Saturday, September 29, 2018

"Gotta grab some coffee!"

In the early years of cable TV in India, I would watch American sitcoms with people looking really busy and running around with coffee mugs. Decades later, on this trip, I watch people refill giant travel cups with coffee, mostly black. The cups sit in their holders in cars or on their desks, and they consume the beverage slowly, stone cold.

Coffee in my head is a beverage I associate with smart, busy people doing important things. Chai is about stopping work all the time. I want to be a coffee person, not a chai person.

My hotel rooms come with coffee-makers. There is a brand of fair-trade, organic coffee that I saw in a hotel last November and that is also supplied in this hotel. Last year, I thought it was good. This year, in two weeks of experimentation, it still doesn't taste right. So I bought some branded coffee "house blend." Still not so great.

So here is the truth. I love the fragrance of coffee brewing. For years. Gloria Jean at the entrance of every mall would draw me in with the fragrance and I would just dump the coffee within five minutes.

I now watch my American friends and colleagues talk about 'coffee' and grab their coffee and walk around with it, and it looks so buzzy and inviting... but I don't necessarily want to drink the stuff.

In the way that we seem to return to our early years, at this moment, I seem to be really a tea person. I am traveling with Dilmah tea-bags and have rediscovered Bigelow's Constant Comment tea. There is a particular thirst that just calls for tea. Coffee simply does not cut... not right now.

But if someone you know makes a coffee room freshener, or if Maroma begins making coffee incense again, do tell me!

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The appeal of Farmers' Markets

True confession: In India, I hate shopping for vegetables. I know, I know, they are fresher, tastier, etc. But I am not enough of a gourmet to necessarily notice most of the time (and I hate any kitchen-related work), and the mess of our markets has always been a turn-off. I am looking at the ground, trying not to step on things, while dodging humans and cows and vehicles. And then to be expected to be interested in the vegetables and in haggling for them is too much. Give me the packed vegies at Nilgiris any day.

Even then, the bags, the purse and the damned dupatta... I always enter home muttering and cursing.

But in North America, where I still care less about the produce than the prettiness, Farmers' Markets are signs of late summer and early fall. Walking over to the Market in the Square in Urbana was a special pleasure. Seeing the prettily laid out stalls, walking around them, smelling the cinnamon and coffee in the cool morning air, are delightful memories.

In Leiden, the high point of the Farmers' Market is the stretch with flowers. And the nutman. Or the various nut-men with their large variety of dry fruit and nuts. The canal is a backdrop as we walk back and forth, and there is something special about choosing and bringing the unbelievably gorgeous flowers home.

Visiting the Okemos Farmers' Market the morning after my arrival was fun for these reasons. I bought fruit and tomatoes, but also cookies. And of course in mid-September, I had to have a taste of pear-apple cider. And yes, I bought flowers!



Everything is so neatly laid out and even at the end of a morning of people coming and going--fair enough, there is a great deal of space to spread out and the crowds are nothing compared to India--it never gets really dirty. How? How? Someone share this secret with us!

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Roads, homes and the journey of life

There! I have given this blogpost a title to which it will never live up.

Detroit airport is far from the dumpy, slow and grey place it was when I last passed through in 2001. Everything is shiny and moves faster than I remember, and it seems as if ours is the only flight that arrived at the time it did, whereas I know that's peak arrival time.

The delay in our arrival means we are on the road at the same time as Friday flexitime commuters. We take a detour--a scenic detour--to escape traffic jams and I have the chance to remember things I had forgotten.

Like this is the time when everything is harvested. Talk stalks of corn lined the roads we drove on from Willard Airport to Philo, and I could see their silhouette as we drove. I had never lived near farmland before and the cycle of seasons in Indian schools is summer, monsoon and cool weather. I had never read the seasons in the land. Till Illinois.

 Larry Kanfer's Prairiescapes had been placed on my bed to entertain me. It showed me how to see these flat lands, so easily dismissed by those with a taste for the dramatic, as beautiful and subtly spectacular.

I had forgotten how green everything is. And that Michigan is hilly. I had forgotten how quiet these towns are, and how orderly.

I hard forgotten how chatty everyone is, and how easy it is for introverts to be chatty when it is not necessary to hold up one's guard against an endless barrage of personal questions. And advice.

I had forgotten that I have not once come back to the place that was home--these prairie states--in a time when everything else was changing. Fifteen years. And then this drive home on country roads.

The song asks "country roads" to take the singer to the place where he belongs. I don't belong here. That is the reason I left--to do the work that I wanted in the place to which I belong and which belongs to me without doubt. But I left behind friendships  and took back with me a heart full of memories of kindness and warmth, and a memory of myself that sometimes gets lost somewhere on the cluttered desk of my responsibilities.

In order to find your way, sometimes you have to go away and sometimes you have to come home. I have gone away and come home. In these large open spaces, live friends with large, open hearts, and I will find myself and my way, once again.

I can smell the greenery everywhere, and I remember that I like that smell.

It's so good to be here... to be home!

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Because the stories we tell define us

The title of this post is taken from the title of Nayomi Munaweera's introductory piece in the third volume of the Write to Reconcile series.


Last month, I stopped by the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka's office and my eyes fell on a stack of brightly coloured books, intriguingly titled 'Write to Reconcile.'

