Is this what war feels like?

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Maybe, this is what war feels like. We have witnessed it from afar in countries where war wages through the year, replete with shelling, gassing, dead bodies and blood. A war in which the eyes of the survivors reflect the pain of loss. Numb. Vacant. Sad.

And yet, there is something different about this war being waged in India. There is no blood. There is no sound. There is no warning of attack

Maybe, this is what the Spanish flu pandemic felt like. Invisible but aggressive. Leaving death and loss in its wake.

And yet, there is something different about this pandemic. We are feeling the loss and the pain collectively. Sadness is a constant. For some, the loss is immediate and within the family. Close and terrifying. For others, it has almost come home but hasn’t quite crossed the threshold, yet. This pandemic is stained with fear and carries with it a sense of impending doom. It is imbued with guilt. It is heavy. And death is a mere statistic.

The air is acrid with the smell of death as it rises from burning pyres to fill our senses, choking us. It reminds us that many more lives will be sacrificed at the altar of greedy politicians, mismanagement and intractable ego. Many more miserable and desperate people will be exploited by the Big Pharma and the petty crooks all looking to line their pockets. Oblivious to misery until it strikes their homes. This is a politicised pandemic where the administration has forsaken its people. Where the government is intent on whitewashing its image to the point of callousness.

Helplessness has united us all as we move from message to message threads, tracking, locating, identifying, scrambling for oxygen, beds, drugs … chaos fills us and yet this is the only thing that may still save us. The chain of help that has been building steadily, creating a web of resources, reassurance and love. A soothing breath. A crutch for the abandoned.

While our soldiers in blue march on. Tired and overwhelmed.

Bloodbath

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What are these times we see today around us?

The nation heaves and gasps for air

As the regime rushes to whitewash away

Or look the other way.

Strangers come together to help and to hold

Misery colours all that we behold

Where is the national pride now?

As people wail in despair.

Other nations look aghast at our bloodied canvas

Murder holds India in her throes

As loss upon loss piles up of those we know and those we don’t know.

Let us pledge never to forget

Let us vow to help each other find our way out of this mess

The time has come for our Mann ki Baat

The time has come to say no more. No more. No more.

Atmanirbhar (Self dependent)

I woke up this morning to another depressing set of news headlines. Each news article brings with it anxiety and doubt. ‘Should I trust this as credible? Is this propaganda?’ I continue scrolling compulsively, unable to stop.

I then gravitate to social media for my daily fix of angst, despair and dark humour. That is, until the phone rings and the day descends into a vortex of vicariously lived trauma. A desperate hunt for Remdesivir. A mad search for a single hospital bed. A wild goose chase for oxygen cylinders. Panic. Fear. Burning pyres. Voices drenched with grief.

The word ‘atmanirbhar’ is a term designed specially for the benefit of the citizens of India by our esteemed government.

In this bid to gift us atmanirbharta … citizens of India are today scrambling for basics while policy makers and caretakers of the country try and pivot. Too little. Too late. The second covid-19 wave has us firmly in its grip.

People, even those with access and resources, are running from pillar to post to save their loved ones. Politicians are defining what we can or cannot have access to. People are being forced to negotiate cash payment for medicines, hospital admissions and test results with those who are exploiting this need for profit. So much for demonetisation. Savings are being cleaned out as people are forced to make decisions under pressure with no choice or say in the matter. The person on the street is struggling to stay safe while earning barely enough to feed their dependents.

The hospital staff is in tears. The laboratory staff is working sleeplessly for days on end swamped with covid tests. The health infrastructure can’t bear the weight of this unending surge.

The harsh, inescapable reality is that the virus has brought everyone to their knees.

India is today in an unenviable position. A country of 1.39 billion people. A heaving, gasping population unable to comprehend why there is no respite from this nightmare.

This is what we voted for. A casual cockiness by our well meaning leaders that set the tone and we all celebrated having beaten the virus. We became lax. Mumbai opened its huge suburban public train network. Packed stadiums for cricket matches were witnessed. Political leaders led by example and helmed political rallies without masks. The kumbh mela 2021, originally scheduled for 2022, was brought forward to appease the majority sentiment and stretched across weeks. A well thought through and researched introduction of farming bills was accompanied by a charming reticence to engage in talks. It resulted in an ongoing six month long battle of wills with farmers on the streets, fighting to have their voices heard. All this regardless of a virus that was waiting for its moment to attack.

courtesy tourmyindia.com

This is what we voted for. Banging thalis and lighting diyas in support of the medical fraternity and crushing them carelessly under an unending stream of patients.

