The Summer of 2002

The summer of 2002

I will never forget the scorching summer of 2002, while my colleague and I were travelling in Orissa (now Odisha). The heat pinned us down even as we attempted get out of bed and temperatures climbed impatiently up to 420C well before noon.

Odisha is a unique state of contrasts. Incredibly beautiful, incredibly divine, incredibly backward, and incredibly poor – divinity emanates from the temples that dot the countryside and the towns, while poverty and under-development co-exist cheek by jowl.

That year, that day

An air of tranquility washed over us as we drove through the state. I remember a feeling of peace even as the extreme discomfort of the heat bore down on me heavily. Our work involved travelling deep into the interiors of rural Odisha to research and write about HIV/AIDS interventions and we were told to start our days early and spend the afternoons indoors in whichever village we found ourselves.

The heat was intense enough to swoop down and tie you up in a steamy tent and make you breathless till you felt that life would swiftly go out of you. As a small concession, we were given an air-conditioned vehicle to travel from one village to another. At one village, I saw a man suffering from sun-stroke being brought out and buckets of water being poured on him to prevent him from being roasted alive. And this where drinking water was scarce. Should I have felt guilty about travelling in comfort when I was there to write about people like him? I silenced my conscience telling myself I hadn’t gone there to die after all.

Midway through our stint, at the end of a day which had been unbearably, stiflingly hot, we came to a village. Entrances to most Indian villages are barely enough for two bullocks joined by a yoke to pass through; this village was no different. This meant we had to stop our vehicle and proceed by foot. Passing the customary temple, we wound our way around the haphazard lanes, avoiding heaps of surface-dried dung and huge, well-fed flies. Scrawny children played in this filth, scarcely affected by the heat. I love Indian villages now, but back then, I remember feeling more than mild discomfort.

The coordinator of the HIV/AIDS project we were there to write about, whispered in my ear, “Ma’am, two AIDS patients live in this village. But we will have to wait till nightfall to meet them. Let’s look around till then.”

So we looked around – at the poverty, the emaciated old people who sat at the entrance to their homes, and at the women who looked strangely alone and worried. We noticed there were no young men in the village and asked about it. The coordinator said, “They all migrate for work in this season, leaving their wives, children and parents behind.”

Ironically, while the men were away, a meeting was being held in the panchayat hall to demonstrate the use of condoms to women. There were no men in the meeting and the women sat shyly, sarees drawn over their faces, as the woman volunteer held a ‘wooden demonstration model’ and nonchalantly drew a condom over it. None of the women even looked up!!

The seed for Journalists against TB is sown

Darkness fell, and we were furtively taken to an empty house outside the village, where three people, a man accompanied by his father, and a young woman had been ‘brought’ to meet us like two exhibits. The man breathed in short painful gasps. Skin-covered ribs stuck out starkly on his chest and his father spoke for him as he hadn’t the energy to respond to our questions.

The woman waited inside the house and looked up as she heard us enter. Very young, probably in her early 20s, she seemed marginally better than the man but we were told she was dying of HIV related TB as well. As I spoke to her, I looked into her eyes. They reflected several emotions – bewilderment that seemed to question why she was dying for no fault of hers. Anxiety because she knew she was dying and was going to leave two little children behind. Her husband had already died after infecting her. I also saw her wince from the pain of the fever and cough that were consuming her.

But most of all I saw her puzzled. She seemed to wonder why we were there. What could we do for her? Her despair got to me. I turned away, ashamed that I was even attempting to ask her irrelevant, impertinent questions about how she contracted HIV, who gave it to her etc. Questions had no place in her life now.  In fact nothing had relevance; she was dying. What could I say? Could I say I would pray for her, giving her the impression that there was nothing else that would work for her? I stumbled out of the house finding it difficult to hold back my tears. The tears came, later in my room. But so did a determination that I would do something, if not for her, at least for people like her.

