Sunday, July 1, 2018

The Signs

Who was telling the story? And whose story was it anyway? The words fluttered and flew in the wind. They entreated as they fought the heavy air in the tremulous room, the words. They cried out to be heard, acknowledged and acted upon. But the listening silence was cautious, wary of committing and implicating the speaker in any manner. It was the calculative smarts of an ambivalent, modern professional. The school after all, ran on donations, its policies and decisions dictated by a cautious environment. There was a ball park figure to chase and livelihoods on the line. It was a standard operating procedure for everyone to watch and wait until pushed by a crisis. The question was, “Did anyone possess the empathy or the vocabulary to know the signs of one?” 

The counselor shifted in his chair, drawing back from the teenager
shrinking across his table. Garima Tandon had given up on her gritty brown eyes. The tears slid at speed down defeated cheeks. She sat perched on the edge of her seat, the right toe reaching for the door, ready to bolt. Hers was an earnest young spirit, flickering bravely through the heap of shame and humiliation dumped on her by bullying friends and class mates. “How do you feel at this time?” Her lips quivered at the careful voice of objective professionalism. She dragged her spiky eye lashes and darted an injured gaze at the falling drops outside the office window. Her slender frame snuggled deeper into the chair. “You were saying you feel empty and numb. Have you spoken with your mother?” the counselor prompted. “No. I just don’t see the point anymore. I don’t feel anything at all. I want it to stop.” The two locked their eyes briefly, startled away by the invasive ring of the telephone. Garima made to haul out of the chair, reaching for her knapsack but the counselor waved her back, raising the mouthpiece and banging it down to disconnect. It took him a while to focus back on the distress unfolding under his nose. “I am thinking of ordering the helium hood kit”, the high school senior mumbled under her breath. “What is that? Is it a video game?” He frowned at the curl in the girl’s lips. “Listen, don’t do anything stupid alright. Whatever is bothering you will settle down, I promise. It always does. You are very young. Also, our time is up now. Remember, I am always here should you wish to talk. Come and see me next week, alright? You take care Garima!”

Garima labored out of the dismissive office and through the hallway of the school, deaf to the buzz and chatter around her. No one paid any attention to the laden figure as she walked out of the building for the last time. The school guard at the gate nodded at her tentative smile, not knowing the desolation it hid. There were others of significance in the life of this beautiful young woman who had missed the cues. During an exercise in the English class three days ago, the teacher had conducted a poetry writing game. The anonymous pieces of expression were slipped into a small box and students took turns pulling one and reading it out aloud. The teacher had paused briefly at a particular poem that read, “I don’t want to share my life, if I could just give it away” before shaking her head, scanning the faces in the rooms and moving on to the next submission. Garima’s friends were, if anything, even more obtuse. At their after school parties out of the sight of their parents, they whispered about Garima, “What is with her man? She drinks too much and is easy. So ok dude, she is in pain. Well, isn’t everybody? We are all suffering. The earth is crying. Animals are dying. Children are starving. Get over it for heaven’s sake!”

“Listen, talk to your parents,” a friend had urged her on occasions.

His suggestion would be met by a sad shake of her head, “They think I am a good kid. It would break their hearts to know I have become the bad kid they always warned me against.” Garima had been distancing herself steadily from her loving parents, their pride and expectations and concern too much to bear. From proactive participants in her life, they had been reduced to being mere spectators. Their child was with them only in a physical sense. They had poured themselves into her upbringing and welfare but unknown to them, she was losing her heart and mind and soul to the perilous labyrinth created by peer parenting and the virtual space. Unkindness online, exclusion from groups, tiny betrayals, emotional rejection and an ever present sense of not being understood would have been enough to break an Atlas. She was only a golden waif. 

“There were no closed doors when we were growing up Garima.

