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4

This morning, my mother woke me up telling me that my father was no longer breathing. It wasn't entirely unexpected. He was suffering from Parkinsons and had deteriorated rapidly in recent times. And he had suffered. Coming awake in a hurry, I checked him. No breath, no pulse, he was still warm. My mother had seen his last breaths and stayed with him to comfort him before waking me up.

I called the doctor, who confirmed the death and issued a certificate. My father had wanted to donate his body. However the delays with arriving relatives and his extensive bedsores along with having to cross district lines to submit his body to the Anatomy department at JJ led us to decide to cremate him locally.

It was the strangest day I have lived through on many levels.

My father was many people. To his siblings, he was a devoted brother. To his many nephews and nieces, he was a doting uncle. To my mother, he was someone who undermined her constantly and was frequently cruel to. To me, he was Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Someone who encouraged me to pursue achievements and also someone who disowned me in what he perceived as failure. A large part of my adult life had troubles directly born from trying to exit his home. He was the one to go on a tour with my mother while I returned to his home separated from my husband. He gave another key to the home to the husband I was trying to leave. He manipulated me into coming to live with him when trying to exit an abusive marriage, only to force me back with a disabled infant in tow. He has wished my mother and me dead over the years, predicted that we would have long and paralyzed lives and worse.

He was an extremely self-sufficient man and could cook, clean and do whatever was needed to keep the home running. He did not like household help and when my mom wanted to hire a maid, he took over sweeping, mopping and washing utensils rather than hire one. While he constantly berated my mother for not acting more housewifely (any and every reason would do - housework was just one), he most certainly never expected her to be the only person working in the home (they both had jobs and incomes). His abuse was more an issue of control than misogyny. He'd support me to become a brain surgeon, but not to make choices he wouldn't allow, for example. He happily supported my mother going on her own for the Kailash Parikrama, but in routine life, her salary went to his hands on payday and she never had over twenty rupees in her purse till I hit my teens, then, with inflation it became fifty, then a hundred - for emergency expenses strictly. No whimsical snacks or rickshaw rides. Nor did he ever buy her a single ornament if he could avoid it.

To be honest, I've never seen my mother complain other than occasionally when she really wanted something. She lived as frugally as him, initially to repay the loan for their home, and then to save for their old age. Neither of them smoked, drank alcohol or had other habits commonly understood as vices. My dad's addiction was junk and they both loved to travel and lived unbelievably frugally to fund travel without touching savings.

My father was a tinkerer. A compulsive DIYer who haunted flea markets and junk shops to bring home broken treasures to be brought back to life and gifted or used. While I thankfully don't scour the world to bring junk home, I do think I got my tendency to do stuff myself at his knee, holding a solder wire as he fixed something with the iron, helping him create furniture for his home, reading tiny tiny numbers on electronic parts with my sharp eye for him, or using things for purposes other than they were designed for.

He was an avid traveler all his adult life, and organized travel would give way to two treks a year in later decades. There was no such thing as a summer vacation without a tour to some far away place. And then Himalayan treks. Strangely, by the time I grew up, our rift was so deep, that in spite of him having a daughter who did specialized cultural tours and extreme treks in the Himalaya for a living, we have never been on a trek together. Ever.

Perhaps one thing many would appreciate was his successful saving. He purchased his own home in Vile Parle before he married my mother (though both of them worked to pay off the loan well into the marriage). He saved like a religion. And for someone who had only one job in life - as a factory worker (and machine setter at the end) - he saved enough to be still offering people in need money and affording two treks a year and trying to buy a second home well into his retirement (long story). He wasn't rich by the standards of today's upper middle class, but given the frugality of their life, he had enough to cover his needs indefinitely. I did not get this from him. my financial planning is dismal. I may have supported with care in his last days, but to his last breath, he could most certainly afford all he needed.

To his friends from work, he was a mentor. An elder brother who guided them true in their work and life. One of his friends had come today. Tears streaming down his face to see the pitiful state my father had been reduced to, from a fit and physical ex-bodybuilder, ex-factory worker, ex-trekker. I was able to give him some peace when I shared that their visits in the preceding months had brought my father great joy.

He is also the man who hosted ice cream parties for my cousins and me in the summer vacations when color television and VCRs were a novelty so we could watch films and have fun. He was the one to unfailingly rush to the side of his siblings when they fell ill, serve them tirelessly and offer as much money as he could to them.

Today, I would meet many of these cousins. People whose eyes welled with tears to see his body on the floor when all I could feel was relief at no longer having to change dirty diapers for someone who didn't recognize me for most of the last months, and was unlikely to be happy about it if he did. The benevolent figure they lost today, I'd lost somewhere in my teenage. For someone who had lived with him around the clock for the last ten months, I did not recognize the person they were mourning. The person who was lying dead had little left in him that would support life. He had spent the last few months in pain. He had lost control over his body to the point that the last few days before he died, he had even been unable to open his eyes or swallow more than a few spoonfuls. What was to mourn? This was freedom. Freedom for him from pain, freedom for my mother caring for him round the clock in her old age, freedom for me from the exhausting effort of caring for someone you would have preferred to not run into at all again.

Today, my mother looks exhausted, but far lighter than she did last night.

Did I wish him ill? Not at all. The man who had done untold harm to my life was not the slowly dying man who came into my home ten months ago. This was simply an old and scared man knowing he had a difficult future awaiting and knowing there was no way he could escape it. He had all my compassion, but I felt little attachment. Would I prefer for him to have been alive? Not at all. It was time for him to go. For his own sake too. I felt no guilt for not caring, because my conscience was clear that I had done all I could for him while it could make a difference.

I didn't particularly like my father. He was of a judgmental nature and had let me down in some of my worst times in life. While he had been a paragon to his blood relatives and colleagues, at home, he had been cruel to my mother and me as well once I entered my teens. I hadn't lived with him for the most part of my life and frankly had no ambition to be around him at all till his fall last May brought the parents crashing back into my life. His condition had deteriorated too much for them to live safely on their own. My mother was not capable of caring for him alone. I rented a larger place in a hurry while we extended his stay in hospital so we could move him here.