It was the last of three volumes produced by a creative writing project conceptualised and led by Shyam Selvadurai along with Nayomi Munaweera, Ameena Husain, Amrita Pieris and Shiromi Pieris. The project was housed at NPC, which is how the books came to be there. 

Young writers applied to be part of the project, which brought them together to listen to speakers and took them around the island on field visits. They posted story ideas and stories, which were discussed in two online fora. One story by each writer was selected for inclusion in these volumes. The point was for the writers to deepen their understanding of the war experience, especially from perspectives outside of their own. Three batches of writers were convened, each making up one of the volumes.

Stories in the first volume focus on the war experience. They are set in Colombo and Jaffna, for the most part. In the second volume, the stories are largely set in the Eastern Province, where the population has been ethnically mixed for a long time. The last volume allows us to see the present post-war moment from the outside-in. A professional editor or literature professor might find the writing quality uneven, but it is hard not to be moved by the stories, and the intensity of feeling that most of them capture. 

It took me six weeks to steal the time between this pressing task and that urgent demand to finish reading the three volumes of 20-25 stories each. While it is hard for me now to look back and pick favourites from which to quote, I will never forget the voices and images with which they have left me. 

A family fleeing their home as the war crept in on them, leaving behind a patriarch who would not budge. An encounter with a soldier at a well in a desolate village. The towering statue of Shiva over a beach where two friends played, who were to be separated because of inter-ethnic quarrels around the temple. Sisters weeping for brothers. Sisters volunteering to fight to spare brothers. Brothers living in the shadow of war heroes. Lost homes, surviving only in memory. Memories so unreal they become fiction. People across the island, across ethnicities, search for and wait for their loved ones to return. Most moving, these images are created by people who have not lived the experiences for the most part. Such empathy, so creatively expressed! 

Let me dip in at random and share some words from here and there:

Nayomi Munaweera, writing about her family home: "The year the war ended, the Tamil Family who had occupied our house for about three decades left it and the house was ours again. In a casual conversation with a cousin I discovered that the Tamil family was from Jaffna. They had been forced out from their own ancestral lands and houses by war. They had taken our house because their own had been taken by the Tigers. Their misfortune had become ours." (Volume 1, page 11)

Shan Dissanayake describes a father sheltering in one trench with his daughter, wondering where his wife is and whether she has survived the bombing: "Siva's thoughts turned to his wife and now he couldn't refrain from softly sobbing. Was she one of those bodies in that other trench? The thought was unbearable... He felt his daughter move in his arms. They had to get away before it was their trench's turn." (Volume 1, page 52)

Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya: "The days grew more silent. Not the silence during the war when lights were switched off early and people spoke cautiously to each other, not knowing whom to trust. This new silence was of the kind where one small movement could shatter the peace." (Volume 1, page 91)

In Nifraz Rifaz's story in the first volume, a young Muslim man who polishes jewelry for a living, is picked up by three men in a van, because he writes a letter for his English class assignment. The letter is addressed to Prabhakaran. For this, he is brutalised, even before they read the whole letter, which ends: "Mr. Prabhakaran, is this war that we are fighting really worthwhile? One day when we die it's just the grave that will shelter us. And it's just a very small space. Isn't it?" (page 117)

In Vindhya Buthpitiya's story, a father and daughter bring home the ashes of her mother, into a Jaffna that her sister died to liberate. "Homeland rings hollow in my ears, like the carcass of this house. An overwhelming sadness washes over the anger I cultivated in these years of exile and I allow myself to cry. I think of Juderaj's spirited sermons abruptly rendered meaningless in the face of everything we have surrendered and everyone we have sacrificed." (Volume 1, page 199)

There are poems in these volumes too. Kandiah Shrikarunaakaran describes life during the fighting years and the long processions of the displaced leaving their homes. 
"Electricity cut off,
life now aligned with the sun's cycle,
we turned pre-historic.
Kuppi lamp with scant kerosene
resisted the night feebly,
every spit of light weak
against the howling wind.
These lamps flickered and dangled
marking our scramble backwards in history." (Volume 2, page 57)
"Lorries, buses, carts, disoriented crowds,
jammed, unmoving, rooted,
no one sure where to go,
which way to travel to safety.
Salty water brimming the road on either side,
failed to quench our thirst.
Impatient, sleepless, sunburnt,
our tears of anguish turned
the salty water saltier." (Volume 2, page 59)
Deborah Xavier writes about two people haunted by one incident in 1983: A bus load of people heads out in search of shelter amid the riots. They include a pregnant woman and a woman with a baby. The bus is stopped, and attacked by armed thugs. One of them throws the baby to the ground and kills the mother. (Volume 2, pages 159-167)

There are stories of hope too. In Easwarajanani Karunailingam's story, a Sinhalese ex-soldier moves to Kilinochchi in order to help rebuild the town, and ends up adopting an orphaned Tamil child. The story describes the distress of the resettlement process. (Volume 2, pages 198-207)

The war hero in Ruhini Katugaha's story tells his little brother, a doctor, "Ethnicity is what we choose to put on ... not something we get from our father's surname. The war is never going to be over little brother, if we think like that. When we are done with this war, we'll find something else to fight over and then something else." (Volume 2, page 262)

