Friday, December 8, 2017

What's on your mind?

Every social network prompts us: What's happening? What's on your mind? Having hit some mental wall made of thermocol and sawdust, but desperate to blog--to show myself that I am still moving--I am going to answer that question.

Very mundane things are on my mind.

Why has no one designed a sensible way to store saree blouses? I have kept them in drawers. I have kept them on shallow shelves and deep shelves. I have kept them in organizing racks. But before you know it, they are a mess. All that ironing wasted and never to be found when you need. This is on my mind as I rush out to a campaign meeting every morning. Why has no one designed a good way to arrange saree blouses?

I am also thinking about do-nothing vacations because I would really love one, thank you very much. I want to go somewhere--no, not Pondicherry--where I am not required to do anything. I don't want to feel guilty that I am not seeing everything there is to see. I don't want to feel like I am wasting nature by not wanting to vigorously walk. I want to eat, read, sleep, daydream, stare, and rest to the point where I am then ready to do some yoga and strolling around. And no unnecessary chitchat. I don't want to be responsible for anything. I Googled 'do nothing vacation' because those who can, go, and those who can't, Google. I must say that everything listed sounded like hard work--and also full of non-Indians, which means that some desi creature comforts, like tasty vegetarian food, are unlikely to be available. And no, I don't want to go to Pondicherry--because I would take a car from Chennai, and then feel responsible for the welfare of the driver.

Finally, I am thinking of fruit. Because I am so very tired that fruits are the only thing that appeal to my palate right now. And for some reason, I alternate through the day between craving cranberry juice and Indian-style nimbupani (not sweet lemonade).

Gender violence is not on my mind although I do a satisfactory simulation thereof when I am at a campaign event. Therefore, despite setting myself this blogging goal, I seem unable to pull myself together enough to say anything about anything relevant to #nosgbv.

So, in answer to those who want to know, all -3000 of you, this is what is on my mind.

PS: As I write this, my heart wishes it could be at Sharanya Manivannan's poetry reading and book launch but my body and mind will not budge. Also on my mind.

Monday, December 4, 2017

#nosgbv "Self-care"

Words enter the public discourse as if they have always been there. And young people especially, use them as if they have been and are self-evident. After all, they have no idea of what has gone before; in addition to youth, they are also largely bereft of history education.

"Self-care" is one such phrase. It rung true but awkward when I first heard it, from our 2014 Campaign Coordinator. We were talking about service providers and burn-out and a host of other work-related issues. "Mental health" holidays are similar; I knew people in the US who took them. I write this, putting one word after another, feeling desperately in need of both self-care and a mental health holiday. Both are elusive in my world.

I think about the women who attended last week's consultation on women and work, and how many--if any--of them have the luxury of self-care. I see them waking up early and running through the day, meeting one set of obligations after another. We ask about hobbies in the ice-breaker round and many of us mention sleep. No one remarks about this because it does not surprise us that we are all so tired. 

But when we talk about work conditions, exhaustion, burn-out and self-care do not figure. We talk a great deal about toilets, about sexual harassment and about workplace equality. We do not talk about being tired. 

Some of the women in the room are extroverts. At the end of the day, they say they like to spend an hour chatting with neighbours. I recoil at the thought. I wonder, yet again, if things are just easier for extroverts? Are they simply less tired because they are energised by all that human interaction? 

I think about my work and how it seems to never really end. How can I rationalise my workload while meeting all my responsibilities? I have tried zoning by day, by hour. I work hard and I am actually very efficient, too, if you look at how much and how many different things I do in a day. But it's never enough. And self-care feels like work. 

Someone at the consultation talked about self-actualisation. I am very privileged but even I feel like that is a distant goal when I think of my daily task lists. 'Getting through' seems like the most ambitious goal I can set. Between the ten thousand things that need doing--drafting, formatting, listing, chatting, encouraging, web update, this, that and some days, most days, I want to put smiling on that list--there is no time to do the things that would replenish one's energy--painting, reading, music, daydreaming--leave alone to self-actualisation. 

I start to say, when will other structural issues be resolved so we can think about this. And then I realise, if we don't think about this now, we will not be around to enjoy those gains!

#nosgbv Politics, with passion

I heard the term Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRD) for the first time in 2011. I was not convinced of the category--and as with self-nominated awards which are the norm now--I was sceptical: How do we sift the genuine defender from the many pretenders? I did not contest that WHRD faced a special category of challenges in doing their work. That seemed obvious. When you layer patriarchy's obstacle course for women seeking to work in the public sphere with the state's antipathy to challenges, it is clearly going to be very, very hard--especially hard--for women to do human rights work.

The other concern is, what is human rights work? Pretty much everything, really. So again, who is a WHRD? It seems to me I am an ordinary person doing some work on gender, peace and rights until the state decides it doesn't like. So it really is the state's reaction to WHRD that necessitates and creates the category? Perhaps.

Six years later, the analytical concerns remain but they feel insignificant next to the work that WHRD do.

There are the famous ones. The women of Idinthakarai. Teesta Setalvad. Soni Sori. Ruth Manorama. Those names are only the beginning of a list. And then there are the countless others--the uneducated women who can talk labour law and economics as well as anyone in an economics think-tank; the women from communities in the crossfire between state and militants who are able to talk about counter-insurgency and impunity; the journalists who take risks and face rape threats for writing about what is happening in the world. Honestly, the list is very, very long, of women who get up and go out and do what is needed to build a better, a fairer world. All of them are extremely important to the world in which they work and most of them are insignificant in the eyes of the world. Whether we hear about them or not, all of them face any number of challenges doing their work.

The double burden of housework and outside work, that dogs women in any sphere, does not spare them. Women multi-task because they have no choice. They face criticism for neglecting their families, even if they don't, and many women receive zero support from their spouses and children, forget appreciation. They are ridiculed, reviled, threatened and in the case of women defenders, the threat extends to family members--"I will hurt your children. Your spouse." After all the work that they do, day to day, they are rarely the face of their movement. When time comes for the official dialogue, the negotiation or the UN conference, it is the man who gets to go. Women are sent out as the vanguard of protest marches, bearing the first lathi blows, but decisions are made by men.

And yet, women go on for the simple reason that Jody Williams, Nobel Laureate, gave me last month: "I can't un-see."

Against all the odds, they are out their fighting--not for their rights, but ours. They do it with passion, and with humour.

Both of which were conspicuously missing from a student debate last week on whether WHRD deserved special attention. It made me wonder whether making something part of a curriculum simply sucks the life out of it. Does education hammer out every last sign of life in the human spirit?

I have had the privilege of knowing--on pedestals and as peers--many, many women human rights defenders, most of whom may have not cared about the term. They do care from the bottom of their toes to the tops of their heads and back about the world in which we live, and they pour every last particle of spirit into what they do. They cry, they rant, they laugh, they sing, they listen, they connect with others and they love. Being with them is a renewal of one's own spirit.

The debate on Wednesday was lacklustre and ill-informed despite an OCD prep-sheet we had despatched in advance. And most heart-breaking, the speakers seemed to be going through the motions. I ask you, if those who fought for us everyday--through all the storms of life and through all the barriers of patriarchy, class and state--brought this (lack of) spirit to their work, where would we stand?

WHRD certainly deserve a fraction of the passion and love they invest, as a return.

Please support those who are trying to support WHRD, in their work and when they are in trouble, by supporting their evacuation and asylum:


Within India, you might consider donating to:

  • (PUCL does not accept donations, but you can certainly find a way to support their work)

These are some of the people who consistently work to defend human rights defenders. There are many others, and you can Google, do your own 'due diligence' and give. Bear in mind that you are making this decision to support human rights work at a moment that is fraught everywhere in the world. Governments take human rights activism personally and respond with pettiness and force. WHRD (and other human rights defenders) stand their ground in the face of this; won't you? If not now, then when?

The warm-up post and the sabbatical

(This should be sub-titled: What you can write because no one is reading!)

It is far easier to think up a blog project or blogpact than to keep up the writing. Obviously. Writing for one's own blog is like exercising--it only really is for oneself, so how important can it possibly be? If you don't do it, no one cares. A couple of people may care that you don't exercise but that you are not writing--absolutely no one cares.

To me, not writing is like losing sight of a lifeline in a large ocean of infinite responsibility and duty. This is about the only thing I do that is for me. Everything else I do because I am supposed to, because it is an obligation, because it is my responsibility, because it is my duty. If I don't, who will. But with writing, if I don't, who cares? Well, I do. And this is the one thing I really try to keep up in order to remember that I am alive.

But the press of those responsibilities and the growing limitations of my body mean that if I miss a certain window in the day, I simply cannot make the time to write. The demands of the day have consumed me whole.

More frightening is to discover when you do fight your way through the jungle of everyone's needs and sit down to write, only to find you have not a thought in your head. You are so weary that every thought or idea has been sucked out, feels stale... you are not really living but simply putting one foot before the other, minute to minute.

And so yesterday, I dragged my body to an event, praying fervently that my mind would keep up. It managed. But I was struck by how difficult it all felt and started talking about taking a break. It feels do-or-die at this point. But I cannot go away, and unless I do, I cannot detach from all the demands--the one urgent question that becomes a one-hour discussion, the cheques that I must sign--the document that must be read... I am stuck.

But I must find a way to truly detach, especially from the work of the NGO, which is now becoming unbearably overwhelming. My great failure is not to be able to walk away at ten, not because I don't want to but because I have not raised enough money to hire enough full-time staff with a professional leader that can manage everything.

So the challenge this morning is not just to catch up on those SIX blogposts I should have written on schedule, but also to find a way to come unstuck and free myself so I can do the things that will help me reclaim my time and space for work that I love.