In these months, I saw another side of my father. The monster who kept trying to drive me out of his home was another creature while living in my home. He was a helpless old man who pined to see the home he had purchased with his sweat and blood one last time before he died. A wish we were not able to fulfill, because of his condition, and the fact that we were two women and a disabled child other than him in the home, with no real manpower for the kind of effort it would have to be.

He was also an intensely proud man humbled by circumstances and humiliated by having to live in the home of a daughter he had driven away. He saw many of the curses he had heaped on my mother and me come true about him with his extended helplessness in a bitter twist that life can be. He was often a very frustrated, sad man, and my mother, as usual was the one to bear the brunt of his anger.

But all was not bad. Before he lost his mental faculties, he did attempt to build a tentative and more respectful relationship with me. In turn, I lost a lot of my bitterness and contempt for him, because he simply wasn't the man who had caused them anymore. We would never be close, but we did develop a carefully polite relationship that did not create new hurts and allowed for the occasional casual or even profound conversation, like when he told me that he did not want to be admitted to a hospital no matter what, since what he had couldn't be cured. He would rather not prolong the discomfort and leave my mother money instead of finishing it on a lost cause. Another time, we had a conversation on assisted suicide and even euthanasia which was pretty raw and helpless given that I agreed with him, but both were not options by law. While he never apologized to my mother to his dying breath nor stopped venting his anger on her, he did learn to appreciate the uncomplaining tenacity with which she served him, in spite of being a patient of schizophrenia herself.

These ten months, he got time to spend with his grandchild. Said grandchild adored him, since he was the only one in the home who was slow enough and idle enough to offer endless entertainment. Nisarga used to go into peals of laughter the minute my father started walking - something he never did for anyone else. Perhaps he thought it was exciting when my father did it, because it was clearly so much effort and achievement for him? Regardless, his hysterical squeals would get my father laughing helplessly to the point where we worried if he'd fall from laughing. This was the only thing that could make him laugh, when his face was not even able to smile anymore. And I was glad that they both had this time together.

It was a day where I wanted to burst into a grin while many were fighting tears. And many, many reflections. While not a sad day for me, it was profound. It was also a sort of transition. I'd been promoted by circumstances to the position of the "man of the house" where the other two members were an aged woman and a disabled child.

So today he lay there and we were discussing who lights his pyre. An aunt was adamant that women can and should do it when appropriate, and as his only child, me doing it was appropriate. My mother-in-law disapproved of women at crematoriums at all. My mother thought that the person who took responsibility for him in the tough time prior to his death should do it, which was me (as opposed to me just being his daughter). Me, I'm an atheist. I don't really care who cremates someone. The easiest way to resolve the issue would be for me to murmur that I don't want to do it. It would be a graceful exit. No one would pressure a woman to light a cremation pyre. However, just because women don't do it as per social tradition, I thought I should. I most certainly had the right as his only child in a world attempting modernity (no other women from the family came to the crematorium regardless), and I did it. There were no last rites to be done. Both my parents had done them while still alive. It was a matter of lighting the thing. I did it. I even did it in the traditional manner, holding the torches behind me, for respect of the beliefs of others there.

As we watched the pyre burn, the question came up of returning the next day to collect his remains for immersing in flowing water. I wasn't interested. I didn't see the point leaving my bereaved mother alone (not to mention what impact today would have on her schizophrenia) at home to do yet another rite, and if he'd got his wish of body donation, there wouldn't be remains anyway. I knew for certain that my mother didn't care about this, but said that I'd discuss it with her when we got home, and return for them, if she wanted it done. My lack of interest probably alarmed cousins who consider it as a closure, and one of them found a way of getting it done with a short wait, using the bones of the lower part of body, that burns faster.

Strangely, while I didn't think of it as a ritual closure, I was glad that we did that. It resulted in a nice drive to the beautiful Agashi beach and the release of the bones into the sea. The bones, to me did not matter so much, but after the ugliness of the last few months, the beauty and peace of the beach was a much better scene to close the story with.

Asthi Visarjan
Asthi Visarjan

And thus it is done. My father died today, got cremated and his remains released back to nature. A fitting end, I think for someone who has been a passionate trekker for decades before his Parkinson's flaring up in his last trek to the Everest Base Camp a few years ago.

He is free. We are free.

5

Identity is a fundamental part of our being. We have many simultaneous identities. Some are circumstances of birth or life, others are conferred by something we do, still others fall somewhere in between.

These identities indicate similarities among certain groups of people and are broad stereotypes that help us understand and relate better. For example, it would be absurd to ask a vegetarian if he eats chicken, and then separately for fish, beef, eggs and more. We understand the stereotype "vegetarian" to mean that this person we have just met will not eat any kind of meat. There are exceptions, which are notable for not following the pattern, but the patterns help us function amid the diversity of people and their circumstances and habits in the world we inhabit.

An identity in itself is merely a description of traits. The problem arises when some identities are treated unfairly by or in comparison with other identities. These identities are not just caste. Woman, child, leper, homeless, beggar are examples of identities that often face a default disadvantage in terms of social power. Other identities face a deficit of trust - politician, lawyer or money lender, for example.

Social identities we get from birth are not a choice. You aren't a Brahmin because you chose to be one, any more than you are a dalit because you chose to be one. It is a descriptor of how you are seen by those around you.

It is fashionable these days for people from upper castes to pretend to not know their caste or "abdicate" it. The problem with this is that it means nothing. I speak from experience. I am atheist. I have denied being a Brahmin many times. NOTHING changed in how I was treated. I stopped denying my caste, because I realized that all it achieved was for me to pretend that I don't profit from privilege, when in reality, I do.