This is what we voted for. A massive gathering of people serving a political agenda at a time when globally established protocols require countries to be watchful, break the chain of contagion and allow the healthcare teams some breathing space. 

This is what we voted for. An ambitious bunch of pied pipers who have led a devout vote bank towards devastation.

Another day draws to a close. I see an ambulance make its way silently down the road with only its lights flashing. We sit within our homes, the ones who are privileged to do so and watch the horror unfold. The less privileged are out there fighting every single day for survival. This is what we voted for.

Conspiracy of the Entitled

  • Two colleagues casually discuss how women who get beaten up are usually those who enjoy violence.
  • A woman comments on the skimpy clothing worn by her neighbour’s daughter. ‘Kuch hoga toh kiski zimmedari hogi?’
  • Teenage boys share text messages talking about how they want to rape their classmate. It’s all one big joke.
  • TV serials speak of maryada. This ‘maryada’ is a woman’s cross to bear. 
  • Strong, independent women are a bad influence. They have no morals. They must be put in their place.
  • Social media is filled with ugly and venomous trolls who brazenly threaten and abuse women. 

A woman lies brutalized, naked and half dead in the fields. She belongs to a marginalized section of society. 4 upper class men have allegedly gang raped her, cut off her tongue and broken her spine. She dies. Eventually. The entire government machinery conspires to hush it up. She is hurriedly cremated by the police while the family is locked up in their home. If this inhumane and cowardly act were not enough, the family is shamelessly threatened to change their statement by none other than the District Magistrate of Hathras. The media is prevented from entering the village. The forensic report magically mutates into one of violence and not rape … as if that makes everything ok. The arrogance and dismissiveness of the administration in all of this is astounding. 

The story evolves to the point where it becomes an absolute farce. The family of the victim is kept under round the clock ‘protective’ surveillance. The family is then accused of committing an honour killing. The four accused submit a letter claiming they are innocent. One of the four accused just happened to be in the fields catching up with the girl on that fateful day as they were old friends. This friendship was apparently frowned upon by the girl’s family. In this cacophony of bizarre developments, we cannot lose sight of this one fact … the girl before dying gave a statement where she named the four accused Sandeep, Luvkush, Ram Kumar and Ravi, of raping her. 

As this ridiculousness plays out, the upper class accused are being staged for an acquittal with the help of a well oiled administrative machinery designed to keep them ‘safe’. 

This is just one instance but according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), 87 (reported) rapes occur per day in India. The age of these women varies from 8 months to 86 years. How many of these get justice? 

Which woman in her right mind will want to lodge a FIR if this is the treatment meted out to her and her family? The marginalized are being shown their place in the system. They are being reminded that they have no voice. They are being informed unequivocally that speaking up will have consequences.  

As a society, we prefer discriminating and assigning roles. The men are the custodians, owners, managers, controllers, overseers. They are the moral compass. Their discretion and their power give them the license to kill.  To maim. To rape. To sell. To buy. To terrorise. The woman is the commodity with no agency over her body, her thoughts, her opinions, her desires. 

It is foolish to believe that deeply rooted prejudices in society will change overnight. However, it is also foolish to believe that when a section of society is beaten into submission and broken, it will forever remain defeated. This phoenix will rise from the ashes as the collective conscience of a dehumanized segment that has nothing more to lose. That day, there will be hell to pay. 

Till then, the fact remains that a young girl of 19 passed away recently. She was grievously injured. She did not get timely medical treatment. She could not be saved. 

Did she commit a crime? Did she deserve this treatment and did her death have to become a parody? Like most cases these days … the truth is obfuscated. The facts are realigned into a more convenient presentation. How ironic that Justice is a personified as a blindfolded woman. As for the dead … it’s a good thing they don’t live to see the travesty.

Work From Home: The Perfect Opportunity

by Anupama Mandloi July 30 2020, 5:00 pm Estimated Reading Time: 8 mins, 5 secs 

Anupama Mandloi explores WFH business models of Stanhope Garden Gourmet Bakes, Home Food Studio and Whimsical Baker and brings her discoveries to your table.

In the month of March 2020, anxiety held everyone in its grip as people scrambled to process this invisible menace while coming to terms with being housebound without any house help. The country was under lockdown and only essential services were allowed to stay open under strict regulation.

The need gap was immediately apparent.

The target group was the salaried segment that needed to outsource help for their kitchens with multiple meals a day for the entire family, while juggling their new WFH scenario.

Presented with such a scenario, new occupational opportunities have arisen. A host of small, home-run-businesses have mushroomed. 

Forced into house arrest with no end in sight, discovering the value of time at their disposal, there are many who are using their talents to escape from the underlying anxiety and explore a fresh avenue of wealth creation. The train of life has switched tracks and is speeding along the digital rails.

Social media has become the conduit for exchange, trade, presentation and flair. Word-of-mouth is the new marketing and PR tool. As a result, home run businesses featuring protective masks, gift bags, cosmetics, therapy and consultation among others have sprung up. The biggest boom by far however, is food.

While Zomato and Swiggy were already armed with the requisite infrastructure to take advantage of this need gap, there has been a burgeoning group of home entrepreneurs coming into their own, exploding into their localities as creators of curated, specialized, gourmet food.

They assure quality, hygiene, safety and most importantly that personalized human connection through food. Intra-city couriers have benefited and provide the last mile solution for contactless, safe delivery to their customer base.

Abhishek Thukral, known as Whimsical Baker, used FB and Instagram to launch his business. ‘When the lockdown began I spent hours and hours in the kitchen, simply to divert my mind away from the anxiety to focus on something I personally found therapeutic. Now I also had a great deal of time to spend in the kitchen and create and experiment new recipes. And a very dear friend who lives in New York, pushed me and said that I should seriously consider opening a home bakery. And literally within two days, I did.’ 

Anupama and Rajan of Home Food Studio have been professional restaurateurs for 40 years in Delhi and moved to Mumbai two years ago.  Anupama says, ‘It’s our art that has found a platform – pretty different from the commercial world.

However, whether it’s a Lakhnawi meat or Rajasthani dal baati, it is very organic. No soda, no preservatives, no food color or any synthetic addition to make it look appealing. It’s the need for health and a better way of living, pandemic or no pandemic.’

I spoke with three entrepreneurs in Mumbai who have used the past 2 to 4 months building a loyal customer base for the specialties they offer. The specialties range from afternoon tea, savories and desserts, homemade-curated regional weekend brunches to cakes with unusual and unexpected flavors. These are representative of the hundreds of home run businesses that have emerged at this time across cities and towns in India.

Aarati Puravankar of Stanhope Garden Gourmet Bakes, a Cordon bleu chef says, ‘Business at Stanhope Garden started in May of 2020. In the very first month our client base expanded from thirteen clients to fifty clients in three months. We haven’t resorted to marketing our products. It has grown by word of mouth.  This is our third month in business and we are expecting to break even by August. The initial investment was two lakhs.’

Embarking on this home project seemed more like an extension of sharing their joy with family and friends rather than a business proposition requiring heavy investment.

For Whimsical Baker, things fell into place with help from family and friends. ‘Interestingly my sister and friends gifted me things related to baking over the past few months. And here I’m using all their investment for my own good use. When I jumped into baking I invested in some equipment, which was minimal capital and worked on inventory and getting branding, packaging etc. I didn’t shell out a lot of money as I took care of the branding, stationary etc. myself.’

To be able to follow your passion and at the same time make a commercially viable proposition of it, is the ideal approach to a work life balance, freedom to be your own person and live life on your own terms. For these entrepreneurs the satisfaction also comes from a profound place of service.

As Anupama puts it,  ‘Knowing that while people are enjoying our food on a regular basis, there is a parent sitting somewhere far away in another locked down city, with their child locked down in Bombay, feeling slightly more comforted knowing that there is a source of home food that her kid can have access to, gives us greater satisfaction.’

In this time of isolation when our only connection with the world outside our home is through the phone, a parcel of gift-wrapped goodies at the doorstep is a welcome tactile connection.

People are more willing to embark on a culinary adventure especially now that stepping outside of the Laxman-Rekha has itself become an adventure. Hygiene and safety have become a part of the global lexicon in a big way. A consumer will make their choices with great care but the slightest hint of compromised hygiene protocols is enough to close the door. So how do these entrepreneurs fulfill this requirement?

‘Dining outside of the safety of one’s kitchen was a dreaded thought. Would I have trusted my food coming out of any commercial kitchen but mine? The answer in my head was loud and clear, “No”. But again, with a certificate in food safety and hygiene, this was my time to shine and ensure that our products were made in a perfectly sanitized kitchen that had zero chance of contamination of any kind.’ avers Aarati.

Anupama says, ‘Ordering from a commercial kitchen wouldn’t comfort even us, if I had to order for myself. So we get that. It’s a home kitchen, literally at our residence. Everything is home cooked like we would cook for ourselves with utmost precautions. We are indoor, socially distant, our packaging uses sealed biodegradable plates/trays and further packaged in a bag. We maintain absolute cleanliness at home, disinfecting ordered goods and isolation of groceries for a few hours before we start using them inside the house. We do everything we would in our capacity, like we do when cooking for ourselves.’

Very often, we start a venture believing and hoping for a certain outcome but reality can often be different. Whimsical Baker started out with no expectations but they grew half way through this journey, ‘that word of mouth and organic growth be much faster, but that isn’t the case. So I think patience is a virtue :)’ and Aarati never expected her business to grow with the velocity that it has!

For Anupama it has proven to be a more personal and relationship oriented outcome. ‘We had really not expected to start the way it did. We just got lucky – with a lot of hard work of course. We now curate special menus for people who just call and say, Hey Anupama, I feel like eating this particular thing. We add the right combinations, from the sides to the curries and give it a beautiful design. So its very relationship based.’

In an unpredictable time, making plans is a thing of the past. Challenges crop up inevitably and reassuring clientele that their business is credible, responsible and consistent is achieved only over a period of time. There is also the difficulty of having to do everything single handedly with no help. It is a competitive space with plenty of options and that makes it necessary to stand out and do things differently. In all of this, there is an overall sense of optimism and achievement at having pulled off something that adds value to so many people’s lives. ‘Its just a journey and we are having a lot of fun. We are very intrigued by the fact that we could turn this into a business from our own home. That’s enlightening and pretty inspiring. And, even though we call ourselves professionals in the given field, there is a whole new system to be discovered when businesses emerge from home. And that’s the whole learning.’ says Anupama. 
Whimsical Baker signs off with, ‘If you have an idea and a strong sense that you can turn into a venture, don’t think too hard and too long. Plan, prepare and take a plunge. Otherwise it would never happen.’

At times of adversity the human spirit is capable of great innovation and triumph. If we were to take a leaf out of the book of these home run businesses we can all believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel and see them as a harbinger of a better way of life.

A joke, a rape threat and an FIR

A young woman performs an open mic in April 2019. It goes viral in July 2020.

Some internet heroes and self styled social media dons take umbrage.

Get it. People are sensitive. They get offended by jokes. They retaliate.

The retaliation is through videos designed to go viral. They are liberally sprinkled with the choicest of abuses roping in not just the target but her mother and sister as well. While showing off their incredible vocabulary and passionately expressing their rage, one particular social media don takes it a step further. He threatens rape. He uses vile language. He is filth incarnate.

These social media monsters sit in cars for some reason to record their soliloquies. They have kohl lined eyes. Some sport jewellery. They wear ganjis or shirts with the first one or two buttons open. They speak into camera with great pride and all of them universally insist on telling their viewers how much they respect women.

These little self styled Nazi boys trotting out their patriotism and championing the cause of historical legends, eagerly wooing their followers who egg them on to display their ugliest selves … their voices cannot be amplified.

We must learn to accept the difficult truth that Hitler’s regime was the most popular government in German history; yet we know as well that few Germans after the war would confess having given any loyalty to the Nazi movement. This was not a lie in the soul of the German nation; it was a part of a collective delusion that all the fascist movements brought upon their followings. It was as if the movements themselves, as things independent of the men that embodied them, were responsible for the things that happened. Gilbert Allardyce, Historian, 1971

What then is our responsibility?

Social media sites have strict policies on conduct. Eg : Twitter – Hateful Conduct Policy – You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.

Here are a few of the things that aren’t allowed on Facebook:

  • Nudity or other sexually suggestive content. 
  • Hate speech, credible threats or direct attacks on an individual or group. 
  • Content that contains self-harm or excessive violence. 
  • Fake or impostor profiles. 

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Youtube – they all have ‘strict’ policies. Why is there no evidence of actually implementing them? Why are these uncouth, vile, repulsive, vulgar little boys being allowed to thrive on these sites? What part of their little solo acts allows them this pedestal to abuse and misbehave?

What will it take for the hate mongering to be erased or is this now part of our ‘new normal’?

