For the love of books

Some of the most pleasurable memories I have are of the days when my mum and I used to walk down Cuffe Parade to Metsons library. It was a sacred ritual for us. We would go in the early evening, usually in the beginning of the week, carrying a big bag of books that we would be returning. It’s almost impossible to describe what I felt every time I entered that tiny library filled with books from top to bottom. A rush of happiness seems like too simple a phrase to describe it but that’s what it was. In fact even writing this is making me smile and bringing me that same rush. A tingle in my palms that would only go away once I started pulling out books, reading the back covers or skimming through the contents to decide if they were worth borrowing.

To get Mohan the librarian to take out some of his hidden stock of new books for his most voracious readers like us, was a particularly important and exciting part of the ritual. I think every Indian has that bargaining gene that manifests itself in the oddest of places. My mum never bargained with the vegetable vendor but she and I sure did bargain with Mohan about how many books we could borrow. Always trying to convince him to let us take more books than what was allowed. I must say here that we were almost always successful thanks to my fervent pleading and cajoling. I was all of 14 at the time and 14 year olds are exceedingly good at wearing down resistance. They practice constantly with their parents.

Whenever we left the library, our bags that would be bulging with books never felt heavy. In fact we felt so light and joyous, almost like we were floating. Once we got home I couldn’t wait for dinner to be over so that I could go to my bedroom to start the next part of the ritual, which was choosing what book to read first. The pleasure of having that stack of books on my nightstand and the anticipation of a new story was incomparable.

There’s nothing like the deep calm that comes over you when your mind is deeply engaged in the words in front of you. It’s an unparalleled feeling. I am now 55 and the feeling hasn’t changed one bit. The medium might have changed over time but the feeling definitely hasn’t. In fact nowadays that feeling, that rush, is there almost throughout the day. My kindle makes me feel like I live in a book store. What a truly blissful place to live. All the world’s books just a touch away!

I never in my wildest dreams could have imagined something so beautiful. I know ‘beautiful’ might not be the word you think of, but to me it’s just that. Beautiful that I have a library of books with me every single moment of every single day. It’s like a wish that I made on a mythical wishing chair came true. It almost seems like someone read the collective consciousness of all readers across the universe and decided to make our dreams come true. I know some people say that they love reading but can only read the printed book. They say they could never read on the kindle because they like and need the feel of paper. For me, the shift has been seamless. Never a moment of doubt or uncertainty. Because to me the medium is not as important as the story. I read because I love the words. I love the way a story consumes me. I love the way it becomes my story, the way it takes over my life for those few days or moments.

Books are the sole reason that I have never ever felt bored or lonely. In life’s most trying moments they have been my escape and my lifeline. As a little girl of 8, my way of dealing with the pain of anti rabies injections was a visit to the bookstore right after. Ever since then, books have always healed me. Straightened a world that might be tilting.

From all the many gifts that my mother gave me, this is the one that connects me the most to her. She gave a shy introverted little girl a gift of such unique meaning…a gift of a lifelong friend. A vanquisher of loneliness forever. A friend that would stand the test of time and who would be by her daughter’s side even when she couldn’t be. One who could always make everything better and who would be a refuge during any storm.

I couldn’t have asked for more.

A letter to one, a letter to all.

Dear Depression,

I am sure you must be so sick and tired of trending on every social media platform in the country.

The incessant chatter about you.. everyone thinking they know and understand you, everyone underestimating your complexity and everyone being an expert at defeating you.

I know you want to tell people “Hey please don’t talk about me as if you know me or know my power. Please take a moment to read up on me and educate yourselves before you speak about me.”

I know that you want to explain to people that you can’t help yourself once you get your deadly grip on someone. That you are unable to let go. That the grip can’t just be released by having friends or even talking to a friend. I know you want to tell people that you wish it were so simple.

I know you want to tell people that the only way to get rid of you is to go to a mental health professional. I know you want people to understand that talking to an untrained person is not the solution, that their responses can often make your grip deathly or at the very least tighter.

I know you must be laughing at the idiocy of many people who don’t recognise you as a very scary sickness. I know you wonder how a species so quick to run to a doctor for a little flatulence is unable to see you for what you are.. An illness.

I know you want to tell people that you don’t look at money, fame or success when you decide to attack someone. I know you don’t want to be who you are but you can’t help yourself. That once you get into a host you take over. I know you pray that well meaning but ill informed people would just learn to not comment on you.

I know that you get offended when people mention your name so casually in every day conversation. Statements like “I’m feeling depressed because my job interview didn’t go well” or “I’m depressed today because I had a fight with my husband last night”.

