Wednesday, October 4, 2017

How to Be a Hero


(This was written as an editorial for Oikyotaan, which is the annual magazine of the Bengali Association of Western Australia).


There is a reason why superhero movies are so popular amongst children and adults alike. The persona of a courageous saviour, who is unfazed in times of danger, is fascinating. But while these movies “fascinate” us, they rarely “inspire” us to be courageous ourselves. We attribute the superhero’s courage to the special powers they have. Some can fly. Others have subconscious ability to sense everything in their surroundings. Clearly, we can’t do either. So, we conclude that such death-defying acts of bravery for the greater good of mankind, are not something we are capable of. But what if I told you that courage has little to do with special powers? What if I told you that heroism may not be an innate quality but something that can be learned? There have been conjectures about the existence of a “hero gene”, which makes some people more courageous than others. But no evidence has been found to support it. In fact, research has proven that each one of us have it in us to be heroes.

But who is a hero anyway? We often loosely use the term for a celebrity, a positive role model or a powerful sports figure. But a hero is an ordinary person who does extraordinary things in the face of crisis, with great risk to themselves, without any expectation of reward. Turns out, there are two types of heroes – reflective and impulsive. “Reflective” heroes are the ones who carefully planned a course of action to oppose injustice or immorality. They are the ones who dedicated their lives in the service of others. “Impulsive” heroes are those who risked their lives/safety in the face of an unforeseen crisis (accidents, natural calamities, criminal violence) to save the lives of strangers. Armed with a clear understanding of what heroism is, I started looking at the lives of a few reflective heroes whose stories touched me.

Subhasini Mistry, an illiterate, poor woman in West Bengal, who lost her husband at 23 due to medical negligence, dreams of building a hospital for the poor. And by sheer hard work, grit and selflessness, she goes on to build the Humanity Hospital, which offers free medical treatment to thousands of people today.

Sunitha Krishnan, a victim of gang rape, dreams of rescuing other rape victims like her. She goes on to become a social activist, chief functionary and co-founder of Prajwala, a non-governmental organisation that rescues, rehabilitates and reintegrates sex-trafficked victims into society.

Sanjeev Kumar, a smart, young, successful man, leaves a promising MBA career to fight for the rights of unknown people in a distant village. When his colleagues and friends were probably relocating to foreign lands that hold a better promise for the “house-car-vacation” dream, he relocates to a village and spends the crucial years of his life fighting against untouchability and caste system through his organisation, the Bahishkrit Hitkari Sangathan.

Naseema Hurzuk, paraplegic at the age of 16, dreams to help others with similar problems. She confesses how at one point in her life, she just didn’t want to live anymore. From there, she goes on to open an organisation called Helpers of the Handicapped, which inspires thousands of people with disabilities to live happy, self-sufficient lives.

What gave them the optimism and courage to do something about a problem, instead of taking the easy option of blaming others/government/infrastructure and saying “This country will never change” or “What can I do?” or worse still “Why should I do it; it’s not my problem.”?
What made these people rise above the feelings of anger, hopelessness and self-pity? Why didn’t they just shut their eyes to the suffering of strangers, like most others do?

Naseema’s words at the end of an interview provide answers, to a certain degree, “When you don’t feel like living for yourself, you must learn to live for others”.

This concept of “living for others” is alien to the vast majority of people. For most of us, “others” consist of our immediate family. The biggest sacrifices we are capable of making are the ones for our own children.  Sometimes, even making small life adjustments for our own parents seem too difficult. At the most, we’ll lend money to a friend in need or sponsor the education of underprivileged kids through our preferred charity. And we think that’s enough workout for our conscience. But we take care not to do anything that disturbs the pattern of our lives. While any sort of good is good, as the saying goes “A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.”

And that is exactly what Subhasini, Sunitha and Naseema did. They were ordinary people who faced immense personal tragedies themselves. It’s probably their own crisis that helped them empathise with others like them. Instead of letting their despair crush them, they used it to fuel their altruism. Studies have shown that people who suffered from a childhood illness or loss that tested their resilience were more likely to be unselfish and heroic.