That day I hated the woman’s husband – a migrant, who had infected her. Today, I don’t. Because I know that he was ignorant. Had he been aware of the dangers he had exposed himself and his wife to, he might have been careful. His choices might have been safer.

For TB, the situation is even worse – because you don’t do anything to get TB. You just breathe. This makes awareness even more vital to protect yourself. My tryst with TB began back then. It wasn’t easy to negotiate media space for TB because it was such non-issue. Back then, other than people from the programme, very few knew about or spoke about TB. At least, with the advent of HIV, it got its place under the sun, albeit merely as a co-infection.

But I persevered and one day, in frustration, after several publications had declined to take a piece I had written on TB, I decided to start my own paper! It was easy because opening one’s own paper simply meant founding a blog and feeding it with news! ‘Journalists against TB’ was born, for what it was worth, and I had kept my promise to the nameless woman in Odisha, who is probably looking down at me from wherever she is. And it was never difficult to find space again to speak about what mattered.

The TB sector welcomed me with open arms. I have seen change happening slowly, but surely and TB getting the attention it deserves. We’re not where we need to be just yet, but there is hope because there are hundreds like me who care about doing something. And they will!

Note: Journalists against TB has never been and will never be funded, in order to stay completely impartial. Travel grants have been accepted from time to time in order to build knowledge for informed writing.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

 

My imperfect world

Tree

Welcome to my imperfect world! The picture says it all. My harum-scarum world that only I understand. The chaotic world where only I can see the flowers – they grow any which way. Even the sky in my world follows its own order. In my world the grass grows the way I want it to – wild, without rules, not in any order – because being in an ordered world is to defy the ‘larger plan’. Being in a world of big plans is to defy and ignore the small ones that make life worth living. And yet, there are some perfect things even in my imperfect world. Like the tree!

The perfection in an imperfect world

The tree is exactly the way I want it to be, and the way I want to be – strong and unshakeable. It gives strength when all else is crumbling. It defies the sky sometimes; it nurtures all the little creatures that grow in its shade. It allows uninvited guests to come and make their homes on its strong branches – and doesn’t voice a whimper when they leave without as much as a bye leaving their untidy nests behind when their little ones have grown up and away. Is the tree something of a ‘doormat’? No, it’s a welcoming host.

It’s the tree that provides shelter against threatening storms and drenching rains. And when the rain is past and the refuge seekers have left, leaving their litter behind, the tree just smiles, forgiving them and waits for the next batch of refuge seekers. Is the tree devoid of self-esteem? No, on the other hand, it’s actually very sure of what its role in the world is.

The tree it is, which gives fruit to the stone-pelters, the free-loaders and the exploiters. It gives fruit without asking pesky questions. What will you do with it? What is my ROI (return on investment)? I need to meet my targets so I’ll crush my neighbouring tree. Is the tree unambitious? No, it’s just self assured.

The tree is not insecure; it doesn’t need constant reassurance about its place on earth. If that were not true, the tree would not live by its own rules, swing to its own music; it would not send fresh shoots up into the very place that the tree-cutter left his destructive trail. That’s because the tree spent years growing roots before it grew into the sky. That’s because it was in no hurry to grow up before it grew from inside – defiant, spunky and unafraid.

In my chaotic, imperfect world I take strength from the tree. There will be order in chaos one day. I am growing inside. Like a tree.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

 

 

 

 

The tyranny of social norms

11.04.2017

After a gap…

It’s been a while since I visited here. Tonight, at the end of a long working day, I’ve silenced my creaking joints, defied a body that’s crying for rest; and allowed my mind and resolve to take the lead and am sitting down to do this.

I’ve got it coming out of my ears – this question, again and again. “Why do you have to do this at your age?” I’ve stopped replying now and answer with a vacuous grin, which can mean nothing or a lot – depending on who it’s directed at. If it’s a person who’s genuinely concerned for me, it can mean a lot, and I reassure them that I’m still fit and will be fit hopefully for many more years to come. If it’s a person who’s bound by social norms and believes that a woman who crossed a half-century+10 must wrap herself in a shawl, wear socks and shuffle helplessly around the house, it means, I didn’t want to be rude and ask them to ‘you know what’!

