HOW A TINY KITTEN MIGHT HAVE HELPED RID ME OF BACKACHE BLUES

A less than six weeks old kitten came into my life early in August and by the time I found a permanent home for him he had inadvertently paid me back many, many times over for spending a few sleepless nights worrying over his welfare.

I was forced to bend and pick him up so often every few hours from late afternoon on August 3 and until the evening of the 7th that a backache which had sapped my physical and mental energies for nearly two months had – lo and behold! – begun easing rather than aggravating as I’d feared it might while fussing over the precious little being.P1030967.JPG

That backache started in early June, perhaps after I lifted one bucket too many filled with wet clothes to feed the washing machine and collecting the drained water to carry to the parched plants in the garden.

Although a painkiller ointment seemed to take care of immediate symptoms, the full force of the punishment came on a Sunday afternoon. So excruciating was the pain that I found myself unable to stand. It was panic-inducing.

The American humourist and filmmaker Woody Allen is credited with quipping:  “Not only is God dead, but you can’t get a dentist at the weekend.”[1]

Nor orthopaedists, he might have added.

A neighbourhood private hospital in the part of Bangalore I live in was open. The duty doctor ordered a painkiller injection and prescribed a couple of pills. We’ll see five days later if an X-ray is needed, he said. A fat lot of good the injection and pills did.

After a couple of days, well-intentioned relatives began suggesting myriad remedies, therapies and doctors (as well-intentioned relatives do) and my mother commandeered my brother and his car to drive me to the clinic of a reputed orthopaedist near our home.

His quick-fire diagnosis was followed by a prescription for super-strong pain-killers. I tried asking the reputed ortho about possible side-effects but he had no more time for me.

“We’ll see about the side-effects,” was all he said. Duh! Thanks, Doc.

However, given how much faith people around me had in his wisdom, I did take half of what he had prescribed for about half the duration. That rid me of the unbearable pain and I could get up from a reclining or sitting position. An underlying feeling that something had gone wrong remained. Fear of bending and lifting things or exerting myself in other ways gripped me. A cousin lent me his Lumbo Sacral Belt. I began walking slowly, avoided sitting before my laptop for long stretches and tried lying flat on my back listening to music and spoken word programmes via the Internet.

What next? ‘Alternative medicine’ was suggested. Ayurveda, obviously! An Ayurvedic doc prescribed pills, potions and an oil to be applied to the back, plus hot fomentation. We’ll see whether an X-ray is needed, he too said.

He told me to avoid climbing stairs. Er… there’s no way I can avoid using the stairs to my room at least 15-20 times a day. Thanks, but no thanks, Doc.

Next visit, he did prescribe two X-rays at a newly opened outfit which charged a bomb: The radiologist’s observation: “Early lumbar spondylosis”.

The Ayurvedic doc prescribed more pills, but this time he threw in – following my own query – massages costing a few thousand rupees for a week.

Now, there seems to be a link between backache and depression. My own situation was not helped by my staying away from meetings – private and public – with many brilliant and hard-working human rights lawyers and other activists. And the media rife with the exploits of the likes of Donald Trump, Narendra Modi, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and their followers is not exactly mood uplifting. I began to wonder whether I’d ever feel better and get back to my routine.

Fast forward to early August: I’d been avoiding climbing the steep stairs to the 2nd floor roof of our house for a few weeks but was forced to as some masonry work was going on.

A dry coconut branch had fallen on the roof. I tried to ease it down but it landed partially on a neighbour’s roof. I resolved to retrieve it the next day. But the neighbour had thrown it into our back alley. (We use dry coconut branches, shells and husks to heat our bath water.) On August 3 evening, I opened the locked doors to the alley to retrieve the branch.

It was then that I saw and heard the kitten.

The alley was bereft of any other activity. No feline or human guardian of the kitten seemed to be about.

I bent down and picked up the tiny creature and took him – yes, a male as a vet later pronounced him to be – to my mother. We both fell head over heels in love with the precious being.P1030954.JPG

Pulling out a saucer that had previously been used to offer milk and cat food to an exalted Daily Visitor[2] who had been gracing our compound for several years until January 2015 was but the work of a moment.

The tiny one lapped up a few tongues-full. I posted a notice on the wall of a nearby veterinarian clinic inviting adopters and bought a bag of kitten food from a pet shop.

From that evening on, I was at the kitten’s beck and call almost 24/7. I felt duty-bound to get up at unearthly hours to check on his welfare, offer food and drink, play with him, lead him back to his saucer…This routine could have gone and on and on.

But my mother and I knew we could not keep him as we share a house with others who exercise a veto.

Discreet messages were sent to a few friends alerting them that I shall go public requesting human would-be serviteurs to this feline being to raise their hands.

One of my respected friends, Cynthia Stephen, independent researcher and journalist, got cracking and supplied me with a number to call before I was even half prepared. But after showing great enthusiasm in the beginning, the gentleman went off the hook. Cynthia then posted my request on the facebook page of Pet Adoption in Bangalore.[3]

An almost immediate response led to a couple from a locality in the vicinity of Bangalore’s International Airport coming all the way to my area, just south of the Indian Institute of Science, and picking up the teeny-weeny.P1030959.JPG

Although I had taken the kitten to the neighbourhood veteran veterinarian on August 5 and he had declared that the kitten was sound of health, I was worried about some excretions from his beady eyes. His assistant, who was on duty the following Monday, gave the eyes a wash, prescribed some eye-drops and the kitten was on his way to his furever home.