Our centuries of conditioning of caste is such that the minute you open your mouth, accent and diction brings instant recognition. A surname completes the picture. Entire cultures and communities revolve around castes and sub-castes. There are a thousand subtle behavioral markers that make it instantly evident to one who values caste and many who don't realize how much they unconsciously register. To stop "being a Brahmin" with any real difference in how I was treated would take un-knowing many things Brahmins grow up conditioned with. It would take eating food differently, speaking differently, forgetting countless Sanskrit verses I grew up hearing. It would take going back and refusing all the various opportunities I received - would the new girl me have to struggle to get an opportunity to learn?

Would I even be the me I am now, if I hadn't grown up with that sheltered ignorance of dangers to girls that did not see an unsurmountable challenge in a young, single girl living as a nomad in remote rural India? Would I have been able to pull it off safely and have a profound, life changing experience if my speech, behavior and presence itself didn't save my reckless butt with the proclamation that I wasn't a category of person you could fuck with without consequence? Perhaps I would. Perhaps not. Perhaps, I wouldn't have grown with the foolish belief that no one would harm me that led me as a girl barely out of teenage into thinking that living in the Himalaya and being a nomad on my own would be feasible. What does it mean to deny caste without also giving up every unequal advantage you continue to enjoy because of it?

I remember my horror to discover for the first time that "Shastra puja" actually involves ritual worship of weapons - as in swords and such - among warrior castes. In our household, my father used to worship his electronics tools, and I worshipped my books!!! Till then, the fact that "shastra" means weapon or instrument (at its most benign interpretation) had completely escaped me. Naive? Definitely, but I had the luxury of having a functional world without learning practices of others because I lived at the top of the social food chain of what is acceptable. I suppose the world also needs some people naive enough to worship books as weapons :p

I had once, briefly stayed as a paying guest in the home of a Muslim. It ended rather abruptly when I praised ham sandwiches and invited their daughter to try one and worse, when asked not to do it, argued that it was delicious and that they should try it instead of just refusing without having ever tasted. I had never heard of a taboo about pork and thought it was their family eccentricity. I was Hindu Brahmin, studied in a convent, had some Muslim friends, I thought I knew religious diversity. (No, they didn't kill me, merely asked me to find another place to live when my ignorance and argumentative nature simply wouldn't accept a taboo.) It took me over a decade to understand the full magnitude of the offense I had unwittingly rendered.

I once had a kunbi maid. One of the sweetest persons and willing workers I have ever met. I had asked her to churn the dahi to extract the butter. She just stirred it a bit and brought it back. So I sent her back to churn it properly. Again, the same. Eventually I got angry at her "laziness". Why not just churn the damn thing till she could see the butter instead of trying to escape the task? Turned out, she wasn't trying to escape the task. She had no idea how butter was made. She was fifty years old without ever having made butter at home. They didn't even have milk daily. I learned how butter was made in early childhood. It was a routine process in the household.

My current maid is Malwani with a dialect that is simply enchanting. You want her to make the fish curry and not me. My balcony garden would not have been half as thriving as it is without another kunbi maid's years of practical experience working crops. "You don't need to do anything, just thin the seedlings. They need space." when I was googling up fertilizers for why my damn plants wouldn't grow as advertized.

Every culture, every caste, every lifestyle comes with a wisdom and experience of its own distilled into houshold practices, heirditary professions, rituals, methods, arts, heroes, reformers, philosophers and more. The problem is that we have reduced our understanding of caste to the "caste hierarchy" and discrimination or agreement or disagreement with reservations. Our efforts to combat it attempt to wipe out everyone's roots and render them into anonymous people that will be vaguely "same". I don't see this as either useful or respectful. What we are saying is that underprivileged people are too shameful to be respected for who they are and we have to somehow hide it. It may be well meaning, but it is an insult. We do it with many things, not just caste. We blur faces of rape victims - in effect saying, "If people knew who you are, they wouldn't respect you." It is not empowerment, it is not respect. It is a declaration of inferiority that says respect can only happen if you hide who you are.

I'd rather respect the diversity of cultures without seeing them or me as superior or inferior. Possibly because love taught me to respect the wisdom of many castes and tribes. The home that felt more home than the one of my birth were Buddhist tribal nomads. I lived as a tribal nomad for seven years. I saw the wisdom in their ways, though it took a while for my naive entitlement to register it initially. I would not wipe out that learning by pretending there was nothing special about them and we were same. I do not see the need to anonymize centuries of experience, traditions and knowledge and wipe them out in an effort to pretend that discrimination is not my problem just because I have abdicated it.

Identity is not always a choice, but actions are a choice. I can choose not to discriminate. I can choose not to rank individuals higher or lower on the basis of identity.

[tweetthis]The need is not to wipe out castes, but to knock the hierarchy down.[/tweetthis]

I oppose discrimination on the basis of identity. I KNOW I have enjoyed disproportionate favor, but I will not perpetuate it. I may not follow Brahmin practices or beliefs, but having still enjoyed the privilege, I will also use my identity as a Brahmin to acknowledge that it was unfair and ensure that THIS Brahmin does not allow discrimination. It is not enough for Brahmin voices to say the wrong thing or fall silent. The need is for Brahmin voices to say the RIGHT thing instead of falling silent.

[tweetthis remove_twitter_handles="true"]I will add my voice to those I see treated unfairly - even if they are treated ill by an identity I belong to.[/tweetthis]

At the same time, I don't see how it is useful to sneer at Brahmins for existing, if sneering at dalits for existing is evil. I see this in a lot of people who fight caste discrimination. This monolith Brahmin who can only be evil and unless you want to be known as evil, stop calling yourself Brahmin. Counter-prejudice is not noble either. Fight discrimination, fight injustice - that is where the war is. Attacking an entire identity of people just because you associate them with oppression makes you no better than those you object to. A default of hate for Brahmins makes about as much sense as a default of hate for shudras.