Krishanth Manokaran describes the homecoming of a grandfather and granddaughter. There is joy and love but also the memory of unnecessary death. "Krishnan had taken his motorbike to drive Sugi to the market and gunfire had broken out on the A9. Who fired first they didn't know. The army blamed the boys. The boys blamed the army. What solace did that give to a father?" (Volume 3, page 27)

In Adilah Ismail's story, a court clerk's memories of her own rape at the hands of a soldier are triggered by the hearing of a gang rape case. We also meet the judge, stepping out for a cigarette break and reflecting on what it would mean to find the accused guilty--would his evening walks "contain a frisson of fear and a wariness of strangers"? (Volume 3, page 105)

Volume 3 includes a story that imagines life in a free Eelam, with trade blockades from Sri Lanka causing acute food shortages. People run blackmarket stores and as the one he is visiting is raided, the protagonist hides: "Calming his breathing his mind did a strange thing to him then' he was once again back on that beach in Mullivaikal. He could hear the screams of injured thousands ringing in his ears. He remembered how the salt of the Nandikadal lagoon bit into the raw wounds across his legs and arms. He did not feel regret then or now, only a bone-deep weariness that this life of his had been lived with so much struggle." (A.A., page 167)

The quotations I have selected are merely an indicator of the riches in these three volumes. The books have been printed as part of the project but they are not widely distributed, I think, and that is a pity. I would hope that a publisher would at least publish a selection that could be available in stores, not just in Sri Lanka but across the region. 

Understanding the human impact of conflict is not just important in places where there has been conflict but also in places where are readier every day to escalate the level of violence in ordinary interactions. We are touchy and we are quick to anger. We do not learn history so in any case, we know none to remember. We raise statues for those who teach compassion but show no mercy for the infractions and imperfections of others, even when they are imagined. These heartbreaking stories must be widely shared so that we all learn how fragile our lives are, how precious our dreams (and this world) and how vital to our survival are values like cooperation, reconciliation and forgiveness. 

You can access the anthologies here:


I want to close with a poem I loved, although it is really not about the war. I think it would resonate with anyone who has used boxes of paints or crayons with European names--prussian blue, for instance. How am I supposed to know what that means? (From Volume 3, pages 94-95)
Crayola Eyeseby Sukhee Ramawickrama
From childhood,
my Crayola-trained American eyes
Cherry Red
Royal Purple
Robin's-Egg Blue
Peachy Pink.
But here there is
Train Ticket Lavender,
Thambili Orange,
Milk-Tea Brown
which is creamier than
Spicy Pahe Brown.
Paddy Field Green is a favorite,
as is Floor Polish Red.
Poya Day White
 a shade crisper than
Jasmine White.
Indian Ocean Turquoise
endless, shimmering.
But nothing is brighter
than Little-Boy-School-Shorts Blue.
How can I begin to understand,
How can I allow myself to write,
When I am just starting
to truly see colour? 

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Politics and fiction

The title for this post should probably be "Why I love fiction set in a political context."

I just put down Seema Goswami's 'Race Course Road.' I wanted to read it when she first posted about it, finally bought it last month, and picked it up during a sleepless spell the night before last, only to read it compulsively and finish it last night.

I read it playing the usual game one does with such novels, especially those set in India, asking, 'Now who is this supposed to be?' and 'Who is this character based on?' It is easy enough to guess but you realise that the answers do not make a difference to the simple but absorbing story, which is truly fiction. All the characters come alive, seem realistic, and you really want to know what is going to happen to all of them. It was just a really good storybook and I recommend it for weekend reading, holiday reading and definitely, reading on a really long flight. I mean, you can read it whenever you want, but best to read it when you can indulge without interruption--I found it hard to put down.

Seema Goswami's long years as a reporter show in all kinds of detailed references to the politics of the last twenty years, enriching the book.

I loved that the book tells a story, you can see Goswami's view on various issues (especially if you read her columns), but there is no hidden message. It is a clever book but it does not sit on a pedestal, pretending to dispense wisdom to lesser mortals--a problem I have with a great deal of contemporary Indian writing. People try too hard to impress and overload their stories with everything they know, layers of messages and too much else besides. In this book, the author brings a great deal of knowledge to her storytelling but the book is not about how brilliant she is--it is a book about the people whose story she is telling us. That has become a rare quality in this pretentious world we inhabit.

The only quibble I have with the book is the extremely tiny and light print--not the author's fault. But if you read it on a Kindle, and if the publishers produce an easy-to-read edition, I would say this is one of the most fun books I have read in the last year.


As I read 'Race Course Road,' I realised that I am very easily drawn into fiction--in any medium--that is set in a political context. I have binge watched 'Madam Secretary' earlier this year. I have 'Yes Minister' and 'Yes PM' bookmarked. I loved the political parts of the Jeffrey Archer's Clifton Chronicles (which I really enjoyed on the whole!). This context is what I really enjoy about Nayantara Sahgal's writing.

I want to acknowledge that a lot of other novels also merit the label 'political'. So maybe in the Indian context, what I mean is really a 'Lutyens' novel, to borrow a term from Goswami? Something that fictionalises Parliament, parties, elections and so on.

In real life, I am bored by television news discussions about politics, and despite wearing the political scientist tag on my bio, I tune out of everyday whosaidwhattowhom politics--the kind people seem to be enthralled by and for the first time in my life, I couldn't identify most political worthies in a line-up, even with a list of names in hand, without wild guesses. The politics of parties and netas really bores me. There, I said it.