But this does not mean that people who don’t face traumas cannot become heroes. My curiosity led me to the work of several psychologists, including Philip Zimbardo (professor emeritus of Psychology at Stanford University), who believe that each one of us can be heroic, if we are trained to. The key is to develop our “heroic imagination”, to envisage how we might act in the heat of a dangerous moment, what dilemmas we might face, and how we would deal with them. This belief led to the birth of the Heroic Imagination Project, an organisation that “encourages and empowers individuals to take heroic action during crucial moments in their lives”.  Turns out, by setting ourselves small challenges, we can cultivate a personal habit of bravery, which equips us for facing the real thing.

Another series of studies was done on the rescuers of Jews in Nazi Europe. Very few did what they did: rescue strangers at great risk to themselves, with no expectation of reward. One finding was that, “as children, the rescuers experienced one or more of the following: a nurturing, loving home; an altruistic parent or beloved caretaker; a tolerance for people who were different; an immense personal loss; an emphasis upon independence, discipline with explanations, and caring”. This suggested that altruism can be learned. What the children learned every day from their parents—kindness and tolerance and independent thinking—helps explain why they became rescuers. These values became so habitual that personal risk did not prevent them from doing the right thing.

If these studies are to be believed (and I don’t see why we shouldn’t), heroism/altruism can be learned and it is our responsibility to inculcate it in ourselves and our children. While the emphasis on literacy and sports (in schools and at homes) has its own benefits, the development of the “heroic imagination” cannot be negated. And if the question “what’s in it for me?” does arise, researchers have answers for that too.

Turns out that being heroic is not only good for society at large but also the individual. “Fostering a clear idea of a personal heroic ideal can help guide a person in times of trouble, or moral uncertainty,” says Philip Zimbardo. And then there is “the helper’s high”, which is the euphoria we feel when we engage in altruistic behaviour.
Phycologists also claim that many cases of post-traumatic stress disorder are actually caused not so much by the traumatic event itself, but because of the person’s “inaction” (or the “bystander effect”) at the time of the crisis. Their conscience did not let them live in peace. So, heroism does help us live better.

As residents of a first-world country, we are safe from the world’s worst perils (poverty, war, illiteracy etc.). We do have the luxury of focusing on heroism and altruism. We can bring up children who are more aware, more prepared. It’s high time the media and entertainment industry made real-life heroes more popular than superheroes. If we had more animation movies, books and shows on the lives of real heroes, our children would see how they could become heroes themselves. And maybe one day, even if its years from now, children would want to have Subhasini Mistry-themed birthday parties (instead of Batman and Wonder Woman). 

As always, we hope that Oikyotaan this year takes you on a journey. From the dark alleys of science, through Myanmar…straight to Jupiter, on a witch’s broom! When you read the articles, you’ll know what I mean. Apart from the varied contributions of the writers and artists of our Bengali community, you will find stories of ordinary men and women around the world, who saved the lives of strangers. We hope you find them inspiring.

If there is one resolution we make this festive season, let’s make it about something for the higher good. “The call might only come once in your life, and if you pass it by, you’ll always know, ‘I could have been a hero… and I let it pass me by’...” But until that time comes, let’s develop our heroic imagination with small, selfless acts. Donating blood, helping a stranger in a roadside emergency, donating our time/service/resources for a natural disaster appeal or an old age home or an animal rescue shelter – whatever be our cause, whatever be our limitations, we can all break free from our self-centred routines. And when the time comes, let’s hope we can all rise to the occasion and be heroes too.
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Sharod Shubhechha from the entire team of Oikyotaan 2017 (volunteers, contributors, sponsors and supporters). Ma Durga may have had many superpowers, but she was heroic nonetheless. Learning from her would be the best way to worship her.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Why I voted "yes"...


Sexuality, like our bodies, is a real thing. However, the two are not mutually dependent. Privileged are those who are born with bodies that comply with societal norms of sexuality. The problem is, like many things, societal norms became misconstrued to be “natural” or “normal”.