The struggle needs to be for dignity and inclusion of all. Today, it is "upper" castes that define popular culture. This needs to change. A shared space needs to be created. If being called a man or woman is not an insult, being called a dalit or Brahmin ought not to be. It is merely identity. It is actions that merit contempt or respect, regardless of identity. We need to create social acceptance for self determination of caste and speak up against impunity to caste crimes. We enjoy the power, we must bear the responsibility for setting matters right within our spheres of influence as well.

What the caste system needs is not Brahmins with a sense of fairness quitting caste and leaving it the sole domain of those who discriminate, but Brahmins who are aware of injustices and change the living culture into one that refuses to discriminate. There is no rule that states that Brahmins must perpetually be inhuman and if you are humane, you must pretend to not be one. If enough Brahmins oppose discrimination, it may just become possible to have Brahmins offering society what they are good at, instead of seeking their status in pushing others down. Which many do, but they abdicate their caste, leaving the caste stereotype still mired in primitive injustices and perpetuating them. What we need is "entitled" castes who don't subscribe to discrimination to oppose the practice and refuse to include it in their social norms. Then perhaps we will finally have generations that see diversity as enrichment instead of threat.

Many may batter at gates demanding access to wells of dignity, the ones on the inside who believe it is wrong that the gates are closed must throw them open instead of pretending they don't exist.

 

Note: In this post, Brahmin can be substituted by any caste that does not suffer social discrimination and dalit can be substituted by one that does. My use of the words merely reflects the caste that I was born to and the identity most mentioned when these questions come up in discussions.

3

The fight against depression. Vidyut describes her journey toward freeing herself from depression against what seemed insurmountable odds.

I have started associating weight gain with depression. All my life I'd been skinny. In fact, I thought I looked better with a little weight - particularly my face didn't look as bony and I WANTED to weight more. Till depression hit.

To long term readers of my blog, the troubles I had in my marriage and the utter despair I went through will not come as a surprise. I would like to call my now separated husband evil, but he had his own demons to fight and cannot really call him malicious, so much as fighting a losing battle against them, then. Regardless, the impact on me was a prison without choices and I was severely depressed.

I lost interest in everything. Abuse used to waft over my head without reaching. I had stopped doing almost anything except caring for the child, and my blog and Twitter - which helped keep me sane (more on that later). The home was a mess, I was a mess and frankly, all I cared about was getting through the day. I had considered suicide several times. Having a child dependent on me ruled that out. I had committed to him and I was going to follow through on that. It was about surviving. Getting through the day. There was little enthusiasm for anything.

Sheer disinterest in absolutely everything, combined with a naturally asocial preference left me pretty much stagnant in terms of activity. And I put on weight. Relentlessly. Particularly in the last three years of our marriage To someone who had never weighed over 45 kilos in her life, 68 kilos was unthinkable. And I was barely eating. My body FELT alien to me - another reason not to do anything with it. I had no idea how to steer that extra weight.

All those plump, cheerful women I had admired..... was not how I looked. I looked bloated, stagnant. Lifeless. That was the only visible difference in me, while I became an unrecognizable person on the inside. Fearful of braving the world with a disabled child in tow, belief in self non-existent, the woman who moved to the Himalaya to live on her own terms as a nomad didn't dare move out of a home she had come to despise.

On some level, my experience working with people and behavioral science saved my life. I was aware that I was depressed, though I had no motivation to do anything about it. I was aware that I was going deeper. The blog and Twitter was my lifeline - a window outside my prison - a space where I could be me without being forced into being what was expected of me. It was also a space where I spoke openly of what I was going through and the feedback helped me see beyond the fog of despair I lived in.

I slowly started asking for help. And got it. I knew that I had to escape my marital home if I had to remain sane. Whether my husband was evil or not, was irrelevant. I did no have the capacity to deal with the abuse and remain sane enough to care for myself and the child. The day I gave up, Nisarga was doomed along with me, and I was close. This child saved my life - by simply needing me with no alternatives.

I failed many times. People reached out to help. I lost my guts. People sent me money to help. I lost my guts and eventually the money got spent on the existing hole of despair I lived in. People offered for me to move into their homes. They offered to come over to help me move.... I have been blessed with friends who continued to offer to help me - and still do - in the face of failure after failure to "save myself".

It is the nature of depression. Inaction. An emergency happened and the fog lifted briefly enough to recognize the need to move out. That window of clarity never sustained. Reasons to remain in the limbo of the status quo kept emerging. My son couldn't even sit independently. How would I move with him in tow? I had no income. With a disabled child dependent on me 24 x 7, I couldn't just "get a job". How would I survive....? And it was back to a limbo of getting through the day with as little engagement with it as possible.

A doctor on social media recommended that I should get help for depression. I did not think I had the energy or the time to go and meet a counsellor regularly with a handicapped child in tow. Cheap/free services would mean traveling to where they existed - not any and every local facility - even if there was one nearby. Didn't happen. I could have asked a doctor for medications, but I have seen my mother, who has schizophrenia turn from a spirited, if sometimes delusional woman to a zombie. I had a child depending on me. I did not trust anything that could space me out worse!

It took a night when the drunk husband pulled out a knife and threatened to kill our son rather than leave him with a "woman like me" for me to realize that this was the dead end. I called the child helpline. They are not active outside the city. They offered to tell the local police - if I wanted and it was an emergency, but police also couldn't do much about it. They spoke with my husband who was dead drunk and lectured them about wives who don't care for their husbands and use them (read paying all the expenses+responsibilities in return for the favor of a roof on my head). They told me to go to Thane (3 hours away) to file a case in a domestic court. In other words, I was on my own. It was the usual time for drunken problems in our home - between 1 am and 3 am.

Oh, he would not have killed our son. He loves him. I was not as sure about him or me while he was waving it around while drunk. The point was that he did not love the person I had become, and I did not love the person he had become, and the blame for it and pressure on me to restore his happiness was just going to keep rising and perhaps escalate to physical harm if I called his bluffs instead of complying. On other occasions, he had threatened to commit suicide and leave a note blaming me - yet he did not want me to leave.

