Covid Positive!

March 2020 transformed the world and life as we had known it, and taken for granted. The Coronavirus Pandemic came like a bolt from the blues and fractured our way of being, threatened and paralyzed our very existence, and all the various everyday activities that we went about rather nonchalantly. Much has been written, spoken and debated, mostly focusing on the trauma and tragedy that this global catastrophe has given rise to; and indeed, it has. Having said that, there are, even in the most trying, worst of scenarios, two sides to the story. As we battle the unprecedented atrocities of the second wave of the coronavirus, amidst all the doom & gloom, why not take a moment to seek out the few ‘positives’ that have also emerged from this pandemic?

Familial Bonds

 Perhaps the most palpable positive outcome of the pandemic has been the growing closeness between families – be it an increase of quality time being spent between children and parents, or connections and bonds being enhanced between various relatives sitting in far-flung parts of the country and/or abroad. This human ‘need’ to reach out during a worldwide crisis has manifested in a slew of creative and fun familial outreach ranging from video-conferencing amongst extended families, to Antakshari, Cards and other games and parties being held virtually. In general, people, families, associates, friends, have been more regularly and sincerely in touch with one another, and that by any means, is a great development. That albeit forced by circumstances, we have reacquainted ourselves with our loved ones, and with our own humanity.

Appreciation & Thoughtfulness

 Pre-covid, an overwhelming majority of us took most aspects of our lives for granted. Stepping out for a meal. Taking the kids to school. Hopping on a flight and traveling. Holidaying. Spending hours shopping. We had become so ‘used’ to these ideas and activities that it rarely crossed our minds how lucky, blessed and privileged we were. The pandemic has dramatically put things into perspective. With the amount of planning that is now required for a simple grocery-run, and with all the numerous dangers that loom large whilst each outing is being undertaken, we have rather suddenly and painfully been forced to become immensely appreciative of our pre-corona lives, and of the smallest little pleasures that we mistook as our birthrights. To be able to develop a genuine sense of gratitude and thankfulness has been a wonderful development and one can only hope it outlives the pandemic.

Professional & Personal Care

 The wretched pandemic has also perpetuated a situation where we are a lot more mindful of our personal and professional lives. On the personal front, we are taking better care of ourselves. Eating better, staying fit and active, because God forbid one takes ill, for obvious reasons, one wants to avoid having to visit a medical facility. Similarly, while millions have lost jobs and suffered grave losses at work and business, it has forced us to become more thoughtful, mindful, sensitive, frugal and careful. We are less wasteful and extravagant. We are more restrained and focused. We understand the value of health of self and of work much more maturely and act accordingly now. To have evolved this level of understanding and wisdom is a clearly positive outcome of the pandemic which we will be wise to carry forward even once this ordeal is done and dusted.

Let us remember that a last few months of restraint will be the key to steering ourselves out of this coronavirus pandemic. That a little more patience, till we develop mass-immunity and/or are vaccinated, will ensure that the few covid ‘positives’ that we have discovered, can become our way of life, permanently.

Language Concepts Column!

From time to time, I write a Column in certain newspapers or publications. In the past, I have written columns on Popular Culture, Communication Skills, Education and more.

Nowadays, I am delighted to share that for the Times of India (Newspaper in Education), both in print (offline) as well as online (on toistudent.com), I have been writing an English Language Column where every fortnight, I take one letter from the Alphabet, and share some facts and significance of an English Concept that begins with that letter. Moving chronologically, we are only at E at the moment but I thought it might be interesting for me to share one column here as a sample.

Haven’t had the time to write a blog-post in a long, long time. So this will be a glimpse of what I’ve recently been up to. Enjoy!

Bliss in the Amber Hills

In a city that is inundated with luring stay options ranging from modest yet authentic home-stays to the most outrageously luxurious palaces; Panna Mahal, nestled among the lush acres of Rashmi & Edward Dickinson’s picturesque slice of Amber estate, Parvat Surya, offers an entirely unique experience.

