“Nirbhaya” – What’s in a name?


A few days ago, the Finance Minister of India read out the annual budget for the country for 2013-14. In it, he made provisions for a women’s security fund of Rs.1000 crore. He called it the Nirbhaya Fund, to honor the 23-year-old victim of a gruesome gangrape that took place in Delhi on 16th December 2012. The name of the victim cannot be publicly announced because there are laws in India that guard the privacy of a rape victim to save her from social stigma. In the days that followed the incident, several names were thrown out from different sections of society as substitutes – Nirbhaya, Damini, Jagruti, Amanat among others. The name Nirbhaya became the most popular, and that is how she is referred to by everyone now. While I understand the need for a law to guard a victim’s privacy, I fail to understand how one can honor someone by using a name that is not even theirs. What was even more disgusting was how our country’s leading newspaper, The Times Of India, jumped up the next morning to take credit for the name, saying that it was the one to coin it the day after the rape.  Kudos, you guys! What great service to the nation, I must say! (And now, even the US Govt, in all its generosity, is honoring the “Delhi Braveheart Nirbhaya”, another proud moment for The Times Of India)

There are several underlying issues with this entire phenomenon of naming the victim and honoring her posthumously with a government fund. They reveal some deep-seated psychological traits and biases that Indian society has functioned on for ages.

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Baby steps to Eureka!

A little over a year ago, I made a solo trip (my first) to Haridwar and Rishikesh, small towns and centers of Hindu pilgrimage in the foothills of the Himalayas. Maybe because I was in a certain phase of life, or maybe because I had the luxury of absolute solitude, I came back with some pretty clear ideas on what I think are the most important aspects of my life – things that I would like to focus on going forward. There were many of them, but I also managed to categorize them into buckets. I call them the FIVE PILLARS of my life. Four were things I had already known for a while (though it helped to write them down), but the one I had not realized was the fifth, and the most overarching of them all – PEACE. I realized that I was running after a lot of goals, but taking peace for granted; that I had mistaken peace for an obvious by-product of success and happiness and achievement and fulfillment. Well, here’s the deal – it is not! Peace is not a by-product, it is something we have to prioritize and strive for, it is a “default state” we have to keep bringing ourselves back to (if we care for it, that is).

While I came back with what is important to me, I did not, at that time, have a code of conduct that would help me attain peace. After all, how does one do it? I could have a strategy for my career, my relationships, my ambitions, even my bank balance. But what’s the strategy for peace? For the last year, all I have done is to remind myself to be peaceful every time I felt I was losing it. And it has worked. I recently had an experience strikingly similar to one I had had last year – and the way I dealt with both are very different. Both were difficult experiences and had considerable stake in my present and future. While last year’s incident shook me up and made me angry and bitter, this year, I stayed objective throughout the process and was able to invest the right amount of emotions and reason to it. In fact, I even treated it with a tinge of humor and guess what – I slept really well at night! At the end of the day, that’s what one needs, literally and figurativelyJ.

Looking back at the last year now, I was able to see a few things I’d done differently and constantly – and while I just did them to keep myself in the default state of peace, I am now able to codify them and put them down as “best practices”. Here I jot them down for me to always go back to these, and for anyone else who might be interested in exploring/pursuing/considering.


Know yourself

We humans love to think of ourselves as enigmas with a secret treasure trove of surprises kept aside somewhere only to be revealed at some unknown time in the future. That’s not true. We spend 24×7 with ourselves, and if we don’t get down to knowing the one person we are with most, how will we ever know anything outside of us? A good way of doing this is to put ourselves through a variety of new experiences, constantly. This does throw up shocking surprises at first, but gradually, we start seeing patterns of highs and lows, likes and dislikes, acceptances and rejections, successes and failures – through which we are able to slowly construct a fairly foolproof picture of who we are, what drives us, what we want and where we are heading.


Feel the love

We do not and cannot exist in our own islands. We thrive in the love and support and adoration of others. So, it is important to identify people and relationships that we unconditionally care about, that bring joy to us, that are genuinely interested in our lives and always wish us well. Once identified, take time out to nourish these relationships, to keep in touch, to share, to listen, to have similar experiences, to spend time together. Even when we are at our nadir, it is this love around us that will bring us peace, if not more.


