A distant grief: The illicit happiness of other people by Manu Joseph

There is a crowd outside the main door, talking softly about the death as if they don’t want the dead man to know that he is gone.

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A perfect moment at Dishoom – chai, kitaab aur Priyam!

The Illicit Happiness of Other People is set in the late eighties in Madras, India. The prose follows Ousep Chacko’s quest to solve the mystery as to why his seventeen year son, Unni, jumped to his death from a balcony without any reason. The novel is not merely about the grief of a family. It is a dissection of human suffering, the delusions of happiness, and the hidden depths and identities of what is known, commonly, to be man.

Key characters include Ousep’s wife and youngest son and some flashback of Unni himself. His wife, Mariamma, who has frequent neurotic breakdowns and amongst other eccentricities, fantasises about Ousep’s death. The final member of the Chacko household, Thoma, is the youngest son tip toeing on adolescence whilst being firmly confined to a fear of most things in his life whilst crawling beneath the shroud of his brother’s greatness.

Although not alive from the prose point of view, Unni Chacko is very much the heart, soul and driving factor of the novel. Unni is a cartoonist, a popular teen and at a stretch, a social experimenter of sorts. There is no reason as to why someone like Unni would commit suicide, at least, not to Ousep. So when, by chance, one of Unni’s old comics is delivered to him, Ousep revives and puts to use the skills he gained as a journalist, to investigate why Unni died. Inadvertently, he sets out on a journey to discover an Unni he had no idea existed.

His journey includes tediously interviewing everyone he can associate and place with Unni at any time or place. The key issue for Ousep soon enough becomes to figure out who his son was, which he frankly, did not know. Joseph does not allow his readers to have one consistent view of Unni, which is not only an excellent literary style, he makes them uncomfortable in their views of this deceased minor. An example of such a situation would be when Unni instigates a mass lynching of a teacher at St Ignatius – I remember that particular point in the novel, where I was arguably the most uncomfortable.

I found Joseph’s dealings with the topic of mental health, rustic and very salt of the earth-esque. The primary character whose mental health is described unstable, is Mariamma. Not only is she dealing with the grief of her beloved son, but she also copes with other demons, suggested to be attributed to events earlier in her life. I liked the nuances, which Joseph pinpointed, that could be found in someone with a psychiatric diagnosis. The truth of illness, in this depiction, is that Mariamma has been running a house, finding work and somewhat assimilating in society. This is quite an important point – usual depictions of individuals with psychiatric diagnoses include ostentatious mannerisms, which can only be described as frantic chorea, which is of course, is not usually the case, and many people successfully manage their illness whilst assimilating in society. Mental health myth busted! Kudos, Joseph.

The book certainly has some excellent laughs, one of my favourite excepts is the dealings of mathematics, reflecting, perhaps, how the character feels about himself.

It affects him, the great arrogance of the Equilateral Triangle, the failed aspiration of the octagon to be a circle, the eternal suffocation of the denominator that has to bear the weight of the unjust numerator, the loneliness of Pluto. And the smallness of Mercury, always a mere dot next to a yellow sun. In this world, there is no respect for Mercury.

Joseph is an excellent writer – enough detail to give a great prose, but succinct where he needs to get a point. The cogs in the wheel of this tale are themes of identity, mental health, morality, sexuality, caste based discrimination – all underpinned by appropriate amounts of philosophy and enclosed in a frame of dark humour, with an unapologetic insight into the tragedies and dysfunction of humankind .  A fantastic dark but uplifting tale.

From the archives: Snippets of pain

Massively from the original. Oops.

“The clang of a spiked metal hammer falling with a thud on the pelvis, with jarred edges piercing the bone and grappling on.  The breathing soon becomes shallow and all motor function dies down until it is feasible to recalculate it and edge forward a few micro-movements, calculating every nuance of the body’s movement. On a good day, it feels like the muscles overlying the thoracic spine are being carefully, meticulously dissected with only the tip of a triangulated scalpel. On not so good days, the muscles are ripped apart with bare hands and without a care or concern of the well placed anatomy, each structure is torn out, discarded…until the prized possession is in view, the bone. Ruthlessly, it is smashed into a hundred pieces, ground amongst shards of glass and scraped at the pit of the physical being.

The cause of pain is not important, in fact, it seldom is. The cause is often a fragment of the prose, a minor detail. The protagonist (or antagonist) is actually the essence of “pain” and its superior ability in taking over your capacity to move, to breathe…to live. Every single day of your life. 

This, my friends, is pain…it forms part of one’s existence. Mirroring an ocean, it is deep, it is vast…it has many colours, it has many currents and beyond all, it has many creatures…some meek and mild, and some, purely satanic”.

A tale of conflicted psychologies and child abuse: My absolute darling

“Then he raises the knife and lays the blade up between her legs, stands scowling up at her. He says, ‘Just hang in there’. He presses up with the knife and says ‘upsy daisy’. Turtle does a pull up, places her chin on the splintery bean and hangs whilst Martin stands below her, his face stripped of all warmth and kindness, seeming fixed in some reverie of hatred. The knife bites into the blue denim of her jeans and Turtle feels the cold steel through her panties”.