That brings me to social norms and a conference I attended a few weeks ago. During the discussions, I realised with a mental thud that we in society are tyrannised by social norms. Social norms are, as I learnt, norms of behaviour that society expects us to conform to and we do it, fearing sanctions on failing to do so. And this is why I will think twice before going to a bar or pub without a man accompanying me – I don’t want to be seen as lacking in character. This is why I will refrain from dining out with a male friend from college, if my husband does not accompany me. Or this is also why I will refrain from walking out of a bad marriage, even if I’m being beaten just short of death, physically and emotionally every other day. What will people say?  What will they think? Who will marry my daughter? And the list goes on…

Social norms are ubiquitous. There are norms for every action in life – dressing, talking, marrying, not marrying, eating, and I read yesterday, there are even prescribed norms for women and their hair – hair shastra! And they all seemed to be designed and reserved for this special species called woman, who everybody in the world is out to protect, and strangely enough, destroy at the same time. Hmm..

Am I lecturing from an ivory tower? Have I tried to change things? Have I had the courage to walk the ‘road less travelled?’ The answer is yes, and the answer is also no. I tried stepping out for dinner alone one night when I was out on business travel in Delhi, and bored of eating kathi rolls night after night, sitting in my room and watching or rather hearing Arnab Goswami screaming into my ears. There was a famous restaurant down the road from my hotel and I figured no harm could come if I popped in and popped out after gorging on their renowned tandoori chicken. How I wished I hadn’t. All the while I was there, I felt the glare and the unease of the manager, the waiters and the other diners on me, questioning, maybe judging or conjecturing too. The chicken tasted like charcoal in my mouth and I beat a somewhat hasty retreat after doing some service to it. And yet, when I went to Liverpool, UK recently, I had to step out alone for dinner and didn’t attract even a glance from anyone – my ego was shattered, but…

But there are happy experiences too. My mother, recently left alone after my brother died, decided she would have none of staying with her children. She was determined to live in the home her husband had given her and where his soul still lived. She’s managed pretty well and has managed to silence all those awkward questions that have come her way. It’s difficult though, and more strength to her.

We are seeing more examples as we see our daughters rebelling against norms, sometimes at great cost to themselves. But the churning has to happen and someone has to pay the price before things get better for women. Our support is with the women who are daring to swim against the tide and hopefully a time will come when a 60-year old will not be questioned when she wants to stay alive mentally and wants to work well beyond society’s perceptions of when she should curl into a hole and go to sleep!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

On Women’s Day – All about some Ammas

I have never met her. And yet, it seems like I know her well.  I have heard of her, heard of her work and heard her speak. And she has always embodied the quintessential woman. Madhu Bhushan – for me, is a woman who wears her femininity with pride and grace and yet, is a fiery feminist. For me she signifies what all of us women should aspire to be. I believe that feminism is NOT about competing with men – it’s about loving your femininity with the same love that nature displayed while giving it to you; it means looking beautiful because you are beautiful inside out, being soft, and reveling in your ability to give and nurture life – something that men can’t do (at least not yet). And above all it means being quietly firm and sure of your place in the order of the world – equal, if not the greater half. As yet another Women’s Day rolls by, who better to share her experiences about women, than her? Thank you Madhu, you made this Women’s Day special for GRIN! Madhu Bhushan is a feminist activist, writer, (re)searcher, part of Vimochana for more than three decades since 1983 and now works independently.

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Over to Madhu, unplugged…

Bharathi did me the honour of asking me to write something for her blog for March 8. Memories of a woman or women who have inspired me down the years. It did not take much to coax me, since I am getting to that age when it takes very little to get me to relive the past! At first I thought I would write  only about Dodyelgamma. But as I began to write more memories of more women  started flooding the page. But in the interest of space, I edited many out to include just two other Ammas in my life. Kamlamma and Ceciliyamma.

