Monday, 17 June 2013

Amair ki ladki- Amair's girl

I have been planning to take my children for a visit my village, but so far have not been successful in planning the trip. My mum says with pride that I am Amair's girl, when she is wanting to praise my industriousness.

My village or my father's village is in Vaishali district, but the nearest town is Hajipur. This makes it Ganga paar or the other side of Ganges. My mum is from Gaya and listening to my nani and dadi, I gathered that there is an intense rivalry between people from this side and the other side of Ganges, both accusing the other of less grey matter amongst other things.

When I was little, I remember the key word was "steamer", I am not sure whether these water borne passenger vessels still exist on the river Ganges. They must have, like the steam engine, run with coal as fuel...I am guessing, because they hooted like a steam train and bellowed dark fumes as well.

The Mahatma Gandhi Setu over the river Ganges, was non existent at the time and therefore after we arrived in Patna, we would have to wait either for the "steamer" and then in later years, the "launch", which in turn, was some sort of motor boat. Both these used to have fixed times, steamer took in many more people but did not depart everyday where as the launch accommodated less passengers and ran an afternoon trip each day.

Another advantage of this motor launch was that it was able to take us right to the village. As far as I remember, we were able to make our way from the clayey sandy river shore where the launch dropped us, on foot to the house. While near the river Ganga, the expanse of the river and the fertile fields alongside, stretched green and bright, till the eyes could see but as we walked towards home, the village was towered by fruit trees, mango and banana. Banana plantations are quite crowded and because they constantly need water, they are also very muddy to cross, but tall mango trees have lots of shaded peaceful space under them.

It would be usual for my mother to cover her head by the time we reached the temple and as we approached the mango trees. Because we would usually meet a few elders sitting on charpoys, under the big mango trees, chatting, playing cards or simply just guarding the crop- the ripe mangoes.

Greetings would include touching of feet and introductions which would usually end in exclamations about how much bigger we kids looked.

The house itself has four approaches from the four directions. Ours is the Poorab dura (East dwar or door). The house at the time, we had counted with our cousins was home to a good 50-100 residents depending on what time of the year it was. There were rows of vegetables growing right outside the entrance and there were also corn fields. Our homes in the towns would usually have a surplus of potato chips (ready to fry), mango pickle of at least two types, dried raw mango powder or aamchoor, aam-papad, honey etc. which was our way of enjoying the produce of the land in the village.

It was good to see where it all came from. Now there is an additional house, which I have yet to see which has been constructed, but earlier on the big sloping roof house was rectangular in shape with a quadrangular courtyard in the middle, which is where we would usually sleep in our mosquito tents propped up with crisscrossing bamboos on a jute rope or woven textile charpoy. Hand fans made of palm leaves were very handy on days when there was no wind.The house, distempered with cowdung and mud solution on both walls and floors, looked exceptionally neat. However, we would always hear stories of snakes and scorpions being found at inopportune times under the bed or over head hanging from the roof or on the beams.

The most entertaining and much awaited event for me used to be a bath or shower in the village home. Right outside the entrance is a tube well, where we would usually wash our feet before we got into the house. One could choose to have a shower with water from the tube well, which is wonderfully cold and nice on a hot summer's day, but the entrance usually had the men lounging on chowkis, enjoying a siesta, a chat or the newspaper.

The next option was having it at the courtyard well, in open air, some distance away from where the food was being cooked on a fire made of wood. If we wanted some more fun, we would go to the "machine". This was a motored tube well which was used to water the banana and other crops. The pipe my guestimate is, had a diameter of 15 cm, and spouted out a thick stream of water at great pressure. This was the most popular place for us kids to have a shower, and out in the fields usually there were very few elders around to watch over us.

Then of course there was "Gangaji" as the river is referred to, in the village. We would need to be accompanied to the riverside where we could splash around in the shallows and watch as people used the red silt as soap and shampoo for washing their body and hair.

I wonder if that was the better thing to do, rather than pollute the river with soap. I don't think I bothered with anything. A sari held around, served as a temporary tent for getting out of wet clothes and getting into dry ones.

All this was bound to make us hungry and we were provided with buckets of mangoes soaked in water, which we proceeded to demolish one by one. Strangely nobody knows about cutting and sharing mangoes in Amair. After all when our cousins invited us, they said "Come to Amair to eat mangoes" "Aam khane aana". That invitation has been oft repeated, wonder when I will be able to do justice to it.

Now for many years, since the bridge was built over the Ganga, the village is accessible anytime of the day or night, if you have a vehicle; but even with public transport it is much easier that the steamer and launch days. There are regular buses up to a certain point and then taxis and autos take you to the doorstep.