I know you want to shake people when they mistake you for sadness or grief. “I am different, so very different.” you want to scream,

“I am more powerful because I am not situational. I am all pervading and I can come without any warning. I don’t need any tragic or challenging event to make my presence felt. I am an illness and so I can’t be wished away, fixed or vanquished by chatting with friends. To defeat me you need treatment in the form of medications and therapy. Psychiatrists and Psychologists study and train for years to help people get rid of me.”

I know you want to tell people “Watch out for me. If you see my shadow over your loved one, intervene by directing them to a trained mental health professional, just like you would direct them to an Oncologist if they had cancer.

I am not the opposite of happiness. I am the opposite of healthy. I am ill health. Please see me for what I am.” you plead.

I know you feel like shouting from rooftops and crying to the world to take you seriously and to see you for what you are.. An illness.

I want you to know, that though I can’t change people and all their misconceptions about you, I do promise to try.

Yours truly

Sagari

SOMETIMES PROMISES ARE MEANT TO BE BROKEN

Year 2000 and a promise I made to myself..Never again.

Never again will I be sucked into taking care and loving like this. Never again will I invest so much of my time in this. Never again will I open my heart, my home, my everything like this. Never again will I allow myself to be so heartbroken. Never again will I allow myself to miss someone so badly.

Here I just have to say “Cut to” (we are in the heart of Bollywood after all) 18 years later. The year I succumbed and how. Yielded to all the pressure from the family. Invited trouble again and how..

A little 7 week old teeeny tiny bundle of furry cuteness.

My baby Meredith.

Now baby Meredith was super cute when she arrived but she went on to be the stuff of all moms’ worst nightmares about their adolescent children.

In short that bundle of helpless cuteness morphed into a little alpha female brat. Running around the whole house, terrorising every human in her way. All of us trying to avoid the very sharp little baby teeth in what became her favourite game. It was called ‘Let’s taste the humans’ and all of us were fair game. She was the boss and everyone at home was slowly getting more and more frightened. The dichotomy was that she was a real Jekyll & Hyde, very affectionate but very snappy at the same time. That was seriously confusing to us.

5 months down the line and I was truly fed up and distraught. I was also horrified that I felt this way. I had always thought of myself as a dog person and I was deeply disappointed in myself. How is it possible, I asked myself. How is it possible that I am struggling? What am I doing wrong?

I also found myself constantly comparing her to my mild tempered little Floozie, whose devastating death in 2000 is the reason I made that promise to myself.

I asked all my doggie parent friends but no one could really solve my problem. My increasing anxiety got transmitted to her and made the problem worse. When she was good she was very cute but when she went crazy there was no way to avoid the nips & bites. I just couldn’t see the way forward.

Then one day we met someone. A miracle worker I would say. The details too long to go into here but let’s just say it was a transformation for both Meredith & us.

As they say in self awareness classes, Meredith realised her true potential and her real character was unveiled. Somewhere along the way of her doing that, our roles also got reversed, and I became the alpha in her life.

My baby turned into this adorable little bundle of love. Her snaps turned into licks and her tail hasn’t stopped wagging.

A dog is really the most marvellous creation on earth. Their love is at a level that can never be matched by any human. No one is quite as happy to see us when we come home as Meredith is. She definitely has her favourites, but she doles out her love and licks quite equitably so that none of us get too jealous.

I swear to you, sometimes I feel like she understands English and Hindi and knows when we are talking about her.

She hates it when we spend too much time on our phones, making it clear that her soul is from a time before technology.

If it’s bedtime and we have the tv on too loud or are still talking, she sighs loudly and sighs again even louder, in case we didn’t hear it the first time. Eventually stalking off the bed in a sulk when we don’t acquiescence.

She also has this wonderful ability to read time, I’m not kidding you, it’s true. She rouses herself from deep dead to the world sleep at exactly 5:30pm every evening & finds her way to the front door for her walk. She can be found unerringly outside the kitchen door at all her meal times like clockwork, on the dot. Now if that’s not reading time, tell me what is.

She’s also a mind reader. She knows when we’re in the mood to play or when we’re in the mood to cuddle and adjusts her behaviour accordingly.

Meredith is the only dog I know who loves her doctor, most of the credit there to our vet but a little bit also to her because she is a real people “person/doggo”.

She wants to meet and greet everyone and is sometimes perplexed by the occasional non dog person who comes to our house. She’s always trying to win them over.