When language was evolving, “male” and “female” were words “we” came up with, based on our body types.  It was still early days for our civilization. Our imagination, like our language, was limited. We couldn’t think beyond what we saw (except for religion, where everything was founded on faith and not evidence). The Earth was believed to be the centre of the universe, as it fitted well with our mundane observations. But this Geocentric Theory couldn’t explain the retrograde motion of some planets. Did that mean those planets were not “normal”? Probably not. It meant that our theory wasn’t right.  And that’s what Galileo proved when he revived the Heliocentric Theory (already proven by Copernicus) by observing the motion of Jupiter’s moons. The Earth was not the centre of the universe, after all.

Unfortunately, the notion of our bodies/physical attributes defining our gender/sexuality hasn’t been dismissed yet. But it cannot explain why some people feel differently about their sexuality and gender, despite the bodies they are born with. The fact that our sexuality could be as much in our “minds” as our bodies, is still as controversial a concept as the Heliocentric Theory was back then. The Church had silenced Galileo through torture and refused him a proper burial after his death. And many countries/societies are trying to silence the LGBT community even now, by denying them the respect and legal status their identities/relationships deserve.

In debates with my contemporaries and the older generation, one thing has always come up. “Marriage should be between a man and a woman, because only a man and a woman can procreate”. Well, I know many man-woman couples who don’t want to (or can’t) procreate. Does it make them any less a “married” couple in the eyes of law or society? Moreover, since when has “procreation” become the main/defining criterion for a marriage or relationship?

Then, there are those who say that a child needs a father and a mother. Of course! But what has that got to do with gender? A man can be as good a mother as a woman can be a father. Aren’t single parents all over the world proving just that by playing both roles?

Another concern was for “what we are teaching our children”. Apparently, if we legalise homosexual marriages, we may be encouraging our children to “become” homosexuals. Well, why would anyone want to become something they are not, just because it’s legal? Do we not realise that it’s our identities we are talking about? Would we casually wake up one morning and change our identities, just because it’s legal?  If our children are homosexuals…well, they are homosexuals. Nothing less. Nothing more. And if they are so, why would they be any less in the eyes of law?

This is how I tried to explain it to an elderly male relative of mine….Imagine, everyone around you is calling you a “woman”. Would that change the fact that you believe/feel you are a man? That’s what many people feel like when they are born with bodies that don’t align with how they feel about themselves. Society’s perception cannot dictate their identities. A body is a body. A mind is a mind. Who are we to decide which mind should live in which body…and which type of mind/body should be sexually attracted to which type? Isn’t that the most fundamental denial of “freedom of choice”?

Moreover, if living together (and having children) without getting married (de-facto relationships) is legal in our country….why would same-sex marriages be deemed illegal? Both are forbidden by religion. Then why criminalise only one?

Ultimately, legalising something does not mean we are forced to adopt/practise it! Isn’t that common sense? It simply means that those who want to adopt it, can, without feeling like criminals. And those who don't believe in it...well, are free to marry people of the opposite gender (or not attend/support same-sex marriages, if they are so inclined).

And so, as Australia stands on the threshold of a (potentially) history-making, life-changing new beginning, am proud to say that I voted “yes”.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Autumn leaves and slowing down...

I'm usually always in a hurry.
To start things. To finish things.
My mind is ruled by lists, even in the most "relaxed" of times.
But not that day...

The "Slow down Mummy" poem had struck a chord. A deep one.
I shed a tear or two and decided to make "slow down" my new mantra (even if it was for a day).
It had been a cloudy day. The light drizzle, a strange reminder that it does not always need to pour.
We were in the middle of our usual daycare pickup ritual - my little girl and I.
She was eating a banana in the back seat and telling me how her day was. I was telling her about mine, while my mind kept wandering to the thoughts of what I'd make for dinner.

And then I stopped. The car...and my mind.
Under a beautiful maple tree, dressed in its autumn attire.
The grass around it was soft with the rain. The sepia-toned dry leaves on the ground were wet too.
"Why did you stop, Mummy?", she asked.
"Because we'll pick a few leaves today..."
"Yippee!", said she.
And then, the two of us played the "who could pick the best leaf" game!
The leaves were damp...but not our spirits. We picked leaves, looked at them closely, commented on their veins, dropped the broken ones back on the ground....and picked some more.
Our hands were wet and muddy...something that would irk me on any given day. But not that day.
And the little girl's chatter and smiles swept clean all the lists in my mind....all sense of false urgency.
Pleased with our collection, we placed the leaves gently on the back seat and drove home.