My Absolute Darling is the debut novel by Gabriel Tallent. Set in California, the novel narrates and explores the relationship of Martin and his teenage daughter, Turtle. Martin is a self proclaimed survivalist and has led a life, which in his mind, will prepare him for a post apocalyptic world and has also provided his daughter with the same skill sets. He has breakfast with her, walks her to the school bus and despite their strained relationship, he sometimes joins Turtle when she visits her grandfather. Martin also rapes his daughter, night after night. He rules the relationship through dominating strokes of affection and fear. The arrival of the turning point in Turtle’s life is when she meets Jacob. Jacob’s family conventions are far more functional that Turtle’s. Through him she gets glimpses of a different form of family love, affection and security.

Tallent’s writing is direct, bold and ruthless. He certainly does not shy away from depicting the abuse that is an everyday routine for Turtle, he explores this relationship as one of love between both of the characters. What made the novel good on a literary pillar, was the characterisation of both, Martin and Turtle, presenting the reader with three dimensional characters. A father, a dominating monster exerting his control through physical, sexual, emotional abuse but also showing elements of shame and guilt. There is a daughter who has been conditioned to feel “empty” during the abuse, however, has feelings of extreme love for her father and a fixed delusion that nobody cares for her more than he does.

I shall not delve into the synopsis and outcome of the novel, for this prose is not entirely about the outcome for me. It is about the importance of boldly speaking about a subject that is more pertinent now than ever – about the abuse of vulnerable children. One can read endless articles, studies and statistics with regards to abuse, however, I find that prose has the power to evoke emotion on a deeper level. There were countless moments as I sat horrified reading the pages before me, on absolute edge, of what gruesome monstrosity will greet me as I turn the page.

As I browsed various pages talking about this book, I came across an interesting point of view as expressed on the Bitch Media website:

“The book fails to make the reader feel Turtle’s sense of conflict as she’s repeatedly raped by her father while at times feeling actively drawn to him; instead, the scenes serve only to violate both Turtle and the reader”.

I am not sure that as readers, whom I hope would have at least a basic understanding of power dynamics in abuse, should feel the sense of conflict. Rather, it is important to have an understanding of the underlying cause of the conflict. The recipient of this abuse is a child, who has been groomed to understand that the only person on her side is her father, who has raised her, taught her and through whom, she is alive. She has not had any other role models in life or people whom she is allowed to have other relationships with. She has grown up in a misogynistic environment and inherently embraced the trait.

Despite the hopelessness in the situation and plot, Tallent draws our attention to some slivers of hope and highlights the importance of certain people. One group of such people include teachers, in this case, Anna. She correctly identifies the “misogyny, watchfulness and isolation” are the triad often found in abuse victims. She delivers well in the remits of her role in her persistence of providing for and supporting Turtle as her teacher.

In conclusion, I cannot claim the book to be a literary masterpiece, it frankly, is not. However, it is an important book. It attempts to glimpse into the minds of the abuser and the abused. It makes you uncomfortable, it revolts you, it makes you cringe…it personifies, through good characterisation, the dismal situation of thousands of helpless children across the globe. For that only, I would pick it up and give it a read.

 

 

Indian Chronicles (2) – Benares and Haridwar: Seeking, tracking and narrowly missing God.

Farishte hashr mein poochenge paakbazon se
Gunah kyun na kiye kya khuda ghafur na tha

On the day of judgement, verily the angels will ask
Why did thou not sin, was thy lord not forgiving?

Haridwar, Uttarakhand

I found myself in Haridwar and Benares during the course of this journey, with Haridwar being Priyam’s hometown and Benares, a planned excursion. Both of these cities have left their respective significant marks. They have answered some questions that I have had and because life is not an easy affair to comprehend, they have created a whole series of further questions.

We drove from Delhi to Haridwar, an approximately five hour journey and had arrived at the destination by maghrib. Where my thoughts were in the initial moments of entering Haridwar, I do not know. However, my conscience was soon greeted with the sun hanging low, giving a warm hue of golden light as it was tenderly bidding goodbye to the slightly hastened water currents before it. That is how I first met Ganga ji and quite possibly, how I first fell in love with her.

The river Ganga is the holiest most body of water in Hinduism. Starting out in Garhwal, the river begins from at the junction of the rivers Bhagirathi and Alaknanda. The river is central to much of Hindu mythology and present day culture. At the heart of much of this mythology, the ganges personify the goddess Ganga. One of the legends state that a descendant of a King had prayed to Brahma for Ganga to come down to Earth, so that the wandering souls and sons of this King, could cleanse themselves from her waters and thus help them attain moksha. This had angered Ganga and she intended to wipe the earth out with her force, however, in her attempts to reach the Earth, she first landed on Lord Shiva’s head. Lo and behold, Shiva trapped her in his locks and thus released her in three major streams – one running through the earth, one through paradise and one through hell.

The first evening we reached the Har ki pauri ghat, the riverside bank, where the evening ganga arti was taking place, a devotional fire offering to Ganga ji. I was amidst hundreds of people, all charged up by the environment, and in most situations like this there would be an inherent aversion from my part (mainly due to the sheer volume of people). The personal plot twist was, that I did not get the suffocating feeling, rather, it was a calming endeavour and the entire credit would go the flowing water of the river.

Should there have been doubts about being a green spaces person, well, these were entirely obliterated when we drove up to Shivpuri. Being off season, thankfully, all the surfer boys were away from this little haven. We were surrounded by a turquoise watered Ganga ji, shrubs, greenery and modest sized peaks…oh wait, and a ton of silence. Ladies and gentleman of the jury, I met the divine again in this moment. In a moment of romantic nostalgia I made an exclamation to Priyam, “Kudrat mein khuda ki jhalak hai”… I might have even sighed for that extra melodramatic telenovella effect. I mean, I have done theatre, darling!  -insert, over the top hair flick- Anyhow, it was a shame we did not have more time, however, there was a curfew to make and thus I made a mental note of ensuring that I return here.