Kamlamma, my grandmother…

The gentle matriarch of her large family. Just thinking of her life makes me breathless. She started the babies coming when she gave birth to my father at the tender age of 13 years. And then did not stop till she had thirteen children. It became so routine that she was conducting  deliveries for her daughters even while she was going through her own.

Despite being debilitated and disabled by rheumatoid arthritis from young, she also became a full time nurse for her husband, my grandfather, who lay in bed totally paralyzed and bedridden for 12 long years. This apart from cooking and caring for her children and scores of grandchildren like us who kept flowing in and out of the house at regular intervals.

And yet through all this, she managed to  have time and inclination to tend to her little garden in front of her little house that exploded with  flowers – pearly mallige, the perky purple spatika and the cheery orange kanakambra. And lovingly nurture the tiny backyard that boasted of a little banana grove, a solitary cotton bush, a coffee plant and a mandatory lemon tree that never failed to yield its produce year after year.

Kamalamma, a woman of her times whose stoic resilience sustained a generation; for who choice and freedom were hardy home-grown ingredients, not ready-to-eat products, processed, packaged and sold in the supermarket of convenience.

Ceciliyamma, my first feminist comrade…

A village nurse and midwife who evolved her own special brand of fiery organic feminism forged in the fires of her domestic battles with a husband who had abandoned her and their three children.

For me, as a young, idealistic awe-struck activist in the 80s she was not so much a ‘case’  I was supporting in her fight for justice. She was a woman who inspired with her grit and determination to build a new just world for women, despite or perhaps because of her own personal sense of injustice.

Her unexpected death at the hands of her husband who she forgave and took back into her home was as much tragic as it was traumatic for those of us who thought she and her convictions were indestructible.

Ceciliyamma in her life and death taught us about the fragility of all ideologies when faced with vulnerability of the human spirit for which love continues to be a curse and benediction, both.   

Dodyelgamma. A life teacher. A woman whose life was as hard as her faith…

The image of her praying to her beloved Goddess Yellamma one memorable night when she got possessed is indelibly etched into my soul. Standing in front of the deity in the ramshackle hut she called her home, arms akimbo, feet astride, hair all white and wild, saree all tattered, teeth all betel-stained. And emerging from her mouth a steady stream of curses against the goddess. Berating her for not caring enough or doing justice. For her or for her people. Irreverent. Free and fearless. Yet full of faith. Her colourful vocabulary, infinite wisdom and beautifully personal, democratic relationship with the divine continue to inspire!

Thank you Dodyelgamma for teaching me the value and worth of uncompromising freedom and autonomy in our relationship with power. Be it sacred or secular.

The final word…

 Resistance through resilience. Love through vulnerability. Power through autonomy. There is much to learn from the vast canvas of transformation into which women paint colours of hope and hopelessness from their everyday realities that anchor them firmly. A valuable lesson learnt from being part of the very diverse women’s movement over the past three decades that despite all the questions and contradictions has taught me to look for the universal in the specific; the political in the personal; the poetry in the pain. And yes, sometimes the other way around too!

I agree Madhu, entirely!

 

7 Men and 1 Woman – Rocking it in London!

International Women’s Day is looming, and GRIN has something very special lined up to mark the day. But before that, here’s a story I love to tell, and it’s about men! It’s about a trip I went on, where I was the only hapless woman, unwittingly ‘stuck’ with seven men! And what I got to see are sides to men we women might not acknowledge exists! Without much ado, here’s the story – in all its glory!

The year – 2006

Six of us – four men and two women had won a prestigious award and as a part of the award, we were getting to go on a study tour to London, no less for seven whole days. Of course I was excited. The trip was to a phoren land after all!