Be in control

Always know we have a CHOICE – to do better, to get out of a situation that is making us unhappy, to start afresh. If we decide to stay on in an unhappy situation, well, that too is a choice we make for ourselves. And possessing this knowledge is powerful. To know that most things that happen in our lives is because of a choice we made gives us the ability to change things, turn things around, or even continuously tweak them for the better.

Forgive and be forgiven

The most common reason for losing peace is angst over someone else’s denial of our rights, or lack of acknowledgment of our deeds, or disappointments with someone important. Forgive, and be forgiven. And we know we have really done it NOT when we have moved on from the incident and don’t let it affect us anymore, but when we can analyze it objectively and know that there was no right or wrong but just two different people with different opinions and value systems and contexts that could not make it work. It gives peace to know that what we did was a reflection of our own selves, and what the other did was a reflection of their being.

I’ve also learned that to be forgiven, one does not always need to say “sorry” or have a difficult conversation. Most of the time, people are more than happy to not look back and analyze, but to make amends and move on. If it matters to you, be the first person to make those amends that will help you reach out and reconstruct the relationship. Forgiveness shall ensue. If nothing works, you always have the CHOICE to step out of it and co-exist without overlapping.

Do only one thing at a time

I used to wake up in the morning and check my email on my phone with one eye open. I used to make coffee while brushing my teeth AND replying to emails. I used to drink my coffee AND read the newspaper AND continue replying to emails. I used to flag a cab while on a conference call.  I used to eat my food AND work on my laptop AND watch television. I used to watch a movie AND chat with friends on the phone. I used to go for a run AND think of pending work. Now, I just do one thing at a time.

Feel healthy, look good

A heart pumping well, blood circulating well, a good night’s sleep, a nutritious meal, enough calcium and vitamins, a feel of our muscles, a flatter tummy than a week ago, a splash in the waters of the swimming pool, fitting into better-looking clothes, compliments – no amount of success and achievement can come at the cost of our health and self-esteem. Keep this up, every single day!

Make peace with necessary evils

We all have “pain points” in daily life – the commute to work, the depleting bank balance, the maid not turning up, a difficult colleague, the unbearable weather and much more. Remember that this is part of a choice we’ve made, and if it’s largely aligned with where we want to be, necessary evils can be dealt with, or can even be tweaked for the better. Nothing is ever perfect!

Let small stories inspire you

We love quotes by famous people, we read autobiographies of achievers, we share stories of entrepreneurs in distant lands on Facebook – but there are inspiring stories all around us. The story of the grocer could teach you something new, a heart-to-heart with your boss could open up a new line of thinking, even looking out of the window at a child trying to fly his kite could leave you blazing with optimism. Be gullible, be believing, be observant. We don’t have to discover that the world is a beautiful place only when we’re on a holiday. Let’s not miss out on the beauty of the lives and nature around us.

Be spiritual

Know that we are a very very minuscule part of the universe, and an even more minuscule part in the timeline of nature. There were things millions of years ago, and there will be things millions of years hence. There are forces beyond our reach, beyond scientific explanation. There are things, however painful, that happen outside of all logic. Yes, we do have a part to play in this place and time, but there are billions of others around us with their parts to play as well. We have the right to live our lives well, but with the awareness to harm others as less as possible in the process. Believe in a sense of natural justice and correctness, no matter how difficult it might seem at some points in life. Believe in good fortune for what you have, and be thankful for all the hurt and pain and humiliation you don’t have. Choose your own religion , whatever form it might take – God, science, books, music, prayer, work, family, dreams – and be true to it in everything that you do.

All of 25

When I woke up a few days ago to the flash news of Ajmal Kasab’s surprise hanging, there was very little reaction at first, simply because it was a known fact that he had been convicted and ordered an execution. This was a man who had not only walked around town mercilessly shooting people down, but was also captured on camera doing so with a triumphant smile pasted across his face. This judgment could not have gone any other way in any other part of the world.

