pile up. Noodles, miso soup, muesli, salads. More family members join the table too. A lady in her well-kept clothes says, “Papaji eat some paratha”. He looks at the plate. Slices of paratha (Indian bread) that look quite dry and hard and a bowl of sambhar. He tries to tear one piece, dip it in sambhar and takes a bite. People around him start chatting, planning the day. The different attractions to visit, the time it will take, how best to organise.
He continues to chew. His hand trembles a bit, he takes a gulp of water and tries a second bite. He stares blankly at the chandelier while his mind wanders off. It was a bright sunny day if he remembers correctly. It was a Saturday too just like today. They were sitting outside the courtyard, chatting and having their morning milk. His daughter, who is sitting next to him now, was playing with her toys. There were hot parathas being served and pickles to go with those. He remembers the warmth of the plate in his hand against the cold of the cutlery now, he sighs at the measured movements around him and remembers his daughter throwing a ball at him that morning.
“Papajee you have dropped sambhar on your clothes”, his daughter admonishes him gently. He goes back to chewing the parathas, a nervous smile clings on to his lower lip. “These are hard and cold”, he thinks. Those around him are praising the breakfast spread in this 5-star hotel. They try to give him some muffin – the chocolate ones. He takes them hesitatingly. Out-of-place, too-late-in-the-day, he smiles with pride at his daughter’s enthusiasm to take him around the world, to good restaurants, good hotels, or to the movies. And then he looks away and sighs.
At what? I do not know. But I know he sighs. I know they sigh. The fathers and the mothers. They hide from their grown-up, accomplished children and they let go of a sigh. 
As a single child growing up in a middle-class joint family, I have seen my parents make many sacrifices of their small pleasures for the family’s well-being. These choices came easy to them. They sacrificed vacations, good clothes, good restaurants while we somehow in our sub-conscious minds kept a count of these all.
And then one day, all of a sudden, having dealt with our own devils in life, education, work and society, we-the children, now grown up feel this strong desire to give our parents the comfort and pleasures that they once gave up. We drag them to the restaurants and subject them to unfamiliar taste, we take them to the loud theatres and expect them to get used to the Dolby digital surround sound, in the winters of NY we take them to weekend Durga pujo or in the heat of Ajanta caves we drag them from one cave painting to the other. We send them tickets and put them in 20 hour long flights across oceans to show them the foreign land, to drive them around in the posh interiors of our automatics, we take them into the oceans and put them on city’s eyes, we make them sit through musicals and ask them to be comfortable with the soft hotel pillows. Doing this makes us feel good. Going through all this, at this age, are they really happy?
I do not have an answer. Parents to me are typically these unusual creatures who take immense pleasure and satisfaction at their children’s achievements and can do almost anything to keep their children happy and in the right path. 
But still, I am sure, they do sigh…they just hide it…but they do let go of a sigh…
Many of you reading this will recognise my dilemma. What do you think about this? What is your take on this?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Only if he knew how...

He could hear it approaching, slow and steady…He closed his eyes, braced his knees to his chest, and firmly placed the wet towel roll between his jaws. It started getting louder, the vision got blurred with streaks of red neon flashes as he placed himself on the bed and waited. Beads of sweat turned into patches of sweat as he shivered uncontrollably on his bed, trying hard not to clench his fist, bit his tongue or throw himself off the bed. He felt his skin tearing apart as the whips came crashing down on his tender arms, his eyes throbbed as the headache settled itself in between his eyebrows. He scratched at the wooden plank that guarded the windows, counted his breathes and waited for it to go away. It returned with more vigor as his father kept hitting him with a whip and his mother’s cries resonated the closed walls.

A traumatized childhood, watching his mother battered to death by a monster he called father are the reasons for his attacks tells his therapists. He does not know what the truth is anymore. The cries are true, so are the streaks of light across his retina, truth is the pain that numbs him from the whip lashes, everything else is just a blur! The faces, were they really his mother and father? He cannot recall anymore as he lies limp on the bed wet by his sweat, arms and legs disabled by the fury his own body unleashed on itself, senses torn by the flashes from the past. He will lie there for two hours, before he can get up and start his day.

A routine he now remembers for last 20 years. Decades of therapy, bottles of pills, years of confronting his past but the ghosts still hover around, they still come back with immaculate accuracy every fortnight, reap through his body, his senses and his soul. Once every 15 days, he knows that he needs to warn his colleagues, keep his calendar free, order his breakfast home, keep his phones charged and pay his bills ahead of time. He braces himself for what follows, endures the onslaught, and deals with his past on the days that follows. 