In my flurry to beg and borrow clothes, camera, warm wear, and other thingies one needed for a foreign trip, I quite forgot to get acquainted with my fellow awardees. I had met them all during the awards ceremony and then we all went about our job of getting ready for the trip. Two days before travel, I got to know that my sole lady co-awardee had opted out of coming owing to a personal problem. So there I was – with seven men (including the three persons from the organization sponsoring us). I wasn’t prudish or anything; rather other worries plagued me. Who would go shopping with me? I couldn’t after all shop for lingerie and cosmetics with men accompanying me. Would they know the difference between nude lipstick and otherwise, or padded or not? Out of question! And what if I needed to speak about my myriad health issues? Back pain, cramps and what not?

But it was too late so I decided to grin and bear it! I wasn’t going to compromise a trip to LONDON because of a flimsy reason such as this. My colleagues were all ‘boys’ in a sense. They were all much younger than me, and I think chivalry comes naturally to men when they see an older woman!

The next week saw me being made ‘one of the boys’ very quickly, even while recognizing that I needed just that wee bit of extra support when it came to setting foot on escalators that went to dizzying heights, or to slowing down their pace of walking just to ensure I could keep pace.  And all this with gracious acceptance and not condescension, “Oh, she’s a woman, give her a break.” Over the next week, I was pampered, coddled and treated like fragile china! I came back with my opinion about men taking a huge upward spiral. But enough about me. Meet them…

  1. Biju Mathew – All India Radio – he collects awards with prolific ease and I’ve lost count of how many he has won after we returned.
  2. Rajeet Sinha – Currently Press Advisor to a high-profile MP, but still exudes the same warmth and affection and humility whenever we speak.
  3. S Nagarathinam – effortlessly added on a PhD and a son to his portfolio after we returned and currently heads the Communications Department of a renowned university.
  4. Sanjeev Sharma – All India Radio – hasn’t aged a bit since I last saw him but I’ve kind of lost touch with him.
  5. Jacob John – I’ve lost touch but I’m sure he can never change. Lovely, lovely human.
  6. Khorrum Omer – Ditto. But I do see him on TV occasionally.
  7. Savyasaachi Jain – The BIG BOSS.

I have names for all of them.

The Wall (a la Dravid) Biju – solid, soft-spoken.  Took copious notes unobtrusively at all meetings.  I could sense a whopper of a story, or several stories in the making. He proved it on his return with all the awards he’s collected.

The Buzzzzzy bee Rajeet – here, there, everywhere.  Knew the tube lines inside out.  Assumed the role of gentle leader in no time.  Chased stories with the vigour of a seasoned newshound who knew the value and the volatility of TRPs and was committed to do his bit to make them spin.  Packed in 28 hours into a 24-hour day.

Waterman Sanjeev – affable, quiet, unflappable.  A very endearing mixture of fun and serious intent.  Mischief shone through his eyes.  Why Waterman?  He had the lovely quality of water about him and fit the vessel he was in.

Superstar Nagi – Hmm… found scoops lurking around every corner.  He found Tiruvalluvar wrapped in a shawl sitting in statuesque splendour under a tree in the University College of London.  He found Gandhi tucked away in a park.  He visited the Tamil BBC and walked away from there triumphantly holding a BBC diary like a war trophy.  Brought a smile to the Tamilians working in a store by talking to them in Tamil and giving them a taste of home.  Nagi and his camera were inseparable.  And he wanted himself in all his pictures.  We all ended up as near-professional photographers attempting to catch him in the myriad poses he wanted!!!

Jacob? Willing to learn, to participate and yet not pushy, or abrasive.  Great to have around.

Saachi – the long-haired genial boss! He had the London A-Z and the tube map in his head.  Even though he referred to it desultorily sometimes, one knew he did not need to.  Like a sure-footed antelope he set a dizzying pace that I at least went blue in the face trying to keep up with.  Many a time I found myself lagging behind.

Khorrum – always at hand to help. Silent, strong, dependable. Had all kinds of useful tips having been to London more than once.

