Lonely in the times of Navratri

Past week has been less of religious significance for me, as compared to preceding several years of Navratri. Not that I am religious, but when you have grown up in an environment where almost everyone in the family is religious, these days add some sense of significance, in an otherwise banal life in this city. Staying away from home, I have been getting used to forgetting different festivals where we, under the pretext of fasting, ate lot of sabudana stuff. Whether it was Ekadashi, Mahashivratri or just some random day upwas. Monsoon season was my favorite in school days, because lots of festivals, and lots of holidays. The vacation mode continues till Diwali holidays. My mother being a teacher, sometimes used to complain that she is not finding time to complete syllabus and term exams are nearing. For me and my brother, it was one extra day of playing cricket on the street, on the ground or sometimes even in the small one meter wide balcony.

Waking up at around 7.30 A.M, doing some random exercises as it was raining and I was lazy to go out and run. Went out to savour my usual breakfast of Mysore Bonda followed by a cup of tea. The chaiwallah and the thelawallah both know me by now. I don’t have to utter a single word of Telugu or Hindi and unless I ask for a wada, instead of bonda, I am served with four hot pieces of Mysore Bonda with four different types of chutney. By the time I’m done with that, my tea is ready. Then I come home and usually read something, a book or daily dose of news articles. Today, office was closed and I had no enthusiasm of going and being there alone watching videos on YouTube or Amazon Prime like a purposeless zombie. So, instead I decided to read a book after customary ‘Happy Dussehra’ calls from home. Lunch when not at home is a huge task for me. My dinner place is open only in the evenings, and streets are otherwise lazy to serve me anything hot in the afternoon. So, today I instead settled for dry fruit lassi, which was more about dry fruits and less of a lassi, which is fine by me. In a bid to complete four books this month, today being the last day, I decided to read the last hundred pages of Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. That novel has become an ordeal for me, as I get lost in the book, and then need to find my way out. As I write this, I am still fifty pages away and I do not know if I will complete them today, and my Goodreads will have only three books finished in September. I can manipulate, stay up till late to finish, and convince myself that unless I sleep it is still September 30 for my body. Meanwhile, I also have to figure out my dinner.

Living alone, is a different challenge altogether. I told my friends who are living independently in cities that they have friends there. Yet they reply, “I know.I have been through it.” I don’t try to reason with them that this is not the same. I feel like, they don’t have the right to deny me my novelty, my unique existence in this city of Vizag, where most of the people speak Telugu and I end up playing dumb charades with them. I had the option of flying out of this place for the long weekend, but here I am, choosing to stay with my desolate misery. The only solace is internet and social media, which is also depressing by the day. But then, social media and WhatsApp has kept me going here, as I have become enslaved by the modern means of communication. I need them, more than they need me. I have still not broadcasted customary Happy Dussehra messages over WhatsApp to my contacts. I don’t know if I will today.

Over different posts and pictures over Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp, I know what different people, some of whom I have not met in over two years are doing over the long weekend. This makes me feel a bit lonelier, as I drown in self-pity. But I also reach out to fellow loners, in cities across the world. Some are busy swimming in self-pity, some are watching Ravana burn, and some are working. I know more lonely souls, but I decide not to message them. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is at work here. What if I message them and I come to know that they are enjoying the evening on some random beach, or on top of a mountain, or with their families. I will loathe myself for denying myself the opportunity. But then there’s also a possibility that I will have a virtual conversation with another loathing soul. But I decide to stay away from the effort and instead focus on writing this piece.

Loneliness is an island, and only the person can ultimately rescue themselves from it. One can keep swimming in the ocean of self-pity around the island, but ultimately there will come a time when the person will stop swimming, tired and disgusted. What option the person chooses then? The idea of solitude, I feel, is romanticized by movies, by books and what not. Humans, like any other animals, were designed to be social. But then here we are, in increasingly populating cities, loneliness is also increasing. Different individuals look at the same problem differently. Friends will advise me to go out, date women, make friends. But it’s not as if I never tried and will not try. But sometimes circumstances do not allow a person to do that. What is the choice then, go back to same solitude. Reading a book alone, drinking alone, or watching FRIENDS and wondering if I ever will have such life, despite knowing well that I won’t.

Clamdigger_Hopper.jpg
Clamdigger by Edward Hopper. Hopper managed to capture loneliness the way probably no painter could.