What is this personal space and privacy you are constantly haranguing about?” the mother had no clue what more could a young woman want other than a loving family and fiercely proud grandparents. “I don’t want to meet the relatives. They judge too much, ask too many questions. I hate being queried about my life plans. Hell, I am figuring it all out still. What is the tearing hurry?” Mum would screech in alarm, “Language Garima!” The censure would be greeted with a violent bang of the door as the teenager flounced off with a wail, “Have the heavens fallen with one abusive word? There is no freedom of speech in this house. What do you want from me? Did you not take any parenting lessons before having me? Have you any idea what is happening in my life?” The dinner table in their hurting house often creaked under their conscious and manufactured care with words, “Bete, you know you can talk to us. We think your friends are not been responsible enough. Perhaps we should meet their parents. Bring all your friends home. We were always very happy to have our friends meet our parents. Why do you get so upset if we try to connect with any of yours?” The paternal patter would fade away at the horror on their daughter’s face. And for weeks now, she had stopped coming to the dinner table at all. Garima was fighting her demons behind closed doors, her same age peers for guidance and support.

And then one day, the heavens came down. There was no warning. At least the parents were caught completely unprepared. As it happens in such cases, they were the first on the scene. Their daughter did not even leave them a good bye note. She used an orange colored stole that her grandmother had bought her for a school dance drama she was participating in. There was no one at home that morbid of all days. Stealthy as a shadow, death paid the Tandon home a definitive visit that heartbreaking noon and a youthful life full of potential was nipped in the bud. What followed was an avalanche of disbelief and despair. A veritable storm broke around the family and friends. Candle marches, cries for justice, horror and shock on the social media, the deluge of wretchedness refused to abate. There was an angry frenzy to the aftermath. How could she be lost forever? She was such a fabulous talent. Where did she get this horrendous idea and courage from? Why did she not share her anguish with anyone? Could the family and friends and teachers have reached out more? What were the pressures she was struggling with? Did she have a school crush? Did anyone shame her? Was she being bullied on facebook? Did she plan the self-harm or was it an action born of impulse? What could her immediate environment have done differently?

Stung with guilt and grief, when the parents began to lash out at the
school and her friends, the picture perfect life of a young, talented child, deeply loved by her family and studying in one of the city’s best schools began to unravel. The horrific, yawning chasm between Garima’s reality and what her parents fondly imagined her life to be was every modern parent’s nightmare. “We gave her the best of care and opportunities,” her mother wailed. “I never put any pressure on her over her academic performance. She was a gifted artist and we always thought she was quite happy at her school”, her father sobbed inconsolably. “How come we were the last to know that she was facing harassment from a group of her class mates? She did mention once that a couple of teachers had counseled her regarding her report card but we treated it as just and rightful that a teacher confront a student with a constructive feedback. In fact, we made light of it with her, urging her to pay heed to her teacher’s words,” shared the mother.

With the case grabbing headlines, the media enveloped the family

completely. There were cameras galore and mikes constantly being thrust at their grieving faces. “Did you not meet with the counselor ever?” a reporter quizzed the parents. “Yes, I did once,” relented the mother. “I was concerned about Garima’s growing estrangement from us. She was moving away emotionally. It felt she had found an anchor elsewhere but I couldn’t be sure. We were always confused over the style of parenting she needed. Our parents’ formula did not seem to apply. Where to draw the line, when to concede…these conflicts were crushing us. There was no place to go, no one to compare notes with. Everyone else seemed happy and content with their kids.”

The shock and silence Garima left behind was soon taken over by the din of defense.
“I had no idea the Helium Hood Kit was a self-help suicide kit!”

“How could we know her sadness was sadder than the regular blues?”

“We presumed too much, we should have been more alert to her environment?”

“Did she have a boyfriend? No way. Not Garima. She was not that sort!”

“A lot of young people experiment these days. Could she have been in unfamiliar and threatening waters, with no one at home in the know enough to guide her?”