We dried the leaves in the sun for the next few days. And then, one Sunday afternoon, we "framed" our special moment.
It's not perfect, but it's special.
Turns out, slowing down is a great idea not just while driving but while living too. And oh, the memories it creates...


Thursday, August 10, 2017

Spot is good for you



S: Mummy, they have spots in daycare.
Me: Spots! What spots? Who has spots? Are they red? (I shoot a zillion questions, thinking someone at daycare has an infectious disease of sorts.)
S: Spots, Mummy. Can I have spots too?
Me: No no no. Not at all. You don't want any spots.
S: But teacher said spot is good for us.

What kind of daycare is she going to! I decide to call the daycare first thing next morning. They should have reported something like this to me. Not my 4yr old.

Later, while emptying her daycare bag, I find a little form  - "Enrol your child in Sports".
My little girl jumps in joy "You found it, Mummy. See, I told you! Spot is good for you!".

Thursday, July 27, 2017

My wild (wild) child



Her swimming instructor throws these little toy seals into the water and says "fetch". Okay, she doesn't really say "fetch" but encourages the kids to swim and grab one each from the bottom of the pool. The idea is to make it fun for them to have their faces inside water. It's a race of sorts...except, my 4yr old doesn't know that. The other kids obediently do as they are told, grab the seals and swim right back to the instructor, eager to hear a "well done!" My little girl however, grabs the seal, drops it again deliberately, grabs it again....talks to it and swims to the other end of the pool (opposite to the instructor).  She's the last one to swim back, not because she struggled with the activity (which would be fine too), but because she decided to make it her own little game.

In ballet class, she's always making the funniest faces and coming up with her own "moves", much to her teacher's amazement. At daycare, they put it nicely "S is such a funny little girl. But she needs to work on her 'listening' ears."  In short, my 4-yr old is funny and fun...but never a teacher's pet :).

There's a part of me that wishes she would blend in, listen to instructions and win her teachers' hearts and praises. And there's a part that is immensely proud of her free spirit. I’d be lying if I said that I don’t care if she misses out on the accolades. But I am equally honest when I say that I mostly celebrate her uniqueness and tell myself “her imagination is far more valuable”.

I often tell her that she reminds me of the little girl in "The Croods" (even has wild hair like her), who defies authority to go out and explore the world on her own. Always a fearless child, eager to explore things way too dangerous for her age, she is forever pushing her own boundaries (and ours). Strong willed, a mind of her own, tiniest attention span – all ingredients to a so called "difficult" child. And when that child has a mother who is not known for her patience...well, things can get a bit out of control.

But nobody said parenting would be easy. And what makes it more interesting is that I was a complete opposite when I was a little girl. But as long as there's wine in stock and chocolates at hand, bring it on, I say! So I'll be sporting a wild hair tonight, and dancing like the croods...with my wild (wild) child...
My wild (wild) child, may I always be the wind beneath your wings….

Monday, June 12, 2017

My Baba's watch


One of my most treasured possessions happens to be my Baba’s watch. It was a wedding band of sorts. My mum’s family gifted him this Seiko at the time of their wedding. And it’s the only watch he ever had (barring one he got from his colleagues at his farewell, which never left its box).

Back in those days, a watch was a watch. It wasn’t a fashion statement. Nor was it expected to beep and glow to remind you of special occasions/events. It did not buzz when you have been inactive for more than 30 mins. And no, it did not give you your heart rate or sleep data. But surprisingly, most people still managed to keep active, sleep better and remember special dates. And a watch was just a watch. It gave you the time and date. And nothing more.

Yet, my Baba, like many of his generation, was more loyal to his watch than I ever was to mine. For how could I, when I had more than half a dozen of them at any given time? Baba had just one. For life. When it stopped, its batteries were replaced. When its glass cracked on being dropped, it was repaired. When Baba lost weight, its band was adjusted. It accompanied him to work, social events, holidays and even to the hospital when he had his heart attack. There wasn’t a different one for every occasion. There was only one.