Whilst in Haridwar, I was quite lucky to be able to go to Rajaji National Park. Armed with a telephoto lens and the amazing company of Priyam et al., it was all systems go! Most people who have some knowledge about me would be able to vouch for the love of elephants that I have. I had my heart set on getting some decent shots of this amazing animal. There were no elephants. However, I may have been the only person in the national park who went in with hopes of elephants and came back with perfectly respectable shots of rodents. -silence- Moving on. A story to remember of this evening would be of our jeep breaking down midpoint in this place and it is well past maghreb, and into the dark. The bhaiyya with us was a straight up fellow, “Dhakka lagaayenge?”. Part of me rejoiced that for the first time I shall be transcending these boundaries of gender stereotypes in which women, especially desi women, have been encased in. As a first in life, I will be dhakka lagaaying a jeep without hearing the males of my family asking me to step aside whilst they dealt with such a manly matter. With the will of iron and a resolve of steel, Priyam and I rolled up our sleeves and shouted a slogan of “Heave ho!”. We must not have moved the thing more than 20cm [accounting for some generosity of cm]. Oh, well.

At this stage, the bhaiyya’s mobile was not within the remit of a bar of reception, he was not able to help with the jeep movement side of things…all in all, he was a pressure cooker about to blow a whistle and yield nothing. Priyam, however, was not a pressure cooker. She was an all functioning top of the range entire-kitchen-works type of system. Please excuse the kitchen references, I must be hungry. Ok, I digress. She was able to put out an SOS that reached Uncle. Now, enter LB, a man of limited words (scenario dependant) had crossed the boundaries of this park and had zoomed (read: sped) across shrubbery and grass to rescue one Priyam, one Huma, one aunty and a jori of Khala-Khalu. We were rescued! I could probably write for a good ten minutes as to the swag LB has. In a simple sentence, this man is a AA battery pack loaded with TNT and he left Priyam and I with an amazing sentence, “Zindagi Allah ke haath mein hai, hifazat apne haath mein hai”, all whilst speeding around an ascending blind bend at the speed of 90mph. #thuglife

 

So, the two and half days were over in Haridwar but how I longed to stay there more – and boy, oh, boy…how much I wanted to retain the company! However, onwards… some memories have yet to be treasured, and some to be made, including the direct face/off with my PTSD and Priyam being there to hold my hand through it. As a huma(n), I pride myself on not showing my vulnerabilities, my fears and my thoughts. Stick me in a fast moving pressurised vessel and just watch me crumble.

We all cannot have the tashan of LB. [La da da da dah, it’s the motherf****’ dee arr ee!]. Sorry, it just had to be done.

Benaras, Uttar Pradesh

In terms of chronological events, Benares was the final stop before returning back to the United Kingdom. The myriad of experiences in this city left me at a juncture, where I could not conclusively determine an overall opinion. Most certainly I was battling in my head whether the positives outweigh the negatives, or vice versa. There were enough paradoxes and directly opposite experiences scattered within yards and minutes of each other e.g. feeling the tranquility at the ghats in one moment and then being in a spiritual leader’s shack where people do a twirl at the end of a confusing sermon; meeting the common man who will greet you with the utmost hospitality (and chai!) to an individual who is at the cusp of Muslim bashing and will hear Huma as “Uma” and his resolve to beat out the Nationalist in her; and finally, the zen of devotees at Sarnath as compared to the blitz of pilgrims at Shri Kashi Vishvanat mandir, all fighting for space and oxygen.

Being one of the world’s oldest inhabited city, Benares is an important city; for its dwellers, for its pilgrims, for its scholars, for its history and for its mythology. It compromises of eighty-eight ghats out of which two are exclusively for cremation. It houses hundreds of temples, some small, some big, some unknown and some as pertinent as Vishvanat mandir, which has its sanctity attributed to its relations with Lord Shiva. To give a general idea of how far back the origins of this city stretch, archaeological artefacts have been discovered, which are dated to 1000 BC.

The major highlight of Benares is undoubtedly the multitudinous ghats. History and mythology are often intertwined when locals speak of these ghats. Two of the most prominent and well known are the Dashashwamedh and Manikarnika. Legend has it that Dashashwamedh ghat was created by Brahma for the sole welcome of Lord Shiva. One of the few legends associated with Manikarnika ghats speaks of Goddess Parvati’s attempts to keep Lord Shiva at the ghat and not travel away with his followers. In this attempt, she hides her earrings and asks him to seek them out from the banks of the Ganges. Furthermore, when a body gets cremated the Manikarnika ghat, Shiva then asks the soul if it has seen these earrings.

Out of all the cities that I had visited, I found Benares to be the least progressive and in many ways, the most suffocating, at least on a social front. It took me back to the early visits to Pakistan where in semi urban areas, the streets belonged to the men, who had the inherent right to stare at you from head to toe, from your movement point (a) all the way to where their eyes can go. They could say what they want, do what they want and you would be at the mercy of either them or a more macho man of the household who accompanied you everywhere. Up until this point, I did not get the feeling that I did not belong in any city or that it was wrong to be out late at night (which, by the way was 9pm). Then Benares came and I became conscious of being an XX candidate in the world of XY candidates. Even in this, there was not a fear that something might inherently happen to me…but the power of someone’s gaze to violate your personal space and a sense of self, that is the feeling that stuck. I remained, however, intrepid along with the trusted company of Priyam and chewed on that paan like there was no tomorrow and walked all the way back to Shree Ganesha Palace with some swag [at least in my head].