It was my birthday a few weeks ago. It was the loneliest birthday I ever celebrated. I thought I never cared much about birthdays, but I realized deep down, societal conditioning has made me care about it. Celebrating birthday alone, going out and drinking a beer alone, was unacceptable to myself. Lot of friends called to wish, and wondered how I celebrated the day. In the age of social media, birthdays have become a medium of PDA. Remove the birthday from Facebook, and you’ll realize beyond a certain group no one will care, no PDA nothing, nada. Try it, you’ll find yourself lonelier. We are a generation who have achieved nothing, yet we demand everything. We see people posting how happy they are on social media, and start aspiring for those lives, without wondering ever are they really happy? More and more people I know flock to US, Europe every year to study, posting picturesque autumn pictures and describing snowfalls. I know, some of them are lonely, living in a land away from their home, wondering if this will even make them happy than they were before.

lonely_social_media.jpg
We choose loneliness, and we are lonely. Social media is just an illusion that we are not. We seek continuous validation, ensuring friends will like and comment on a photo of sunset, or like and comment on a meme one just shared. This particular article is also a result of that. I cannot be away from social media, because it gets too depressing without it and even with it, I’m only slightly better off. I don’t know what really prompted me to write this. But it was largely a result of Rana Dasgupta’s essay on teenagers performing live suicides over social media. It’s an increasingly worrying scenario we are living in. Internet and social media has given us the option to connect with people in any corner of the world. Yet, some people are instead withdrawing themselves, only getting lonelier and ultimately rejecting life by choosing suicide. Albert Camus’ seminal essay, ‘The myth of Sisyphus’, begins with the line-  “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.
Sisyphus.gif
Illustration from a Medium Post about the essay, ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’.
I do not know why I felt like writing all this, but I thought I should. To all the lonely souls out there, #YNWA – You Never Walk Alone. We are in this together. It’s time for dinner, and I need to venture out like a rat to scout for my food.
Advertisements

Sanitary Napkin donation in a local school

I am working with Hon’ble Member of Parliament, Dr. Kambhampati Haribabu, in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh. As a part of my efforts to generate awareness regarding sanitation in local schools, I have launched a small fundraiser to donate one month supply of sanitary napkins to a Govt. School here in Vizag. The napkins will be manufactured by a local NGO which employs physically challenged women, giving them livelihood to support hem and their families.

Sanitation, an important and essential aspect, of our daily lives has largely been overlooked in India until recent times. With Swachh Bharat and awareness generation, various issues which were earlier not thought of or overlooked upon have come to light. In case of schools, it is the need for a proper, functional girls’ toilet and the lack of protection against menstruation.

 

As per a survey done by AC Nielsen in 2010, lack of adequate menstrual protection leads to girls missing out on average about 5 days a month of school. Around 23% of girls drop out altogether after they start menstruating. About 80% women in India cannot afford sanitary napkins. Menstruation, something natural and physiological for women, is largely seen as a taboo in Indian society and not talked about openly.

So, to generate awareness on the issue, not just in the school but also among the local administration, I decided to take up this initiative. I am collaborating with fellow alumni friends from VNIT, who run Donatekart. You’ll be able to donate in kind to the NGO, post which napkins will be manufactured and donated to the school girls. In association with Rotary Club of Vizag Central, we will also conduct awareness camp by psychologists and gynecologists in the school. We plan to donate 700 packets and I’m hopeful that this campaign would be a success.

This is just a small drop in ocean, but then Rome was not built in a day. Do contribute by clicking on this link and share among your circles.

Thanks a lot!
girls_school.jpg

Lost

Pink skies and wide roads,
solitary love and unrequited souls
In search of meaning and purpose,
Lost in fallow crowd,
and discovering rusty cities.
Exhumed passions and this incessant boredom.
Listening to slumbered songs,
and reading moribund books.
Oh! The ruined poets,
and their mutilated poems.
Just like these wretched words,
by a cowardly hand,
Amidst this feeble life.