It is only when I started reading the deluge of reports in the newspapers that the emptiness in me was taken over by an indescribable feeling of internal friction.  As per reports, Ajmal Kasab was taken to Pune’s Yerawada jail in the dead of the night. He was informed of his impending death, and he spent the last day of his life singing songs. When asked for his last wish, he said he wanted to meet his family, which could not be granted for obvious reasons. Just before the execution, as he was standing staring at the knotted rope that would end his life, he said – Allah qasam maaf karna, aisi galati dobara nahin hogi (In the name of Allah, forgive me; I will never make such a mistake in my life). The irony of that statement left me baffled! Here was a man vowing to not commit a crime in his life, knowing full well that he was living the last few moments of his life. We never fully grasp death till it grasps us. As the hangman covered his head in cloth and tied the rope around it, Kasab began to babble incoherently. After the rope was pulled, he was left hanging for half an hour before being pronounced dead. He was then buried in one of six pits within the jail premises, the exact location kept secret for reasons of security. The government of his country, Pakistan, was informed in advance of the execution, not once but twice. It refused to respond to the memo both times. Unclaimed by his motherland, despised by the world, unable to see his family, buried in an unknown pit, he left this world. Ajmal Kasab was all of 25 years of age.

Death is one of the strangest phenomena of humankind, one that we will never fully understand. It ends the life of one person, but affects the people around them in bizarre ways. It makes us sombre, reflective, sad, and sometimes also undeservingly celebratory of the person who is no more (no matter what we said about them during their lifetimes). It is very very difficult to perceive death with objectivity, with clear logic, with a sense of justice. Ajmal Kasab, for all practical purposes, should have died and died the most undignified death, perhaps a more despicable one than he did. But, this is not about Ajmal Kasab. This is about the thousands and thousands of youth who venture into a territory they do not fully understand, who are drawn into it by people with vested interests, whose vulnerability is accentuated by young age, boiling blood, lack of education, no opportunities, chronic poverty, lack of exposure to the world, but largely, a feeling of injustice, a feeling of utter deprivation at being “left behind” in this world of jazz and glamor, of being denied respect and respectability. This feeling of injustice manifests itself into many forms – petty crime, large crimes, mental disorders, dysfunctional relationships, and even terrorism.

The more some people progress, the more they leave behind others in huge volumes. We forget that these others live in the same world as us, have the same emotions as us, are capable of what we are – just that maybe they were born into far lesser than we were, they were given far lesser than we were, and maybe they just need a little help, a hand to pick them up, a pat on the back, a smile.

The International Labor Organization says that more than 75 million youth in the world are looking for work. In 2010, UNESCO put the number of uneducated youth at 122 million. And these are just hard figures. There is no way of measuring the softer ones – number of youth who felt slighted, disrespected, discriminated against; number of youth who saw a loved one die of hunger, who were threatened into committing crimes by powerful forces, who were tempted to commit crimes themselves because there was no other way out of the darkness that had engulfed their lives?

I leave you with a few more numbers (these numbers are from reports from about a decade ago; these have obviously swelled)

  • There are 1.1 billion youth in the world (between 15 and 24 years of age)
  • 85% live in non-developed parts of the world (Asia, Africa, Caribbean, South America)
  • 238 million of them live in extreme poverty (less than $1 a day), 462 million live on less than $2 a day

Ajmal Kasab was all of 25. Could this 25-year-old have had a different life-path? Can all other 25-year-olds have a different life-path? Depends on how the rest of us choose to address the root cause.

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The Life and Times Of India

Though turning the pages of the newspaper and poring over every little detail is soon becoming passé (or already has), I continue to do it – yes, and every morning. It is part of my DNA. My parents do it every morning, and that’s what I’ve woken up to since childhood. So, in spite of the deluge of news on the internet, it does not feel like home until I have a newspaper at my doorstep that I can pick up and glance at through sleepy half-open eyelids, then sit down with my cup of coffee in one hand and the paper in the other, and systematically turn the pages to read what I’ve already heard on television the night before.

