Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Both Sides of an Argument

 “It pays to keep an open mind, but not so open your brains fall out.”

― Carl Sagan

We like to play "fair". We like to look at both sides of an argument. We try to understand what the "other side" says.

But sometimes there is no "other side".

How can there be an "other side" when a thirsty child is trashed for drinking water, or a couple is lynched for falling in love?

By seeking the "other side", we are giving legitimacy to brutality.

If we were truly 'liberal' we would condemn without hesitation.

Attempting to give equal space to all arguments on a particular forum is also unfair.

When the Church argued that both Creation and Evolution should be taught in schools, it was dismissed because Evolution doesn't get equal time in Sunday schools.

There are countless similar examples where you cannot push for both sides having equal time in a particular space.

No, I am not saying that either side is always right, and the other side is always wrong. All I am saying is that we need to be able to use our discretion in deciding when to argue for "the other side" and when not to.

No festival is intrinsically bad

 There was a time when I loved Holi, and everything associated with it.

The smell of gulal made with multani mitti. Petrichor, I came to know it was called. One whiff still takes me to paradise.

Dahi vada and malpua. After a morning of playing Holi, and the rest of the day succumbing to the fatigue, the only thing that could draw you out of bed was the thought of stuffing yourself silly with dahi vada and malpua.

Thankfully, those dishes haven't been spoilt for me.

Palash, flame of the forest.

The solitary tree growing by a stream. 

The experiments with extracting dye to use as a colour.

The excitement of seeing the golden hue. The disappointment when it didn't stick.

The sight of palash still fills my heart with joy.

The festival itself is not intrinsically bad, though many are petrified of it. It symbolizes the advent of spring. It speaks of joyous beginnings, of new life.

And yet, people spoil festivals for you. By choosing to move far away from what the festival is meant to be.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

A free pass to harass

 When I was a kid, Holi was fun. We would run around the colony with our pichkaris, ambushing people and squirting coloured water on them. The colours were mostly gulal, which washed off easily.

When we were slightly older, we graduated to chemical colours, which were slightly harder to scrub off. But the fun of emptying buckets of water (or having it emptied on you) made up for the inconvenience.

And then, we entered adolescence.

One of us matured faster than the rest and became object of everyone's passion. To curry favour with his friends, one from our gang invited them over to play Holi in our apartment block.

That year, Holi changed for me.

It was the first time I had someone pull my shirt and shove colour into it. It was the first time someone held me tight by the waist while languidly smearing colour on my arms. It was the first time I was forced to put colour on someone I didn't know.

For the first time, angry tears mixed with soap while I scrubbed off the top layer of epidermis. I felt dirty long after I the last molecule of colour was washed off.

I didn't know it then, but it was the last time I would play Holi.

The next year, I gave the annual exams as an excuse for not playing Holi. It reinforced my reputation as a nerd, but I couldn't care. I did not want to put myself through that experience ever again.

At some stage, the excuse changed from "I have my exams" to "I have sensitive skin". But I could neither bring myself to play Holi, nor to talk about the experience.

Like every other victim of sexual harassment, I made excuses. Maybe I was over reacting. Maybe I misunderstood the signals and unwittingly led them on. Maybe…..

But it is not the victim's fault. Though she blames herself.

Despite having extremely supportive parents, I could never bring myself to report it either. Had he heard, my father would have let those boys have it. My mother would have ensured their mothers punished them.

I would certainly have been believed. Yet, I didn't speak out.

I just stopped playing Holi.

I hid away when people came to call me.

I made excuses to not play.

I never stepped out of home during those days.

I stayed away from public spaces.

And I am not the only one who does so.

Holi does give an opportunity for men to harass women. They hide behind the veil of "social sanction" and "culture", and unleash their sexual frustration on unwilling women.

This is certainly not what the festival was supposed to be. But sadly, that is what it has become.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

That which we speak not of

[An occasional series profiling women I know who have risen over challenges to become the inspiring women that they now are. Each of them has lessons for us]

She is a professionally qualified, financially independent woman who got trapped in a physically and mentally abusive relationship. The abuse got worse after she had a child, and she even left the home for a few months and then returned. But when she could take the abuse no longer, she walked out with her 13 month old daughter, and to keep herself and her daughter safe, disappeared from public view.

Even 20 years back, it was not easy to ‘disappear’. She had no social media profile, and didn’t attend functions where there was even the faintest likelihood that mutual friends may be present. She kept a very low profile professionally, even though it had an adverse impact on her career. For seven years, she managed to stay under the radar. Then, after her mother passed away, someone called her pretending to be from her mother’s bank, got her address and outed her. The long distance abuse began again.

Their mutual friends chose not to believe her stories of abuse, because to do so would mean they would have to stake a stand against him. What they did not realize was that by choosing to look away, they were enabling the abuser, which indirectly made them guilty too.

Even worse, she was ostracized by mutual friends, because her presence reminded them that they had chosen silence. For them, it was a choice between what was easy and what was right, and they chose what is easy.

Today, the toddler with whom she fled is a young woman who is ready to take on life in her own terms. She has carved out her own niche professionally. After decades of playing the part of the dignified man in public, her abuser has unraveled in public a few times and people are now seeing through the suave mask he has on. We can say that the story has a positive end.

Why then am I talking about the story today?

I am talking about it, because this forces us to confront our stereotypes. We are quick to typeset victims of domestic abuse as meek women who are emotionally and financially dependent on their partners. But even strong and independent women could be victims, and even for them it is not always easy to walk out of an abusive relationship.