A complete digression, by the way, as the above recount takes me back to an essay of Anita Roy, who was examining the sexual harassment of women as well as drawing comparisons to hijras and the issues that specific community undergoes. A very powerful concluding remark was, “Hijras may perhaps envy women for their ability to bear children, for the apparent “naturalness” of their gender. But Indian women, in turn, may envy the hijra for the confidence and ease with which she flaunts her femininity. There is this terrifying or liberatory thought: that the hijra represents what the “real” women might be if they were to become as sexually confident as “real” men. The invisibles of Jaffrey’s titles have much to teach the women of Delhi who have long been hidden behind the stifling veil of ‘decency’…”

All thoughts aside and an attempt to think positive thoughts, I do not think very many can boast a Benares experience like mine in such a short space of time. Visiting all of the ghats; witnessing the saffron clad aides to the demiurge; obtaining pretty epic pictures of the arti (without a tripod!); witnessing an awe inspiring Kathak performance; a detailed tour of Benares Hindu University and seeing the extraordinary exhibitions in the Kala Bhawan; having THE bhandara of my life [and scandalising Priyam with “Yaar, catering solid thi,”]; evading the horns of a universe of bulls without severe abdominal puncture wounds; saying cheers to a Benares paan; engaging in the ongoing silsila-e-chai; and the highlight…somewhere in the heart of a meandering Benaras street in a dilapidated house of an unknown pandit ji, there will be a lineage of the Goyal’s, which a Huma Khan attested to and made her mark of doing so. #gangsta

It is now time to make conclusive remarks about Benares and since I seem to have used up a vast majority of the words that were floating in my head, I shall recount a comment made by a bhaiyya, which has amused me. He informed us as to how clean Benares was these days due to an upcoming visit of Narendra Modi. He was instantly challenged with regards to the streets flowing red due to a mixture of saliva and betel leaf contents. When asked to reflect on the possibility of paan being banned, he exclaimed, “Arre, paan band karwa diya mantri ji ne to unki sarkaar hi na girr jaaye”. Priorities, yo.

Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh

By the morning of departure from Benares, my soul was craving some solitude and a sabbatical from humans, and somewhere in the skies, She heard my prayers and God gave me Sarnath!

Sarnath, approximately 10 kilometers away from Benares, is one of the four most important Buddhist pilgrimage destinations in India. It is believed that Buddha delivered his first sermon here after attaining enlightenment. Sarnath was to become a major centre for arts, education and a central religious hub, with there being approximately thirty monasteries and over three thousand monks by the conclusion of 6th century AD. Turkish Muslims had then invaded and left the site in ruins and it was not until 1836, when the British came and began the excavation and restoration of the city.

One of the coolest things amongst the ruins was to see the Pillars of Ashoka, which were one of the earliest known sculptural remains from India. The pillars were initially erected and named after the Mauryan King Ashoka in the Third Cent BC and today, a slightly modified version, makes up the State Emblem of India. And it is damn cool.

If in that part of Uttar Pradesh, I would most certainly recommend a visit to Sarnath. If for nothing else, then for the ruins, which have stood their ground to plunderers and exist today in a garden of greenery and accompany an ocean of zen.

So final thoughts? The theme of the two cities and consequently of this post was The Divine. I am no stranger to God, or at the very least, the idea of a God and religiosity that has been implanted in my living memory from childhood. However, these epicentres of spirituality made me realise that if I was ever describe how I found and understood God truly and eternally, then it would not never be through a mandir, masjid or through the ever accepting shadow of a spiritual leader. I have found her in the currents of Ganga, at the heights of mountainous peaks, in the wisps of the fresh oxygen that my lungs were inspiring and ultimately, in the depths of the solitude surrounding me, whenever I stumbled upon it.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is all for the penultimate round of reflections… time to focus on some real life issues such as a cup of adrak chai and using this phase of the writing bug to see what else I can conjure. Probably not much, but hopeful I shall remain. Adios!

Indian Chronicles (1) – Delhi: The mistress of every conqueror

“Mubarak ho, visa hua hai!”.
(Priyam ji)

Six weeks after applying for a visa and going through an emotional rollercoaster of panic and pre-emptive dejection, I read these amazing words whilst sat in clinic. It was decided, I was going to India!

For someone who lacks any real passion for anything in life, my anticipation and excitement for this trip could be directly comparable to a six year old on their way to a fayre with a pit top to the candy floss stand. In fact, I would go as far as saying I would put the six year old to shame.

#gangsta

The total duration was three weeks, which was split not so equally between the Joshi parivar, the Priyamvada clan and Smit bhai et al, with the itinerary looking like: Delhi > Agra > Jaipur > Haridwar > Benares > Delhi > Oxford.