The ache at the criminal waste refused to heal. Lawyers, activists, politicians, loyalists, family, journalists, counselors, policy makers, teachers took up vantage spots in this arena of unbearable loss and sadness. While they wrestled, a powerful phenomenon called ‘time’ stood by and surveyed the maudlin madness. It whispered in the wind, “This is my story India. And I have changed. My values, my aspirations, my expectations are nothing like you could even dare imagine. Hark, my words are fluttering still.” But no one was listening.

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Game

Have you stood on a fairway at
daybreak waiting for your golf partner to take their shot? The air is nippy at that hour. There is the squelch of dewy grass. A steady stream of headlights snake up from the front gate. Birds confer and call out to their clans. The trees are still recovering from the night's shadows. An odd dog barks. There is the hush of human application and aspiration. Thoughts of hot chocolate flavoured coffee just two holes down jig about in the pinching air. The metal face of the club lofts the orange ball and the reverie is broken. Everyone resumes their purposeful advance towards the greens . But the opportunity comes up again. For daydreaming. Golf is like that! Punctuated with tit bits of zoning  in and zoning out. You can be more alone in company here than any place else. It is an odd space. Your prayers are never answered. You keep hoping to come upon lost balls, they remain in hiding. You are sure to screw up a shot right after the par, they say! Bad behaviour speaks louder on the course than anywhere else. There are a sea of unwritten rules. You must always pounce to take the putt that is conceded. The actual hit will be nothing like the practice shot. You can prepare to feel intimidated by as peripheral a thing as the adversary's golf kit or her powerful drive. But there are aspects, a golfer will insist no one else who has not missed a par will know and understand. The game gets you up early. There is glamour, an eternal degree of difficulty and an exclusivity that humans crave  It is a flourishing, prosperous world out there where rules still hold and and boundries respected. Above all, the  game is an excuse to laugh at and with each other.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Fear

Have you any memory of when this insidious emotion seeped into you? This dark, acidic, bile colored thing called fear. Do you even remember a time when you were young and fearless? Nothing bad could ever happen to you. Then you became a parent! That new little life sucked out all your bravado, turning you into a perpetually on edge, dithering duh. You have lain awake at night since. You have spent hours staring vacantly at the clock, numb at the disastrous thoughts swimming around your head while the kid is out on the city roads in the middle of the night. You have dialled then disconnected their number thirty two times, sick at the switched off tone. The once  potent and flourishing you has aquired an abiding faith in the worst case scenario. You latch your suitcase with a thick metal chain in the First AC now. You cover your jewellery with a scarf or a dupatta when out. You submit yourself to medical checks regularly. You track your children like a hound. You plan and string up several standby options. You subscribe to insurance plans. You suffer anxiety at the smallest plan going awry. Some fears are specific in these parts. Your cup of tea may run cold. The gulab jamun may not be served hot. Your weekend movie booking may come up against a houseful sign. Your maid may vanish for days without notice. Your child may be unmarried at 30 years. You just might bump into a relative when between jobs. God forbid, should India lose to Pakistan! What are we to do with ourselves? The air rings with, "Be careful. Don't get run over, mugged, hijacked, maltreated, swindled, rejected, used, abused!" So paralysed are we.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

The Generation

Have you met anyone socially and not asked them what their children do? Our
culture tells us that the kids are our most visible validation. Their success and failure is ours. Our primary duty is to them, until our last breath. Anything we do for ourselves has to come after their needs have been met. It is fairly common to base retirement plans on the needs of our children. We want to continue to be available to them long past a reasonable expectation and even desire, in some cases. There is an active myopia amongst parents today that will not permit them to see that their progeny may be crying for space and independence and liberty. Freedom to be average. To live life from a back pack. To roam the world. To not shoulder family baggage. To just be, for heavens sake. To shake off the suffocating stranglehold of religion. To run from the forced socialising with extended family. To be released of expectations. To not have to plan, project, invest, save. To not be knocked down by a mace called marriage. To not bring kids into this world and give them the uninformed parenting they were themselves subjected to. To earn just enough. To not repay house and car loans. To not lose steam in the rat race. To not have to worry about standing out. To shun brilliance for contentment. To reject competition for an inclusive mediocrity. To listen only to the music of their own hearts. To drop the mask and be themselves. To be able to scream, abuse, love and experiment. To take risks. What's wrong with that? You grew up in an age of meagre means. They have matured being waited upon by proud parents and grandparents. Don't cry now. You enabled the magnificent millenial. iGen and Gen Alpha to follow!

