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


From once upon a time – speaking to my Maker in poetry and prose…

When I was young, and wide-eyed and naive; when I wanted everything here and now, I spoke to my maker thus…In poetry and prose…

you hold out promises
of rebirth
like holding out colourful toys
to quiet a stubborn child
when I want something
you can’t give

and you use words
that scare me
karma, prarabdha, vasanas,
between me
and my desires

i don’t want rebirth
i don’t understand karma
all I want
is my life,
this life
to live over again

all i want
is fulfillment
of all my desires,
good or bad,
right or wrong

if you can’t give me that
give me empty words either

for of what use
is a second life?
of what use is a life
where even desire may never be the same?

do I sound like a stubborn child?
can I help that?
aren’t we all petulant, stubborn children
in the eyes of the maker,
if there be one?

is that why
my maker holds out only promises
in the way of holding out toys
when s/he can’t give us what we want?

Bharathi Ghanashyam

Does Hinduism encourage escapism?

Must one really shed attachment if one wants to attain inner peace and moksha? But what about ambition?

“Thy right is to work only, but never to its fruits. Let not fruit of action be not thy motive nor let thy attachment be to inaction” – Bhagawad Gita.

My relationship with both – my religion and my child – are much the same. Both are irreversibly symbiotic, the first because I was born into it, and the other because she was born out of me. I love both even at times when it is difficult to; and I owe allegiance to both, regardless of circumstances. How can you abandon either, child or religion?

But a good parent, and a good Hindu, Muslim, or Christian, is one who can be objective about the ‘warts’ as it were. Even so, as I set out to examine some warts that are evident to me in Hinduism’s basic tenets, I do it with a sense of trepidation.

At various stages in my life, doubts about my religious proclivities have assailed me (as they must have many). What were my true feelings towards being a Hindu? Did Hinduism encourage escapism? There is so much about it that confuses me. Beginning with the way this religion is practised. Replete with seemingly irrational rituals and indecipherable rules for worship, the same rules and rituals can be so full of meaning when interpreted in the right way. For instance, asking forgiveness of a tree before cutting it, as some tribes are known to do, reeks of meaningless ritualism. Look deeper and you find sound ecological sense in the ritual.

Hinduism also seems so escapist at times. Owning, or even desiring material possessions has always left me in a quandary. Must one really shed attachment if one wants to attain inner peace and moksha? Then where does that leave ambition? Doesn’t ambition come out of desire? Isn’t it a form of escapism to be without desire and therefore ambition?

Then again, let’s talk about wishing for the fruits of our actions. Doesn’t the Bhagawad Geeta say, “The action alone is yours, not the fruit”? Why would I act if I didn’t want the fruit?

What does my religion say about actions, right or wrong? Hinduism does not have any fixed theories about heaven and hell; it does not propound the belief of a ‘‘day of reckoning’’. On the contrary, it says your deeds in this life, good or bad are carried seamlessly into the next and you often reap, in the next life, what you sow in this. I certainly will not know what I’m paying for when I’m living out my next life. Convenient, isn’t it, this kind of amnesia? Does that mean I can sin in this life without fear? Some more escapism?

One can go on and on because Hinduism is full of such contradictions. But it is also a fearless religion, in that it lays itself open to interpretation and introspection. Look once, you will find one meaning, look again, you will find another. Each person, Hindu or otherwise, is free and welcome to delve into its mysteries and find the path and interpretation that suits him/her the best.

I have reached my own conclusions about the conflicts that have troubled me from time to time.

Right or wrong, I believe that above all, Hinduism teaches equanimity and acceptance. It equips you to deal with success, cope with failure and it teaches you the wisdom of taking the path of least resistance, the convenience of living like water. It shows you how to fit the vessel you are in at any point in time. But then I wonder, am I rationalising, am I being an escapist?

Bharathi Ghanashyam

First published in Deccan Herald 06 February 2006. More relevant now than any time ever.