A paradise with a past. Zanzibar.

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The first thing that zaps you in Zanzibar is the color of the sea. I had never really understood the meaning of the color “azure” before I saw the sea in Zanzibar. Clear waters, creamy (I mean it) white sands and a cool breeze despite the tropical sunshine, make it a surreal, heavenly experience. It turns you into a delectable kind of lazy, where you just want to sway in your hammock, listening to the gentle rolling of the waves, gazing at the blue blue sea and sip on ice cold lemonade for hours on end. When you tire of this (if ever), you can take long walks dipping your feet in the softness of the sand, watching colorful starfish lying around like gems on the sea floor. Such is the mesmerizing beauty of Zanzibar.

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But when you step out of the beach side and walk into the old town of Zanzibar, you come face to face with the sordid past of the same paradise – slavery.

Zanzibar is a derivative from the Persian “Zengibar”, which meant the “black skinned coast”. Racism does run deep into the past! The coast was first ruled by the Portuguese and then taken over by the Sultan of Oman. As it was the thoroughfare between Africa and the European and Asian coast, it gained the reputation of being the best port for slave trade, along with ivory and spices.

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Sculpture by Clara Sonas, a Scandinavian artist.

The slaves were bought because of their poverty or just captured from villages at a whim, from all over the African countryside and brought to slave market at Zanzibar. They were brought on dhows (small ships), with the least bit of concern for their health or hunger. Once they landed, they were stuffed into small cellars with barely any light and a small vent in the middle of the room for their toilet needs. They were shackled to chains so as to prevent their escape. About half the people, including the women and children died of starvation, exhaustion, ill health or torture, by the time they reached the market. For the fortunate (or supremely unfortunate)few who lived, they were tied to poles and whipped in front of the merchants to assess their mettle of tolerating suffering. The slave who could withstand the maximum amount of pain was bought by the highest bidder!

((The cellar for slaves (about 75 people were stuffed into this space) with a vent in the middle for defecation, and the chains to which they were bound. The roof was so low that they had to crouch all the time)).

It was only in 1873, that through the immense efforts of David Livingstone, a British missionary and physician, that slave trade formally ended. The irony of this story is that David Livingstone, was sent to Zanzibar with the express mission of converting the population to Christianity, and was considered a failure and a bad leader for his poor performance. Rightfully so, as he managed to convert a sum total of ONE person!

But it turns out that he became a bigger hero, because he loved the people of the land better. He befriended two Africans, Chuma and Susi, who traveled with him everywhere.He loved Africa so much that, he advised Chuma and Susi to bury his heart in Africa and send only his body back to England for burial. Which they did.

The slave museum stands at the heart of the Old Stone Town, at the actual site of the slave market. You cannot help but get the heebie jeebies, just remembering the fact that you are walking in a place where so many helpless, unfortunate people were heartlessly ill treated by fellow humans, who were supposedly civilized.

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Yuval Noah Harari, writes in his book Homo Deus, that we, should consider ourselves lucky to live in a time when peace is taken for granted (at least in a lot of places on the planet). Just two centuries ago, war, upheavals, uprisings, revolutions and injustice were the norm of the day. Peace just happened in between.

Zanzibar is a place which reminds you of that. Though the beauty is unmatched, it is in stark contrast to the suffering of so many, because of mankind’s greed and one upmanship.

Basically, a paradise with a sad past.

 

 

 

 

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What can we do for the Mental health day?

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What can we do for the mental health day?

A lot actually.

A few weeks ago, I got a call from the friend of a friend. She refused to give me her name.  She said that she wanted some solutions to her problems. On talking with her, I was fairly certain that she suffering from depression. But she refused to accept this.  When I asked her whether I could talk to anyone in her family, she told me that she is a studying in a city far away from her home, has a lot of issues with her family and friends and has no one she can confide in. She refused to accept my suggestion of consulting a counselor. “They just dole out advice” she countered. The psychiatrist. “They just prescribe medicines. I’ll get addicted”,  she said. The sad part about this interaction was that she wanted me to give a quick fix solution to her problems. “Can you just give me something to sleep ? So that I can be fresh and work up my will power to get rid of this negativity?” she asked me.

Today is World Mental Health Day. The WHO theme for this year is “Young people and mental health in a changing world”.

The reason I remembered this interaction was because, this conversation is one among the many of such representative ones that I have with young people in my professional capacity.

When I go for talks and interactions to colleges and schools, as per the tradition, at the end of the presentation, the stage would be left open for questions. I can almost sense the air of tension and the uncomfortable silence in the audience. The teachers then nudge or intervene to get their favorite students to stand up and ask. This is followed by a teacher who asks some questions, so that the students would take the cue and start asking. And then finally, they announce that anyone wanting to ask something, could do so by writing it down on a chit of paper and sending it across. A palpable sigh of relief from the audience. And then, a steady stream of small chits arrive, as if by miracle, on the stage. Why, I wonder, is there so much hesitation to discuss mental health?

According to the WHO, almost half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14. This may sound like an exaggeration, but I assure you, is not. (I picked the stat from the WHO website). Unfortunately, most cases go undetected and untreated.

In terms of the burden of the disease among adolescents, depression is the third leading cause.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15-29-year-olds.

Harmful use of alcohol and illicit drugs among adolescents is a major issue in many countries and can lead to risky behavior such as unsafe sex or dangerous driving.

Unhealthy use of technology,addiction to mobile phones, social media, selfies and net surfing are very much visible for all to see.

Physical disorders related to high levels of stress like unexplained headaches, lack of sleep, decreased concentration, irregular menstrual cycles and fatigue are common in adolescents and young adults.

And I am not even talking about major mental illnesses like childhood psychosis, ADHD, autism spectrum disorders or learning difficulties yet.

Therefore, I think that it is high time that we stop behaving like the proverbial ostrich who buried his head in the sand. We need to accept the fact that, around us are adolescents and young adults with mental health issues, rather than blame their behavior on bad friends or poor teachers or the television.

By 2022, the average age of the population in India will be 29 and our country is set to become the world’s youngest country with 64% of its population falling under the working age bracket. The Prime minister keeps talking about making our country the human resource capital of the world. India has the potential to provide about 4 to 5 crores of its population as human resource to the rest of the world.

What use will this statistic be if a huge chunk of this population is unable to achieve their potential due to mental ill health?

Hence, we as a generation of adults have this responsibility of helping our youngsters recognize, accept and deal with mental illness. Let us do it by

  1. Educating ourselves about the challenges that our adolescents face. Let us stop parenting lazily. We need to understand the world around us and learn to unlearn many dogmas. Let us not scare our children about the perils of the world, but teach them how to protect themselves.
  2. Sensitizing teachers that academic underachievement is just a symptom, not an illness. Hence, find the reason behind the poor marks, rather than label the child useless.
  3. Make platforms in schools, for open discussion of issues which are important to adolescents. Eg. Puberty, relationships, right use of technology etc.
  4. As parents, insist on having qualified counselors in the school premises, whom ALL the students need to interact with on a regular basis.
  5. Keeping communication lines open at home and not be judgmental about our teenagers choices.
  6. Do not berate their distress or emotions. Instead, give a listening ear, offer to help and if nothing seems to work, seek help.

The responsibility of diagnosing and treating mental illness rests not only with the psychiatrist, but also with the community at large. If we make space for, rather than stigmatize mental illness, then we can work towards building a workforce of happy youngsters.  Those who will not shy away from holding their head high when walking into a counselor’s/ psychiatrist’s office.

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons learnt from a life lost.

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I lost my father two years ago. Losing a parent is never easy no matter how old you are. Losing a parent who was a trail blazer, a public figure, a pivot on whom a huge hospital existed is even more disconcerting. To top it all, he went without a whiff of a warning. In a place completely alien to us. And left us shocked.

My parents had been to the U.K. for a conference. After the conference, they wanted to spend some time going around Ireland, which they had heard was very beautiful. Two days later, they landed in Dublin, had their dinner and climbed back into the bus, when he had a massive heart attack, collapsed and died. Just like that. In a matter of minutes. A team of doctors (including my mother) in the same tourist bus could not revive him. An ambulance which reached within two minutes of the event could not save him. They were due to return to India the next day. So my mother was left with hardly any cash, very little phone currency and absolutely no friends other than the ones on the tourist bus. And Ireland is very very expensive.

In the next few days, almost everything that could go wrong, did. In India, it was a Government holiday, so no papers could be processed. I could not get a visa to go because the embassy was not open on weekends. It was difficult to get through to my mother over the phone. A very close friend in the U.K., who started off to help my mother, met with an accident, which wrecked her car, but thankfully left her safe. My mother’s tourist bus could not stay with her, as the rest of them had to go on.

But at the same time, everything that could be called a miracle, did happen. The Kannada Koota, an association of Kannada families in Dublin, heard of his demise and came forward to help. The doctor in the hospital that my father was taken to, miraculously turned out to be the nephew of a senior doctor friend from Shimoga ( my town). The friend who met with an accident in London, was given first aid and a ride to the airport, by a cop. Somebody else, arranged for the money. Indian doctors who worked in the hospital took my mom home and cared for her. The President of Kannada Koota literally moved mountains to help get my father’s coffin back, as soon as possible. And everything started to go right.

The events that followed over the next few days and months are a story for another day, but when I look back, those days changed me as a person forever. And taught me a lot of things. Such as…

Good does exist in the world, no matter what people say.

When I first heard my mother over the phone, she sounded shaken. Our major concern was about how she would manage alone in an entirely different country with zero friends.Suddenly, people started pouring forth and helping us out, as though they had known us for ever. People who had busy jobs and families to care for, but still felt concerned about us. They opened their doors to my mother, a practical stranger to them, kept her company, took off from their work to be with her and had potluck dinners in an effort to keep her morale up. They would call up twice a day to let us know that she was fine. There were people at the airport who helped us move papers fast, old travel agent friends who helped get the earliest flights, social work organisations which helped us for the funeral arrangements and so on. People whom we had just met, who became good friends in the face of tragedy. I wonder how we would have managed without them. It may be divine providence, but to me, it felt like a reaffirmation of the fact that “good Samaritans” are not a figment of imagination. They exist among us. People who do good without the expectation of applause or laurels. I have, ever since, stopped being cynical about the state of affairs of the world.The world has hope yet. In the goodness of these people.

Life has its own whims and fancies.

Just an hour before his death, I had spoken to my father over the phone. We had discussed the work that needed to be done on many impending projects as soon as he landed base. I had started off a school outreach program just a week before they left for England. Over the past two years, priorities have changed. A few old projects shelved, many new ones started and a few more on the anvil. But now, I am wiser and less obsessive. I have realized that life’s plans and our own may not coincide at all times. Apart from getting things done, it is also important to stop and smell the flowers on the way. Because you never know what life has in store for you. I’m not saying that we need to be irresponsibly under planned, but only that everything, needs perspective. There is no need to lose sleep over anything.It is just your goodness of intent and hard work that counts. Because, at the end of the day, things that should happen, will! With or without your consent.

Good begets good.

I was never the type to believe in miracles. Two years ago, that changed. People told us, that it was literally unheard of, that we could get my father’s coffin back to India less than a week after his death. Normally, the procedure would take ages. But things went off smoothly. Help came from unexpected quarters. The people who came to help were those who had read my fathers articles in the magazines/ watched his movies, relatives of patients who worked in the police and the airport, doctors who had worked with my father as junior residents and people that he had helped over multiple projects over his life time. My parents had worked selflessly all their lives, and this I believe was the cause of all the miracles. My father had a great love for Kannada and worked in the agitation movement to help retain Belgaum in Karnataka. Who better to help him, than the President of Kannada Koota, in far off Dublin!!

How you live after, is your choice.

When an incident of such magnitude strikes, the “Why me?” questions are obvious. Around that time,I read a story somewhere about how people react to adversities. It goes like this. A boy complained to his mother about life being hard, when he was faced with problems. His mother showed him an experiment. She put carrots, eggs and coffee beans into boiling water for a while and asked the boy to observe what it did to each. The boy replied that the carrots became soft, the eggs got hard boiled and the the coffee beans, well, became  coffee. And then, the mother explained that there are people who are like the carrots. They go into adversity hard and unrelenting but come out softened and weak. Some others go in fragile like the egg, and manage to handle the adversity, but come out hard and cynical. But there are few who go in like the coffee beans, headlong into troubles, and end up creating something good  out of the adversity. Difficulties strike every one of us. We need to decide how we process it, rather than blame our misfortune. Try to look for the silver lining, however faint it may be. Realize that there are many who are more unfortunate. And then slowly, life gets better.

I am not given to personal posts. But this weekend, on my father’s second death anniversary, I was remembering those days, which were unnerving, to say the least. There are many who go through loss and grief. There is no way to come out of it unscathed. But as the saying goes “If you are going through hell, keep going. Eventually you will come out of it”. And when you do come out, remember, that in the worst of times, there is always hope, help and a lot of lessons to be learnt.