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Delhi 

Ik roz apni rooh se poocha, ke dilli kya hai. 
To yun Jawab me keh gayi,
Ye duniya maano jism hai aur dilli uski jaan
(Mirza Ghalib)

Things to see and do: Akshardham temple, lotus temple, Lal Qallah, Qutb complex, Mehrauli archaeological park, Humayun’s tomb, Zafar mahal, Safdarjung tomb, Banglasahib gurudwara, Lodhi gardens, Connaught place, Chandni Chowk, Hauz Khas village

My love affair with Delhi had begun a few years back after having read Khushwant Singh’s Delhi. By far one of my favourite reads not just for the amazing prose, however, the excellent grip on the psyche and portrayal of key characters in the history of Delhi from those who salvaged the city and those who led to its attempted ruination, alike.

The tourist sites are all secondary things, what strikes one about Delhi is that it a complete gorakh dandha. Its colours and character can be so strange and foreign, yet at other times she becomes truly and exclusively yours, making you fall in love with herself, multiple times, and every as if this is the first. Oh dammit, I promised myself I would not become a literary romantic. Oh, well.

Being a hybrid Pakistani, it was difficult to not compare Delhi to Lahore and indeed, it had so many similarities; like a divided soul of the new and old city with the history at times carefully simmering and rising amongst newer structures; hundreds of people all dotted about in a chaotic manner, yet having a continuous flow of movement and of course…the food! My stomach was catching up with me from the journey from Britain to India, however, BP Market, Noida. How I miss thee, the kalakand and those chicken paratha rolls (love you, R.D). -Le sigh-

My belief of cities, no matter where in the world, is usually that they are a reflection and product of the people that inhabit it. However, like Lahore, Delhi is independent of that. Delhi stands freely with its abundance of history, architecture and heritage. Even the poets I know and have read extensively – a lot of them are known because of Delhi. It is entirely possible that I have a romanticised view of this city, however, it is what it is.

Admittedly I could not have appreciated the wealth of Delhi’s history without the legendary Smit bhai. The first time I met him on an introductions evening in Brasenose College, we were debating something or other about Indo-Pak. He was charged with statistics, economics and current debates. I was preoccupied with chai and craved conflict. Days of relative youth…Any how, the wealth of information this man carries in his brain is amazing enough, however, his anger and frustration at the tour guides (who often are heard giving not only inaccurate, but blatantly wrong information) errs on the side of hilarity. Smit bhai also needs to be given credit for making me realise the lost clinical interests that I have, namely, in occupational medicine particular to those working in industry, but that story can await for some other day.

So let us continue, the personal highlights included Bangla Sahib gurudwara, Jama masjid and Mehrauli.

The gurudwara was initially built as a small shrine during the reign of Shah Alam the Second in 1783. My travel companion, or rather keeping me in line with an orientation program (titled: How now to be an idiot in Delhi), was the beautiful Kanika Joshi. As I have harped on endlessly to everyone who I have mentioned Gurudwaras to, I am in awe of the community work and voluntary services found amongst Sikh communities. Cleanliness is a form of purity and worship, literally and figuratively – and in Bangla Sahib I found this.

 

Whilst on the religious theme, Jama Masjid, you beautiful nutshell of nostalgia! Now, it may have been behavioural conditioning, but it was maghrib and the muezzin was engaged in the adhan.  I found my steps quickening up the steps, awkwardly and angrily glancing at a notice saying “women not allowed after evening prayers”, and then stepping into the courtyard. I felt like I was in the heart of Lahore, inside the Badshahi masjid and some corner of my heart rejoiced. Briefly I was jolted into reality and realised I was in the heart of Purani Dilli and inside the Jama masjid and as such, that very same corner of my heart rejoiced a little more.

The Jama masjid is quite smaller than the Badshahi masjid, however, very similar in architecture. Constructed during the time of the mughal emperor Shah Jahan, it was completed in 1656 AD. Its official name, at least at the time, was Masjid-e-Jahan Numa. After the 1857 revolt, it was also temporarily used as a station to place British soldiers. After some moments of masjid step sitting, we found our way to Karim’s. Every Delhi’ite I have met has made mention of this establishment whenever talks of Purani Dilli have taken place. It is an important establishment. It is a food establishment. It was set up in 1913 by the son of a cook of the mughal kitchen. We had kebabs and rumali roti, the queen of rotis -insert hearts for eyes at this juncture-.

A number of Indians whom I know informed me that Dilli walay are rude and rather unpleasant. I most certainly cannot say I agreed with this, primarily, because it was not an experience I underwent. Either because I did not engage long enough in verbal combat to get a sense of this, or I was equally blasé with humans (as I have often been accused of being). However, there was also not a memorable moment with a local. Agra had Dilshad bhaiyya, Haridwar had LB, Benares had two amazing uncles… the chai walay uncle and then the kachori walay uncle. More on some of these people in further posts.

I guess humans make a significant contribution as to what your personal (or I guess, my personal) experiences are. Having families and their friends with whom I interacted with shaped this journey for the better… I continue talking with some, have some good memories of others and a whole load of positive reflections. Had it been a visit that was very isolated with lone travel, I am not sure I would have had such a positive experience. This reminds me to an excerpt of Khushwant Singh’s City Improbable: Writings on Delhi where he compels you to “draw a balance sheet of what is loveable about Delhi and what is not and you will find that its plus points equal its minus points. So if you happen to be living in Delhi, why uproot yourself and go somewhere else of which you know less, and which may not be worth knowing either?”