– Shantanu

 

IMG_20170803_214841_536.jpg

Fandry – The lived experience of caste

Pigs are controversial species to humankind. Muslims don’t eat pork and so do most of the upper caste Hindus. Personally speaking, I haven’t made peace yet with the idea of eating pork, a dead pig nor a dead cow or a dead buffalo. It’s something deeply entrenched in my own Brahminical conscience. I remember an experience from my childhood, I was napping in the afternoon and I heard a pig squealing. I rushed to the terrace and saw two men chasing a pig and finally catching it, and tying it. I was distressed by the sight at that time. I asked my father later, as to what would they do with it. He calmly replied, “They’ll kill and eat it.” I was aghast, “Eat a pig? How? Why?” He replied, “Well people eat cows, dogs, and snakes as well.” I was astounded by that reply.

fandry-head-1140x760

The movie, Fandry, is about a boy, Jabya, who is reluctant to chase pigs like his father does. They belong to a marginalized nomad group called Kaikadi. Fandry means a pig in Kaikadi language. The movie in its subtle ways builds up how Jabya is ashamed of his caste, reluctant to work like his parents – chase pigs, labour to build houses, dig trenches, cut wood, etc. He is smitten by Shalu, an upper caste girl in his class and dreams about her, while increasingly becoming conscious of his own identity, his looks, his skin colour, his poverty, and his caste. In a sequence, Patil family (upper caste land-owning community) asks Jabya to rescue a piglet stuck in a trench in front of their house. Jabya denies it, which surprises Patils, who then call his father (Kachru Mane) to take out the piglet.  The last half an hour of the movie is a sequence where the whole Mane family is chasing pigs in a wasteland outside Jabya’s school. Jabya is shown reluctant to catch pigs while his old father, out of compulsion to arrange money for daughter’s wedding, is relentlessly doing so. Kachru, tired and angry, that Jabya is busy hiding, beats up Jabya in front of all school kids. Jabya and Kachru, are ultimately successful, in catching the pig. While going back to their house, carrying the pig, Jabya is crying, ashamed and insulted in front of his friends. Meanwhile, upper caste boys tease Jabya and his sisters, call them ‘Fandry’. Jabya, sad and agonized, pelts stone at them, resorting to violence ultimately, to overcome his caste, to protest the discrimination.

The movie is a reflection on Nagraj Manjule’s (Director of the film) own life. Films like Fandry, are a rarity in India, a country obsessed about caste and religion, yet watches movies that are far away from reality. Artists like Manjule (who also directed Sairat) are perhaps rarer. Film artists publicly speaking against caste oppression, participating in protests is something unheard of for Indian film audience. Manjule not only does that, but has chosen a powerful medium like films to voice against that discrimination. One of my favourite sequence of the film is where Mane family is chasing pigs, and the national anthem starts. The pig is within the hold of Kachru and Jabya but both stand still for the anthem while the pig runs away. The film starkly showcases the absurdity of the whole endeavour. In a powerful imagery, Jabya and his family, is seen taking the pig amidst the backdrop of a wall with paintings of Dr. Ambedkar, Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, etc.

The film shakes you from within. This film is a story of the lived experience of caste, the experience of marginalization, the dent to self-confidence of a person. This article by Mint, gives glimpses of Manjule’s childhood struggle and loneliness growing up. I have previously written a blog article titled, Kanjar, where I have narrated an incident of how we came across children whose parents were perceived to be drunkards and cannibals. In another blog article, I have narrated how language we know and speak, also can lead to alienation. Dr. Ambedkar wrote a landmark essay titled, ‘Annihilation of Caste’, where he argues and viciously attacks the caste practices in sub-continent. The essay has been published on Columbia University’s website, click here.

dalits20beaten20up20gujarat
Cow terror in Una, Gujarat.

I first heard of the movie four years back, in 2013, when it was released. A friend told me that ‘Fandry’ means pig. And we both laughed. A movie about chasing pigs won the national award! A movie about chasing pigs, sounds absurd, at first. Yet we are normalized to caste, people chasing people over religion. Yet we are normalized to lynchings and deaths.  Only if I had lived chasing wild pigs, cleaning toilets, disposing off cows, I wouldn’t have laughed. I would have watched that movie back then. or probably never, for it would have reminded me of the insults, the humiliation. But I have not lived that experience, and it took me four years to watch a landmark movie. I did not laugh during the movie. I was sad, aghast, and agonized just like Jabya.

 

Lost Stories

This is a quote from a wonderful book I recently stumbled upon.

“A happy love is a single story, a disintegrating one is two or more competing, conflicting versions, and a disintegrated one lies at your feet like a shattered mirror, each shard reflecting a different story, that it was wonderful, that it was terrible, if only this had, if only that hadn’t.

The stories don’t fit back together, and it’s the end of stories, those devices we carry like shells and shields and blinkers and occasionally maps and compasses. The people close to you become mirrors and journals in which you record your history, the instruments that help you know yourself and remember yourself, and you do the same for them. When they vanish so does the use, the appreciation, the understanding of those small anecdotes, catchphrases, jokes: they become a book slammed shut or burnt.