Reading the newspaper in India is a grim affair. The last thing you want to do first thing in the morning is read about the 16th case of gangrape in Haryana in a month (5th in a week, thanks to our Hindi-heartland brothers who are overwhelmed by their own machismo every single day), Anna Hazare doing cartwheels on Arvind Kejriwal (yes, a most disturbing sight; treat it as a metaphor), massacre of natural resources through one scam after another, political rhetoric, failing infrastructure, the potent rise of the “mob”, baby girls being thrown out of flyovers and smashed against walls, and of course, Kareena Kapoor’s wedding date and Karan Johar’s new man-crush. But ever so often, there are these little news items in one of the nondescript middle pages cozily tucked into one corner not exceeding hundred words, that make the whole Herculean effort worthwhile, and dissipate the pall of gloom, finally adding color to the paper.

No, these are not stories of little children smiling, nor are they stories of the blind playing orchestra, which, by the way, are all very cute and do make you smile. These stories that I refer to now are the quirkiest occurrences that one would only imagine happens in the whackiest of cinema. I have to admit that these are sometimes fatal, and it does take a pretty dark sense of humor to smile at them, to look at the “joke” that is so subtly smeared all over the “fact”. In a bizarre way, these are also stories that one can only think of in India – one of those “it happens only in India” moments. The world is a strange place with strange people doing strange things, and if there were a competition, India would definitely be on the podium, and might I say, would even bag the first place!

So here are five such stories that have made it to this article because they are either very recent or have simply stayed with me due to their sheer oddity. Disclaimer: Not for the cute-seeking or faint-hearted

  • Lady police officer is stationed on Juhu Beach to maintain law and order on the day of Ganesh idol immersion (a day when there are thousands of people on the beach to celebrate the religious ritual). She goes to a public toilet to relieve herself. Someone runs away with her gun. #Faith-in-God-to-watch-over-belongings
  • Man passing through Aarey Colony (a forested area with just one road for traffic to pass through) on a motorcycle. A leopard appears out of the bushes. The man stops the bike. The screeching sound of the brakes is good enough for the leopard to turn around and run for dear life. #Role-reversal
  •  A 20-year-old man living in a Bombay slum decides to sweep the slush caused by the rain the night before out of his tenement. In the process, some of the slush makes its way into the neighbor’s “territory”. The neighbor and his wife (named Anguri – meaning “flavor of grapes”) come down to fight it out. This results in a heated argument. At some point, Anguri decides that the only way to conclude this fight would be to squeeze the man’s testicles. She does just that, and long and hard enough for the man to drop dead on the spot. #Grape-juice-power
  • A couple in Bhubaneshwar go to the zoo for a relaxed stroll in the afternoon. Man and wife have an argument, midway through which man decides enough is enough. Result: he takes off his shirt and trousers and jumps right into the lions’ den. The lions feast on him till the zoo authorities are able to save him. #?-??-???
  • An 18-year-old boy is ditched by his girlfriend. The jilted lover, in his depression, decides to commit suicide. So, bag strapped to his back (possibly with stuff he’d need in the after-life), he walks up a busy flyover to the highest point. He first throws the bag down (yes, the belongings getting There first is very very important). Bag lands on the roof of a car passing on the road below. Driver of the car stops and gets off to inspect the thud. To his utter bewilderment, he finds the man fall on the roof of his car from the flyover with an even greater thud (sorry buddy, bag betrayed). Police arrest man for attempted suicide. Driver sues man for causing dent on car roof.
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Mary Kom Vs India

Everyone in India today knows Mary Kom. I woke up this morning to a full-page coverage of her love and family life on Times Life! (the exclamation point is part of the name of the supplement, it is not my embellishment). On the page are photographs of Mary showing her Olympics bronze medal to her husband Onler Kom, of Mary playing the guitar, and of her holding her son in her arms. I also read recently that a director was making a movie on Mary Kom. Though he claims he has been researching on her for years, “how very convenient”, I found myself thinking, “to announce the film when the country is celebrating her”. Mary Kom is clearly the new Priyanka Chopra or Deepika Padukone, the new girl on the block; and she is probably the first Indian sportswoman to be celebrated and celebritized to this extent in a long time.