Happily, fiction of any sort uses filters. Boring things get ignored and better still, in the best work, as much is left unsaid as is recorded. Unfortunately, this is not true in the real world. Politicians and even more, political experts, appear to be the most verbose creatures on earth. Where novels and television series cut to the chase, in seminars and interviews, people are hard to stop.

Truth, the saying goes, is stranger than fiction. The real world of politics has long crossed from 'strange' into bizarre, grotesque and evil. So in work like 'Race Course Road' and 'When the Moon Shines by Day' (Nayantara Sahgal), even the worst things people do, still seem not as bad as reality.

In the real world, there are unmanageable consequences for incompetence and evil, which are contained in fiction. You know, that as horrendous as someone's actions or acts of omission are, their consequences will be limited to the page and their comeuppance is imminent before the end of the novel. I don't need to feel anxious about that world. On American television fiction, there is a consistent triumph of idealism that is quite comforting. Take the President in 'The West Wing': there were moments in which one really wanted to vote for him. Moments, but they were there.

Fiction offers idealists like me a larger selection of good people. I know, I know, that's a horribly cynical thing for me to write, unworthy of a Piscean. But it's true. Who on a television newscast makes you feel as hopeful as a fictional character, even for five minutes?

Reading 'Race Course Road' made me want to read another novel like this immediately. I hope the author is working on one!

Monday, June 18, 2018

Ode to my laptop

Ode to my laptop (away for repairs)

On most days
you sit there alone
soaking in the hot glare of the western sun,
the yellow on the walls
magnifying its intense warmth.

I have forgotten to draw the curtains.
I have forgotten to cover you
--with the yellow napkin that is your comforter.
I appear to have forgotten you.

I am stuck at my other desk,
trapped in correspondence mode without end
and in an endless waiting for this and that.
I sit there,
anticipating the next disturbance,
faced with long task lists,
stuck till someone else responds,
yet pottering to fill the time between now
and when I can finish them.

I do forget about you.
I forget to break away and read the articles I store in your memory.
I forget to sit with you and watch words flow from my fingers
on to your screen.
And when I remember, I chafe that I am stuck.
I cannot always return to you
the minute I remember.

Sometimes I am mid-task;
sometimes I am a prisoner of the schedule I made.

I forget about you
and that is to forget about me.
That I am more than a generator of email messages
and tweets, and drafts crafted to make people work.
That I want to work with words and images
and not just to arrange events or market programmes
but just because it gives me pleasure.

I forget you and it is as if I have forgotten pleasure.
Photoshopping flower-photos into cards.
Watching slide-shows of holidays past.
Writing blogposts no one will read.
And reading to learn and reflect and write,
in order to remember that once
I learnt to learn, and once I used to teach.

You belong mostly to my other life.
And when I forget you,
I forget that I owe it to myself
to keep that part of me alive.

But now you have been out for repair
a whole week
and I think,
if you were there, I would have written this,
I would have finished reading that,
and my morning labours with you
would have given meaning to my day.

With you, waiting on that desk,
I have the option of other lives.

As ever, when you are gone,
I promise I will never forget or neglect you again.
Never mind whether I will keep that promise.
Just come back today.

June 18, 2018

Summer holiday Sundays

After many years of working long weekdays and all weekend, a bad spell of insomnia and fatigue last year forced me to change my ways. With great difficulty, I began to resist working on weekends. I go to bed earlier and sleep as normally as I can, approximating 6-8 hours on a good night. And not working now means stepping away from all devices, or rather, from work applications on all devices, including social networks.

The first few weekends were hard, not because I longed to go to work--it had been years since I felt motivated to keep working--but because the guilt was overwhelming. How could I possibly be idling? What do I do with the day if I am not working? I had forgotten that I used to have hobbies.

For all those contemplating this transition, I want to tell you that it gets easier. I now start shutting down work on Saturday morning; which means I do what needs to be done and don't initiate anything new. I do some of this resentfully--no one else around me is working even when I do, so why should I? I am not recovered enough from burnout or fatigue for time-off not to be tinged with negativity. But it is just getting easier to let go. To shore up the barrier and say, no, I will not respond to this in a hurry now. I tell myself when an email calls for an instant reply: I will hurry but they will not read it till Monday anyway, so why bother? I see a frantic message from someone who makes me wait all the time, and go, ha ha, now it's your turn, I will do this on Wednesday. And so Saturday afternoons are once more becoming a time of temptations: shopping, coffee with my cousins, colouring books, chatting with my sister.

And Sunday. What can I tell you about my summer holiday Sundays? I set aside the mobile phone I use for work calls. I charge the other one where I watch Amazon Prime and the iPad where I have Netflix. I have a pile of books by my side. I have a notebook and some pens. But I make no plans and have no expectation that I will do this or that.

I am slowly learning, "just for today" as the meditations go, to ignore the obstacle course I have set up everyday--I have to be up by this time, get so much done by that, heat breakfast by this, eat breakfast by that... it's a high-pressure race that the clock wins every time. I experience time like a series of concentric walls that close in around me. At this point, this leaves my body and spirit wrecked everyday. The clock is fastest, I am running hard and quite fast behind it but most people around me appear to be moving like snails slowing me down as I reach out for things they are supposed to be passing me. My war with the clock exacerbates my war with the world around me.