I broke, that night. I had broken many times before. This time, I did irrevocable things before I changed my mind and gave in to the all pervading apathy. And perhaps it was the best thing that happened to me. Before I could get back to my fog of indifference, I put out an appeal for help. I didn't have money. But this time, I asked people to commit to an amount every month - even if smaller, instead of one big amount right now that would run out and leave me stranded with a child depending on me. I begged friends to nag me to stay on the plan if it looked like I was going back to being okay with the status quo. And they did. Several of them asked me on a daily basis what the progress was with the house hunting. Many offered sites to find homes on rent. Others offered to come with me to see homes and negotiate leases - I'd never rented a place before.

My mother, who can do very little on her own, came over to babysit Nisarga so I could go to book a gas connection and sign the lease and more. Friends sent everything from used clothes and curtains to utensils. Another friend picked stuff up from Powai to bring to me - and I couldn't even offer him cold water - no glass, no fridge.

The depression was born from a belief that I had no way out of the unhappiness. The relentless engagement to seek exactly that helped fight it. I often fobbed off estate agents to meeting later, but I went and saw every home available till they all looked the same. One small step at a time, but keeping at it, led to a morning when I woke up next to my son in our own new home with the sunlight hitting us right across the room from the French window. I smiled before I opened my eyes. I was free.

I haven't stopped smiling since.

I like to think of it as the moment when I beat depression, but nothing could be farther from the truth. The fight had been as long as the depression. If anything, taking irrevocable actions and putting in safeguards that would prevent me going back on them saved me. Reaching out for help, advice, going out to find a home, doing the hundred things it took, gave me robust contact with the world instead of the limbo of indifference. Seeing things actually happen - in however small steps PROVED that changing the situation was possible.

That morning was just one of the most dramatic moments of the journey back. I have continued to fight with many long ingrained habits. I have fallen apart when a friend didn't humiliate me in public when my son smeared himself with food on his first visit to a restaurant - out of relief - because six months of freedom and I hadn't realized how much cringing had become a part of me.

It is a journey. I still have days when instead of seeing what I was able to achieve, I look at the financial assistance I still need and think I'm worth nothing. But it is a work in progress.

That puffy, bloated, unhappy look is gone. I've been losing weight almost averaging 2 kilos a month initially, and a kilo a month later without any change in diet or exercise. The simple fact that I was engaging more with life made me more active. I am hardly back to my earlier weight, but I LOOK HAPPY!

I am no expert, but if I have to share advice based on my journey, it would be:

  1. Speak up. Vulnerability is human. Speak of your troubles and your thinking becomes clear. Interaction brings the larger picture and help. It breaks you out of the dysfunctional cycle you are trapped in.
  2. Take irrevocable actions in moments of lucidity. Depression causes inaction. Everything is too much trouble. In the few moments that you see the need for action clearly, commit to it in a way that forces you to continue when you are at risk of sliding into indifference. I had tried and failed for ages till I did this.
  3. Persevere. Progress WILL be slow. It is also inevitable if you keep at it.

Lastly, sharing the contact for iCALL helpline 022-2556-3291. Monday to Saturday, from 10 am to 10 pm. You can talk to them when you are depressed. They may be able to help.

4

A long overdue step toward bringing in standards in advenure sports took off when the Government of Maharashtra issued norms as a Government Resolution applicable to individuals and organizations offering adventure tours. While the initial rules are better than expected, largely due to trekking organizations impleading themselves into the case by Anil Mahajan that led to the Bombay High Court directive, this must be seen as an initial step, that also will require much refinement before a desirable state of regulation without suffocation can evolve.

There is no doubt that operators of dubious competence endanger lives of people seeking adventure. However, it is important to recognize that there are few specific qualifications that could apply to many of the tours on offer and most of the competence of even the best of professionals in the adventure sector comes from experience and hobby that lead to no certification.

The GR has a mixed reception from what I have observed in the adventure fraternity. Well established businesses with large turnovers have little to worry about (other than availability of instructors with qualifications specified - who will be rare for a while yet). However smaller businesses and organizers are in a quandry even as they recognize the need for regulation for the sake of safety. There are still other hobbyists who are not comfortable with the need to register with authorities for every hike (something many people do every weekend in this region) and see this as a created opportunity for corruption.

Several valid questions raised include:

What distinguishes a hike from a picnic or other trip?

Many trekking locations are also popular spots for picnics or local festivals. Often, picnicers are found drinking alcohol and littering the place with both trash as well as dangerous glass from broken bottles. Trekking groups are the ones usually organizing clean up campaigns. Yet these guidelines will do little to prevent risky behavior by individuals, while forcing paperwork deterrents on organizations going to the same place with far more competence - for reasons of safety. Additionally, such trips will be forced to provide medical and evacuation plans which will add to costs and result in more trips conducted as unofficial picnics bypassing regulations resulting in little actual safety on the ground. It will be impossible to regulate free movement of people to picnic spots of their choosing and again be difficult to discriminate them with any sensible logic from pilgrims and other travelers to the same spots.

Qualifications

There are few qualifications that can apply to professionals in several kinds of adventure tours. While specific sports - like rock climbing, skiing or rafting have specific training courses available, most trekkers learn trekking by trekking and it is difficult for someone who has trekked for decades and is likely more competent than someone merely doing some mountaineering course to prove competence on paper. Further complications arise when it comes to trips out of the state. For example, consider a rafting trip on the Kali (Karnataka) or an adventure camp in Manali which will feature skiing and paragliding as activities. What qualifications should the instructors provided from Mumbai or Pune (for example) have? They will essentially be escorting travel, with local adventure operators providing the specific expertise for the activities. Why would they need more qualifications than any other tour operator? On the other hand, with local guides not requiring registration, there remains absolutely no guarantee of competence outside the state in any case, unless the operator is large enough with rich enough clients who will bear the costs of qualified instructors from Maharashtra accompanying every batch - who will not be allowed by local operators to run the activity on their setup in any case - because they will have established teams with smooth operations.