My wife Anuja, our daughter Krisha and I, were very generously invited by the Dickinsons, at the beginning of August, to stay at Panna Mahal, an outhouse on their property they have recently converted into a self-contained, 2 bedroom guest-house. In fact, this write-up is grossly overdue, prevented from being written because of various health niggles I encountered since that time. Better late than never though!

Back to the beautiful Panna Mahal. Surrounded by dense greenery, ensconced in the caressing embrace of nature, the elements come to life here. Everything that is natural, is amplified. The chirping of birds, the echoing of raindrops, the abandon of the many swings dotted across the property as one takes flight on them, reminiscent of a more fancy-free, simpler time. No television barking. No devices distracting. No neighbors interfering. Nothing. Pure, unabated, natural bliss.

An 8-strong army of the fiercest yet utterly gorgeous Dobermen, led by Toofan, bask, roam, and zealously guard the estate. If you are, and ONLY if you are a genuine animal-lover, they will sense it, and quickly become friends. Else, stay at a safe distance! With us, they instantly gathered around and two in particular – Toofan & Bhookamp, remained our constant companions through our stay, merrily sitting by our side while we were on the swings, as we walked and explored the ample flora and fauna across the estate, and while we sat at our lovely al-fresco table and ate.

On the roof of Panna Mahal, is a wonderful arrangement of a couple of ‘newars’ (a traditional village-style bed) and another small dining table and chairs. While we were there, there was more than a hint of rain and the entire amber area was engulfed in the most mysterious fog. To sit on the roof and take in the breathtaking views was absolutely mesmerizing. Irrespective of the weather conditions, the ample estate and the vistas beyond, including and of course the highlight, the Amber Fort itself; a feast for the eyes and all senses.

Food arrangements are managed by one of two options and one can do a combination. The guest-house has a small yet perfectly appointed kitchenette/pantry where the hosts are happy to stock basic supplies so one can cook oneself, or meals  are masterfully managed by a couple that lives close-by, a Mr. Sanjay Maheswari, who runs Kokum Bistro near Amber (whose number will be provided by the hosts). Mr Maheshwari and his wife cook delectable food, made to order, and bring it by to Panna Mahal for each meal. They are priced fairly, and their food tastes absolutely amazing, light, fresh, and is highly customizable. With my Cancer and my many eating restrictions, they easily accounted for all my needs and still gave us brilliant culinary experiences, breakfast, lunch and dinner!

The entire stay at Panna Mahal and Parvat Surya is punctuated by nature. It is truly ‘far from the madding crowd’. A lot of holiday options claim to offer an ‘escape’ but that is, I’m afraid, a terribly abused word whose meaning and essence have been diluted by making it merely a buzzword. At Panna Mahal, it is the plain truth. You escape not just the city and the rush, you escape within yourself, in your own mind, and submit to the bountiful fruits that the bosom of nature offers.

Perhaps the most admirable facet about the Panna Mahal experience is that Rashmi has decided to ‘gift’ it to the Creative World. The retreat will be a donation to Artists of all kinds – Writers, Poets, Painters & Musicians, to come, stay, be inspired, work, escape, rest, create. To serve as a respite & muse to those who beautify the world, to become a sanctuary to those who imaginatively chronicle truth! I personally can not think of either a more appropriate utilisation of this idyllic spot, or a better service to the arts.

For us, Panna Mahal was two days of complete joy. A quiet sort of euphoria that only natural bliss can provide. Rashmi and Edward, thank you, not just for hosting us but for each endeavour of yours, which is always inextricably intertwined with doing some good in, and for society. We love Panna Mahal and can’t wait to be back!

Art – A Higher Purpose!