To my utter horror, I once found myself setting up easy conversation with a long-haired individual in jeans and jacket, to whose back I spoke about the weather etc.  Only when the individual (a woman as it turned out), turned round and looked at me strangely did I realise I had detached from the group.  Huffed and panted my way back just in time to catch the tube with them. And they were all huddled together and watching me, giggling all the time!

A truly unforgettable experience. Especially when I once realized I had left behind my folder, notes and all at a bus stop and Rajeet ran back almost a whole kilometre just to retrieve it!

But this is not just a travel memoir or about singing paeans to my male friends. This trip in many ways changed my perceptions about men. The reason I enjoyed the trip immensely is because while I was with them they did not make me once feel I was different from them. Except perhaps when they mysteriously disappeared every evening to do ‘men’ things. After all they were in London – the land of pubs and nightclubs and all sorts of sensory pleasures! It is to their credit that they made me feel completely at ease – give me seven men like these any time and I will begin to believe there are no other kind in the world – that misogyny, patriarchy and male dominance are figments of female minds. More strength to them!

P.S. We still keep in touch over Facebook and other ways and on every ‘anniversary’ flood each other with memories and photographs, some of which are featured here!

Bharathi Ghanashyam

 

 

 

Someone might be reaching out to you even now – and you might not even know!

Now…

She is a young, vivacious, pretty girl, bubbling over with health and joie de vivre. A small town girl, she’s remarkably independent, holds a job, pursues higher education in her free time and loves clicking selfies and sending them to me. I unfailingly get a WhatsApp message from her before I wake up every morning and just before I go to bed every night, wishing me good morning or good night. That she takes a lot of trouble trying to source nice images on the internet is evident because they are never repeated.

A few years ago…

Emaciated, weak, unwell, gasping for every breath, depressed and hopeless – this was that day’s image of the girl I have described above. I visited and spent about an hour with her, collecting information about her condition, because I was writing a collection of stories on people suffering from TB. She was an MDR-TB patient and was on a treatment regimen which was to last for over 24 months. The medication was toxic and the side-effects were so severe she found them difficult to bear; they also made her suicidal. In the course of our meeting, she took my telephone number from me. I gave it to her almost absently and forgot about it. I went back home and life continued as usual.

In the interim…

After I returned home, the girl continued to call me regularly. She seemed to have drawn some strength from our interaction and on days that she felt very low, she reached out to me. On these occasions, she sobbed, tiring out her frail body even more. She shared her anguish and pain with me. She sometimes shared that she felt like jumping into a pool of water because her body felt it was on fire (side effects of the drugs she was taking). I confess that while I always responded to her, my responses were sometimes tertiary, distracted ones. She would catch me while I was busy or just not in a mood to speak to anyone. But it didn’t matter to her. She knew I couldn’t really do anything for her, except listen. And that’s all she wanted.

Then, finally, one day she called with a lilt in her voice, “Ma’am, I’m cured. My doctor says I don’t need any more medicines! I have gained 10 kgs and weigh 45 kgs now,” she said happily. We both celebrated this moment. She thanked me for standing by her and giving her courage, when I had in reality done nothing. I had only listened, but to her tortured mind and body, it had made a difference.

Now again…

Even now, even after she is well, every morning, regardless of whether the sun shines, or the rains come down, her messages reach me. I read them; I respond sometimes, many times I don’t.She sends me photographs of hers which tell me she has regained her lovely looks. She still seems to feel the need to stay connected and doesn’t demand I respond. She’s happy just connecting.

Sounds familiar doesn’t it? I have often felt the need (I know most people do) to fill gaps in my life by connecting with people outside of my family, despite knowing they would be able to do nothing but listen. And like it was with my friend and me, the responses I got have been tertiary, distracted, or completely absent. But it was enough and I have felt comforted just opening out. That’s the way with people who reach out and those they are reaching out to. It’s almost always one-sided, and the need is always greater for the person who needs to reach out. But it helps to be available. It helps immensely.

So keep those lines open. You never know when someone’s going to need you! Just to listen!

Bharathi Ghanashyam