And for good reason! She is the most successful woman boxer India has had till date. She is a five-time World Boxing champion, and the only woman boxer to have won a medal in each one of the six world championships. She recently won a bronze at the 2012 London Olympics. Even when she made it to the semi-finals, India erupted in joy. She was being written about in the papers, talked about on television. Her husband was being interviewed. Even her home state Manipur, a part of the country that does not find much presence in mainstream media, was being covered for the purpose. The only irony here is that Mary Kom systematically debunks every single dominant discourse and stereotype of India. Through her actions and accomplishments, Mary Kom has actually fought against the mores of the very country she hails from and represents.

mary kom

To begin with, Mary Kom is a woman; and yes I know I will be pounced upon for playing this card, but trust me, the “modern Indian woman” is not as liberated as her counterparts in many other countries are or as she would like to believe she is. She is still much more answerable to her immediate family and larger society than her male counterparts are; she still has to deal with immense expectations of managing a home with little (or no) help; she still has to choose a career path that fits into her married and family life; she is still unsafe on the roads and subject to lewd remarks and “elbowing” if not constantly running the risk of rape; she still loses out on promotions and office memos because she does not join her male colleagues for smokes or goes to their drinking binges on Friday nights; she still has to cover her head and sit in the corner as a newly-wedded bride if that is the tradition of her husband’s family (noteworthy because there are no such oppressive traditions for the bridegroom imposed from the girl’s side). Under such circumstances, where Mary Kom is today speaks for the prejudices she has had to fight, the discouragements she has had to take in her stride, the remarks she has had to swallow.

Then, Mary Kom is married and a mother of two – and that is not an easy resume to keep up with for any woman who has made it big in any country, especially in the one that she resides in. Her fight for excellence and her commitment to her sport is as much a struggle against society as against herself. When her twins were born, she took a two-year hiatus and had put on weight. No one in the sports community had expected her to come back to the ring, but she did, and how! For a country that feeds itself every night with ample doses of soap operas in which women wear expensive clothes and jewelry and cut vegetables in the kitchen and quarrel about which shelf belongs to whom, Mary Kom represents the few that are fighting their daily battles to keep their identities alive and build a legacy for themselves. Onler Kom, her husband, is as worthy of credit and an aberration as she is. He is a slap on the face of all those Indian men who reject girls because they are plump or dark, who try to be “progressive” by “allowing” their wives a job in the neighborhood school, who still negotiate the amount of money and jewelry the girl’s parents need to pay for the wedding (and these are the educated forward ones. I am not including the ones getting female fetuses aborted in this conversation).

Finally, Mary Kom is from the North East of India. She is from Manipur, the capital of which is Imphal (I mention this for the knowledge of my fellow-Indians who, in all possibility, skipped this minor detail in their geography textbooks). To broaden their knowledge, maybe they should look up the states in North East India and try remembering their capitals; maybe they should stop poking fun at the Mongoloid features of the people of this region and look into the mirror at their own double chins and pot bellies; maybe they should visit the North East to know the natural beauty of the region, the talent of its youngsters when they play the guitar or football, the state of infrastructure development and how it feels to live under repressive military laws such as the AFSPA.

Mary Kom’s success is a glorious occasion, for herself and her family. Her elevation to cult status by India is nothing short of a chance pe dance. The biggest testament to that is the fact that even while Mary Kom was in London winning her medals, migrants from the North East parts were being driven out of our major cities with threats of attacks against them. Television channels were reporting the victory of the star from the North East and the eviction of people from the North East in parallel; and sadly, no one stopped to ask what if every single of those young people being driven out was a Mary Kom-in-the-making?

Mary Kom, quite silently, has placed some pretty fat slaps on mainland India’s face. She, and the others from the region, should now gather to crusade for their brothers and sisters who are discriminated against, made fun of, driven out of mainland India. She should leverage her newfound cult status to stand up for the people who made her who she is, and hopefully a few sensible people from among the rest of the 1.2 billion will join forces with her.

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