While going to pick up the eye-drops from a chemist’s a few steps away, I was telling the couple about the incidents that led up to our – three humans and an uncomplaining little creature – finding ourselves where we were.

“He was meant to be for us”, they said, and I paraphrase from my rather delirious memory of that exchange as I was over the moon at having found good caretakers for a tiny being who had nearly eclipsed my thought processes such that he and his welfare were mostly all that I was ruminating about for several dozen hours.IMG-20170810-WA0008.jpg

[The last photo shows the kitten in his new home. Photo courtesy Sudhir Kumar.]

All that I’d say is that a series of coincidences led up to the denouement.

After I was already on the mend – and again thanks to relatives’ advice – I consulted one of the most reputed of orthopaedists practising in my area.

He let me off saying there was nothing to worry 1.Without prescribing any pills and potions. 2. Suggesting just two exercises to strengthen my ancient back.

What he did not suggest was what I credit with having done the trick: Kitten Therapy!

Meow!

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/453DvFvVsBGn9xRfkKT1D4n/defining-death

[2] https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=521064894614085&set=a.102775279776384.4449.100001317365949&type=3&theater

[3] https://www.facebook.com/groups/1398121880480335/

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AN AMBULANCE CHAT, GAURI LANKESH AND HINDUTVA ABROAD

Late Tuesday night (Sept 12), I had to rush my father to the hospital in an ambulance. The nurse and the ambulance driver had made ingenious efforts at getting my corpulent father on to the stretcher. In the ambulance, the nurse sitting beside me got loquacious.

“This whole neighbourhood is full of aged people whose children live abroad,” he began in an arresting tone.
“They address us via video-conferencing…
“So many elderly people with two or three children all living abroad. When you told me (on the phone) that your father was 90 years old, I assumed he must be yet another one of those…
“They abandon their parents and live abroad. Why do they need to earn so much money and neglect their parents? What is the use of all that money if this is the way you treat your own parents? …
“Hotte uriyatthe, saar (Kannada for ‘the stomach burns, sir’, or ‘the blood boils, sir’.)

“A lot of the buildings here have no lifts.” (It’s an old locality.)

“How long have you been working, sir?” I ventured to ask while he paused.
“Two and a half years. Earlier I was working ward-side. I want to give up this ambulance job.” (If I’d had an itch to give him unsolicited advice to request him to… but we’d neared the hospital.)

It so happened that on Wednesday night too I was in the ambulance with him and reminded him of his last remark regarding his job the previous night: “Too much tension in this line of work. People call rather too late and some of them need to be transported from second or third floors. Things can go wrong and we get blamed.”

Needless to say the area I live in is typical of several such in other parts of Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and many others – a large number of elderly people coping and moping, awaiting visits once in a blue moon by their children and grandchildren settled abroad.

***
The above exchange took place a few hours after I’d returned from Bangalore’s Central College grounds where vast numbers of people including representatives of Adivasis (indigenous peoples), Dalits, Muslims and other groups were present in massive strength, protesting the assassination of Gauri Lankesh.[1]

Anger over the murder of the widely respected journalist – how widely and in how many parts of the globe has been evident in recent days – had already been expressed through spontaneous and peaceful demonstrations in scores of cities and towns in Karnataka and beyond.

Tuesday’s protest rally was one of the largest yet and more are planned including in the Indian capital to keep focus on the issue of Gauri Lankesh’s assassination and what it means for the future of dissent in India.

Speakers on the dais said what has reverberated through social media: “we do not know who killed Gauri Lankesh, but we do know who are celebrating the criminal act.”

The reference was clearly to the obscene and ugly comments on Facebook, Twitter and myriad other social forums by Hindu fanatics and jingoists hailing the killing of Gauri Lankesh: Hers was a doughty voice against obscurantism and for values enshrined in the Constitution of India, a document that is gradually being called into question by forces that want to shred the secular fabric of the nation and the egalitarian aspirations it invoked. Gauri Lankesh, a votary of the ideology of one of the principal authors of the constitution, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar as well as a staunch opponent of communalism, was a thorn in the side of the Hindutva forces

***

These forces are not only active in India but among the Indian diaspora especially in North America and Britain. They agitate against accurate portrayals of Indian society in universities, fund Hindutva outfits back home and – as in the case of Britain – mount a campaign against proposed legislation outlawing caste discrimination. This ties together the slogans and speeches heard at the rally for Gauri Lankesh and the ambulance nurse’s rant about people settled abroad and being unavailable to care for their elders.

