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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Doctor diaries. Counselling for parenting??

 

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This week, I had a rather unusual request. I have worked with new parents who are flustered over post partum issues, or parents who bring their children for sorting of behavioral problems. Contrary to what I was expecting, the client I spoke to had none of the above. Instead, she had come to enquire whether she was “fit” to be a mother! She wanted to know whether she was making the right decision at this point of time and needed someone to validate it. This was so new and so unexpected, that it got me thinking and back to my books.

In the Indian setting, one of the main reasons behind a marriage happens to be to have children. Within a year of the marriage, the couple tends to answer stray questions about “good news”, which become insistent as the years pass. Though the scenario seems to be changing (for the good) in many cities across the country, a large amount of the population still seems to be stuck on the fact that the most important goal of a marriage is to have 2.2 children and hence a complete family!

Children (even the ones yet to be born) are considered the messiahs to a number of problems which exist in the family. If the couple are fighting- “Have kids, it’ll be ok”, would be the sage advice. Relationship issues with the in laws- a grandchild would solve all the problems. Irresponsible husband- “Hand over a child and see him change over to a new leaf!”. Though repeated examples prove that in issues such as these, the problems seem to complicate further with a child, the urban legend still seems to go strong.

Hence, this client of mine, made me wonder at her maturity.

A parent child relationship is central to a child’s moral development, social behavior and ultimate attainment of adult independence. In the age of joint families, children would have the additional advantage of knowing how to deal with a lot of people at a young age. Also, the amount of input they used to receive would be more. But in today’s scenario of a nuclear family, with one or both working parents and part time availability of grandparents, bringing up a child and remaining relatively stress free seems to be a tall order. Coming to think of it, planning parenting seems to be necessary for every couple. But most of the time, the planning would involve financial issues, and little else.

We live in a time where stress is a part and parcel of everyone’s life. Unfortunately, stressed out parents are not good for the healthy development of the child. Though advertisements show hoardings of happy roly-poly babies and their benevolently smiling, content mothers, most post partum experiences do not behave like it. Painful episiotomies, worries about adequate milk, sleepless nights and post vaccination fevers do take a toll on the mother’s mental health. Hence, planning a stress free parenting experience would be advisable.

  1. Knowing what happens.

Traditional thinking puts the onus of pregnancy and baby care completely on the mother. This puts a lot of burden on the mother, especially if she is working. A working woman handling a pregnancy and child care has not been without conflict, as they feel the pressure to stay at home as well as to return to work. Employed women feel guilt above leaving their child behind and worry about the competence of the child care that they have painstakingly chosen. Those who stay at home feel a loss of independence and social standing.

Societal predispositions do not help much. If Cheryl Sanders (the COO of Face book) was trolled for going back to work within the first few weeks of her delivery, many other work places, make maternity leave as short as three months, causing much distress to the feeding mother. There are only few workplaces which have child friendly services which the mother can avail.

Therefore, before becoming pregnant, plan the pregnancy and post partum period with an almost clinical precision. Discussing  each partners’ share of child care responsibilities beforehand makes life easier. Talking to the employer about how to manage post partum work period would also help.

  1. Prepare sensibly.

There is a lot of literature out there regarding pregnancy and the post partum period. Pick the ones which are written by qualified doctors or specialists. Make sure not to believe everything that is put out on the internet. Listen to the voice of experience (which includes grandmothers, mothers and well meaning aunts), but also learn to sort the myths from the truth. Talk to your Ob Gyn regarding the doubts that you have regarding your diet, precautions and work pattern. Keeping fit and eating healthy makes a huge difference too. The traditional “eating for two” concept probably needs to be discarded asap.

  1. Life changes. Learn to accept it with grace.

Child birth is a life changing experience. You suddenly become responsible for a very helpless person, who depends totally on you for his/her well being. For the next so many years, the parents have to automatically think about the baby before making ANY decision, be it as simple as going to the movies or making a move from one city to the other.

First time mothers also need to understand that babies are whimsical creatures who dance to their own tunes. They come loaded with personalities which take time to understand and accept. Be prepared for change and accept it as the norm. Only then, can the post partum blues be kept at bay.

  1. Recognize post partum depression.

Sleeplessness, decreased appetite, irritability, extreme frustration, sadness, fatigue, inability to feel happiness and any such symptoms during pregnancy or post delivery should not be considered as normal. Mothers need to consult their obstetrician or a counselor to rule out post partum depression, which happens to be quite common, though poorly recognized.

Having children can be an invigorating experience. Watching them grow and growing with them is definitely fun. But it does not discount the fact the first few months(or years) can be taxing for the mother.  Going by the idiom “Well begun is half done”, it would be sensible to prepare for parenting than to take it as it comes!

As Benjamin Franklin famously said “ By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail”, the client who came to me made me wiser and better prepared for the next one!

 

 

The Adiyogi.

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I would like to start with a disclaimer akin to the one which appears before any movies starts. I did not start the blog as a religious or mythological exercise. Having said so, there are times when you travel, the history of the place or a quirky story attached to it, adds a special flavor to the monument you are visiting. Rather than looking at it through the eyes of a “been there, done that” traveler, adding a dash of mythology, I feel, increases the aura of the place!

So the story goes…..

There was a terrible demon called Banasura who was troubling everyone on Earth. He performed intense penance and asked for immortality from Brahma. When Brahma expressed his inability to grant such a boon, he instead asked Banasura to choose a manner of his death. Banasura wished that if he had to die, he would do so only at the hands of a virgin.

With a sense of over confidence regarding his own immortality, he started harassing the people even worse than before. Unable to bear the pain, people appealed to Lord Vishnu to help them. On the God’s command, they performed a yagna so powerful that the Goddess Parashakti  agreed to come down to the earth as Punyakshi to annihilate the demon.

Punyakshi was a woman of extraordinary intelligence and capabilities. She lived in the Southern parts of India long long ago. She had such immense power of perception that she was considered as an oracle by the society. Akin to how Mirabai worshiped Krishna, Punyakshi developed a deep love for Lord Shiva and resolved to marry him and none other.

While meditating in Mount Kailash, the Lord came to know of her devotion and was moved. He started his journey down south to meet this courageous young woman and marry her. When the news of this reached the people around, they were worried because they would lose their mentor and guide when she went back with Shiva. The devas and Narada were scared that if the wedding would take place, then there would be no one to kill Banasura. Hence, they tried hard to dissuade Shiva from reaching Punyakshi.  But Shiva and Punyakshi were determined.

So, the Chieftain of the village, asked for an impossible kind of bride price- a sugarcane stick without the rings, a betel leaf without veins and a coconut without eyes.  As nothing was impossible for Shiva, he could materialize all the three without a bat of an eyelid.

Becoming even more desperate, Narada plotted.  He scheduled the marriage to happen before sunrise, citing that if the cock crows, then the time would be inauspicious for their union. Punyakshi, secure in the belief that Shiva would definitely reach her, prepared for the wedding with happiness and anticipation. But the elders of the village, egged by Narada, conspired against them and lit a hill of camphor on fire. The blaze was so bright that the village rooster confused it to be daybreak and crowed ahead of time.

Punyakshi got so upset that Shiva had failed her,that she left the place and went to the southernmost part of the land and stood there heartbroken and crying. She is now called the Goddess Kanyakumari, who waits eternally in the place, which bears her name. Learning this, Banasura tried proposing marriage to her. When she refused, he tried to force her hand resulting in a fierce battle, which ultimately killed Banasura. Peace prevailed on Earth.

Meanwhile, Shiva, who was equally upset about his failure, drove himself into a state of despair. He climbed the Vellaingiri mountains and meditated for a long length of time before retreating back to Mount Kailash.

These mountains are now aptly called “South Kailash”.

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Sometimes, it is difficult to ascertain where fact ends and fiction begins. There are so many such stories in our mythology which tread the delicate balance, and add to the mystery. Many are convinced that at the heart of a mythological story is an event that occurred very very long ago. Hence, in Hindu mythology, these texts are called “Itihasas”, or history.

For me, knowing a story and visiting the place have a special charm of its own. Just imagining a land hundreds if not thousand years ago, where Gods and supposedly immortal creatures existed gives me goose bumps.

Visiting the Vellaingiri mountains was one such feeling. Compounded by the magnificent, awe inspiring and majestic bust of Shiva (or Adi yogi, as he is called there), right in the middle of a circular mountain range, green, lush and covered with clouds.

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Just before daybreak, when you see the thick grey clouds, heavy with rain, passing silently behind the huge bust of Shiva, sway involuntarily to the rhythmic chants emerging from a small temple close by, hear the howling wind and feel the light drizzle of rain on your face when you look up at the statue, the feeling is surreal.

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This is one of those moments where time seems to stand still and you feel one with nature and its elements. Fact or fiction, travel surely gives you such near perfect moments to enjoy!

Have you ever had an experience like this??

 

 

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The family culture.

 

Parents are worrywarts. We worry incessantly about our children. Especially when it comes to their future. We worry about how they will handle school, friends, education and a career.

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We wonder how we can prevent them from making the wrong decisions when they are under pressure and have no one around to guide them. Will they do drugs? Will they choose the wrong life partner? Will they give up a meaningful job offer for a lucrative one? Will they care about their health once they live on their own?

We end up relying on the hope that somehow we have raised them well enough to make the right decisions. With a son on the threshold of his teenage years, my worries too, nudge me now and then. As a working mother, I cannot spend a limitless amount of time with my children or keep a hawk’s eye on them. So, do I wait for something to go wrong or is there something I can do before that?

Rather surprisingly, I got the answer, when I was a reading a book about managing companies! The book “How will you measure your life?” by Clayton Christensen, espouses lessons from some of the greatest businesses and applies them to life.

It describes a rather novel concept called “Family culture”.

The dictionary describes culture as “a way of life, especially the general customs or beliefs of a particular group of people at a particular time”.  Mostly, we use the word ‘culture’ in different contexts. For example, if we follow certain religious rules and traditions, we are called cultured. If someone displays a high level of intellectual sophistication, he is called cultured.

But what if we create a person who is “family cultured”?

Think about it. In business, a company’s culture is a way of working together towards common goals that have been so frequently and so successfully used that people don’t even think about trying to do things the other way. Each company underlines its culture when starting off, so that the employees have no doubt about the higher goal they are working towards.For example, google promotes a culture of “working how you want”. Understanding that creative people cannot be restricted to a desk, it allows its employees to work from a beanbag or a tree house or a swing! As long as you deliver what is expected.

If we apply the same to families, and evolve a family culture – a set of general rules and goals for our families to abide by, the same becomes a part of life as we practice it endlessly.

Whether we want it or not, cultures are evolving within our homes. If we plonk ourselves in front of the television and binge watch on the pretext of being tired after work, unconsciously, we are sending signals to our children, that this is what we do in the family, when tired. If we speak to our house help disrespectfully, the same carries over.

So, whether we know it or not, we have already developed some cultures within our families! If you want to develop an alternative, robust and well defined one, the priorities for your family need to be clearly and proactively designed and spoken out for all to know.

This is easy to say, but difficult to put in action. Firstly, you and your spouse come from different families with different cultures (both conscious and unconscious). There will be a lot of things which the both of you cannot agree on. To this equation, we add kids who are born with their own personalities and attitudes!

It is therefore important that both the parents strategize and plan a culture for the family to follow, whatever the consequences. For example, if a family has decided on a culture of having dinner together, helping out in the house chores and being kind, then each member of the family needs to follow it.

At first, it feels like discipline, but over time, it becomes ingrained. It becomes an unconscious choice to get up from the couch and sit with every one for dinner, pick up a mop when there is a spill or help a friend in need!

As parents,being consistent with a culture is both trying and tiring at times, but well worth the trouble taken. For example, teaching your kids to resolve fights amicably  may take a lot of time and energy at first, but that’s the behavior that the kids will will carry on, even when they are with their friends.

We like to believe that we make most of our life’s decisions by intent and consciously. But there is ample amount of research to show that this is not the case. There are many unconscious instincts at play during decision making. Like the time you sleep on a problem, and the answer appears almost miraculously the next morning. That is your unconscious at work. Scientists looked into what happened before the conscious mind made decisions. It was seen that the unconscious had made the same, seven seconds beforehand!

Hence, what better way to train the brain’s unconscious by putting in the right culture? So that, decision making comes by instinct and usually leads to the right choice?

Between busy schedules and too much homework, most parents let this chance of setting family cultures slip by them. Then we wonder, why our children made wrong choices as adults.

There is no time too late to start penning down your family’s culture. Grab your chance to make sure that your children grow up into genuinely good adults who set examples for others.

 

Doctor Diaries. The power of a “Mob”

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Life hands us surprises. But sometimes, when the surprise is unpleasant and comes as a reward for your act of kindness, it is difficult not to crumble.

Last week, a well dressed, neat looking woman in her thirties walked into my office. She sat poised, waiting for me to start. But as soon as I greeted her, she burst into tears. With great difficulty she reined her tears in and apologized. She introduced herself as a teacher Mrs.X, and said that she was not given to emotional excesses like this. “But how my life has changed!…” she rued. “In a matter of two months!”.

When I asked her to elaborate, hers turned out be a story similar to what has been in the papers in the past few months. X explained that her husband had recently inherited a piece of land from his grandmother, in his native village. The couple were naturally happy, but also scared of the land mafia. Hence, they took along their broker and an engineer and went to check on the plot. As it was quite a long way from their town, they packed along a picnic lunch to eat.

The land seemed beautiful, lush and green. Plans were made to build a vacation home and have a small farm, which they could visit on weekends. Once the decisions were done and dusted, they sat down to eat near the edge of the plot. They noticed  a group of village children gaping at their car and talking excitedly. In a feeling of joie de vivre, they handed out some chaklis to them, which the kids accepted and ran back.

The four of them were just packing up to leave when they noticed a bunch of angry looking villagers walking towards them. Before they realised what was happening, the kids pointed out to them, and they were getting beaten up with sticks and stones.

“It was a horrifying experience”, she shuddered. “I thought we were going to die. No amount of begging and pleading helped”. Their car was beaten to pulp. Luckily for them, the car still worked, and they got away before they were killed. They later realized that the villagers had been warned of kidnappers through a whatsapp video, and the ill fated chaklis had been misconstrued as bait for the kids!

Ever since, X had been having nightmares, flashbacks, palpitations and an inability to concentrate on her work. She would suddenly burst into tears and start trembling in the middle of her class. Any loud noise would make her want to run for cover. All in all, “My life is in ruins for the kindness that I showed”, she cried.

Never in our seemingly civilized life do we assume that something hooliganistic can happen to us. Or that we may resort to violence to resolve an issue.We feel that we have left our cave man behavior behind and moved on to safer shores. But is there an animal lurking within?

The villagers probably were not all violent people with criminal motives. There were parents, women, and kids in the group. So, what was it, that pushed these people over the edge of reason?

Social scientists describe such behavior as “crowd behavior” , now also popularly called “mob mentality”. Gustav Le Bon, one of the theorists who studied mobs, explains that when an incident starts a riot, the mob gets a life of its own. Deep seated resentments, frustrations about other issues and long standing disappointments about life can get a release through hitting, throwing, pushing and looting. Sometimes lynching too. Being in a mob provides cover and a sense of anonymity which makes it easier to display bad behavior. Basically a mass adult temper tantrum of sorts. Like when you are angry about lots of homework, your annoying sibling, bad food at lunch and a fight with your best friend, which all erupts into one big ball of rage as soon as your mother as much as refuses to give you a chocolate!

The members of the group are also reasonably sure that they will not be penalised for it, for how do you know whom to start with and where to stop? There is a release of subconscious pent up energy and frustration. All in all, apparently, there is a feeling of being in a trance.

In an incident which occurred in 2001, a 26 year old woman who was standing on the bridge contemplating suicide was driven to her death by a group of onlookers who kept yelling at her to “Jump, b***h, jump”. Which she did. Later, some on them who had been in the crowd, expressed that they felt terrible about their part in the tragedy and that they did not know what came over them.

Such is the power of the group. Surprisingly, there are so many instances in our lives where we unconsciously follow this very mentality that has the potential to shove us into the realm of violence. Starting from harmless parent teacher meetings, where I see a surge of complaints popping up as soon as one boisterous parent decides to voice out his problem loudly. The other parents surge up in protest as if new power is handed to them! Or the social media trolling which is gaining momentum. So, though we may not be beating or hitting, we seem to be at serious danger of landing there with the slightest push.

As a mental health professional, I was wondering whether it was better to treat the perpetrator or only handle the victims?

Surprisingly, it apparently takes very little to defuse a crowd. Start fast, observe when trouble is brewing, look for the leader, call out people by their names and draw them out for a one to one talk. Sounds easy, but then, it looks like there should be a counselor placed in all police units! A mob defusing squad like a bomb defusing one!

Jokes apart, as sensible people, we should at least start analyzing the messages sent to us on the social media, validate whether what is sent is true and only then, forward it to others. One news report claims that the whatsapp lynchings which happened recently were mainly because of the fact that the consumers of that particular video were villagers, who were new users of social media, and hence ended up believing that everything shown on whatsapp was the gospel truth.

So, though it is utopian to have mob diffusers, it would be a start to have responsible social media users and thinking news consumers so as to prevent the unnecessary deaths or post traumatic stress faced by many, like my patient.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine. Book love.

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When a book deals with issues like loneliness, childhood abuse, neglect and some degree of psychosis, the result definitely sounds like a very very depressing read. Something that you would run a mile away from, after a long and busy week. But what if the book is somehow like Rajkumar Hirani’s movies where difficult issues give rise to a compelling,  heart warming tale with a feel good ending?

Loneliness is an emotion I often see in my everyday dealings with patients. People seem to be lonely in the midst of marriages, joint families, school, children and hectic careers. Loneliness has also been described as “social pain” – a psychological mechanism meant to motivate people to seek for friendships or a purpose in life. Most clients I work with are trying desperately to get out of this bog and hence sign up for counselling. But what if there is someone who is completely alone but does not necessarily feel bad about it?

“Eleanor Oliphant is completely fine” explores this theme and was one of the reasons that I picked the book. The protagonist of this novel Eleanor, is a woman in her thirties. She works in an office, doing mundane odd jobs. She has a strict obsessive routine which she follows through the week, and the weekends.She has no friends nor does she feel the need for any. She is the butt of a few office jokes due to her reclusiveness, but takes it in her stride. And feels completely fine.

Till one fine day, her life changes because of an accident involving an aged stranger. She ends up helping him to the hospital along with a colleague from work. And gets slowly drawn into a world filled with emotions, relationships and togetherness.

Gail Honeyman, the writer has beautifully etched out a character who is quirky but likable because of her extreme straightforwardness. Eleanor seems part autistic, part schizophrenic and part personality disordered, but is still endearing and funny. As the book unfolds, we get to know the reasons behind the heroine’s behavior. Though depressing, you end up marveling at the way she has handled her life through the misery.

I loved the book.

First of all because, the protagonist is someone who has flaws. Huge ones. But still has her own place under the sun. It makes flaws quite acceptable. Something not to be ashamed of. Just like how it should be for all of us. Most people are either oblivious of theirs or are excessive about getting rid of them. With Elanor, what you get is acceptance of the fact and not making a big deal out of it. And changing when the need arises.

Secondly, it challenges us to think change the way we think about people who are different in some way or mentally ill. It prods us to think about whether they have reasons which made them the way they are. I remember the time when I had to deal with an accident on my way back from tutions. The chain of my cycle gave way and I was left stranded on the road at night with rain threatening to pour. There was this boy in our class, who was mildly retarded (which I know now)and the butt of all our class jokes. I am ashamed to say, that I have laughed at a few of them too. This boy, with whom I had hardly spoken, helped me lift the cycle and repair the chain. Then, he politely said goodnight and disappeared. We hardly even talked after the incident and through school. I now wish that I had the good sense to get to know ,understand and be friends with him. Most of the time, I feel,we are too busy trying to fit in, than to extend a helping hand to those who are left out.

Thirdly, it gives an nuanced description of a person who would fall in the autistic spectrum. The lack of grace, the acceptance of facts at face value, the simple way of life and brutal honesty make you wonder whether we are normal or vice versa.

Finally, the fact that the book ends on a positive note and a fuzzy warm feeling, makes it the perfect read on a cold rainy weekend.

 

Have you read the book yet?

 

What do you want to be when you grow up?

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I am currently working with a 16 year old who has a severe case of school refusal. Through many sessions of counseling, one of the most constant thought patterns I observed in the boy were ones of being utterly de motivated. He says that he is bored at home, but does not “feel like” going to school. When asked to imagine himself a few years down the line and tell me what he foresees for himself, he responds by saying that he would probably be continuing his father’s granite business. He also flippantly mentions that he is sibling-less and hence, the huge assets made by his parents were sure to help him continue his current lifestyle!

This got me thinking. Growing up, one of the most common questions asked of a child must be “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Parents, random uncles and aunts, neighbors, teachers… everyone seems to want to know what aspirations a child has. In my professional life too, I have asked this question to many of the kids who come to me. It has been a useful tool to start a conversation with a child that I know nothing much about, or to steer the child in a direction that I want.

But recently, I saw a vlog by Vishen Lakhani, an author, entrepreneur, and the founder of Mindvalley, a forum for the world’s smartest to speak on.  He eggs us on to change the way we ask this question. Rather than the routine “What do you want to do when you grow up?” he opines that it would be a better option to ask “How would you want to contribute to the world?”.  This he feels, changes the way the child thinks and gives him/her the feeling of being responsible, even in a tiny way about the world that we inhabit.

Children of today, at least in our country, are largely the products of second or third generation literates. Our parenting systems make sure that the child is supported through his education, both financially as well as emotionally. Even young children are smart enough to know that they are well off and that their parents would have made for them, a comfortable nest egg. The guilt of being rich belongs to an era bygone. The children of this generation take to their parents’ wealth and its offshoots of foreign travel, posh schools and techno tools with the ease of a fish taking to water.

Now, when you have everything, or almost everything handed to you on a platter, why would you have the motivation to work hard and best it? The easy gratification which comes with being handed a cell phone with internet, probably tops all the happiness that you get when you work really hard to get a measly A+ in the exams.

As the rural urban divide grows, children from cities do not get to meet their less fortunate peers on a daily basis. As we globalize and become materialistic, our kids lose sight that there is so much more to do, than sit stuck to a video game in a virtual world. Parents do have a hard time making their children conscious of the value of money and hard work.

In such a scenario, how do we make our children grow up as people who are responsible, goal oriented, conscientious and hardworking ?

The only way is probably by making them aware that they have a responsibility to the world that they live in. To make it a better place than what it is today.

In the process, maybe there is a lot we can learn from them. Because, when children dream, they dream big. They do so without fear. They are more imaginative. And to kindle their passion at a young age would probably give us thinkers and doers who have the power to change the world. Now. Rather than wait forever till they lose their passion for life and become addicted to mind numbing television.

It reminds me of this Ted talk by ten year old Ishita Katyal from Pune (who, by the way is an author already and the youngest Indian to speak at a TEDx event ) who directs her talk to asking why we adults ask children what they want to do when they grow up? “Why not now?” she wonders.

Hmm….something to ponder upon indeed.

So, the next time you spend time with a child, and are likely to pop this question, you know what to ask. Maybe if my client were asked the same, probably, he would have been a teenager with a mission.

 

 

Back to the blog.

It was a pleasant surprise when my phone notification pinged a comment on my blog, which has been defunct for the better part of a year now. The rather infamous work life IMbalance had thrown my blogging life out of gear and my kept my face book visits limited to clearing long pending notifications!

The comment and the fact that one of my very good friends started a blog, brought back a rush of feelings and memories – of the blog meet in Mumbai, my blogger friends whom I had hardly kept in touch with and of the sheer pleasure of having someone read what I have written and think it worthwhile to comment on!

With the itch to write came the ominous feeling of dread. It has been a really long and eventful year in my life which has drastically changed the way I think and work (or so I would like to believe). Kept wondering whether my writing would have a different voice, whether I could convey things which others liked too (after all, most of the pleasure of writing comes from being read) and whether I had burnt out. It took a whole fortnight full of contemplation before I actually decided that there was only one way to find out. That is, to jump in wholeheartedly and leave the rest to my readers.

I recently came upon a study done to assess which friendships would endure the test of time. Scientists analysed eight million phone calls between two million people and found that what retains the bond of close friendships is something as simple as staying in touch every two weeks. That. Is. All.

This makes me conclude that I want to make time to stay in touch with all of those who read my blog and have been supporting me on this journey of mine where I think, I feel and I say.

See you next week. Bye.