Worse, there are no qualifications that cover many kinds of competencies required on adventure tours, and responsible operators usually hire based on their knowledge of competence of people in key roles. These may not necessarily have the competencies on paper.

Innovation

Like any other field, the adventure field too goes through innovations. Rock climbing and rappelling trips that cannot be done in monsoons gave away to waterfall rappelling in the Sahyadri region. Skiing and snow boarding at snow points at Rohtang gave away to sliding down mountain slopes sitting tight in inflated truck tires. Is sliding down a snow slope on an inflated tire adventure or fun? Is sliding down the same slope on a snowboard adventure or fun? Will a team game involving a team building a makeshift raft and crossing a pond require an instructor trained in rafting or swimming coach? Is it adventure or not? Most operators experiment on themselves, and learn the risks before taking another through the experience. But with these regulations, that will not be enough. Too many regulations will strangle the joy of innovation - either for fear of legal consequences or for lack of qualifications to fit every need.

How unsafe is unsafe

Treating all adventure sports as being equally unsafe is a bit immature. Hiking in the Sahyadri is something entire generations of mountaineers grew up doing each weekend. When I was an active hiker, it was common to leave home intending to go on a trek and eyeball various groups waiting for the last train to Karjat at Dadar station to make a decision on which trek it will be. With these rules it will be impossible. I will need to register on Friday before offices close in order to be able to attend a weekend hike. No more spontaneous "gimme a breath of green". On the other hand, I can't remember half a dozen people who died on hikes in over two decades of being involved in the outdoors. Can't say the same or drivers on roads. Yet, you wouldn't dream of asking people to apply for permission each time they want to drive!

On the other hand, the unpredictable winds make paragliding at Solang Nallah uncommonly risky - particularly in early summer - peak Maharashtrian tourist season, and it has been banned and allowed dozens of times over the years, balancing safety concerns with public demands and livelihoods. It keeps boiling down to the competence of instructors and locally evolved rules for stopping flights in unpredictable weather. Yet these rules can't do a thing about ensuring safety there. Even a trained flier from Maharashtra would lack knowledge of prevailing wind patterns in a new place.

Also, how exactly would local authorities ensure safety of those registering with them? Knowing who to call in case of an accident? That can be managed with far fewer headaches.

Medical safety

Given India's pathetic doctor to patient ratio, it takes Alice in Wonderland to expect doctors escorting every adventure tour. Assuming all doctors in Maharashtra were willing to escort adventure tours, the chances are we'd still have more adventure tours than doctors.

There are few mountain first aid courses, and many of them are for knowledge and don't offer certificates in the end. They may, in the future, but the instructors competent in first aid currently often have no papers to prove it. The guidelines also fail to recognize that many adventure training includes first aid. Basic and Advanced mountaineering courses in the Himalaya include training for the mountains and high altitudes, for example. Advanced rock climbing courses (at least the one I did) include things like rock face rescues using ropes systems, and so on. It can easily be made mandatory for all adventure courses to include first aid training rather than requiring separate courses that cannot accommodates specific risk factors of each sport.

Evacuation is something that needs more elaboration. Many really risky places don't have phone coverage. Are we saying every organization must be forced to buy satellite phones? Even if calls for assistance are made, the first responders are usually "whoever is available and near" this can mean villagers, other adventure groups, the Army, helicopters, evacuation by the group members of the casualty themselves... and it is most efficient. It is difficult for me, as someone who has been in a lot of extreme adventure situations to understand how this can be predicted and guaranteed on paper. The only medical emergency of my career involved me helping a woman down a mountain to lose altitude fast. She was 15 kilos heavier than me, but I still carried her part of the way. Ended up with bad knees for a week myself after that. Where in the form would the readiness to do this be written? Merely writing that there would be a vehicle waiting hardly matters. Most trips using vehicles have the vehicle waiting, trips not using vehicles will have a considerable added expense to be forced to use vehicles on the possibility that an evacuation may be needed (remember, hiking is safer than driving?).

Age restrictions

The age restriction of participants of adventure tours going 3000m and above must be above 16 years came less than a month after Malavath Purna, a 13 year old daughter of a poor farmer from Andhra Pradesh got felicitated for climbing Everest. Are we saying that Maharashtra's children must not do such things? Or that they may, but they must not be organized by Maharashtra's adventurers? The concern has solid basis. Younger people can be more sensitive to high altitudes and hypothermia, for example. At the same time, mandating presence of a competent (read qualified for high altitudes) guardian personally (not necessarily parent or relative, but responsible personally) or stricter enforcement of presence of doctors or other measures may be wiser than forbidding the opportunity to all below sixteen with not even a process to apply for exceptions provided.

Concerns about corruption

Many regular hikers worry that the need for registering every trip will lead to a flourishing business for touts and agents, as few of the free spirited mountaineers have the time or inclination to stand in queues as a matter of routine. There are also concerns of extortion by police or other authorities by citing some or the other nearly impossible to fulfill conditions for hobby hikers.

Equipment

Given the requirements of quality standards of improvement and given that India neither has approved standards, nor consequently manufacturers that follow them, this will result in groups being forced to pay three times the cost of perfectly safe and acceptable equipment produced in India. There is nothing wrong with Indian ropes, harnesses and helmets (among other things) for example. But there being no standard, ALL INDIAN MANUFACTURERS will be forced to get certification in some foreign country where they don't do business (harness and rucksack manufacturers often operate small businesses from slums producing good equipment), or fall short of requirements to sell in India. Further, the blanket lifespans stated have to be a joke. You could probably use a karabiner for more than 10 years easily, and cycle out your long tyrolean traverse rope within a season or two. There needs to be some sanity here for the guidelines to be useful.