The capital Patna, being accessible has changed a lot of things in the village. One hopes it increases aspirations, fires ambition and encourages the younger generation to get out of the village and find out different things to do or do the same things differently.

Girls seem to be doing better than the boys which is no different from the national statistics....but they are also given free bicycles to go to school when they reach the age of 14. This has seen high school enrolment of girls triple in four years in Bihar. High schools being fewer and far away had a high drop out rate for girls, which has been stemmed by this initiative and is being rolled out to other states.

Infrastructure and most of all political will can transform lives and in turn statistics. Here is wishing I will get to visit my village, soon.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Empowerment and suicides

Talking to the car mechanic gave me an idea of how the patient coming to a doctor's clinic or emergency room must feel like.

If I can feel so ignorant about a car, which is man made; surely the human body is much more of a complex creation of nature.

It was like this guy was telling me- "we need to take the kidneys out as they need a wash and the liver, thanks to the wine on weekends does look like it is not going to last your next health check up... so be prepared to have that replaced and the heart....well it doesn't help that your body is so heavy and the fact that you run it so little...." I just had to agree to whatever he was telling me because I have no clue whatsoever, about how a bloody car works. Needless to say every health check for the car runs into hundreds of pounds subtracted from my bank account.

Sadly not all human organs are so easily replaced. Today I read a facebook post about Jiah Khan's suicide and the fact that his ex boyfriend being arrested for abetting suicide was just unfair and gives women a chance to blackmail men into commitment.

All this macho talk about- "women should be strong" "Relationships are not the be all and end all of one's existence" "Parents should have given her better values so that she did not get herself in this situation" etc etc is all very well but the fact remains that for a young beautiful girl with so much potential, to be driven to take her own life, she must have been in a very sad and horrible state of mind. She must have needed help which wasn't forthcoming in our society and she could not bring herself to ask for that help.

Just around the same time we heard of suicides amongst celebrities and celebrity children, I happened to see a young beautiful and pregnant girl who was crying and saying things like- "I want my baby to be safe" "It has taken me a long time to ask for help" "I have been searching the net for ways to kill myself"

I don't often feel like this, but while talking to this desperate girl, I actually felt like bursting into tears myself. To put things in perspective suicide is amongst the top 4 causes of maternal death in UK and has recently become the leading cause of death in women aged 15-49 in India. Second is childbirth, earlier it used to be at the top.

I asked this girl if it would help if we admitted her into hospital and she said-"I can't change my brain, it doesn't matter where I am and who I am with"

When we started reading psychiatry in medical school, we realised that there was such a thin line between the normal and abnormal. We had all encountered people who were Obsessive compulsive neurotics, the uncle who checked the garage door lock at least 3 times after turning away from it, the aunty who was getting an allergy to soap, from washing hands all the time...etc etc.

But significantly mental illnesses are just like physical illnesses. You don't say, your mum should have brought you up better to ensure you never had a heart attack. Yes, had you not been overweight, inactive, alcoholic and smoker (i.e. had not had a brake fail or a broken windscreen), there was lesser likelihood of meeting with an accident/ heart attack but yet having everything in perfect working order, doesn't guarantee anything.

Similarly, being born wanted, having loving parents; who along with loving you, loved one another, having a good education, having friends etc etc must shield us from mental illnesses which have more of an environmental causation but yet there are a host of illnesses which are genetic, endogenous and are not brought on by circumstances and depression leading on to suicidal thoughts is one of them.

Laws in India reflect the fact that suicides amongst women have been found to have a strong association with domestic violence. Dowry deaths and deaths from fires were many times staged as suicides. But now men are considered guilty unless proven otherwise. I have known married women with children on long term prescribed medication for depression,  where husbands were arrested and considered guilty when the woman decided to kill herself. Collateral damage from the laws meant to empower women.

Yes we need to enrol ourselves and our children into daily inbuilt art of living classes, where we live healthily, have a healthy balance of love, togetherness, friendship, companionship, tolerance and self reliance but mental illnesses have long been neglected. The result is that going to a shrink carries a stigma. There isn't the level of awareness or infrastructure to help people when they need help but don't know who to turn to.

Kiran Bedi used to write a column where she used to ask the question whether the education system in India is failing the young women, who after having worked for and completed post graduate degrees still consider their lives a failure if their spouse decides to reject them.

Empowerment is a big word, difficult to understand and much more difficult to achieve with or without laws and in laws.

So long!