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Expert

Have you ever received dieting advice from an overweight well wisher? A cardiologist may have taken a smoking break in your periphery! How about a real estate broker who has never owned a house himself? There are therapists spouting diagnosis from their personally troubled perches. Even Freud, for all the ammunition he left the Psych community with, could not “cure” his own daughter of lesbianism! Who hasn’t survived religious fanatics at home with hearts as closed as a government office on the weekend? The digital literacy has made this phenomenon happier. Back then, only the Reader’s Digest used to be quoted for illustration and by the select who read it. Today, the experts are crawling out of frames and beadings. We have all “surfed, self-informed, read and converted” in the soft pool of our bedside lamps, hunched over our TABs and Laptops and Smartphones. The virtual world enjoys a greater credibility with us than our own eyes and gut. How many times have you reached a spot and shaken your head in disbelief because the GPS insists your destination is at least 80 meters away? Traditions seem comic, our immediate family is not with it enough, the experts are obviously not practicing what they preach…we place our faith in online wisdom put there by strangers looking for business. Of course, there is a lot of information and ease of transaction and empowering communication Google favors us with.  But the monster is not invested in any of us personally. On crucial life conflicts, it will tell us exactly what we want to hear. You can pretty much rationalize any and every one of your pet notions out there in the online court. You come away feeling in the right. This expert is not your grandma to say to you, “Don’t smoke, drink or have free sex!”

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Zone

Have you been in the zone ever? The world recedes, a cacoon of intense concentration envelops you, the sense of the moment is heightened and the light is sharper. You could be painting, composing, writing or simply cooking. It is just the two of you…you and the task consuming you. There is an alignment of desire and outcome, a silver amalgam of talent and opportunity. You don't hear someone calling, you chafe at interruptions, you want the world to still. You are creating! You dig deep into the innards of your being and draw out a complex stream of thoughts, emotions and impressions. Was this raw material lying in your head? Or did you pluck it from the air? What levers did you push to synchronise it all into that one melting melody, that life like portrait, that best selling book, that breath taking finish at the ribbon, that gutsy adventure, that defiant flight, that stubborn come back? How does science explain inspired actions? Or emotional drive? Where is man's  original stock of humanity? What are we constantly reflecting? Whose manifestation are we? 

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Remedy

Have you ever blamed a compliment on your saree  for the blob of malai kofta curry you dropped on the pallu subsequently? The evil eye! Your admirer's  expansiveness turns to guilty dismay, "I should have gushed less!" You recover shakily to assure, "It is alright, I will have it drycleaned, " but the moment is marred. As a rule, Indians have a colicky equation with admiration. We are spasmodic, both at giving and receiving it. How often have you drooled over a friend's silver bracelet only to be hastily assured it is a cheap imitation? She fears your envy! Or doesn't want you to feel any lesser. "What a gorgeous bag!" you exclaim. The wearer splutters, "Oh, it is very old, a hand me down from an aunt." If sounding ungracious helps save mishaps, so be it. We must be the world's most comorbid race. We acknowledge envy exists and  guard ourselves with mantras, chillies, limes, prayers and charms. We spit, make frantic signs, rip white rags into seven strips,  swirl camphor smoke and emanate a range of audio effects to banish ill will. Families store and apply these formulas as traditional, customized arsenal. A runny tummy? Out springs a fistful of rock salt. Falling grades? Water and kumkum. Emotional rejection? Wait, we have the perfect poultice of mustard seeds. And the all time, all favourite Indian domestic deterrent to rival the Tsar Bomba? A black dab from the adoring eye.