To me, this watch is a symbol of loyalty and simplicity. It’s a reflection of those days when relationships and things were valued and looked after. It’s a reminder of the times when people were happy and grateful for what they had. Every time I hold it, I think of Baba. Of how he wore it on this right wrist. Of how he kept it on his little bedside table, next to his glasses. Of how he never considered changing it or having another one. Of how it grew old with Baba.

Turns out, the watch was more than a watch after all.


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Unconditional Pride



I am often asked (and I think many parents are), what I’d like my child to become when she grows up. While the question itself is flawed, most educated parents of my generation seem to answer it with this:
I want her to be whatever she wants to be. I want her to be happy. 

This response has become a modern day cliché. Whether young parents actually believe it, or say it just so that they are not perceived as “last century”, is another matter. For all we know, the very limited list of “doctor, engineer, lawyer (and subsequently MBA)” as preferred career options are so deep-seated in the Indian psyche, that even the most liberal of us may not know how these still subconsciously affect us. But the fact that we are trying to expand our horizon….and at least “say” that we will be happy/proud parents irrespective of the career paths our children choose, is a step forward.

One of the few (for me, it’s a “few”, as opposed to “several”) reasons why I chose a foreign land as “home”, is the mindset that respects every kind of profession. The mindset that does not associate success with academic brilliance only. All good in theory, and still very cliché. The real test will be if my child grows up and actually takes up something totally unconventional (unconventional for middle-class Indians, that is) as her profession. An even bigger test would be if she is not "extraordinary" (as per the conventional definition of the term).

I have a feeling that most people who say, “Yes, I’ll be happy if my child becomes a dancer…or an artist…or a musician….or an athlete”, somehow believe that their kids would excel at these non-academic professions. They somehow see their children travelling the world, performing/playing in front of packed auditoriums, signing autographs and endorsements. But what if that isn't the case? The intention is not to belittle any profession. The intention is to really dig deep, think and find honest answers. And if the answer is “No, I would not be truly proud/happy”, then it’s time to train our minds to think differently. Because our children deserve nothing less from us. They need to know that we will be proud of them, unconditionally.

A major part of parenting involves helping our children be “the best version of themselves”.  To support them in their journey to reach their own potential. “Their own potential” is the key here, and that’s where things often get blurry. Not our unreal idea of their potential…not our hopes of living our unfulfilled ambitions through them…and definitely not our desires to make them smarter/better/more accomplished than every other kid we know.

Parenting is the art/science of nurturing. Finding our children’s interests and strengths, and nurturing them with care, thoughtfulness and respect. Ferrying them around to sports/music/art classes is part of this discovery. What excites them? What challenges them? What makes them happy? What are they really good at? And even if they are not seemingly extraordinary at anything, but can utilise their own potential to the fullest, they are all achievers. They are enough. They are more than enough.

So from the very beginning of our parenting journey, the focus shouldn’t have been on trying to raise accomplished children. Compassionate, honest, responsible, well-behaved children – yes. But not “accomplished”, as we commonly define/understand the word. Because that is beyond our control.  The focus should have been on becoming better parents.

Of the many promises I make to my little girl, one is to be a better, more open-mind human being. For she deserves no less. So while she grows up, I will have my own growing up to do… learning and unlearning…facing my biggest fears…criticizing my own thoughts/beliefs….reshaping my mind until I am more capable of appreciating the nuances of parenthood. I promise to let her be my guide. When she shows a clear interest in something, I will know it’s time to explore it a bit more.

That’s exactly how we ended up in the local ballet school. She clearly enjoys dancing. But be it her age or her over-active mind, she quickly loses interest in things. So we now find her running in circles on her own, unwilling to listen to instructions or follow the teacher. Is that her telling me that she’s had enough? Is that her way of saying “Mummy, dancing is not for me. Let’s find something else to do?” If I give in, I’ll probably find something else that would keep her engaged for a few weeks. But what if I am giving up too early on something that could become her true passion? What if I am meant to keep at it, until she overcomes her momentary boredom? The dilemma continues. And so does my exploration of my little girl’s mind.