Many of the Indian expatriates are Hindu fanatics who have contributed to the rise of Hindutva. Of course, there are sizeable sections opposed to the Hindutva crowd but it is the latter that seem to be the more vocal, affluent and influential. They have forged links with White racists and the Trump camp. And they rail against anyone writing about Hinduism and the Hindus as the celebrated Professor Wendy Doniger of Chicago University[2] and others too many to name have found. And yet these Hindu fanatics neglect one of Hinduism’s precepts: “Maathru devo bhava, pithru devo bhava, acharya devo bhava, atithi devo bhava.” (Mother as god, father as god, teacher as god, guest as god”: From the Taittiriya Upanishad.) Of course, the words need not be taken literally nor were they likely meant to be, given the richness of ancient Indian philosophical discourse that celebrates argumentation.
Rather these expats and their fellow Hindu fanatics back home practice a ritualistic form of Hinduism limited to building and gathering at temples and hating Muslims and Blacks and other minorities while ignoring some of the finer precepts of their faith. Caring or not for parents is one thing and another is pushing guests such as Rohingya Muslims back into the jaws of death and rape is another – something that had been the subject of a column in Gauri Lankesh’s eponymous journal’s last issue which she had been putting to bed when she was assassinated.[3]

[1] https://www.thequint.com/news/i-am-gauri-bengaluru-rally

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/12/wendy-doniger-book-hinduism-penguin-hindus

[3] http://gaurilankesh.com

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THE SECOND MOTHER (2015), ENGAGING BRAZILIAN FILM ABOUT DOMESTIC WORKERS

Hong Kongers ought to savour this award-winning work showing as part of HKIFF

A movie currently doing the rounds of festivals in Asia – it was lately in Indian ones and will enjoy three screenings at the Hong Kong International Film Festival starting today, 21st March, 2016 – is one that simply ought not to be missed by those not only seeking rollicking laughs and entertainment but also, more crucially, by employers of Foreign Domestic Workers (FDWs) and – hopefully, as many of the latter as possible.[1]

It is a well-paced, never-a-dull-moment film full of humour, most of it infused by the protagonist, Val, a brown-skinned woman from the impoverished northeast (Nordeste) of Brazil working for a middle-class white-skinned family in affluent Sao Paulo. Her young, rarely met, fair-skinned daughter turns up in the city, pursuing a course in architecture and Val requests her female employer to let her stay with her until the young person finds her own accommodation.

Needless to say, things don’t go according to plan and accommodation eludes. The young woman having been educated to think in terms of equality ends up spending a few more days than bargained for at her mother’s employer’s abode. And the employer’s elderly husband develops a crush on her to the bewilderment of not only his wife but her employees, namely Val and a white-skinned colleague of hers, who agonise over the liberties the young person – the daughter of a mere domestic helper – seems to be taking in accepting invitations to dine at the employers’ table or swim with the employer’s son of the same age in their pool.

The film might make the audience cringe over the various “faux pas” committed by the domestic helper’s daughter, such as helping herself to a special tub of ice cream from the fridge and noticed by the female employer, leading, along with other “transgressions”, eventually to an ultimatum.

Val and her daughter in the film are from Pernambuco in the northeast of Brazil. Translation: that’s like southern Philippines or many parts of Indonesia or vis-à-vis Indian cities, parts of the states of Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Assam and so on. In Brazil, class and race and massive inequality are living issues: In fact they are headline news these days.

In Hong Kong, race and the race-based policies that the Hong Kong government follows towards FDWs – its ignominious two-week rule (requiring anyone losing a job, never mind whether she deserved to be fired or not to leave) among others – have attracted some attention but not nearly enough, such that most employers get away with ill-treating a few hundred thousand of them.

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In India, in addition to geography, there are other elements such as caste that are seized on by employers to deny women the rights, not to mention the dignity, that are inalienable according to the constitution of the land and the international human treaties the country is party to and gets criticised but given the much of India’s media is dominated by oppressor-caste males, rarely gets reported.

Incidentally, Hong Kong too gets periodically criticised by treaty bodies – committees overseeing its commitments to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms or Racial Discrimination – as well as other entities. Until some years ago when Hong Kong boasted of a vibrant free press, now greatly tattered, rebukes by these treaty bodies got prominently reported.

But now Hong Kong is beginning to resemble India where the words “human rights” have become the subject of abuse thanks to Hindu supremacist and quasi-fascist tendencies having grown powerful.

And so it is particularly important to point out the strong egalitarian message that is infused in the film which ends with a delicious denouement!

Among domestic workers are some extraordinary achievers such as Baby Haldar in India,[2] now a noted author and Liza Avelino, a Filipino domestic worker in Hong Kong who has made a mark as a trekker and mountain-climber.[3] Many others are accomplished artists and/or boast tertiary education. But regardless of their qualifications and achievements or lack thereof, by the very fact of being workers, women, human beings, they have an inalienable right to dignity. It is to be hoped that employers watching The Second Mother will leave the cinemas not only with a smile but with some fresh thinking.

[1] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3742378/

[2] http://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/article/1441806/baby-halder-domestic-helper-turned-author

[3] http://www.scmp.com/lifestyle/health/article/1758569/high-flying-filipino-domestic-helper-climbs-6100m-everest-peak?page=all

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WHAT’S IN A CITY’S NAME, OR RATHER THE SPELLING THEREOF?

The Independent, a British newspaper (ceasing print publication), is reverting to the spelling Bombay rather than Mumbai, its India-born editor Amol Rajan widely quoted as having said that the move was to resist toeing the Hindu nationalists’ line. It’s not so much the spelling change to Bombay now but rather the publication’s previous decision to acquiesce in the Hindu supremacist Shiv Sena’s change to Mumbai that ought to be under the scanner. That is for the paper’s internal ombudsman, if it has one, to attend to.