Disturbed sleep, nagging headache, frequent imbalance that follow every attack had helped him define his days and nights, hour by hour, for last 20 years after that fateful night when he was 10 years old and found himself towering over a limp body sprawled on the floor. His father shouted, “Get away from her, she is dead, your mother is dead”. He remembers a sudden hit that darkened his soul and his senses till he regained his consciousness in a hospital where they said his parents were missing. “She is dead”, he had murmured. Nobody listened to him then. He never saw them again. His school friends said that they were both dead. His foster parents said they were missing.

Over the last few years he had initiated many investigations to find the truth. Often jeopardizing his own safety, but all had ended in a naught. Finally, last evening he received a call from one of the prominent investigators that there might be some lead. Struggling his way out of the bed, he wondered how soon will he be capable again to get in touch with the investigator to know more…

Fifty days since that morning, two attacks later, he sat at the window of his room sipping his morning tea. His parents were in the living room talking. Several manhunts, thousands of miles later, he finally found his missing parents, he reconstructed his childhood memories; the assault of his father’s business partners on him and his parents, the physical threats and tortures that eventually led his parents to believe that he was safer without them. He sat there, sipping his tea as he looked outside and untied the knots and let go of a sigh that he had not, for a very very long while.

He stepped in. Closed his eyes, braced his knees to his chest, and firmly placed the wet towel roll between his jaws. He crawled into his bed and waited for it to unleash. Minutes turned to an hour, it did not. It was time. But nothing happened. He called his therapist. She told him it is probably because he now knows his past, he has untied the knots. He was, therefore, free from the torment. He looked at the telephone blankly. 

He stared at his bed, his towel roll, his medicines, his routine. He had planned his life around it. For twenty years he had learned from one fit to the next how to cope and how to survive. Without it, how, he wonders, will he be able to live his life normally? Only if he knew how...

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Of faith, belief and stories around you

* With much enthusiasm, she carried her bent body, crooked legs, thin arms, greying hair and tired wrinkles wrapped around a torn saree on a walking stick. She trailed behind her family members, but she carried on.

* His 4-year old son sat on his shoulders, eyes wide open, staring at the mammoth human conglomeration around him. At three in a chilly winter morning, the 4-year old was surprisingly wide awake.

* They were in their late twenties, walked holding hands, possibly making their livelihood doing menial labour jobs. Their wives followed them.

* They were members of an akhada (groups of religious sages), covered in ashes wielding their swords and spears, sporting their long hairs. They led the march, lost in their trance, playing their drums and had travelled from the foothills of the Himalayas to the mainland of India.

* While he had planned it for a while, the lens he carried, the cameras that hung from his neck and the backpack that sported his shoulders bore the mark of a long journey from some part of Europe.

The glow in their eyes warded off the darkness of the night, the warmth of their faith fought the winter chill. They were in Prayag, Allahabad, India, to observe Mahakumbh celebrated once in 12 years as the sun travels to the Aquarius sign. It is considered a very auspicious period in Hindu religion. On March 10, 2013, the Mahashivaratri day marking especially auspicious planetary alignments, close to 700,000 people gathered in Prayag to take a holy dip in the river Ganges. The legend has it that if someone takes a dip in the holy Ganges during this festival they are reborn as kings.

They travelled from far off, slept in tents, cooked their food on makeshift ovens, laughed with people they met at the festival, and sang through the night till the hour struck three when they started walking towards the holy river in the hope of achieving salvation for this life and the next. I was there simply to witness people’s faith, their endurance, their hope and it was an immensely humbling encounter for a keyboard-punching, pub-going, shopping mall-hopping, fast-cashing, armchair activist like me. I slept in the tents, ate delicious Indian vegetarian food meant to be cleansing for your body, heard their stories, walked for miles and at times just stopped and gaped at the outburst of colours as thousands of Indian women in their colourful sarees queued up at the ghats (shores) of the Ganges for their turns to take a dip.

Travelling to me is an opportunity to watch people and cultures, to learn from each culture, to enrich my existence by borrowing from theirs, to feel the rush and marvel at the unknown. Being an Indian, born and brought up in India, it took me over 35 years to finally make a 2000 kilometres trip to Prayag to witness the Mahakumbh festival. And it was, beyond question, one of the most enriching travel experiences that I have had so far.