‘Guernica’, the bold, questioning, war-critiquing, iconic work of art by Picasso, is one among a galaxy of art-expressions, that goes infinitely deeper than providing ‘luxurious set dressing’. Similarly, popular culture too, even in the melodious and often-times ‘commercial’ strains of its many songs, creates ‘A Bad Dream’ by alternative-rock band Keane, that, once again, in a stark, poignant and haunting way, through its amalgam of music & lyric, examines the futility of war!

Film, Literature, Sculpture, Music, the entire gamut of the Arts, has always, been inextricably socio-political. In India too, within the sometimes constraining and myopic boundaries of the entertainment-arts, we have, strong voices that manifest in films such as Mulk, Article 15, Thappad, Lipstick Under My Burkha. Poetic moving images that do much more than entertain. They stir, instigate, make us uncomfortable, make us ask, delve deeper, search for the right QUESTIONS! Art, as has always been the case, is ‘beyond beauty’. Transcending the superficial. Today, as the world grapples with arguably the most paradigm-shifting event in history, the Coronavirus Pandemic, ART and Artists, have a vital role to play. An absolutely indispensable, multifaceted, set of duties.

RECORD & CHRONICLE

While the world, by way of personal experiences, stories, photographs will capture facets of the pandemic, as will the wider, global media-machinery; it is imperative that artists, through song & lyric, poetry and painting, images and imagination, too, record this momentous event. To have with humanity, until posterity, a moving account of the pandemic recorded through the creative lens of an artist, to my mind, seems one fundamental duty of the artist, and of society.

HOPE, RELIEF, RELEASE

Another crucial role of art and artists at this juncture, is to provide relief. Human beings don’t only need ‘physical rescue’. We need relief for body, mind and soul. Many artists, singers, visual artists are already engaged in this, and though their individual medium of expression, have been providing hope. From singers performing in their apartment balconies in Mumbai on the 1st test-quarantine day, to any number of youtubers, performing artists, making videos and putting them out there for us to watch, listen, be entertained by, and ultimately, feel some semblance of normality!

MIRROR, TRUTH, CRITICISE

Arguably the greatest role of the artist during a period such as the world is witnessing, far more important than entertaining and simply-recording, is to seek the truth and capture it. While governments and organizations sugar-coat statistics and the situation, it is the Artist, along with the Journalist, who is that one, dedicated, unwavering truth-seeker, who will, for instance, find that messy hospital-ward with intermingling covid and non-covid patients and manifest this grim reality in a telling yet touching poem. An artist will find the irony in administrative video-conferencing and unmask the veil that is being strung in the form of public-perception through a satirical painting. And ultimately, it is us, citizens, who will watch, observe, interpret, these myriad expressions of our many artists, and find the courage, conviction, and evidence, to question people, decisions, missteps, and emerge a healthier, more honest, more robust society.

Exposing our inherent societal hypocrisy and placing a painful mirror in front of us has been the essential purpose of art and artists. From Manto to Ghalib, Ray to Ritwik, did precisely that. Alas, we are in a world where even artists are becoming increasingly unsure of taking a stance, expressing their ‘real’ opinions for fear of backlash. As a truth-seeking teacher & writer, I can only urge the art-community to be bold, be involved, be invested. That there is no such thing as Apolitical Art. That we need Art and Artists more than ever. That Art, has A Higher Purpose!

The Inclusive Education Dialogue

Over the past six years, I have been actively involved in Education. Teaching Writing & Communication Skills across the learning-landscape, from junior school, through to college, and to seniors; I have been blessed to have reached out to a truly diverse and growing student-base.

Another area I have tried to make a contribution to Education, is Writing. I have written extensively on Education & Parenting across a slew of Newspapers, Magazines, Publications & Portals, On & Offline.

Despite the above, I had, until recently, begun to feel that I was not doing enough. That there were larger, more pressing issues & challenges related to the Education Sector, that needed Attention, Focus, Dialogue, Discussion & Solutions. This burning urge to play a more catalytic role, to Advocate, and facilitate Advocacy, compelled me to seek a partner, an individual and an organisation with shared Values, Concerns, Passions, Outlooks & Philosophies. From a few earlier interactions, I remembered fondly, and deeply respected Vikram Rajola and his amazing rural-education-augmentation would through his foundation In-Deed (based out of Jodhpur district), and it was like a eureka moment.