But what need concern us in India is the bewildering amount of online and print media attention as well as other Internet chatter devoted to this minor decision in just one publication in a faraway city. As is many Indians’ wont, some of the attention has gotten deflected towards the origins of the words Bombay and Mumbai. Bombay is not an Anglicized form Mumbai of The Portuguese words ‘Bom Bahiya’. That much seems to be agreed on. But then some of the chatterati began saying the Portuguese could not possibly have spelt it as Bom but as Bao. What some, though not all, of these commentators fail to reckon with is the crucial squiggle on top of the ‘a’ – missing in English publications – such that the whole syllable is pronounced nasally as in the name of the most populous Brazilian city, Sao Paolo https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/S%C3%A3o_Paulo, which, depending on how you wish to hear the two words, sound like Sam/Som/Sum Paulu. Someone transliterated Bao wrongly, perhaps. Big deal. Far too many names in too many climes have been mangled massively. So please: Here’s hoping the Bom/Bao controversy shall be laid to rest at the very least.

But hey, if you are a Marathi speaker, Hindi speaker or, in fact, speaker of any number of languages in this subcontinent and beyond and wish to use the spelling and the pronunciation, Mumbai, please do go ahead. International human rights laws and the laws of almost all constitutions allow you to do so.

Equally, those of us who wish to spell, pronounce, or even alter the names of your, our and other cities the way they wish to, why, I rejoice in that diversity. Thus when I hear a migrant worker from West Bengal in Bangalore (please note the spelling of my city, more anon) referring to a ‘rupee’ as a ‘taka’, I’m genuinely thrilled.

Have the Shiv Sena types protested against the use of “Bollywood”? Have they ever demanded that the Indian media at least – if not the international – use Mullywood? Incidentally, why bother with this –wood stuff? Why look up to Hollywood whereas far more serious cinema is emerging from many other corners of the globe? This is quite an honest question but are the Shiv Sena and other Sangh Parivar outfits listening?

Has the Shiv Sena or BJP sought to change the name of Bombay High Court? Most likely not. Ditto the ruling dispensations in Chennai and Kolkata, whose highest judiciaries bear the names, respectively, Madras High Court and Calcutta High Court. Incidentally, Suketu Mehta’s critically acclaimed book Maximum City: Bombay Lost And Found was thus named in 2004, nine years after the official spelling change. But Mr Mehta’s is an upper caste Hindu sounding name, isn’t it? Any murmur from the Shiv Sainiks?

It is not only rightwingers and Hindutva types who have this name and spelling change obsession. The late Professor UR Ananthamurthy, one of the foremost intellectuals from the southwestern part of southern Asia and a doughty left-liberal intellectual to his last days, unfortunately got off on an ego trip to change Bangalore’s spelling. Now in Kannada, Bangalore has always written as ಬೆಂಗಳೂರು and it is impossible to accurately transliterate the third syllable: ‘lu’ does not equate to ಳೂ which, moreover, comes with a long vowel. Five years ago, the centenarian lexicographer G. Venkatasubbaiah had spoken against the unnecessary spelling change. But Ananthamurthy misused his proximity to the powers that be to push his hobby horse, thereby causing unnecessary expenditures such as printing of new texts with the altered spelling and repainting of signboards. (More on this: https://walkerjay.wordpress.com/2014/08/23/speaking-well-and-ill-of-u-r-ananthamurthy/)

If the Austrians have no objection to their capital Wien spelled Vienna in English, the Romanians to Bucuresti written Bucharest or the Italians to Roma as Rome, why do Indians make much ado about minor spelling differences? If Peking University can continue to call itself so (http://english.pku.edu.cn/), why do Indian nationalists go breast-beating over changes of couple of letters of the alphabet? And when will Indians focus more on the issues that matter such as farmers’ suicides, the scandalous write-offs of loans owed by big businesses or the Hindutva groups continuing attacks on Dalits, Muslims and Christians?

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MEHDI HASAN, ALBEIT A BRILLIANT DEBATOR, WAS RATHER SOFT ON RAM MADHAV

As a Youtube video which has gone viral testifies, Mehdi Hasan is a brilliant intellectual and while several versions of his scintillating delivery in the Oxford Debate are extant on Youtube, that the following has a mere 1.75 million hits (as of late December 2015) is rather surprising: https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=mehdi+hasan+oxford+union+full+debate.

That said, I believe Mehdi Hasan, who obviously did much homework and gathered a massive amount of facts regarding his latest interlocutor and the latter’s poisonous ideology, perhaps prepared too many questions and was over-anxious to run through them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1W-oXZ_31U

For instance, Ram Madhav claimed “36,000 intellectuals” said the return of awards was “wrong”. Making generous allowance for the obvious exaggeration, it ought to have been challenged. Incidentally, hundreds of prominent intellectuals and thousands of those not so prominent, have protested and been protesting against the anti-Muslim, anti-Christian, anti-Dalit statements from members of what is known as the “Sangh Parivar”.