So, what of my experience and relationship with Delhi? Well, we coexisted well…and I left with an appreciation of its history, its heritage and above all, its endurance for all the looting, pillaging and plundering it has withstood and is still withstanding, in a contemporary sense, of course. One final word on what I liked the most about it, its sense of humour and irony. It has been the “mistress of conquerors” but it also holds several mausoleums of such invaders. Don’t mess, yo.

Next in this series of India reflections – India and its very many God’s. Well, maybe, lets see.

Child sexual abuse – a worsening social evil

This post will soon also be available as a podcast as part of the Meer e Karwan series.

Zainab Ansari, a 7 year old child was on her way to Quran recitation classes in Kasur, Pakistan, when she was abducted, raped, strangled and left in a dumpster. Her body was discovered on the 9th January 2018.  Autopsy has yielded that she was most likely held in captivity, where she was tortured. Criminal proceedings are underway and someone has yet to be charged for this.

Child sexual abuse is a horrific reality of the society we live in and Zainab’s case is just one of the few most recent reminders of this. Today’s podcast will focus on definitions, the extent of the problem, signs exhibited by children and further complications secondary to the abuse as well as a brief reflection on prevention and control strategies.

Definition

Child sexual has differing dynamics to those of adult sexual abuse in many parameters ranging from disclosure differences to the symptoms exhibited. Lets begin by defining the problem. The World Health Organisation’s definition of child sexual abuse is:

  • The involvement of a child in sexual activity that he or she does not fully comprehend
  • Is unable to give informed consent to
  • For which the child is not developmentally prepared for
  • Or that violates the laws or social taboos of a society

Sexual abuse in the case of minors is evidenced by any of the above activity between a child and an adult, or another child who by age or development is in a relationship of responsibility, trust or power with the activity being intended to gratify or satisfy the needs of the other people. This may include but is not limited to activities like “intercourse, attempted intercourse, oral-genital contact, fondling of genitals directly or through clothing, exhibitionism or exposing children to adult sexual activity or pornography, and the use of the child for prostitution or pornography.”

Statistics

It is a challenging task to find out the actual number of sexually victimized children due to the fact that the prevalence reported varies across studies and data sources. The WHO in 2002 estimated that 73 million boys and 150 million girls under the age of 18 years had experienced various forms of sexual violence. A meta-analysis conducted in the year 2009 analysed 65 studies in 22 countries and estimated an “overall international figure.” The main findings of the study were:

  • An estimated 7.9% of males and 19.7% of females universally faced sexual abuse before the age of 18 years
  • The highest prevalence rate of CSA was seen in Africa (34.4%)
  • Europe, America, and Asia had prevalence rate of 9.2%, 10.1%, and 23.9%, respectively.

CSA has found to be associated with physical abuse at both younger and older ages and alone is accountable for about one per cent of the global burden of disease, but it is likely to be a risk factor for several other conditions like alcohol consumption, illegal drug usage, development of mental disorders, and spread of sexually transmitted diseases, which when pooled, are accountable for over 20% of the global burden.

India

India has a huge problem of child sexual abuse, in fact, it is home to 19% of the world’s children as well as home to the worlds largest number of abused children. For every 155th minute a child, less than 16 years is raped, for every 13th hour child under 10, and one in every 10 children sexually abused at any point of time. Studies propose that over 7,200 children, including infants, are raped every year and it is believed that several cases go unreported. It is estimated by the government that 40% of India’s children are susceptible to threats like being homeless, trafficking, drug abuse, forced labour, and crime.

United Kingdom

It would be false to believe that the problem exists in poor and developing countries only. Unfortunately, child sexual abuse is found across international borders as well delving deep within all socioeconomic boundaries.

  • 1 in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused
  • 54,000 sexual offences against children recorded in 2015/6
  • Over 90% of the abused children’s perpetrator was someone they knew
  • Over 2900 children were identified as needing protection from sexual abuse in 2015

Risk factors

Risk factors have been identified, which can make children more vulnerable to abuse. These include:

  1. Unaccompanied children
  2. Children in foster or adopted care
  3. Physically or mentally less abled children
  4. Poverty
  5. Armed conflict
  6. Social isolation
  7. Dysfunctional family life e.g. alcohol, drug dependency

Health consequences

The aftermath of child sexual abuse includes physical and mental complications. The physical issues range from genital injury, genital discharge, bedwetting/soiling, anal complaints (e.g. fissures, pain, bleeding), UTIs and STIs. Psychological and behavioural issues can include behavioural regression, delayed developmental milestones, sleep disturbances, depression, PTSD, poor self-esteem and/or inappropriate sexualised behaviours.

So what is the cause of the problem? Child sexual abuse is multi-dimensional in its cause and complexity, however, cultural and social norms supporting violence are a major issue. These can include the following:

  1. Sexual violence being an acceptable way of punishment/power assertion
  2. Sexual activity (including rape) being a marker of masculinity
  3. Sex and sexuality being taboo as well as shameful for the victim, thus preventing disclosure
  4. Perpetrators having had a history of longstanding sexual abuse

Prevention and control of child sexual abuse

Management of victims of sexual abuse is also, therefore, quite complex and multidimensional. It is important to remember, however, that sexual abuse is preventable and there are a number of steps that can be taken to keeping children safe. On individual levels this includes giving safe spaces to children (online and offline), equipping adults with knowledge and understanding to take action and empowering children to speak out about sexual abuse.