Livelihoods

Given that most adventure professionals have very poor incomes (the dazzle rarely translates to reliable incomes - most are adventurers doing it compromising stable incomes for love) there need to be standards of payment along the lines of minimum wage as well, if instructors are expected to spend money getting qualified. Additionally, till qualifications can be "rolled in", reference certificates of competence by senior professionals (should be defined in some manner - in position to hire professionals for more than 5 years?) should be considered valid. Given that waiting lists for many of the best qualifications are long (2 year waiting for a 9k basic mountaineering course at Nehru Institute of Mountaineering Uttarkashi, for example), registration confirmation should be considered for temporary licences to operate in non-critical roles, as it is beyond unreasonable for a person living from paycheck to paycheck to spend 9 thousand rupees (and about twice that preparing, traveling, etc) and wait two years to be eligible to earn anything.

Too urbanized

Most adventure sport happens outside urban settings. There is a possibility to improve rural incomes as well as effectiveness of the norms by involving panchayats at locations of adventure sport destinations in maintaining records of visitors arriving. This will provide for emergency action information being available at the closest point as well as allow spontaneous hikers the flexibility and monitor ALL visitors including spontaneous outings. Exempting local guides from accountability does not make sense, since local guides are often the most knowledgeable professionals on a trip. Registering local guides and porters available for trekking routes locally will result in better employment, standardized wages and accountability.

In my view, these questions are valid. Equally important and appreciation deserving is the fact that the initial guidelines have made a commendable attempt toward enforcing important things. Making indemnity forms mandatory, for example is a small and easily applicable step that will immediately result in responsible disclosure of risks as well as putting emergency contacts on record. On the other hand, these norms STILL cannot prevent a death on a high altitude trek because of incompetence - the original subject of the PIL that led to the directive for the regulations.

It will be a while before bureaucracy and free spirit find a meeting point that is also practical to implement as well as meets objectives. It will not be easy. However, things must not stop here and the exercise must be taken to conclusion resulting in norms that allow adventure sport to thrive in Maharashtra while also insisting on responsible operations and recognizing that adventure has an inherent element of risk. The goal is a robust and accountable community, not sterilization.

An article by Tavleen Singh in the Indian Express is accurately named Environmental fraud, though it is rare for such transparency of intent to be declared upfront. I do appreciate the legitimate opportunity to pun "Environmental Fraud by Tavleen Singh" when introducing the article. Considering that the article is an umbrella attack on the legitimacy of environmentalists and an endorsement of policies known harmful to the environment, it is very shabby of Indian Express to not state the conflict of interest in this supposed "truth" being stated.

While I do not hold it against her and will address her arguments directly, I think it is important here to state that Tavleen Singh happens to be the partner of one of the promoters of Lavasa (his name is not required here, since the article is not about him). Lavasa township has come to much grief (and financial losses) due to legal action by environmentalists that had enough substance for the judiciary to put a halt to work on the site for a year. Thus, people with a vested interest in Lavasa having a dislike of environmentalists cannot be called unprejudiced or unmotivated. Additionally, Sharad Pawar, our agriculture minister, whose interests in GM seeds are identical to those this article promotes happens to the Godfather of said Lavasa project. While this in itself may or may not be intellectually incestuous, NOT being transparent about a connection makes one wonder if this is a case of "You scratch my back, I scratch yours and let us be discreet and pretend that it is all very neutral and deserved."

All quotes by Tavleen Singh from article linked above.

"Real environmentalists" / "serious environmentalists"

Reminds me of the "true Hindus" and "true Muslims". As if the rest are made of thermacol. The idea that her disagreement makes environmentalists real or fake is absurd. She is not required to like or agree with all of them for them to be real. Their actions make them environmentalists.

"one of our noisiest lady environmentalists actually declare in Davos that Indian farmers were rich until international seed companies like Monsanto arrived"

This is presumably Vandana Shiva, though the article does not name her. I have no idea what she said in Davos, but I believe that Indian farmers were better off before the seed corporations for several reasons:

  • Patented seeds mean that farmers cannot save their seeds to sow the next year's crop, leading to a direct annual expense for seeds, which also happen to be costlier. This in turn puts them at serious risk of bad debt - a leading cause of farmer suicides.
  • GM crops require more water. I am not inventing this. Monsanto says this. India is rapidly becoming water scarce with industries taking up a vast share of the water and irrigation being overallocated and iffy at best. Not that either manufacturing or agriculture have added jobs since 1995... Unless of course they are Sharad Pawar's pets doing sugarcane and getting a whopping 60% of available water for 6% of the crop.
  • Input costs for fertilizers and pesticides are higher for GM crops.
  • Most farmers in India are small and marginal farmers and cannot afford to plant waste strips of non-GM crops to try to avoid the "expected" resistance to pests that is the selling point of Bt seeds. The idea of these strips is to grow pests like the bollworm (for example) that have no resistance to Bt so that they can breed with Bt resistant pests from the "superstar" seeds and keep them killable. The crop on this land is wasted by design.
  • The resultant race of more GM, more fertilizers and more pesticides has resulted in diseases among humans and animals, which add to the burden of medical expenses compounded by low access.
  • The actual claims of productivity are severely contested per crop and with authoritative, independent research and are beyond the scope of this article to go into detail. It isn't without any evidence that developed countries are limiting or banning use of GM seeds. A simple google search will bring forth an avalanche if anyone is really interested.
  • Productivity itself has been seen to drop with lame excuses from Monsanto that may be good PR, but do nothing to actually change the production. Including in a "perfect" state like Gujarat, which supposedly reports great profits from GM. Monsanto blamed the farmers. Done.
  • Finally, do you know that Indian farmers have set world records for crop yields using organic farming that have left results from GM in the dust? The same traditional methods and bio fertilizers that had been systematically decimated by the British?

Enough said.