Madhav refers to “(awards) given by the people of India”. No way. The awards were given by entities such as the Sahitya (Literature) Academy, the Government of India (ex-Congress-led now BJP-led, which are but Tweedledum and Tweedledee) and other entities functioning entirely oblivious to the real concerns of the blessed – or should I say – accursed people of the subcontinent.

When Madhav is asked about government data showing a 25% rise in the incidents of communal violence, he counters that over the past 18 months, the incidents have come down. Hasan notes that the NCRB disputes that but does not press the point.

Hasan agrees with Madhav re the bizarre rationale behind beef ban in India. Err… Might Hasan explain what compelled him to do so?

“Many Muslims in Kashmir don’t eat beef” OK. Quite possibly many people of all faiths and no faith in Kashmir eat or do not eat paneer/tofu/tempe/whatever. So?

Credit where due: Good that Hasan brought up the issue of BJP ministers and MPs and the Haryana CM making bizarre anti-minority statements but, alas left Madhav largely unchallenged.

And he let Madhav off lightly over the official figures of the UPA government regarding the anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat of 2002. In actuality the number of 2,000 Muslims killed that is widely quoted is possibly an understatement.

After a brilliant intervention by Dr Nitasha Kaul, Hasan instead of calling on Madhav, calls on someone who – as anyone with a modicum of brain cells can see – is a sold out Modi-toady to respond.

Madhav, who had clearly been expecting to have Golwalkar’s hateful writings quoted back to him, had come prepared with one of those anodyne paragraphs where the Hitler-admiring second Sarsanghchalak had said something contradictory to most of his anti-Muslim and anti-minority writings. Hasan did challenge that with a very short quote but wish he had quoted back to Madhav this from Golwalkar:

“The non-Hindu people of Hindustan must either adopt Hindu culture and language, must learn and respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but of those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizens’ rights.”

These are widely quoted sentences and a mouth-piece of the Hindu chauvinist groups, Organiser, has defended the formulation.[1]

Hasan asks, “If David Cameron were to say let British Hindus understand that their real safety lies in the goodwill of the majority…” But alas, being too Brit and too subtle, Hasan fails to let the bigot Madhav understand what he was getting at and respond.

Madhav says (regarding the state’s responsibility), “you say, protecting me is your responsibility. That’s not the way we look at it…” Good grief. Madhav needs to read the UDHR, ICCPR, ICESCR, ICERD, CAT, CEDAW…

Again when Dr Nitasha Kaul is called on to comment and she makes valuable points, she is not allowed to persist with them and given short shrift.

And where are the people of Kashmir in the following several minutes re Kashmir?

Brilliant catch by Hasan re “your ISIS”, which has gone viral! Bravo! But wish he had pressed the point.

Again brilliant questions by Hasan re the human rights groups’ allegations! Bravo!

But alas, after Dr Kaul’s all too brief expose on the human rights violations in her native Kashmir, wish Hasan had not cut her short and more importantly, instead of asking Ram Madhav to respond, not turned to that silly Modi-toady on her left.

Some excellent questions from the floor and Hasan moderated well but could have persisted rather than letting Madhav off by saying “you didn’t answer…”

Mehdi Hasan has since noted that Hindutva trolls have reacted more virulently (my term, not his) than any others regarding his Head to Head programmes.

Next time he interviews any Indians, he might be better advised to not be too anxious to run through his laundry list of questions and issues, can his subtlety and humour and go hammer and tongs.

[1] http://organiser.org/Encyc/2013/8/31/So-called-secularists–Worst-enemies-of-Bharat.aspx?B=%E3%80%88=4&lang=4&m1=m8&m2=m8.24&p1=&p2=&p3=&p4=&PageType=N

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OF DONKEYS AND ONE WOMAN’S PERIODS

On joining a social networking site in mid-2010 I noticed that most people had posted some picture or other – their own or their canine or feline companions’. So I put one up of a donkey on a street, a jaywalker, near my parents’ house in Bangalore. It elicited a few sarcastic comments.

But more importantly, it set me thinking about my memories of donkeys from my childhood.

Those donkeys – beasts of burden, as we humans refer to them – were to be found in large numbers around a washer-people’s yard and a now no longer extant swimming pool about a kilometre from where I lived in Bangalore when I was young, and where I returned to in early 2012 after 34 years away.  Today, the donkeys’ numbers have dwindled as the washer-people have mostly mechanised the transport of laundry.

The donkeys stuck in my memory because, when I was ten or eleven years old, I had to accompany a woman to that swimming pool next to the washer-people’s yard a few times for a bizarre ritual.

The Woman, as she shall be referred to for almost the rest of this narrative, had exceedingly stern and ritualistic parents-in-law who made her life miserable by forcing her to follow all of the practices they had grown up with.

Purity/pollution is a major concept ruling almost every minute of many Indians’ lives and a major tool of Brahminical Hinduism’s stranglehold.

The Woman’s parents-in-law had extremely strict rules on how she should conduct herself from the crack of dawn until she went to bed.

From the moment she showered in the morning, she had to watch what she touched. Her children were not allowed near her. When that’s the norm all day long it becomes the norm for the whole life.

During his adolescence for a while, her youngest son took to following her after her post-dinner cleaning up asking when he could go near her:

“Amma, Amma, may I touch you now?”

She, a slim person who had grown up in a large family and had lost her mother when she was six years old and had perhaps not been too well nourished, had to wear a nine-yard sari in a ritual style all day long.