But not on Sunday. On Sunday, I retreat to the pace of a 16 RPM record. I have learnt to slow down quite a bit. I spend a lot of the day flat and virtually all of the day alone.

Let's talk about the 'alone' part. For six days a week, I am forced to interact with people and perform a variety of roles: founder of NGO, political scientist, fake expert on this and that, cheerer of the miserable, encourager of the fearful, dutiful relative, and so on. On Sunday, I am practising the only one that can get me through this lifetime: me.

On Sunday, I spend most of the day by myself, interacting quietly with those in the house and nothing more. I hope to god no one wants to meet for anything that day. I drag myself to visits. I even postpone urgent grocery shopping so I will not have to interact with people on the way and at that end. Sunday is reserved for indulging my introversion. Just one day in the week. I don't want to talk to anyone. Go away. Let me pretend I live in complete isolation. Don't remind me of how much my life irritates me every other day.

That solitude is enough to endow Sunday with a magical quality.

I am remembering all the things I like to do apart from work, and now, one day is not enough for them. I think I can once more list 'hobbies': reading, music, watching fun stuff here and there (of course, nothing highly recommended), drawing and colouring. I have an incomplete craft project sitting in a bag. And dozing. I do a lot of dozing. I yearn to blog and work with my photos but that would mean coming to a computer so I resist and promise to steal more weekday time from work over the months ahead. I want to return to letter-writing by hand and use all that beautiful paper I keep buying.

And I want to tell you, there is a category of work reading I do on Sunday that my week life gives me no time for. I remember that precious part of myself.

Yesterday, it occurred to me that I have reconstructed my school summer holidays in my Sunday non-routine. Sunday is beginning to feel lazy and quiet. I look forward to it. My books invite me and I curl up with them. I spread everything out and do what I feel like.

When I taught in the US, Christmas week was like this. When the Fall term ended, I would pull out paints and paper and spread out and never put anything away. I would listen to audio-books and have the television on, and just draw and paint for about a week. In blissful solitude as everyone else partied. That too is a part of my Sundays now.

The bad thing about Sundays is that they culminate in Monday. Unlike some of my friends, I do not look forward to Mondays. Monday mornings, such as this one, bring the dread of a time-bound obstacle course. I have only till about 9 to myself. After that, my time, energy and attention are fair game. Anyone is likely to show up and ask for anything. I will not get my life back till Saturday.

This is where the summer holiday resemblance stops. One finished the summer in anticipation of the new school year: Who will be in my class? Who will be my class teacher? Who will sit next to me? And of course, in Bombay, it was time to by the next size of raincoat and gumboots (or rain shoes) and if your parents felt indulgent, a new pencil box or water-bottle... Monday brings no such temptations but a return to anxiety and more work than this healthy new life-style will allow me to finish. I close my eyes and sigh and think, if this is how I feel, I need a change of life. And I put that on the work-list to deepen my dread of Monday.

But never mind, if I can close my eyes and get through this day, I can go to bed early and dream of another life. And inshallah, time flies, so Saturday afternoon will come around soon enough. And another summer holiday Sunday.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