For children already having a history of abuse, there needs to be adequate support. This includes the treatment of physical injuries, STI treatment, HIV prophylaxis, long term counselling and/or psycho-educational intervention. Similarly, the frontline health staff need training in order to pick up the signs of sexual abuse, ask about it in a non-threatening setting and be competent enough to carry out the basic investigations and treatment. Disclosure in children is a multi step process and often is not easy for them to narrate. The health and forensic services must therefore work hand in hand to allow for sensitive information to be gathered from the child.

Education is a key element of control and prevention of child sexual abuse. The learning is imperative for children and families. The children need to be taught in safe environments, which touching and other behaviours are inappropriate and who to report to. They need to be reassured and mentally equipped so that they have a safe person with whom they can communicate.

Implementation of laws and policies is another minefield, which has to be taken into consideration. Control and prevention of abuse cannot work if the laws and policies are not in place, and if society as a whole does not believe in the legal enforceability of these.

References

Guidelines for medico-legal care for victims of sexual abuse. World Health Organisation. http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/42788/1/924154628X.pdf

Changing social and cultural norms that support violence. World Health Organisation. http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention/violence/norms.pdf

Child sexual abuse. National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. https://www.nspcc.org.uk/preventing-abuse/child-abuse-and-neglect/child-sexual-abuse/

Singh et al. An epidemiological overview of child sexual abuse. J Family Med Prim Care 2014; 3(4): 430-435.

Dogmas of faith, feminism and identity turmoils: Three daughters of Eve

“Islam, for her, was reminiscent of a childhood memory — so very familiar and personal but also somehow vague, far removed in time and space. Like a cube of sugar dissolved in her coffee, there and not there.”

A polaroid photograph of three young Oxford students and their University professor falls to the ground following a physical altercation with a vagrant. The polaroid, a relic and painful reminder of a scandal involving the novel’s protagonist, Peri, sets the stage for the reader to cross three distinct time frames. These include the present day affluent Turkish housewife at a grandiose dinner with flashbacks to her childhood in the 80’s and subsequently at her University days in the early 2000s.

Peri’s earlier life has been one of a child in a dysfunctional family, amidst ongoing conflicts between her atheist nationalistic father and her devoutly religious mother. The conflict between her parents and ultimately in her understanding of religion swung back to the nature of God, and thus, the seeds of curiosity of the divine were sowed at an early age for Peri.

When she gets to Oxford, she befriends two women who are poles apart in their ideologies just as much as her parents were. Shirin, an outspoken atheist with origins from Iran and Mona, an American-Arab devout Muslimah with strong feminist principles. Shafak describes them as the Sinner, the believer and the confused.

Other than sharing bonds of a friendship, they also share the same classes with professor, Azur. An eccentric and unorthodox teacher who has had polarising descriptions from monster to saviour. Handpicking his students for these seminars, he will take them through seminars on scientific studies on the nature of God – and thus we work through the novel, with a climax of betrayal, anger and annihilation.

As a book this was an easy enough read. The themes present are all pertinent to the modern day muslim; gender identity, religiosity and the conviction of faith. Shafak humanises her characterises and does this effectively as the protagonists are not simply good or evil, rather, portray the ups and downs of being human. I felt, however, that the book did not explore any of the other characters with real justice, with the exception of Peri. As my housemate put it so eloquently, “the book was not about the three daughters of Eve, it was only about one daughter of Eve”.

The book hinged on an alleged scandal between Peri and Azur. In fact, I would go as far as saying, most of the novel hinged on the character of Azur. This is an outrageous professor, of sorts, however, his actions, his outlooks and his behaviour have a reasoning and an important backstory. Despite this significant past, the reader is not able to empathise with him as his narrative is portrayed towards the very conclusion of the novel. I feel Shafak did not do justice to the final conversation between Peri and Azur – it was too incomplete.

I felt the sinner, the believer and the confused represented not distinct women or even their beliefs, rather, succinct histories of nations embodied in the human form. You have Peri, who lives in a space where orthodoxy and secularism meet, often, not successfully. To sum it up in one word, Peri’s life and existence has been one of doubt. Shafak argues, and argues quite well, that doubt is indeed a good thing in faith. Positive reinforcement in any group, order or institution is dangerous – and thus one must keep that in check through questioning, debate and learning.

If I lament on an example closer to home, it would be the age old topic of sectarian Islam. The Sunnis disagree with Shia’s, the Shia’s disagree with the Sunnis, and both of these groups actively denounce Ahmaddi’s as non muslims. Prominent figures from Pakistan have been outspoken in condemning and calling upon a fatwa and eradication of the Ahmaddi sect. Leaders, scholars and prominent Ahmadiyya figures have been attacked and killed. The 2010 massacre of an Ahmaddi mosque in Lahore left approx 90 people dead and almost 300 injured.

Another example is the persecution of Hazaras. People of Hazara origin are Shias native to Afghanistan and thought to be descendants of Genghis Khan. Historically they have been sold as slaves, ordered to be killed in the 1900s by the Emir of Afghanistan, and they continue to be attacked and discriminated against in Afghanistan and Pakistan. These atrocities are all examples of convictions that people have had in their beliefs.

Shafak also examines the identity issues that each of the three women have, and in doing so, she is able to show the three dimensional nature of women who have a rounded identity, of which Islam (or the lack of it) is a minor fragment. This is something to be valued in the book. I might have a partiality in this opinion, however, many exchanges with non ethnic individuals has led me to believe that it is difficult for many people to see past colour or the assumed faith. Certainly, this is also the case in reverse. However, the world has incredibly polarised views of Islam – and their idea of what it is. Unfortunately much of this has been fuelled by media. The blame entirely cannot lie with sensationalised news. One cannot also exclude the relationship between major incidents across the world and extremists who do this in the name of religion. Undoubtedly, the strongest correlation of major terrorist incidents have had links to self proclaimed Muslims.