“And I had to wash that heavy sari with my own hands,” she recalled recently.

She also had to wash her mother-in-law’s equally heavy sari each and every day in addition to her father-in-law’s veshti/dhothi. And they had to be washed with water drawn from a well behind the house, because municipal tap water was deemed “impure”. Although her mother-in-law sometimes helped with drawing the well water, the Woman had to perform most of the chores, which included grinding all kinds of flour, spices, coffee powder and so forth.

Well water was also needed for cooking and washing all the vessels and so she had to make several trips between the well and the kitchen, carrying massive quantities of water in vessels balanced on her hips.

As for her periods:

Each time she had them, she had to sit and sleep in a room towards the front of the tiny house and not shower for three days. Her meals were served there via one of her sons.  She used to carry around a piece of previously white cloth, a rag in fact, during those three days. In my pre-teens and even early teens I never understood what that rag was for. This was an era when sanitary pads were still light years away in India.

To use the toilet, she had to walk out of the front door and go round the house to the back. So her periods were public knowledge. Everyone in the large family of close relatives that lived at the back would know.

But then that was not unusual those days. When a girl started menstruating, everyone was told about it. A spherical candy known as chigaLi unde made of sesame and jaggery (with a hint of spices) was distributed among family and relatives.

On the fourth morning after the start of the Woman’s periods, she could shower, wear the regular sari in the normal way and perform some tasks that did not require contact with the “pure” parts of the house such as the kitchen and the altar nor contact with anything consumed by or susceptible to be touched by her parents-in-law.

On the fifth morning she had to take a dip in a natural water source to “purify” herself. Well water was not deemed adequate for the purpose. It had to be a river or a lake: so the crazy rituals dictated. There’s no river running through Bangalore. Sometimes she would take a bus to a place called Tulasi Thota (meaning basil garden) in the centre of the city to take a dip in the tank there. But to save time, she took to going to the swimming pool nearby.

The craziness of this appears not to have occurred to her mother-in-law. A swimming pool is NOT a natural water body, but an artificial one. Moreover, exceedingly casteist though the mother-in-law was, it did not seem to have dawned on her or on anyone else around her that people from all castes and communities could use the pool and that she was subjecting her daughter-in-law to be touched, nay polluted, by waters that had washed “low-caste” bodies. Or if they did think of it, perhaps they deliberately made the Woman go and take that wholly meaningless dip in the pool as it was a way of asserting their control over her.

Apparently one relative of the mother-in-law’s dissented and tried to intervene on the Woman’s behalf.

“Why are you torturing this child in this way?” he had asked the mother-in-law, the Woman recalls. “Child” was not much of an exaggeration. The Woman had been married off when she was 17 and her husband 19, and the “torture” began from day one. But the older woman would not budge even though one of her own male relatives was ticking her off.

After all, her own mother-in-law had made her go through this drill too.

The Woman had six sisters and a brother. None of her married sisters’ parents-in-law imposed such rituals, even if they had practiced them once or were still doing so (we’re talking of the 1960s now). The only times her sisters wore the nine-yard sari was at their own, and later, their children’s weddings if at all.

Of course, there were other problems such as violence and discrimination that two or three of her sisters faced. So much so that one of the Woman’s sisters opted out.

“Seeing the way my sisters’ marriages worked out, I decided this is not for me,” she once said.

Actually, one or more at least of her sisters had had very gentle parents-in-law and husbands endowed with a keen sense of humour. And other sisters too went on to build relations of near equality and affection with their husbands, who too were not at all lacking when it came to a sense of humour.

The Woman had drawn the shortest straw and a way too short one at that.

Why did she put up with it? That elicits a predictable answer:

“Where could I have gone?”

One younger sister of hers had tried walking out of her marriage resenting violence, both physical and verbal, only to be persuaded to return. She went on to eventually work out an equation with her husband who had grown to respect her to the extent that she could quell him with a stern look when he threw tantrums. She also says her sisters- and brothers in-law respect her much now because they know what she had gone through in the initial years of marriage.

Identical is the experience of the Woman. She too says her sisters- and brothers-in-law respect her greatly now, not only because she is their oldest surviving sister-in-law but also because they are aware of what she had undergone.

But there was another reason for her having gone along with the treatment she received. She deemed it her kartavya or duty.

“I genuinely believed in serving my parents-in-law. I wanted to,” she says.

By the early 1960s, the Woman’s mother-in-law, whose health had begun to fail, decided she wanted to die in the sannidhi (abode or vicinity) of her family deity and pressed to move to Nuggehally, a temple town, where her husband owned a house and small patches of land.

The woman decided to send her second son to her elder sister’s in Mysore and went with her oldest and youngest sons to the village. (The disruption of her children’s education was not an issue for her mother-in-law.)

Her husband, a technician working for the central government was being transferred every two to three years to various parts of the country. His wife was less a wife than a caregiver and servant of his parents, who, incidentally were not his biological parents but adoptive ones, but more of that later.

In Bangalore the parents-in-law’s house had a low compound wall separating it from the busy road in front. In the village, the front door gave out on to the temple street. So whenever the Woman had her periods, people in several houses nearby and passers-by would know.