Murder by Law

We see the faces of Jayaraj and Fenix plastered across social media. Why don’t we see the faces of the police constables and senior inspectors manning the station? Kumar, Parthiban and constable Maharaja … Why are they cloaked in invisibility? Why have they not been made poster boys of everything that is wrong with this systemic violence?

Semicolon ;

People do not die from suicide, they die from sadness.

Anonymous

Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide has deeply affected many of us. At a time when everyone is being forced to introspect and to face their demons, there is a feeling of fragility being experienced by many.  

It’s not just sadness. It is this feeling of connecting with a person standing on the edge of a precipice and trying to understand what he must have been feeling. Suddenly, you’re not sure of what you see on the surface. Suddenly, you realise that there is so much that goes on within that is unfathomable … an overwhelming sense of being adrift, lonely and forlorn. Driven to the point of stepping off a precipice.

Today, there is this big, urgent, unprecedented pause where everyone is flailing, trying to hold on to what they have always known but being compelled to release and let go. The vacant pause is becoming larger and the fog is still not showing any signs of lifting. The earth has tilted on its axis and nothing much makes sense anymore.

At a time like this, SSR has become a symbol of collective pain and collective consciousness. The question WHY reverberates and echoes. Again. Again. And again. Carrying with it millions of personal stories that have found a connection with this one act.

This pain that so many struggle with, disturbing and unsettling as it is, moving away from judgement maybe the first step in the right direction.

The harrowing exodus

I spent all of yesterday switching between making chivda, washing utensils, bingeing on the latest crime web series, 3 meetings on zoom and 2 WhatsApp video chats. I’ve rearranged furniture for the 5th time in these two months and I’ve struggled with sustaining my meditation and exercises on a regular basis. Time simply disappears into a black hole and the days go by in a blur. There is an undercurrent of anxiety at all times. Am I gaining time or losing time?

I count my blessings and I struggle with the guilt of being privileged.

This morning, I woke up to these images and felt miserably small.

While I sit in my comfortable home and find enough and more to worry about, there are lakhs of migrant workers trekking across state lines, hitching truck rides, counting their last rupee. Their desperation is palpable. They have no way of knowing which police patrol will turn out to be a god send and show them compassion or which one will beat them up for walking along the highway and not following lockdown rules. The migrants have in tow young children, who are hungry, weary and unable to comprehend why they are being dragged across such long distances. The sweltering heat, the sweat, the endless roads with no end in sight and all of them anxiously praying for some respite.

Imagine the anger and helplessness on being refused entry at the border after this harrowing journey. No money, no water, no food, blistered feet, exhausted, emotionally spent and on the verge of collapse. Pawns in the hands of the government; deprived of their basic right to human dignity and freedom, it is a desolate and bleak landscape.

The most neglected, ignored, unseen segment of society is today the cynosure of all eyes but to what avail? If, as a society, we fail to acknowledge our responsibility towards them and don’t integrate them into our development plans … it will be our biggest failure yet. Not the virus, not the economy but this … our failure to revisit the fundamental building bricks of our society. For allowing them to crumble into dust without making the effort to save them and rehabilitate them.

Meanwhile, I get on with the chores of the day with these images forever seared into my being.

The Times of Pandemia

The loss of public figures who were adored and loved has amplified the collective grief we feel at this time as we mourn the loss of our freedom, the loss of a world as we knew it and the loss of friends and family who have retracted into a screen.

The barrage of news peddling fear and warning that spews out non stop from our screens adds to the underlying anxiety. It is not surprising that people are feeling a sense of confusion and loss of direction.

The initial days while filled with terror of this unknown enemy were also days of adapting to something new. The mind was processing this new normal. Six months have passed since and the new normal is now the normal. There is no going back. Too much mistrust and fear has crept in of the outdoors, the unknown-asymptomatic people, proximity, surfaces, crowds, public travel, a common cold … everything is up for assessment.

The lockdown has stripped away the veneer of pretend working, the hyper responses and the fake news. Old forgotten talents and hobbies have resurfaced, meditation and yoga and home exercises, new recipes and experimental cooking, following a routine, designer masks, communication … everyone is finding their outlet.

Today, there is gratitude for having a home and the resources to stay safe on one hand and there is the inescapability of self and the strains and stresses of malfunctioning relationships. The old days of chasing goals, money, status … it’s been taken away. It’s a hiatus from the frenzied living and it is making many, uncomfortable. In this heaving, sighing collective connectedness … there is just today. Real, uncompromising, present. Today.