Thursday, 18 January 2007

Invisible threads

My wife says that potato chips are bound to each other by an invisible thread. If you pick up one, the next one comes up automatically. Perhaps, thoughts are the same. Only that, one thought leads to another completely different. Thus, thinking in terms of potato chips, potato chip leads to a jalebi, that goes to a samosa and so on!

As I pedal my bicycle in the morning to the work, most of the time riding the bicycle and negotiating the traffic happens in automatic mode and my mind meanders in different directions. I am convinced that some of those ideas are terrific but the problem is that by the time I reach office and want to write them down, I can't remember most of them!

That is how it was this morning. I was pedalling furiously. Behind our house, they are cutting deep gashes in the green fields. A new road is going to come up there. Further ahead, a new access to the highway is flattening the existing hills and building new hills. Even further, the railway tracks are being moved so that the high speed train lines can be put in their place. Our part of the city is changing face!

The side effect is that the road is full of dust and with the strong humidity in the night, every morning my bicycle wheels raise up drops of dusty glue that sticks to my pants.

And I was thinking about the Anarchytect post I had read in the morning about buildings, spaces, layouts. For a lot of things, I realise that I am very superficial. Buildings are part of those things. I mean, a building is a building, full stop. Thinking of spaces as something alive, that you mould and shape like dough for making chapattis, seems kind of strange. Seeing the landscape around our house changing in front of us, I know it is true but I still keep on believing that the landscape is something physical, fixed, unchangeable, so why think about it!

Another of these things is art. I mean, you watch a nice painting and instinctively you know whether you like it or not. What need is there to dissect it, analyse it?

You are wrong of course, you just need to read the Hindi article of Om Thanvi on Starry Nights of Van Gogh in MOMA in New York to understand how wrong you are. There are eleven stars he writes. The bottom most star, its luminous white contrasting with the wonderful yellow of the moon is probably the morning star that Van Gogh saw from the window of his sanatorium and wrote about it to Theo, his brother. The spire of the church in the background is more like the Dutch churches of Van Gogh's childhood and not the French churches surrounding his sanatorium. The cypress tree in the left rising up like a peacock feather, is it a death wish? Van Gogh did die a few months after making this painting.

Once you read that article of Om Thanvi, it changes the way you look at this painting. It is no longer a question of if you like it or not, you can understand it and see things that you did not see earlier.

Suddenly my thoughts about starry nights and Van Gogh were interrupted by a new song in my earphones. I religiously put on my ipod when I start from my home but I hardly ever remember the songs I have heard during the journeys. But this song was great and different. Ajnabi Shehar it is called and it is from Jaaneman, I found out later. The singer, perhaps Sonu Nigam, sounded just like Rafi did in those wonderful songs from a film called Jhuk Gaya Aasman! It had came out in 1968 and had music by Shanker Jaikishen and had Rajendra Kumar and Saira Banu in it. Not that I liked Rajendra Kumar or Saira banu. There is no rational explanation for this jump from Ajnabi Shaher to Jhuk Gaya Aasman, but that's how thought are. Unpredictable and irrational.

What was the story of JGA like? It had something to do with death. I thought furiously, weaving the bicycle between cars stuck in a traffic jam. Rajendra Kumar dies in it, but then comes back. Actually there were two Rajendra Kumars. One poor and nice, in love with Saira Banu. The other rich and bad. The bad one was supposed to die but by mistake, Yama kills the young and poor. By the time they realise the mistake, his body has been cremated or whatever, so the good one goes in the body of the bad one. I had seen it on a black and white TV in the prehistoric days of Indian TV.

JGA had same story as of the Warren Beatty film, Paradise lost or can wait or something like that! This last bit of knowledge is fairly recent that Bollywood had started copying long time ago. But JGA had lovely songs and this song from Jaaneman reminded me of it - except that it is better, having strange interludes between the stanzas, changing the music styles completely each time.

While trying to think of the Jhuk Gaya Aasman songs, I braked in front of a truck of leaves-collectors in the park, that was blocking the path. By now all the trees in the park are naked with skinny arms and the beautiful golden, yellow, kathai, burnt siena of autumn leaves has been replaced by a rotting mass on the ground that sticks to your shoes and to bicycle wheels, making a squashing sucking sound as you walk on it. The leaves-collectors looked like ghost-busters from the film of the same name, with a motor in their backpack and holding thick tubes blowing hissing air like giant earthworms, pushing the sticky gooey mass towards the suction pump of the truck. Leaves-ghost-busters they are, picking up dead leaves, I thought.

Can trees have ghosts too? I had arrived in the office and so the question remained unanswered and like the last dream of the morning, it also slowly dissipated into nothingness.


Wednesday, 17 January 2007

Exploring madness

Recently I saw the "Exploring Madness", a series of short films by Dr. Parvez Imam. He is a doctor and a documentary film maker. The films are very brief, each lasting 3-4 minutes only.

The one I liked most was where he tells about women who are brought to a mental health hospital and left there by the family. Often, the families give a wrong address to the hospital, so that they can not be traced. After a few months, when the women are cured or are better, they want to go back to their homes, but the law does not allow persons treated for mental health problems to go out alone. Their only way to go out of the hospital is if some family member comes to accompany them. For many of them, no one ever comes to take them back so they are doomed to wait in the mental hospitals for ever. It was heart rending in the film to listen to the women who kept on saying, she had two children and she wanted to go back to her family.

I appreciated that the film respects the privacy of persons it interviews. And I liked the briefness of films. Even in their briefness, they make a clear point and touch the heart. I think that it requires a deep understanding of the theme and a strong empathy, to come up with something like this.

In the film, a lawyer tells about the Indian laws relating to mental illness. In India, if you are declared mentally ill, you lose all your civil rights, including the right to vote or to marry. For the law, it is justifiable reason for asking for a divorce. So like those women doomed to eternal wait for the families to come back and take them, there are many other areas of human rights violations of persons with mental health problems.

However, you can be cured of mental illness. Often mental illnesses are cyclical in nature, so there are periods when you are better. Doesn't the law allow you to regain your civil rights once the doctor treating you has certified that you are better? That sounds very cruel and unfair!

While watching the film I remembered some episodes from a period of life, that I had almost forgotten. It was the time when I was a PG student in anaesthesia at Willingdon hospital (or the Dr Ram Manohar Lohia hospital) in Delhi. Some times there were calls from the mental health unit accross the Tal Katora road and sometimes, I did go there to provide anaesthesia for persons receiving electric shocks (ECT). As shocks also produce convulsions in the body, through anaesthesia, you can relax the muscles so that they don't get hurt or pains afterwards.

I was thinking that in those days, I had never stopped on the way to look around in the mental health unit. It was only rushing to the ECT room and back. Perhaps, just the sight of ECT scared me so much that I didn't want to think about it?

At that time, I did not know that many organisations of "survivors of psychiatric services" are fighting against ECT, they feel that it is inhuman treatment and not useful. However, the textbooks of medicines continue to teach students about usefulness of ECT in certain conditions.


Tuesday, 16 January 2007

The Indian Way: Living in multi-cultural, multi-religious societies

The lady smiled at me. She was one of those culturally aware kinds who want to be sensitive to persons of other cultures. "I know you are not a Christian, but at least I can wish you for a happy new year." Meaning, she will not offend me by wishing me "Merry christmas"!

I guess that it is the western way of thinking that likes things to be neatly divided and separated and put into neat labelled boxes. Thus people with different religions and expected behaviours, the politically correct things to say about them, all are stored in those boxes. There is no place for ambiguity or confusion there.

Europe needs to respond and adapt to the multi-cultural societies, legacies of its colonial past, accelerated by growing globalisation and hordes of desperates who flee from underdeveloped world in makeshift boats to land on Spanish or Italian coasts, or crossing in from Eastern Europe. The European society, even with some differences between the Roman Catholics and the different protestant chruches, had long been uniform culturally, leaving aside some minorities. It is still groping for answers about how to deal with multiculturism imposed on it by the emigrants.

And so, for not offending the non Christians, some say, no more public lighting and displays for Christmas. Others like the lady above, feel that respecting other religions means not mentioning anything about your own religion to others.

Co-habitation between religions in India

I was thinking about the contrast of such thinking from my own growing up experience in India. For Gurupurab, I knew that the prabhat-feri passed very early in the morning, so I would wake up early to get my dose of kacchi lassi from the truck that came down from the Gurudwara, temple of the Sikhs.

Coming out from a Hindu temple, we did not ask people if they were Hindu, Muslim or Sikh before offering them a bit of prasad.

When Irene, our neighbour came with the plate of sweet seewiyan for Idd, we were taught to say, "Idd mubarak".

In the morning, when I saw Sajid bhai I would say Salaam Valekum and he would answer with a namastey. For the midnight mass of Christmas, more than once I went to the Cathedral near Gol Dakhana in Delhi and when everyone else around made the sign of cross, I also did. It was just another way of ringing the temple bell.

Religious ambiguity, the smudged confines between different religions, is part of Indian identity. By venturing in the other religions, by embracing them, by celebrating them you didn't loose your own identity.

Western preoccupation with neat separate categories

Perhaps that is part of Indian system of logic, I am asking myself. We have a particular way of thinking that does not seek the clean separate boxes with neat labels, so dear to the western thinking?

Sometime ago, I was reading a book that talked about a census carried out under British in early 1900s. During the census, a huge number of persons in Punjab had declared themselves to be Hindu-Sikhs. No, you can't be a Hindu-Sikh, you have to be either Hindu or Sikh, choose one, they were told. It laid the grounds for creating divisions among Hindus and Sikhs in Punjab, the book claimed.

Perhaps, the British did have a clear strategy for dividing and ruling India or perhaps this was just a by-product of western way of thinking that does not accept ambiguity that we seem to embrace?

In a world that is dominated by great conflicts between the three monotheistic religions Christians, Jews and Muslims, I sense that we are moving towards polarisations. Everyone seems closed in their own boundaries with common spaces bounded by rules that they call "tollerance and respect for all religions". To me, it seems a way of saying, I believe that I am superior, my religion is better, but I will not waste my time in telling you about it, so just lets not talk about it.

The way forward

This polarised way of thinking is seeping in India as well, by well meaning persons. Unfortunately.

But I think that there are lot of merits in our Indian way of reasoning, that does not call for "tollerance and respect", it calls for "embracing and acceptance" of the other.

We don't need to stop public displays of joy at Christmas, we need to extend it to other religions, so that we can celebrate festivals of others, like we celebrate our own.

May be western way of logical, rational thought, that prefers clean unambiguous answers is good for somethings like science and information technology, while our own Indian confused, inclusive, ambiguous way is better for other things, especially about religions and about living together!

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