The distance from the front room to the toilet, or what passed for it – two raised stones on which you sat and did your business on to stitched leaves, manual scavengers (Dalits) coming around every morning to clear up – was longer in the village.

Life was obviously harsher there. Although there was a domestic worker who helped wash the clothes, they had subsequently to be “purified” using water fetched from a temple tank about half a kilometre away. The Woman had developed a major ankle infection and suffered greatly until she was taken to a nearby hospital for a minor operation.

Her greatest problem in the village was that she had no one to turn to in order to vent.

“The children were too young and I had no one else to confide in,” she recalls.

About a year and a half or so after moving to the village, her mother-in-law died. Then she and her father-in-law and sons moved back to Bangalore.

Her father-in-law insisted on keeping to the rituals imposed on her by her mother-in-law.

Thus again began the trips to the swimming pool – and sightings of the donkeys – whenever she had her periods. And this was the time when I accompanied her a few times there guarding her dry clothes while she climbed down the dangerously slippery steps. (Chlorine was not being used and there was hardly any maintenance of the pool.)

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Once a few kids about my age or a year or two older who were standing nearby pointed in her direction and laughed. They also appeared to be saying something among themselves, jeering at a woman about the same age as their mothers or just a few years younger.

For me this semi-traumatic memory remains bound up with that of the pool, the Woman’s “ritual” dips and the donkeys nearby.

Now that there was just one woman in the home, an old father-in-law and three young sons, none of whom had been initiated into cooking because of the purity/pollution belief, a major problem arose whenever she had her periods.

Her father-in-law had to go over to the house at the back and request/beg his sister-in-law to let him and his three grandsons eat at her place for three days (and supply his daughter-in-law’s meals).

The Woman’s parents-in-law had had no children of their own. Her husband’s biological mother had 11 children. The childless couple adopted her second son.

Thus, what old the man was asking his sister-in-law was really to feed him, i.e. her older sister’s husband, and her daughter-in-law and biological grandchildren for three days.

But it became more and more embarrassing as the months passed. And so the Woman’s father-in-law began to relent. Already, she had begun to perform most household tasks from day four after the start of her periods. Soon, she was back at work from day three. And eventually at some point, the bizarre swimming pool routine stopped as did the sightings of the donkeys.

In the late 1960s, her husband was posted in Madras/Chennai. She moved there with her father-in-law and youngest son, leaving behind her older sons who had entered college. They were to eat at their biological grandparents’ place.

In Madras, the well water routine as well as the nine-yard-sari thing continued, however. Her husband had been given quarters in a central government colony and there was no well there. He stumbled on a house on the edge of the colony which had one. That family was befriended. In the initial weeks, the Woman, her nine-yard-sari tied ritual style, had to make her way through the colony to that house to fetch the well water.

Her youngest mid-teen son had to accompany her, praying that none of his schoolmates from the colony was watching. (To minimise the embarrassment, his request that this routine be performed after dusk was granted but then street lights were on by then.) Soon a man from a nearby town was engaged for that sole purpose.

In under a couple of years her husband was posted to Bangalore, where he resentfully did the honours in the kitchen for the mandatory – by now  – two days after his wife’s periods. Three years later he was posted to Bhubaneshwar. By this time, her father-in-law had begun to go senile. Her periods were no longer noticed. No more well water and no more nine-yard-sari.

Her father-in-law passed away in mid-1975. She recalls that by this time he was extremely senile but in a moment of lucidity, he had expressed an apology to her.

“I gave you a lot of trouble,” he told her, she recalls.

And so, rather than rancour, it is reverence that she expresses when her father-in-law is mentioned.

“He was a gentleman,” she said recently to my shock and amazement.

To her father-in-law’s credit, he always spoke to her politely and used euphemisms, e.g. “anything rounded?” for a deep-fried doughnut-shaped snack known as a kodubale in Kannada – to her amusement – when he felt peckish.

The unstated, as well as often overtly stated, subtext to her comment is that she compares him favourably to her husband whose domineering and short-tempered ways she has long resented and which she continues to deal with even now.

Her husband is not violent physically. There are times when he speaks to his wife as an equal, discussing religious mumbo jumbo or the welfare of a large number of relatives. But he expects his wife to be at his beck and call, never answer back and cook every dish just so. Something no intelligent being can tolerate.

He is not a bad man, far from it. He has led a largely honest life. He worked all his life in a highly technical side of a government department with – at least then – zero opportunity for rent-seeking should he have been so inclined. And in Indian middle class parlance, he had and has no “bad habits”.

Some months ago, very close to where I live, I found that a donkey was hobbling around as the forelegs had been tied together. This, alas, is a common practice among “owners” of the hapless species. The absurd assumption is that if two of the donkeys’ legs are tied tightly, they can’t stray far. But in fact they do.

I went back home, found a large knife and tried to cut that donkey’s legs free. The donkey resented being approached and kept turning and walking away. I pleaded with passers-by to try and hold the donkey. Some of them said “the donkey belongs (sic) to someone, that’s why they have tied the legs”. Initially, there were also looks of consternation as I was wielding a large knife but soon the penny dropped. I cut the knot that had, alas, already by then left a deep gnash round that donkey’s forelegs. Just one of innumerable donkeys who go through similar fates, and all that I did worth perhaps a few hours of freedom before recapture, although I dearly hope not.