How to write an election manifesto voters care about

(This was written a couple of weeks ago, as the Karnataka manifestos were being written. Given that we are nowadays always preparing for an election, I think it is still relevant so I am posting it here.)
Since 2014 it seems we are hurtling from one election campaign, and the surge in the production of election manifestos has created proportionate debris of broken promises in our political landscape. Brutal news of sexual violence, distress suicides and disasters punctuate the calendar but we remain preoccupied with elections. While political parties make a hundred clich├ęd promises, what are people worrying about? What do they want? I have compiled a list which I trust will be useful.
Violence is on everyone’s mind, given recent headlines. But people are not just thinking about sexual assault and child rape, they are also expressing concern over domestic violence, sexual harassment in public spaces including stalking and workplace sexual violence. Even marital rape, which the government considers integral to Indian culture, is discussed. There is concern about how deeply ingrained habits of violence have become and also concern about whether the police and judiciary are performing their duties adequately. Not just feminists, but everyone understands that the government of the day has an important hand in creating impunity for gender-based violence. The political class responds with protectionism (how to keep ‘our’ women safe, and politicians make statements that only explain why we have a problem); the promise of more money on schemes that have not been thought through (look at the Nirbhaya Fund) or the threat of severe punishment, regardless of the long-standing argument that it is not severity but certainty that is a deterrent. Appearing to act is what seems to matter.
Violence expresses discrimination and that voters are able to make the link is evident from the parodies of the ‘Beti Bachao’ scheme that have appeared after the Kathua and Unnao cases. Discrimination is pervasive, sidelining or excluding people on the basis of caste, community and gender, among other criteria.
Indian voters have always been able to tell when you court a community for their votes, though they might play along. The more important questions today have to do with the endless list of everyday challenges they face: water, power, pollution (Bengaluru lakes are a horrifying visual illustration), and also the consequences of a shoddy education, that leaves people with great hope but little useful competence. Manifestos promise numbers (so many schools or technical training centres) but people understand that it is the quality of what is delivered that will help them get ahead.
Livelihoods are a critical concern for Indians, unrelated to official job figures. The government’s development vision has threatened traditional livelihoods for countless Indians. Compulsory land acquisition for industrial plants; resource extraction such as mining projects; or pollutants or industrial refuse destroying marine life have made survival a challenge for those who have hitherto been able to sustain themselves and their families. In some places, where women played vital roles in their sector (the processing of fish or cash crops, or marketing), new livelihood projects do not take this into account and end up side-lining them.
The alienation of land is a survival and identity issue. For communities that live by the land, the land represents wealth and security that are always greater than the rupee-value compensation on offer. Decisions to acquire land must be taken in consultation and concert with those settled in an area, negotiating not just price but the project itself. Research tells us that those who are displaced once, even with a monetary settlement, end up being displaced over and over again, and they slip further into poverty with each displacement. With displacement, come a host of other challenges, including trafficking and sexual exploitation. As we settle into an era of permanent election campaigning, the people of India need to see that you are aware of this. Development cannot be the source of poverty and misery; if it is, it is obviously not development at all.
There is also disquiet among those who are working in the new India’s new factories—the old-style ones that produce goods and the new-style ones that produce services. We are making deals with investors that trade off not just people’s land and traditional livelihood but also workers’ rights. The right to unionise, negotiate better work conditions and bargain for better wages is violated in most of the new industrial and export zones. While some of the new companies have offered young Indians a quick professional start and good wages, these come with challenges: infrastructure follows the companies so sometimes access roads are unlit and unsafe; odd hours do not come with safe commutes; the many security restrictions and work regulations create a stifling atmosphere for those at the bottom of the pyramid; and unionisation—or any political activity—is not encouraged. In the meanwhile, the old companies are still lagging behind in the old ways—wage discrimination, inadequate wages, work conditions including infrastructure like toilets and safety, for instance.
Climate change and unsustainable practices are creating a new generation of challenges. So far, we have heard very few politicians take cognizance of these. Water shortages are immediate. We proactively ruin the environment and public health in the name of development. Drought has led to greater farm debt and farmer suicide, but the clamour is for a larger share of existing resources. We do not see election manifestos or speeches that reflect on a review of how we use or reuse water. Climate change is real—and with rising temperatures and uncertain monsoons we are living with it—but few politicians speak about the search for alternative energies or finding more sustainable practices. Those who do are seen as fringe voices or spoilers of the bonanza we are told is on its way.
Furthermore, we hear very little in election manifestos on creating resilience. This is an area in which the social sector has done pioneering work that government can help scale across the country. We still hear politicians speak about disasters as punishment, even at a time when we recognise that vulnerability causes disasters, and not nature itself. What will your government do to reduce vulnerability—better development choices, for one—and create resilience—access to information technologies, for instance? We want to hear election manifestos reflect this changed thinking in the practitioner community. In fact, we want those who draft the manifestos to take this opportunity to reach out to civil society and learn.
The ideological journeys of our economic and social policies are excluding more people everyday and shrinking our democratic space. In search of a theoretical maximum good, we lose sight both of the immediate harm done to communities and resources, as well as the fact that development is supposed to take place within an environment where human rights and democratic principles are adhered to. In this endless election season, we would like to hear a reaffirmation of this idea. We want to hear politicians tell us how committed they are to participatory planning and to co-written development visions that also promote our rights and participation. Nobody wants a divisive politics, because nobody’s life is improved by it. We want politicians to step into the breach of our disagreements and facilitate reconciliations. We want them to be strong and idealistic enough to view our differences as aberrations and take the risk of resolving conflict rather than benefiting from it in the short and intermediate term.   
Enough already, of the formulaic election manifesto which starts with a vacuous and inexact vision statement and ends with a laundry list (so many scholarships, so many bicycles, so many new women constables)! We want you to use these once-irrelevant documents to tell us how you see the world, identify its most pressing problems of the day and how you are going to fix them. Take strong and clear positions on the issues that matter to us, and let us decide which of them matter most to us when we vote. We, the voters of India, are smart enough to understand bet-hedging and just-in-case thinking. Tell us the truth, and we may even reward you for it.
What we would like to see in an election manifesto
A glimpse into your worldview and values
·       Express zero tolerance for misogyny. Do not continue to reward those who speak in terms that put down women and minorities; if they have no respect for people, they cannot serve. Rape culture begins with misogynistic speech and behaviour; we want to see you nip it in the bud;
·       Do not dismiss gender and sexual violence charges as minor offences. There should be a political price to pay, both rape accused and to those who go out on rallies in their support;
·       Reject interpersonal violence as a political language. Violence, including sexual violence, that targets members of one community with a view to intimidating or eliminating them is genocidal behaviour on a pilot scale. Tell us where you stand;
·       Take a clear position on caste discrimination. Dalit politics is not just about the solidification of a vote-bank but the continuing reality of our everyday attitudes towards other citizens.  
·       Take a strong position against caste atrocities and communal violence;
·       Acknowledge the reality of climate change and its consequences for our survival.
Your approach to development
·       Do you commit to consultative, consensual, participatory and transparent decision-making, especially on land and resource issues?
·       Do you see a relationship between human rights and development and how does this affect the choices you will make?
·       How will you improve the life-chances of the very marginal? Tell us what you will do that will substantively alter the quality of their education and remove the ceiling to their aspirations.
·       What are your plans for reducing the vulnerability of communities to climate change and other disasters and how are you going to help communities achieve resilience?  
·       Let us see what you have thought about sustainable technologies in which you will invest, how you will improve agricultural and industrial practices and how you will approach conservation.
Your election manifesto is a medium to communicate with us on matters we care about; use it meaningfully. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Living with Parkinson's Disease: An Agenda for Action


This was written by his caregiver in 2004 for the National Conference on Parkinson’s Disease, Challenges and Hopes, held in Bangalore, on September 30, 2004.
It was read out at Siddharth’s funeral on 27-01-2018. He died on 25-01-2018.


“I start with an explanation: I have chosen a verse style of speaking only because it allows me to pack more content into fewer words. The rhyming is not meant to be frivolous. Though my tone might sound like I am slowly chugging along, I will finish within my allotted ten minutes. I hope that in giving my personal experience, I connect with the general opinion on " Human and Social Consequences of Parkinson's Disease " which is my high-sounding topic.”

I begin now to relate a tale
of life centred round Parkinson's disease.
I will speak from the angle of the family,
words to put you at considerable ease.
I will give a first-hand account
as a care-giver or care-taker.
I will try to give courage to the patient
and appeal to the policy-maker.

My husband was diagnosed with Parkinson's
with a stiff shoulder at forty-two.
Though it was a far-fetched word to us,
it didn't hit us like a bolt from the blue.
With Dr S, we took it with courage
as something that comes free with life,
no point in cursing our bad luck
and heaping up woes and strife.

The first ten years were really not bad;
just some tablets, the expenses were nominal.
A six-monthly visit to the doctor,
the check-ups were nothing phenomenal.
There was a slow yet steady decline,
but we kept our enthusiasm burning.
Soon the children could not have their father
spend time on their games or their learning.

The next six years were with higher doses,
the dyskinesia and the freezing got terrible.
We got used to the fitful sleeping
but the nightmares were quite horrible.
Except for close family gatherings
he couldn't mix much with others.
He found himself isolated in a group;
going to concerts and movies became bothers.

Dressing up took two hours,
talking was a whisper at best.
He fell on the road several times when with help
from the kindest strangers we were blessed.
With having to live life between offs and ons
and with reduced body control,
he regressed in his daily activity,
being forced to take a secondary role.

The immediate family learnt to become slow
stepped off the rat race, didn't get worried.
We decided to let him set the pace,
he got more unable if he was hurried.
His jobs became more difficult to do,
he was tending to curl into a shell,
but he didn't give in to his helplessness,
his brave attitude served him well.

It's important to be able to call for help
but cell-phone buttons are too close-spaced to handle.
We've made patent-worthy innovations—
like an elastic strap fixed to his sandal;
a cow-bell hanging from the bed-post;
a cycle-horn on the toilet rack
for when his six foot one-inch frame bent double
and he could not straighten his back.

A sharp mind, engineering at IIT
and management at MIT's Sloan,
caught up in an unresponsive body
that his brain could not govern on its own.
While his classmates were heading big companies,
he needed a crutch, a box of pills—
twenty-one tablets, eleven times a day
and mounting pharmacy bills.

His assets, three things that he did best
were thinking and speaking and writing.
Mercifully his thinking was left intact,
but his speech was poor, so was typing.
You can imagine the frustration when
you have an idea you want to spread.
But you only mumble and no one waits to hear
and your scrawl, it just can’t be read.

For his mother to see her older son thus,
her darling from the day he was born,
was a struggle, she couldn't stand the pain,
she cried, her heart was torn.
Our eighty-year-old aunt was so concerned,
to let him carry his suitcase she refused.
Most people don't know how to relate to him,
the complexity of Parkinson's leaves them confused.

I, as his spouse, had no choice
between work and home I had to run.
Tests and visits to the doctors
and errands that had to be done.
Physical and right-brain exercises were prescribed
and learnt, but the flesh was unwilling.
When the spirit was weak, how could I nag him
to do as the speech-therapist was bidding?

To minimize compromising our children's needs,
we made a smooth and copable family pact.
Our two sons and we shared responsibilities
and we did our chores matter of fact.
I became handyman and driver
paid bills, bought railway tickets.
He managed to concentrate on his job,
leisure was computer games and TV cricket.

He had his dear brother for moral support
and his surgery expenses to meet.
His sons and his help gave him confidence
the risks of the new procedure to beat.
The DBS gave him excellent relief.
Doctors U, A and D did the trick
And now at fifty-eight he's looking like new
A new life ahead, new options to pick.

Only now when he's abroad on holiday
and responsibilities I have not,
I realize my involvement as a carer,
in the Parkinson's cage I've got caught.
Every day after work, there was no question,
to be of help I had to head home.
This past month I've found a new freedom
I go visiting, I lie back, I roam.

From the association it would be nice to provide:
a list of trained attendants in case of need;
and for care-givers to update themselves,
Parkinson's literature to read;
Knowledgeable mentors who could be available
at a help-line during the day,
with a view to provide companionship
or clear doubts that come their way.

Government involvement through building rules
and road crossing and traffic laws:
Ban uneven surfaces and transformers
and objects that jut out like claws;
While they struggle to be good citizens,
give tax relief and disability deduction.
Firms, sponsor the surgery, cut the implant device cost
help them contribute to economic production.

Spreading awareness to the public
so that when they are out somebody knows
that they can only move if there's open space,
best to ignore them, stay away from their toes.
Encourage more hospitals to have staff,
trained specially in movement disorders,
so that patients don't have to shuffle far and wide
to seek expert medical orders.

Let doctors not have to trial and err
to tailor the most suited dose.
Let pharmaceutical research make it a priority
let better drugs, without offs be close.
Let our efforts be directed in a concerted way
in the context of our local needs.
If we can boast of satellites and defence
why lag in these urgent deeds?

From others' experiences I have collected,
the main culprit is ignorance and fear—
fear of how to be a bread-winner;
fear of inadequacy to near and dear;
fear that the disease eats you up from within;
fear the next step you take you might fall.
These fears have to be individually confronted
and addressed by us one and all.

The thing that helps us in our hard times
is that we don't ferment our fears;
a "we are doing our best " attitude of confidence
no over-protection, no tears.
As Dr. V advised be positive,
to the negative we must be immune.
Maybe he hears a distant drummer;
let him dance to a different tune.

Parkinson's shows strange opposites,
sometimes excessive, sometimes zero movement.
No need to feel embarrassed, it's all part of life,
there has been much improvement.
Bless the doctors, the nurses, NIMHANS,
the people, both stranger and friend,
Who stand by us as the disease degenerates
to an unknown and therefore, fearsome end.

But take heart, dear Parkinson's patients,
let's accept it in a natural way.
Each of us has to get something
either yesterday, tomorrow or today.
If you take these things in your stride,
even though a stride is difficult for you                        ,
we are there to share and lighten your load,
we will not abandon you.

And all of you at this conference,
who were kind to listen to my brief,
let's give courage to the Parkinson's patient
and do away with all laments of grief.
Let's shower them with respect and affection
and understanding, and allay their fear,
since we've already got the better of Parkinson's
and soon we hope to hear of a cure.


A care-giver.


This account was written by someone who took care of a person with Parkinson's disease. The family lived with the disease from its onset, as it claimed their loved one, stage by stage. Through the years, they showed love, patience, courage, resourcefulness and creativity. There has been immense grace in how they have coped, and our admiration from afar has turned to awe as we have read this account that put words to what we witnessed without understanding. 

When I first listened to this account at his funeral, even through the fog of intense grief, beyond the parts that broke my heart to hear, its very practical suggestions held out to me that 'something we can do' which we had not known how to seek before. I want to highlight those parts here.


What could professional associations do to support Parkinson's patients and caregivers? 
  • They can provide a list of trained attendants in case of need;
  • They can prepare and share updates on the disease, care and treatments available so caregivers can update their knowledge;
  • They can identify mentors who would be available at a daytime helpline. They might serve as counsellors or just support caregivers through listening.
What could hospitals do?
  • Hire more staff trained to care for patients with movement disorders;.
  • Minimise the running around for Parkinson's and other patients in search of the right doctors and treatment options. 
What could pharmaceutical companies do?
  • Create medicines with calibrated dosage so that doctors do not have to experiment with their prescriptions, causing patients distress.
What should the government do? 
  • Drafting and implementing disability-friendly building rules, road crossing and traffic laws;
  • Taking care of uneven surfaces, and ill-positioned transformers, loose wires and "objects that jut out like claws;
  • Offering tax reliefs and deductions to persons with disability (including Parkinson's patients who might need aids like wheelchairs). 
What can corporates do, whether as part of their CSR or HR policies?
  • Sponsor surgery (like Deep Brain Stimulation or DBS) for Parkinson's patients that improves the quality of their life;
  • Cut or subsidise the implant device cost;
  • Find ways to help patients find employment or to work productively. This may mean more disability-friendly spaces, or flexi-routines, or setting aside tasks that are easy for them to perform;
  • Innovate disability-friendly designs for everyday products, like cell-phones with large keys (mentioned in the above account).
There is also a case to be made for letting caregivers lead or at least collaborate on the design and production of support equipment. In this account, several home-made innovations are mentioned. Every caregiver has probably created makeshift solutions that could be rationalised and replicated affordably, or even shared through support networks. This is also a project for a large-hearted corporate in the health-care sector. Going beyond doctors to brainstorm for R&D would reveal all sorts of creative solutions. 

What about the rest of us (who just look on helplessly)? 
  • Awareness can just mean, stepping out of their way, giving them room to move, ignoring them (so they are not pressured or rushed, or self-conscious).
  • The kindness of strangers makes a lot of difference--whether helping when they fall or moving things out of their way. 
The writer underscores how people feel when Parkinson's disease enters their lives. For the patient, it is 'a sharp mind... caught up in an unresponsive body.' For them and their families, ignorance and fear govern their reactions. Support--from doctors, from other caregivers and from society--to reassure and stand with patients and their families is very important. So is acceptance: "Maybe he hears a distant drummer; let him dance to a different tune."

As she writes: 

"Let our efforts be directed in a concerted way
in the context of our local needs.
If we can boast of satellites and defence
why lag in these urgent deeds?"

It is so easy for us to look away, to give up and to pretend that there is nothing we can do. And yet, there is so much we can push for. I am sharing this on my blog as a way for more people to learn, by accessing this window into an experience most of us do not think about until it becomes our own. 

Another such window to help understand is this film about my aunt, Leela, who had the same disease.

Please help me get this out by sharing. Also, if you have experiences or solutions to share, do leave me a link or an account in the comment box. 

Thank you for your attention and help!