The stories shatter. Or you wear them out or leave them behind. Over time the story or the memory loses its power. Over time you become someone else.”

– Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Postcard from Vizag

Today instead of sending a poem,
Sending you a postcard.
Just to let you know,
That I am fine,
Away from home,
Away from the world I know,
I am fine.
I won’t ask, ‘How you doin?’
The reply I know is ‘fine’.
Vizag is beautiful,
Not that you’ll be jealous.
Just thought of letting you know.
Silenced, among the strange voices.
Confused and bemused.
Just to let you know.
Doing my part like the ocean does,
Rages from miles,
Promising to meet the land.
Promise is eternal,
And the meet ephemeral.
Hope it reaches you,
It won’t be in any wrap.
Open and bare,
Like your wounds and mine.
Would you read this time?
Smell it, see it.
Does it feel different?
– Shantanu
Vizag_Postcard

Immortality

Immortality, is a typical Kundera read, about a few characters. One is not just reading a story, where things happen sequentially, here Kundera is in conversation with you.  Kundera dissects the characters, explaining what they are thinking, the philosophy, his usual digressions.

“To be mortal is the most basic human experience, and yet man has never been able to accept it, grasp it, and behave accordingly. Man doesn’t know how to be mortal. And when he dies, he doesn’t even know how to be dead.”

Kundera writes about minor immortality, where a person is immortal in the memory of those who knew the person, and the great immortality, where a person is alive even in the memory of those who did not know him personally. The novel was written in 1990, before the advent of the Internet. I am curious to know what’d Kundera think now?  Taking a selfie with some actor or a politician and uploading it on social media, is our way to feel a part of that great immortality and in turn aspiring for it as well. Most of us are in search of that immortality, and social media gives an outlet for us, a chance to continuously let people know that we exist. But when the time comes, when we know that we will die at certain point in our lives, what will happen to all the updates, photos, and selfies posted on our social media account? Do we delete the accounts and wither off? Or do we die and let our comments, likes, and dislikes, linger in the virtual world, achieving immortality somewhere. Ensuring that we do not die with the memories. The memories exist on Internet, a proof that we lived.

https://shantanug.files.wordpress.com/2017/05/2de90-6a00d83451c79e69e2017ee9f5593f970d-pi.jpg?w=698&h=698

While reading the book, I came across a fascinating word, which probably Kundera has coined, ‘imagologue’. Kundera writes, “Public opinion polls are the critical instrument of imagology’s power, because they enable imagology to live in absolute harmony with the people. The imagologue bombards people with questions: how is the French economy prospering? is there racism in France? is racism good or bad? who is the greatest writer of all time? is Hungary in Europe or Polynesia? which world politician is the sexiest? And since for contemporary man reality is a continent visited less and less often and, besides, justifiably disliked, the findings of polls have become the truth. Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function it is to create truth, the most democratic truth that has ever existed.” Opinion polls about Trump losing, or Hilary winning, all create truth, because that is what the public believes.

Kundera further writes, “The politician is dependent on the journalist. On whom are the journalists dependent? On imagologues. The imagologue is a person of conviction and principle: he demands of the journalist that his newspaper (or TV channel, radio station) reflect the imagological system of a given moment. And this is what imagologues check from time to time when they are trying to decide which newspaper to support.” What Kundera has written is eerily similar to the times we live in. Where a famous journalist from India caters to the imagologue, and declares that, ‘if one has to be a journalist, one needs to be a nationalist first.’ Everyone wants their slice of the great immortality perhaps, journalists are no exception.

To Aadhaar or Not to Aadhaar?

‘To Aadhaar or not to Aadhaar?’, is no longer a question. Government after passing the Aadhaar Act of 2016 as a money bill sent out a strong statement that Aadhaar is here to stay. Despite repeated orders from Supreme Court that Aadhaar cannot be made mandatory for welfare schemes, Government has gone ahead notifying Aadhaar as requirement for several things, including appearing for IIT-JEE! The government has vaguely assured or not assured privacy in the bills it has passed so far. For ‘national security’ reasons, Aadhaar details can be accessed by the bureaucrats. Now how do we define ‘national security’ here? Is slogan-raising Kanhaiya from JNU also a threat to a nuclear nation called India? Or MS Dhoni whose details were out on Twitter, also a threat to national security despite being a member of Territorial Army? Well, I agree, that we do need to start somewhere and the safeguards would be put up in place in the meantime.