Taking a knife to let a “dumb” donkey roam free for a while is easy.

The Woman, my mother, turned 88 today, 17 October 2017.(This was originally written three years ago when she turned 85.)

P.S.: I had previously said 18-yard-sari in the text. I had meant 18-moLa in Kannada (and -moLam in Tamil), which translates as nine-yard and not 18-yard. I regret the error.

Posted in Caste, Domestic violence, Gender, Patriarchy, Women | 18 Comments

HUMAN RIGHTS AND THE DEATH PENALTY: FROM THE MOUTHS OF LITTLE KIDS

A nephew of mine, Jayasimha Yashas,  who teaches in a government primary school in Chennai/Madras while on two years’ sabbatical working for one of India’s foremost IT companies, invited me to speak to his young charges while I was in that city briefly a few months ago.

My Chennai visit was at the invitation of V. Suresh, National General Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties,[1] one of the foremost activist groups in India affirming human rights and – given that the right to life is inalienable – opposing the death penalty.

And so, while addressing my nephew’s students – although aged a mere seven or eight – human rights were uppermost in my mind.

With the kind permission of their teachers, and since I had just attended two days of meetings of human rights groups from various parts of the country to discuss ways to promote the abolition of the death penalty (and condemn the anti-Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka), I chose to focus on that topic.

Asked whether the children, aged 7-8, had heard of the words “human rights” (manidha urimai, மனித உரிமை in Tamil) they predictably and understandably said no.  So another approach was called for.

What does everyone need?

“Air” said a few of them in English. (That hour, the kids were expected to be speaking in English and so both languages were featured). Air, or clean air. In a way they were, without knowing it, expressing something people far away were writing about too.[2] But the kids did not mean that in the sense of a human right to clean air. Just that everyone needs to breathe.

What else?

“Water”,[3] and later, “food”,[4] “education” ( padippu, படிப்பு)[5] and “house”.[6]

Yes, yes, yes, yes… Indeed, all of these figure in international human rights declarations and treaties as well as in national constitutions.

“Hospital” said one of the kids as they got into the spirit of the conversation. It did not take long to make the connection to another basic right: “health”.[7]

“Mouth” (vaai வாய்) said one child.

Ah, interesting. What do you use that for?

“Speech” (paecchu பேச்சு). DSC_0184

Yes, the right to free speech and by extension, freedom of opinion. Unbeknown to them, the young ones were articulating the provisions of a precious, identically numbered, article in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR),[8] the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights[9] and the Indian Constitution[10] so dear to so many of us: ARTICLE 19.[11]

“Respect”, one of the children said in English.

With my extremely limited Tamil, I was unable to probe further but the word “respect” – I wonder whether that child had heard the word because it is well known to members of oppressed castes in Tamil Nadu as it was beloved of Periyar E.V. Ramasamy Naicker who founded the “Self-respect Movement”[12] – is closely related to “dignity”.

The very first line of the preamble to the UDHR uses the words “inherent dignity”.[13]

That child was on to something.

It is possible that many or most of the children in that class would by now have forgotten the issues discussed. But some seeds lie buried and sprout in a wild season. I hope that among at least one or two of them, there will be a flowering of the ideas from that brief conversation.

Before concentration flagged, I wanted to get on to my pet concern.

What should no one take away from you? (The exact words I used then in Tamil escape me now.)

After a minute or so, came the response: “Life”.

Thus we came to the death penalty (maraNa dandanai, மரண தண்டனை).[14] If I recall right I mentioned the names of Murugan, Santhan and Perarivalan – those convicted in connection with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

A lot of Indian media houses refer to them as “Rajiv killers”. Technically that is totally wrong. And Mr Perarivalan, at least, is almost entirely innocent of any role in the wider conspiracy.[15]

Does anyone have a right to take your life?

“No”.

What if a judge orders that someone may be given maraNa dandanai?

Many murmers of “yes”.

But you just said no one should take anyone’s life.

“Yes”.

Case closed. Eventually end of class.

[October 10 is the annual World Day Against the Death Penalty.[16]]

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[Photos courtesy MANASA RAMAKRISHNAN.]

 

 

 

 

[1] http://www.pucl.org/

[2] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/04/clean-air-should-be-human-right

[3] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/gencomm/escgencom15.htm

[4] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/gencomm/escgencom12.htm

[5] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/gencomm/escgencom13.htm

[6] http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/gencomm/epcomm4.htm

[7] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs323_en.pdf

[8] http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/

[9] http://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx

[10] http://indiankanoon.org/doc/1218090/

[11] http://www.article19.org/

[12] http://www.thanthaiperiyar.org/political-career/self-respect-movement/

[13] “Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,…”

http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/

[14] Subject of a major new United Nations Publication, “Moving Away From The Death Penalty” with a Chapter on India by noted legal scholar Dr Usha Ramanathan: http://www.ohchr.org/Lists/MeetingsNY/Attachments/52/Moving-Away-from-the-Death-Penalty.pdf.

[15] http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/former-cbi-official-says-he-did-not-record-perarivalans-confession-verbatim/article5384370.ece

[16] http://www.worldcoalition.org/worldday.html

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments