Tuesday, June 14, 2016

My Son, My Very Own Canadian for Clinton

Son, for the millionth time: Why can't we donate to Hillary Clinton's campaign? Please?

Dad, for the 999,999th time: We can't! We are foreign nationals. We don't want to put Hillary in trouble, remember? Even a cent from three insignificant Canadians will spell trouble for her. Besides, you are just 10 years old!

Son, crestfallen: Ummm, why are they so unfair?

Mom: OK, buddy, I'll buy a 'Hillary for President' bumper sticker, OK?

Son: Oh, and can we also buy lawn signs?

Dad: OK, we'll do that.
[Silence, blessed silence, for a few, fleeting moments]

Then a light goes off in son's head: Can my sisters contribute to Hillary's campaign? They were born here.

Dad: Oh no, this guy has found a loophole now!


Monday, May 30, 2016

"In search of memory this Memorial Day."

In search of memory this Memorial Day
Is a line I heard on NPR
While I struggle to experiment with appam batter
-- A culinary art I never had a chance to learn
Nor miss
While still a child at home,
Co-existing with the Lost Generation.

This Memorial Day
I don't need to search my memory
To remember my grandmother
Who neither fought in a man's war
Nor has passed away,
But merely, enormously
Between life and blessed death.

But this battle
For breath,
Neither old nor new for her,
Is a struggle she'd consider
Much less tortuous
And more welcome
Than the fight for dignity
That she has been losing
For more than half of her life.

Malathi, 5/30/2016

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The identity of a 11-year old

I am.

I am the wind
I have the power of one thousand
I am like a fire
Wild and untamed.
I am like air
Significant like everyone else.
I am a volcano,
Tall and mysterious.
I am like an eagle,
I soar to great heights.
I am like water
Calm and easy to see through.
I am lightening
I have the speed of a cheetah.
I am like a tiny cube of sugar
Sweet and pleasant.
I am a dog,
I will never let you down.
I am Divya Durai.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Say no to the idea of Rohith's depression -- until further evidence

A prominent columnist claimed that Rohith Vemula's suicide was not caused by oppression but by depression. After circuitous arguments, he arrived at the confident conclusion that Rohith was clinically depressed. Furthermore, if Rohith had been depressed, then how could the cultural cartel have oppressed him? Impossible!, he declared. According to him, the two conditions are mutually exclusive.

But it makes no sense, you say? Gentle reader, it didn't make much sense to me or a number of other friends, acquaintances, and well-wishers, either.

So to counter his 'either/or' verdict that came down heavily on the side of "clinical depression" driving Rohith to suicide, I wrote the following:

[Rohith's death] is a multi-factorial story with several predisposing factors (examples: his neuropsychology; class; caste; awareness of self; personal perception of limited possibilities for his dreams and abilities; social connectedness or lack thereof; perception of limits to his upward mobility or at least social mobility) and one or two precipitating factors (examples: the latest events such as his expulsion from university; his likely sleep deprivation given he was out on the streets; his perception that he may never recover from this setback; his debts). I am not claiming that I know his personal, unique story precisely, but I am aware, from population studies in different countries/professional groups/subcultures, that just a single variable change could have potentially given him an opportunity to rewrite his life-story (example: if he hadn't been alone that night or, in the Indian context, if he felt like he had something yet to live for, or if he knew he could fly to another country and start a new PhD program, or get a science writing job without a degree but just with 'English with a capital E' and connections, or an uncle in business who will have given him a managerial job). In other words, inequities in life follows you into your preparation for death.
I know no clinician who will isolate one factor from the other in an individual case, but you've managed to declare precisely that from just sitting at your desk and typing a few words. You didn't even consult with somebody who studies depression or suicides in mainstream populations and in socioeconomic subgroups.

But this was three days ago. I've had some time to think and I now wonder why, in my eagerness to emhasize the socioeconomic effect, I failed to completely dismiss the idea of his depression. Yes, American statistics dictate that about 90% of suicides can be attributed to depression and/or substance abuse. But this proportion can vary in different cultural groups. But even that high number leaves at least 10% of suicides unexplained by depression. Had there been a history for Rohith? Nobody who is following his story from a distance, after his death, knows. If we know nothing about his medical history, then why assume depression? Is it because he killed himself? (Does that mean, the four friends who were expelled along with him are not depressed, because they are with us still?) Is it because Rohith was Dalit? Studies have shown that marginalized communities and people with lower socioeconomic status are depressed at higher rates than their mainstream and better-off counterparts. Even P. Sainath, who is reminding people to look at the suicide note in the context of Rohith's suicide, noted that some castes and classes in India experience depression at higher rates than others'. 

Still, no amount of population-based numbers will help one understand definitively whether a particular individual with all the risk factors was depressed. Clinicians use risk factors to guide them in screening their patients, but definitive diagnosis can be made only by collecting and integrating the individual's information.  

So when I saw another prominent writer, one that I respect, acknowledge that social and political matters can lead to or aggravate depression which in turn can push a person to take his own life, I wrote the following:
I want to understand why we assume [Rohith] was "depressed." Why do we not assume that he was stifled, made to or chose to extinguish himself; the social and the political directly acting on him, without any comodifying (i.e., encouraging) effects from depression? Because as far as I know (from public reports of his lifestory) no healthcare professional has ever counseled him; he didn't seek medical help; nobody who knew him personally suggested mental health issues while he was alive. One journalist qualified to write well (but without the necessary health professional background) has made a suggestion of depression, nay, declared a verdict of depression, and none among us has dared to wonder why this may NOT be true in Vemula's case at all.

It is true that epidemiological studies suggest that socioeconomic deprivations play a role in depression manifestations and that societies should work on removing inequities to reduce the proportion of deaths due to *suicidal depression* tendencies occurring along with low SES. But this does not necessarily always translate into one individual's life in any of the many possible directions. For example, suicide is not always preceded by depression (there are a few times when the motivations leading to suicide are defined and varied, even culture-specific) and depression does not always lead to suicide (people even get over a depressive phase if they have the necessary resources and adequate help). And this emerging picture of Vemula suggests that he was a highly resilient individual tapping into as many inner and external resources as was possible for him, until his last few days.

"Depression" has become part of the common lexicon in a facile manner, while the label/diagnosis should actually be given only by a qualified professional. I think the reason we all accept the possibility of "depression" is because it is still seen as this mysterious personal responsibility, a personal crisis -- something an individual has to take care of in the privacy of his/her mind (and with a doctor, if one is lucky enough to have one). But socioeconomic and political conditions, all reasonable, compassionate people will agree, are society's collective responsibilities. By speculating "depression," we just hand society and ourselves yet another assurance that we can all turn our backs and walk away when a struggling youngster (with or without a history of depression) feels he has come to the end of his rope.

My point was that it is possible even for individuals from marginalized communities to never experience chronic depression or suicidal depression. Each one of us may know such exceptional people from our own personal lives. Then why is it not possible for Rohith to have been one such person? In the absence of evidence of a history of depression, why are we stripping Rohith of yet another layer of his truth when he is not here to explain for himself?  Already, his merit achievements have been questioned or ignored under the shaming attitudes towards "quota students"; his Dalit status was suspected and scrutinized after his death; his scholarship was assumed to have been awarded due to nothing more than his "Dalit" credentials? Now his resilience despite his rise from his difficult background, so well described by Sudipto Mondal here, is also questioned? The odds were stacked so steeply against him even before he was born. Yet, he persevered. And by sheer hard-work and temerity, he arrived at the one place, a place of higher learning and intellectualism, where he hoped he would come to belong. From all public accounts, he was exceptional, extraordinary -- he was the one who aimed for Carl Sagan's stars -- and he accomplished this journey mostly on his own. Does he sound like he was prone to depression to you? Whether you answer, 'Yes', 'No', or 'Don't know', let me tell you: none of us know the correct answer.  

So why do we as a society insist on seeing past visible acts of exclusionary politics, tangible discrimination, and systemic indifference meted out to students of marginalized communities, only to search for excuses and latch onto explanations about a little-understood, invisible-to-the-naked-eye, intangible mental health issue that may or may not have existed in one who was not examined for it?

Until, a healthcare professional who examined him in his worldly life comes forward with a diagnosis that was made previously, say no to any speculation of 'Rohith's depression'. Emphatically.


Here are two examples of people from different walks of life who appear to not be afflicted with depression. Their approach to life is very different from that of the average middle-class person.
Stephen Batchelor, a secular Buddhist, has said:  
Death is certain, its time is uncertain. So let me live this day as if it is the last day of my life.

The portrait of this young lady from New Delhi, India, on Humans of New York has received 249,779 'likes' as of this day. She says: 
I don't have any dreams. What's the point? I'm poor. I don't have any skills. I wash the utensils in the kitchen-- that's what I do. But I like the girls I work with. We make fun together. I tell jokes. They tell jokes. I'm happy-- it's in my nature.

Who is to say Rohith could not have been like them -- adopting a pragmatic, forgiving, and no-unnecessary-sweat approach to life? A Carl Sagan admirer, he must have cherished this saying, 'Aim for the moon, even if you miss, you will fall among the stars'. I join Pratap Bhanu Mehta in concluding that at the time of his death Rohith Vemula was 'yearning for a space beyond power and rancour.' And maybe even beyond depression.


Sunday, November 22, 2015

Name a country in Europe

My son, Rahul, who was a toddler when I started this blog, is now 9 years old, loves live theatre and music, and cannot decide whether he wants to be a veterinarian (like his mother) or a musician (like his idol Paul McCartney) or both. [Word of advice from mom: Just focus on becoming Paul McCartney, kiddo!] 

But this fall he surprised himself and us all by writing comedy like his dad does. In fact, he went a step further than dad by actually enjoying being on stage. Here is the skit Rahul wrote and performed this week together with his theatre class, Act Two Comedy Troupe. His teacher, Tamara Kist, edited the skit big time and deserves credit for the final version, while dad, Melvin, gets some credit for helping with first draft.

Teacher: Class, today we're going to learn about Europe, where many of our ancestors came from.  Can anybody name a country in Europe?
[Noah raises his hand.] Yes, Noah?

Noah: Chicken. [Class giggles.]

Teacher: Chicken?! Oh, you mean Turkey?

Noah: Oh yes, Turkey. I knew it had something to do with lunch meat.

Teacher: Can anyone else name a country in Europe?
[Derek raises his hand.] Derek?
Derek: Ham?

Cole: That's a lunch meat, too! 

Teacher: Nice try, Derek. But there's no country called Ham.

Derek: But my grandfather says we came from some place that begins with the word Ham.

Teacher: Hamburg? That's a city in Germany.

Lamia: Is that where hamburgers come from?

Teacher: Actually, yes. Can anyone else name a country in Europe?

Cole: I know a country! I know one!

Teacher: Yes, Cole?

Cole: Australia!

Noah: That's a good one bro!

Cole: I know, right? That's a country, right Teach?

Teacher: Yes, it's a country. Unfortunately, it is not in Europe. 

Cole: Oh.

Rahul: Isn't that where they filmed the Sound of Music? All those rolling hills? Not that I've ever watched it or anything.

Teacher: You mean Austria. THAT is in Europe.
Lamia: Austria sounds a lot like a shortened version of Australia.

Teacher: I suppose so, Lamia.

Noah: Teacher?

Teacher: Yes, Noah?

Noah: Does Austria have short kangaroos?

Teacher: No Noah, it does not.
[Rahul raises his hand.] Yes, Rahul?

Rahul: Greece.

Teacher: Very good. Greece is a country in southeastern Europe.

Rahul: I knew that because they filmed Mama Mia there. Beaches, blue water, boats. Not that I have ever watched it.

Derek: Who would name a country grease? I hate grease with my food.

Cole: Hey, isn't that a movie with Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta?

Rahul: Yes. They sing the song Summer Nights in that. Not that I've ever seen it.

Lamia: I'm Hungry.

Teacher: Is your family from Hungary, Lamia?

Lamia: No. My stomach is growling. Is it lunch time yet?

Teacher [looks at her watch]: I guess it is. You can go eat now.

Rahul: Yeah, I feel like some turkey.

Cole: You are a turkey.

Derek: Just no grease, OK?


Monday, February 16, 2015

Madhuri Shekhar's 'A Nice Indian Boy.'

Here is the best thing I can say about how good the play 'A Nice Indian Boy' was: that I went to see it twice. 