"Any farmer could have told this lady that the international seed companies are a welcome change from state-owned companies which have often sold them junk. But farmers have no voice on television and the lady fraud has a very loud one."

Leaving aside the personal comments about the lady environmentalist who sounds suspiciously like Vandana Shiva, Tavleen Singh is clearly ignorant about the 37th All Party Parliamentary Standing Committee on cultivation of Genetically Modified Food Crops - Prospects and Effects, which clearly states that the farmers explicityl detailed problems they faced because of GM crops and demanded a ban. Additionally, ALL MEMBERS of the All Party Parliamentary Standing Committee - across political parties - unanimously endorsed banning cultivation of GM crops in India. The report condemns the paid media report in Times of India promoting Monsanto with falsified information about prosperity of farmers. The members of the Committee physically went to those villages and saw that there was no such thing. How much more voice do you expect? Or is the gold standard of voice about performances in a corporate controlled media? Would Indian Express give space to an angry farmer trashing Monsanto, when their awards of excellence in journalism are sponsored by Mahyco?

I called up a few people who were present during the visit when outlandish tales of outright manipulating the committee came to my ears and can confirm that the government of Maharashtra made great efforts to prevent the All Party Parliamentary Standing Committee from speaking with farmers and tried to con them into meeting a few planted "farmers" - some of whom were input dealers - in a cosy circuit house. Farmers persisted and the Committee visited the villages reported to be prospering and chasing away money lenders and saw fields left barren. In front of the committee, farmers shouted down and chased away not money lenders, but representatives of Monsanto.

"There have been natural disasters in the Himalayas since the beginning of time. If this one was 'manmade' as they claim, then it was because the political leaders who have governed Uttarakhand have been careless about making contingency plans for natural disasters."

and

"Our two most sacred rivers have become sewers despite thousands of crores of rupees having been spent on 'cleaning' them. And yet, the only noise we hear from environmentalists is when a new dam is built. Have they noticed that it was the dams on the Ganga that stopped the whole of Uttarakhand from being washed away?"

and etc (this is getting boring).

First, I'd like to ask Tavleen Singh why she is writing an article about environmentalists instead of "seculars" and "NGOs" - after all, aren't all right wingers supposed to talk about that only?

If my question is absurd, so is the idea that all environmentalists are working on the same thing, namely hydel projects. There are people fighting dams and for more reasons than only the environment. There are people working to get rivers cleaned. Others fight to protect forests, marine life, fight drought, promote water renewal, whatever. Environment isn't one piddly subject that everyone is doing the same thing and from only one angle. Swami Nigamananda died when he fasted unto death in what is rumored to be a murder by political and mafia forces. He wasn't fighting dams, but the sand mafia and pollution. There are all kinds of people. Vijay Panjwani often updates from his legal activism to get judicial pressure for clean ups. To the best of my knowledge, no one has prevented her from taking up a concern she feels strongly about. If it is un-sewering the Ganga and not protecting roads from dog poop, so be it.

The blame for the tragedy has been consistently attributed to irresponsible construction work of which dams were a part. The greatest blame has been on the roads, actually due to the use of dynamite in cutting them creating fractures in the structure of the mountain. Hydel projects don't drop rom the sky. They need development of roads, as well as dam construction. They need construction materials which leads to further exploitation of the river banks. Dams already silt up the upstream while starving the downstream of silt leading to eroded banks and disturbed ecology.

Here is what happens to a construction made of reinforced concrete when subjected to reckless construction activity. Nowhere in the Himalaya, this is, but Katraj tunnel near Pune - a place that has little to do with floods and landslides. This news is not a month old yet.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8tUxN9nHco4

The page on Wikipedia about the environmental impact of dams is well referenced so I'm using this space for one last important piece of disinformation:

"Have they noticed that alternative sources of energy like solar, wind and bio-fuels have mostly failed?"

Failed?

Work on hydel power in India started in 1897, nuclear power started in 1948, renewable energy started in 1983.

India gets 57% of its electricity from coal, 19% from hydro electric power, 12% from renewable, 9% from natural gas and 3.75% from nuclear power.

The oldest dam in India is from the second century. That is older than several of the religions in this country. The first hydro electric power plant in India was in the year 1897 or fifty years before Independence. We currently produce approximately 39GW. We started chasing nuclear power when we were 11 months old. Several parts of current India were not India then. 4780MW to date and we call it the pride of the country and have gone into the international dog house for it. In contrast, our renewable energy production started in the 1980s and already accounts for 28GW or 12% of our electricity production, which Wikipedia assures me is more than the total production of electricity in Austria. In three decades.

India is rapidly growing in solar energy and fastest growing in the world in wind power. What failure?

The fundamental difference here is a difference in what Tavleen Singh sees as a good thing and what I see as a good thing. Projects she thinks are good for the country include Vedanta's bauxite mines and Lavasa and what not. I am not so sure we should be growing to suit the fastest runners. In my view, large projects have delivered comparatively little in comparison with robust grassroots efforts. I am also of the opinions that the super rich have done more to destroy economies and free enterprise than build them. I also think it is dangerous disinformation to club all large projects as one regardless of whether they are government or private. Masses cannot hold private enterprise accountable.

We are both entitled to our opinions. My expectation from media however is transparency and accuracy of information. People can decide for themselves if the information is correct.

Update: I forgot to address Tavleen's point about the Tehri dam that supposedly protected Haridwar. Tavleen Singh might be delighted to know that the Alaknanda blew through the Vishnuprayag Hydro electric project and the water that had backed up behind it wiped out Lambagarh market when it exploded out of the dam. Additionally, dams on Mandakini River such as Phata-Buyong HEP and Singoli-Bhatwari HEP badly damaged. Small dams on Madhaymaheshwer and Kali river are also badly damaged. It is worth considering a moment what the Tehri dam could have done to Haridwar if it too had given way. Perhaps water simply overflowing banks wouldn't be as bad.

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