It is futile to make arguments that Islam or religion does not advocate extremism or death. This is known amongst believers and amongst those who have working knowledge of the facets of this faith and its history. However, very many Muslims remain in awkward conversation cliffhangers when asked about their faith… often having to defend themselves or worse still, convince society that they are the “moderate muslims” who are not terrorists.

On a final note, I wholeheartedly embrace the idea of a Muslimus Modernus, a Muslim and modern mix. Groups cannot work successfully or flourish if they are not “modern” and if they actively reject the world in which we live in today – an important lesson for anybody belonging (or not) to any religious (or not) institution.

 

Student movements, police crackdowns and Kang’s Human Acts.

“The moment when you are forced to acknowledge that what you experienced was no mere dream. Is it possible to bear witness to the fact of a foot-long wooden ruler being repeatedly thrust into my vagina, all the way up to the back wall of my uterus? To a rifle butt bludgeoning my cervix? To the fact that, when the bleeding wouldn’t stop and I had gone into shock, they had to take me to the hospital for a blood transfusion? Is it possible to face up to my continuing to bleed for the next two years, to a blood clot forming in my fallopian tubes leaving me permanently unable to bear children?”

This is one of the many graphic experiences that the reader is taken through in Kang’s novel, Human Acts.

Centred around the Gwangju uprising of May 1980 and revealed through the killing of a middle school boy, Dong-ho, this novel embarks on the ambitious task of asking fundamental questions to the existence of humans — what exactly is humanity? And as such Kang embroils her readership with difficult scenarios and an even tougher line of questioning. Power, responsibility, violence, helplessness, grief, guilt, trauma, relief, apathy…she does not leave an emotion or a morality unquestioned in her prose.

The 1979 assassination of President Park, South Korea’s military dictator, gave way to the implementation of martial law and thus, a heavily policed state. This was strongly criticised and a call for democracy was made on several societal fronts, across the country. On the 18th May 1980, in Jeonnam University, the armed forces opened fire on the protesting student body. What ensued was a public outcry. Special forces were soon deployed, who took to a heightened forms of oppression and brutality — students were beaten, clubbed, bayoneted and executed. There were protests, there were settlement committees, there were civil militias — various forms of individual bodies, all demanding a retreat of the army from the public space. On May 27th, the militias took to the Provincial Office, knowing full and well they were facing a final standoff. The army defeated the civil militias in a matter of hours.

This portrait based novel focuses on six characters, all who have been affected by the violence and brutality that consumed the air of Gwangju in 1980. Kang gives vivid insights into their pain, their loss and their lives onwards from the moment the army stormed the Provincial Office, with their narrative being intertwined with the narrative of Dong-ho’s

death. The nature of the novel seems to be embroiled with the feelings, reflections and lamentations of the characters as opposed to the mechanisms of the violence or indeed, any explanations for it. There is an overall sense of mourning, whether it is the former factory girl mourning the loss of her intimacy or Dong-ho’s mother who mourns not only the loss of Dong-ho but also of the relationship between two of her existing sons, which has soured amidst blames for Dong’ho’s death.

Despite this being a palpably concise novel, Kang effortlessly cuts across boundaries of time and generation in her prose. Kang has not been shy in the novel to depict the violence with which her characters lost their lives, loved ones or even an aspect of their being in their respective spaces. Each successive page, each successive chapter unleashes pain in a new form, distinct from the previous.

Kang discovered the massacre at the age of 12 after having found a memorial of photographs on her family bookshelf and the final chapter is her link to Dong’ho and Gwangju’s bloody past. “I remember the moment when my gaze fell upon the mutilated face of a young woman, her features slashed through with a bayonet…silently, and without fuss, some tender thing deep inside me broke. something that, until then, I hadn’t realised was there”. The shattering of this unnamed thing deep inside Kang, is something that the reader experiences with each hopeless scenario faced in each chapter — and this realisation makes one appreciate the excellence with which Kang penned this novel.

So in the context of Kang’s novel, and her line of questioning as to what is humanity? I shall keep it succinct, humanity is bleak. Probably at its bleakest. Kang’s work is a feat in highlighting the aftermath of the Gwangju rising and painting sorrow on different canvases through the strokes of various colours. She brings to light questions of responsibility of government and establishments, which they owe to their citizens. Whilst putting the book down, I could not help but recall Habib Jalib’s lines, which focused on the struggles surviving in a dictatorship, which he so avidly spoke and rallied against:

 

کہیں گیس کا دھواں ہے
کہیں گولیوں کی بارش ہے
شب عہد کم نگاہی
تجھے کس طرح سراہیں

Kahin gas ka dhuaan hai
Kahin golion ki barish
Shab e ehd kum nigaahi

Tujhe kaisay hum saraahein

 

 

References:

 

  1. Human Acts by Han Kang. Good reads. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/30091914-human-acts

 

  1. Kwangju uprising. South Korean History. https://www.britannica.com/event/Kwangju-Uprising

 

Habib Jalib. The poet of the people. Bodhi Commons.  http://beta.bodhicommons.org/article/habib-jalib-the-poet-of-the-people