The first time, on Valentine's Day, on my own, because it was rated PG-13 and because we have no friends or babysitters here yet that we can request taking care of our kids while we take some time on our own -- like a normal, parental couple would. So Melvin's Valentine's Day gift for me was to drop me off at Victory Gardens, take the kids for a treat in a nearby bakery and pick me up again after the show.  So pushing the guilt aside, I grabbed a 'Mumbai mule' from the lovely bar downstairs at Victory Gardens and headed up to the show -- telling myself that I love live theatre and it keeps me sane and connected in my isolated 'all work and no play' (pun intended) world.

It was quickly obvious that the play's PG-13 rating does not apply to Melvin's or my values and sensibilities and that this could have been a family outing for us. Adding to my regret was the fact that another extended family in the audience had brought along some kids -- and at least two appeared to be of my girls' ages (pre-teens). Two more appeared to be in their teens. I texted to my family during intermission that we are coming back again. Together.  Melvin's response was 'huh?' 

So we went back again yesterday-- February 15th.  I gave a crash course to my kids on DDLJ (which is referred to quite a bit in some scenes), Mumbai's cosmopolitan Marathis, Ganesha, Indian stereotypes, parental magnanimity, sibling rivalry, sibling love and support, liberal values, first generation immigrant parents' idiosyncracies, second generation's insularity, first generation's expectations of second generation's behaviors towards them. And finally, the elephant in the room and it is what you think (if you clicked on the link above) but it is also not what you think.  It is not even Ganesha who as a deity has a huge presence in the play.  It is the Indian's expectations about who is a true or a good, natural-born Indian and this little-discussed -- perhaps light-hearted but perhaps not -- reverse "discrimination". I also told them not to be shy about a very explicit kissing scene, putting it in context thus: "I allow you to watch Western movies where men kill men with one fast-drawn gun. If you are allowed to watch that, you can see this without any doubt."  I warned them that on a couple occasions they will hear some swear words -- but nothing that they haven't already heard on their school grounds or from my mouth when I am really mad about something. (Yes, so I said it out loud and publicly. Now flog me.)  Whether the crash course helped or not, I cannot be sure; whether the kids followed every dialog or understood every issue, of that too I cannot be sure (my kids' ages range from 8 to 12). But of this I am sure: that the big-picture impact of this beautiful, sensitive, witty, clever play will only make them more self-assured Indian American children and better human beings overall. That the play emphasizes the triumph of love and mutual respect for all -- whether separated by race, community or sexual orientation -- and by all -- whether by parents or progeny; brown or white -- is what they would ultimately remember. Of that I am sure. 

The California-based playwright Madhuri Shekhar (Chennai roots) appears to be talented and extremely insightful. All the actors were amazing -- but Alka Nayyar and Kamal Hans, even more so. Perhaps, they were just a tad older and much more experienced as actors, but they commanded the stage, even more so than the actors who played the younger characters (Kaiser Ahmed, Riley McIlveen, Suzan Faycurry).  

If you have a chance to see this Rasaka Theatre production, please do so.  Or better still, perform this play in your local community.  It is a lovely, lovely play.  

Director, Anna Bahow, on the play and the playwright: 'A Nice Indian Boy' is a romantic comedy with familiar tropes -- that are anything but familiar when immigrant assimilation collides with the adoption of a foreign heritage. The play challenges our traditioal concepts of ethnicity ad marriage. Shekhar has such respect for her characters and the humor is generous to all.  

Friday, January 16, 2015

Home Alone -- Canine Version

You think you will never lose your dog. Until the morning when you and the rest of your "loser" family jump into the van and take off in a hurry. For the next half-hour you don't even realize that your 100-lb dog is missing from her usual seat at the back of the van. When you eventually notice, you zip back through the morning traffic, only to find her curled up at the front door step of your home, waiting patiently, trustingly, but with a quizzical look on her face. And when you open the door of the van to tell her it's OK, she can climb in now, she jumps up and bounds towards you, happy to be part of the pack again. Even your youngest child has felt let down by you, and quite frightened, when you unexpectedly had to make your children wait in the after-school program one day. But your once-feral dog--she just accepts that, for whatever reason, the pack was separated, and that's the way tough life is. Why make it tougher? She just nuzzles up to you, the alpha member, touches you gently with her nose and reassures you that all is well that ends well.