I am talking about it, because when we hear of cases like this, out natural tendency is to look away. We do not want to get involved in matters like this. What we do not realize is that our silence empowers the perpetrator. Knowing he will not be called out, he continues his abusive behavior, and the victim is left without support. It is necessary for each of us to take a stand against domestic violence. Till each of us supporting the victim in public and calling out the perpetrator, this is not going to go away.

The Deaths we do not count

 In the last twelve months, my octogenarian mother has lost at least 12 people she knows well. While, at her age, she is used to losing people, this toll is certainly greater than usual.

“Well, there is a pandemic raging”, we could say, but only one of them had tested positive for COVID, though COVID was indirectly responsible for all their deaths.

A lady in her mid 90s who hadn’t stepped outside her home since March, contracted COVID from her caregiver. After a week in the ICU, she passed away, and though all three of her children were in the same city, none of them was pay their respects to her before she was cremated.

She was the only one to officially have COVID mentioned as the cause of death.

But there were many others who succumbed to the pandemic.

A lady in her mid 80s had Parkinson’s. Both her children were settled abroad and would take turns to visit. Her son was supposed to come, when Lockdown was announced. Within a week she was gone.

Neither child got to hold her hand before she was cremated.

Ten days later, her husband had a cardiac arrest. The retirement home he was in called a doctor, but dithered about taking him to a hospital. He did not survive the second cardiac arrest which came a few hours later.

Was it a cardiac arrest or heartbreak, we will never know.

Another lady lived in a sprawling bungalow with a caregiver, a housekeeper and a driver. She developed bed sores, but her brother decided it wasn’t safe to take her to a hospital. It spread, and she died of gangrene.

Yet another indirect casualty.

Others were denied (or delayed) hospital care, in a bid to keep them “safe” from the Coronavirus.

Do we even acknowledge those deaths?

How many more indirect deaths will COVID claim?

Monday, March 8, 2021

Freedom to be Free

 This weekend, I met some amazing young women who were all pursuing undergraduate / technical course in the city. Each was from a marginalised background, and had overcome almost unimaginable obstacles to get here.

Many had lost one or both parents, some had escaped child labour or child marriage, all were from socially and economically backward communities.

Yet, they had prioritised the need to get an education, and were hoping it would help them break the poverty cycle.

Since I always land up early for any event, I was able to spend time with some of them. The stories they told about how the survived the lockdown were horrific- stories similar to the ones we read about, but chilling since they were recounted by people who had survived it.

The other thing common to them was that they were all ambitious. Though most were first generation school graduates, they all dreamt of clearing the competitive exams, or getting jobs as teachers.

Reservations were created to help people like this, and it made me happy to know that at least some of them would be able to avail them, and achieve their ambitions.

I couldn't have asked for a happier #WomansDay 

They inspired me to keep doing what we do because it matters.

When the time came to address them, I was at a loss for words. What advice could I give to a group of women who had overcome obstacles I cannot even comprehend. They didn't need me to tell them they are already winners; they know it.

In a voice choked with emotion, I could just remind them that after what they have overcome to get this far, nothing could be beyond their grasp. That they should continue to dream, and make those dreams come true.

That is the true meaning of #WomansDay

Saturday, March 6, 2021

India's tryst with Vaccines

 We all now know about the Plague Epidemic that started in 1896, and spread from Bombay to other parts of the country. It was to deal with this that the Epidemic Act was enacted in 1896 (and which continues to this day). What is much less known is that in 1897, Dr. Haffkine developed the Plague Vaccine in his 2 room laboratory in Parel, Bombay. This was the first case of a vaccine developed in India being used across the world.

The cholera vaccine too has strong connections to India. Dr. Haffkine developed the vaccine in France, but it was in India that he conducted the clinical trials and proved the efficacy of the vaccine in preventing the disease.

By the first decade of the 20th century, India had the capacity to produce vaccines against four deadly diseases- smallpox, cholera, plague and typhoid. Over the next few decades,  both development and manufacturing facilities were set up across the country, and India was a favoured destination for conducting clinical trials.

By the time we gained Independence, India was already a major player in the vaccine space.

Post independence, a facility to manufacture the BCG vaccine was set up in Guindy, Madras in 1948, and after a pilot project, the BCG vaccinations was extended to schools across the country. The campaign to ensure that all children receive the BCG vaccine, however, took off only many decades later.

In 1952, Zydus Cadila was the first indigenous compnay to set up manufacturing facilities for drugs and vaccines, following which many others came up.

Serum Institute set up facilities for the development and manufacture of vaccines 1966.

Genome Valley was developed in the then Andhra Pradesh in the mid 1990s, and attracted many, including Bharat Biotech and Shantha Biotechnics. Shantha Biotechnics, developed a recombinant product which received WHO prequalification as a Hepatitis B vaccine,  which cost a fraction of what the original vaccine cost.

India has been largely ‘atmanirbhar’ when it comes to vaccines for close to a century.

Our biggest successes have, however been in the immunisation of our huge population.

Small pox was finally eradicated in India in 1975- despite our large population and the challenges of reaching far-flung areas, we managed this feat before most other countries.

India's success story with the Oral Polio Vaccine is something that is studies in all public health courses. 

If we want to take pride in anything, it is our many historical successes that is what we should be proud of. Not just in the fact that we are a part of the supply chain of a global corporate.

To end with a story of the first “celebrity endorsement” for a vaccine campaign. When the smallpox vaccine was first introduced in the country, the response of the public was not very encouraging. In a bid to boost public confidence, before her marriage to the Maharaja of Mysore, Devajammani, his second wife got herself vaccinated with “minimum loss of dignity” in 1805. A portrait of the queen by Thomas Hickey where she is pointing to the place where she took the vaccine inspired the public to come forward to avail of the vaccination. People sharing photographs of themselves being vaccinated, therefore has a historical precedent from two centuries back.


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