So, while I have no preferred career paths for her, if there are two things I wish for her, they would be curiosity and initiative. The first would hopefully lead her to her passion, and the second, to a life that she finds truly fulfilling. As for me, may I have the strength and wisdom to be proud of her, unconditionally.

Goosebumps

I am the power in a singer's voice
That echoes in packed auditoriums

I am the mother's shrieks
Who cries over her child's corpse

I am the glimpses of eerie things, hours after watching a thriller

I am the cold shower on a winter day
And the warm touch of passion, they say

I am in a story well told
In a mystery unfold.

I am often called "the chill"
As I come and go at will.

I am the sign of being alive
I am both adult and naive.

Wings

(written on 26 August 2016; posted much later)

Every time I’ve been happy…
I’ve wanted wings.
To flutter away to the beach at sunset.

Every time I’ve been sad…
I’ve wanted wings.
To drown my sorrow in a drink or perhaps walk on the sand.

Every time I’ve been angry…
I’ve wanted wings.
To slam the door behind me and zoom out of the house, leaving the world behind.


I finally have wings. I finally have a driver’s licence.

Monday, March 13, 2017

From Mighty to Endangered – The Journey of a Pen

This is an excerpt from my editorial in Oikyotaan (2016), the annual magazine published by the Bengali Association of Western Australia (BAWA)




Do you remember the rotary dial telephone? The one where you had to turn a dial all the way to a fixed point, until it made a “click” sound. If you happen to still own one of those, hold on to it. Soon, you could make good money from auctioning it as a vintage piece.

Keypads and touchscreens have taken over. In fact, speed dial makes the whole act of dialling redundant. Some call it “innovation”.  I call it “scary”. If it takes less than a decade for things to become vintage, it would take just about double that time for things to become extinct. The good old phone is gone. But what about the mighty old pen?

When was the last time you used one? To sign a form, a greeting card, or a credit card receipt, I hear you say. But you wouldn’t call these “writing” as such. How long back did you use a pen to write something that was more than a page long? If your answer is “more than five years back”, be afraid…..be very afraid. For you are likely to be part of the generation that murdered the pen.
Primary schools these days are making the most of technology, and using innovative ways to teach children how to read and write. A friend’s son learnt his numbers entirely on the touchscreen of a tablet.  The concept of turning a page in a printed book could soon become alien. Our kids will scroll through digital media with ease, but may never know what it is to read a paperback. In a few decades, we may need to take them to the museum to see a pen.

So hold on to those Wilson fountain pens, I say. Dig out the limited edition Mont Blanc that your old-fashioned uncle gave you as a wedding present. Use them and pass them on. If you need to start with writing shopping lists on post-it notes that go on the refrigerator, so be it. If you can manage two lines on a postcard to your mother, while you are holidaying in Greece, even better. When asked what you’d like on Father’s Day, tell your children that you’d love a hand-written letter on beautiful calligraphy paper. If the wife likes gold, give her a gold pen for her birthday (but don’t hold me responsible if she throws it right back at you!). If your niece wants ideas to spend her pocket money on, tell her how a good pen could be a friend for life. Every time you resist the temptation to make a to-do list on your smartphone, and put it on a piece of paper instead, give yourself a pat on the back. For you, my friend, may make the mighty pen live a little longer.

In an age where Twitter has made it clear that an average person doesn’t have the inclination, time or attention span to read more than 140 characters, anything you do to revive the lost art of writing is worthwhile. Our text messages are getting more cryptic, our short stories are getting shorter. Posts on social media are out to prove that vowels are a total waste of time – apparently, most of us can read and understand entire paragraphs written in consonants. So why bother?

Bother, because libraries are filled with inspirations in the shape of hardcovers. Bother, because the more we read, the more likely are we to write. Bother, because nothing beats the smell of a new book….or old. Bother, because autumn leaves make beautiful bookmarks. Bother, because every time a pen touches a piece of paper, it could be the beginning of a story untold.