The debate for privacy, as per some, in itself is elitist. What India needs right now is development, and Aadhaar is the key to that development. It has the potential to stop leakages (as in LPG subsidy), the benefits will directly reach the bank accounts, and more people would benefit from the system rather than a handful few. Imagine a poor village boy getting 1000 Rs. scholarship per month and getting the whole money without any hassle. The long term objective it seems is to make Unique Identification Number a repository of report cards, degrees, mobile numbers, bank transactions, jobs, travel journeys, etc. Anyone who can access the information will know probably know it all. Oh wait! How is this a privacy concern? Isn’t this uncannily similar to you accepting friend request of someone you have met once or twice? The newly added person now can know it all, all your posts, your photos, your good friends, your political beliefs, etc. Except, we do have a choice here. We have a choice to not use Facebook, or WhatsApp. We have a choice to not use Google, or Android phones. Privacy, they say, is a myth in twenty first century. Probably, yes. But then do we surrender it all? What choices are in front of us, at this juncture? With Aadhaar, for now, there is none. If we want to usher new era of development in India, Aadhaar is the way to go, at least that’s what Government is trying to say.

There are more than 1.1 Billion Aadhaar card holders in India now. In a matter of 6-7 years, we have created and successfully implemented a platform that if monetized can challenge the likes of Google and Facebook, writes, R Jagannathan of Swarajya. Though there’s no way to substantiate this claim, but it is still a valid argument. The data Aadhaar has is huge, and Jio and other telecom operators have banked on it successfully with e-KYC. But the argument that this data can be monetized, in itself, should be a valid concern. Do I have a choice, if I do not wish my data to be monetized. No. Aadhaar, though, has immense potential for data-driven governance to be implemented in a right manner. If the data is collected and segregated properly, the government will have a good idea of how much money is it spending and in which areas. Which areas should be targeted better, what can be done to improve facilities, etc. For proper implementation of Aadhaar-based services, proper technology and infrastructure needs to be put up in place. That itself is a big challenge. What if a farmer in Odisha goes to ration shop, only to realize his biometric authentication is not matching. This is not fiction, this has happened, and the UIDAI has admitted that it constantly monitors such happenings. The only hope is things will get better in coming years.

With government, having the authority to see all its citizens in their nakedness, the question arises, is the Government now the ultimate authority in a democracy? Replies to RTIs are being denied, uncomfortable questions are increasingly being seen as a threat to ‘positive’ nation-building exercise, whatever that means.  More and more media channels have become more like a mouthpiece of the Government, and the few those who do question are labelled as ‘presstitutes’ and ‘anti-nationals’. Now, if the State is all-powerful in a democracy, and citizens are denied a basic right to question, the question indeed is, whether the Big Brother is winning?

On the question of privacy:

This article in Scroll argues, that Aadhaar is being turned into world’s biggest surveillance system.

This article from The Wire takes on the privacy debate, with declaring that privacy is dead with Aadhaar.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta, in The Indian Express, eerily suggests that the Big Brother is winning.

This article on mashable.com, also argues that Aadhaar is a privacy nightmare.

Other related links:

A recent paper, by Vrinda Bhandari and Renuka Sane, puts up the question whether Aadhaar is grounded in adequate law and regulations. Find the article from Swarajya here.

Sunil Abraham, in Hindu Businessline, questions the security of Aadhaar. Find the article here.

Farhan Shaikh, in Swarajya, argues that we need Aadhaar to bank on India’s demographic challenges.

Some other issues that need UIDAI’s attention.

Scroll.in has run a series on Aadhaar, since last couple of years, named The Identity Project.

Aadhar_Baalak.jpg

Blemished

My face,
My love,
Is not without its blemishes.
Out in the sun and the moon,
Tanned, and scarred.
No pretense.

My face,
My love,
Is adulterated.
By hundreds of imperfections,
By thousands of memories.
Daunted and haunted.

My face,
My love,
Is not the best in the world.
But it is one of the many.
Smiling amidst heartbreaks,
Crying and laughing,
With you or without you.

My face,
My love,
Is not without its blemishes,
Is adulterated,
Is big enough to see and be seen,
Yet not enough,
To love and be loved.

शंतनु ( Shantanu )

Frida Kahlo: Self-portrait with thorn necklace