Madam is the belle of the ball with the neighbourhood pets and strays. She’s quite the liberal and loves both equally, with no discrimination between the haves and the have nots. In fact if you ask me she has a slight soft spot for the little indies.

In short, Meredith is literally the wind beneath our wings.

The collective reason we all wake up every morning being happily licked clean of all our worries & stress. Our days start and end with her.

There was a time before Meredith and there’s now. Now is infinitely indescribably better!

INTENT VS IMPACT

I recently stumbled across a short film, a PSA by Tata Trust, which many people described as heart warming. I wish I felt heart warmed but what I really felt was quite the opposite. The film was made to encourage citizens to segregate waste better & provide better conditions to sanitation workers. You might be thinking “What’s wrong with that?” Encouraging people to segregate waste properly is a needed initiative and I have no doubt that the intent was well meaning.

But let’s look at intent V/S impact.

All I could think about while watching the film, was how it makes manual scavenging look like a courageous option, almost a vocation, a calling, a profession that a person chooses willingly. The harsh reality is that nothing could be further from the truth. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, it depicts a child of a sewage worker describing his father as a heroic citizen who runs the country. Sounds wonderful right?

However, and I quote “The International Labour Organization describes three forms of manual scavenging in India:

1)Removal of human excrement from public streets and “dry latrines” (meaning simple pit latrines without a water seal, but not dry toilets in general)

2)Cleaning septic tanks

3)Cleaning gutters and sewers In addition manual cleaning of railway lines of excreta dropped from toilets of trains is another form of manual scavenging in India.”

Let’s start with understanding one important truth; A person who does this job doesn’t do it from choice. It’s a caste driven profession thrust on him by generations of Indians practising Inequality. It is intrinsically integrated with caste, where Dalits form the backbone of this abhorrent manner of manually cleaning and clearing human waste. I might be stretching it here, but a 2000 year old culture/civilisation that allows its people to do this, has no real right to call itself civilised! There’s a flaw in this narrative that we feed ourselves. 

The film makes a hero out of this man. He is his son’s hero, which is great. Every parent should be a hero to their child. But my point here is that, when we as a society make a hero out of him, we legitimatise a profession that is illegitimate and illegal. It’s not like he had any options, and when we make it seem like he did, it becomes easy for us to wash our hands off it and look the other way. A film like this that makes it seem like he chose to be India’s sanitary soldier, that he chose to work in the most hazardous unsanitary conditions known to man, a film like this that glorifies and puts false values of pride in his work is almost as dangerous as the job he does. It gives him no out. It inherently works to retain the class and caste divide so as to keep him firmly in his place. If you really want to uplift him then help him get out of that gutter that generations of us have put him in. Start a campaign to stop this practice instead of justifying it! We should not want to “better” his working conditions, we should aim to do away with it altogether, don’t you think?

“In 2013, the Government of India for the first time acknowledged the cleaning of dry toilets as manual scavenging and made it an illegal offence, punishable by up to two years of imprisonment. However, so far no convictions have been made under the law.Oct 5, 2018”

His son shouldn’t have to go in front of his peers in a classroom and defend the indefensible. It’s unpardonable that a human has to do this perilous job that is done by machines in most of the world. “Mera papa desh chalata hain” is the slogan, but the real question is why? Why should he have to do a job that deprives him of his health & dignity? What he needs instead of these films that unknowingly work to retain the status quo, and “keep him in his place” is for people to fight in his corner. He would have been better served if big corporates & concerned citizens would raise awareness on how to stop this practice. His son doesn’t need a “heroic” father who is dead.

When we see a person going into a manhole or gutter and we drive by without a second look, his death in a way is on us isn’t it? We are all collectively part of the system that keeps him there. Speaking for myself I know I have looked the other way. Hell in this country it’s just easier to turn a blind eye isn’t it? But maybe we can be part of the solution by starting the conversation. Maybe we start by asking ourselves why the Government of India, in over 70 years of independence hasn’t found a solution! Is it because some people’s lives are valued higher than others? Is it that these particular set of people, have historically been treated as expendable in this country of ours? How long will we allow them to be seen as worthless?

Is Legislation enough of a solution? Or do we as a society & citizenry have to be more involved in ensuring that the law is upheld in our cities, towns and municipalities? It’s probably both I would think. But whatever the solution, the one thing I do know is that a film like this does not help. To my mind if the subtext is wrong then the intent has no meaning. 

It is immoral to glorify this job that shouldn’t be a job in the first place. No child should ever have to say what the kid says in the film.

No “Desh” or Country should have to run on the corpses of its poorest & weakest.