My ‘hunch’ that he’d be interested in what I was proposing, was confirmed in one phone-call, a conversation that lasted minutes! We decided that we would jointly initiate an ongoing series of talks on Pressing & Pertinent Issues within the Education Sector. And literally a week ago, The Inclusive Education Dialogue was born!

That we are largely on the same-page, with little or no conflict principally, aided in us instinctively agreeing that our very first Panel Discussion ought to be in view of the impact of Covid 19 (pandemic) on Education, more specifically, focusing on the Millions of Indian Students who DO NOT, or CAN NOT, at this point, continue their education, through Online Learning (as many are doing in urban centres). Our first Panel therefore, titled ‘Reaching The Unconnected Millions’, was formulated.

Earnest endeavours are recognized and rewarded because worthy people happily join you in them. And we are absolutely delighted, humbled and privileged, that an especially eminent panel of experts has joined us to kickstart our talk-series, and to each of them, we are incredibly thankful.

The core idea of The Inclusive Education Dialogue is to keep shining a light on Education Sector Issues that have been sidelined for one reason or another. The word ‘inclusive’ will ALWAYS be elemental to our choice of issues. And through discussions and debates, we seek solutions, perhaps even on-ground actionable pilot programs, that emerge from these intended deliberations.

The Inclusive Education Dialogue may be a modest enterprise; it is fuelled by immense sincerity, zeal, passion, and commitment. Join us as we embark on what will hopefully be a longstanding value-addition to Education. Follow our Talks & Panels, watch them, listen to them, spread the word!

Thank you!

Sunday Brunch!

Sunday morning, the innocent yet utterly delightful novelty of sleeping in for that extra couple of hours, rather than his brisk two-hour walk. Kabir relished every minute of the incremental rest. Then, like clockwork, he jumped out of bed, into the shower, dressed in his Sunday best, decided to walk Rover just before Tara, Trishna and he, would set out for brunch. A ritual, the young family had so enjoyed, each weekend. Their favourite haunt, Anokhi café, where Kabir could partake of a few Vegan & Gluten-free options, Tara would religiously order her Margarita Pizza that she’d share with their daughter, and then while Kabir would devour his Vegan Chocolate Pudding, his well-earned indulgence after week-long abstinence, the mother-daughter duo would wolf-down the highlight of their meal, the famed and quite sublime, baked cheesecake!

As Kabir descended from his apartment, alighted the elevator with Rover leashed, it hit him like a ton of bricks. Lockdown. Quarantine. His world, their world, the world’s world, had come to a standstill since the past month. Because of the alarming spread of Coronavirus, the entire world, India rather strictly so, had imposed what can only be described as a national curfew. The pandemic that Kabir’s mind had unwittingly erased from his consciousness was staring him straight in the face as he signalled his masked & gloved building security guard to open the gates that would otherwise never be shut!

The human mind is a fascinating and mysterious creature. In Kabir’s case, as he now, rather with a sullen demeanour of a defeated sportsman, ambled along with Rover by the pale and vacant roadside; he wondered if he was in denial of the lockdown, of being forced to give-up ‘normality’? Or was it merely force of habit, that had jolted him into Sunday-morning Brunch-action, despite knowing fully well that there had been no such outing for an entire month now! He felt a feeling he hadn’t before felt. His fingers twitched as beads of sweat formed across his brow. His heart felt like it was the erratic drumbeat of a teenager learning how to play, loud but inconsistent. Rover’s ‘job’ done, Kabir promptly turned back towards his apartment building, desperate to have a lie-down.

The bell rang and just as Kabir was entering, he saw Trishna right in front of him. The curious toddler asked, “Papa, why are you all dressed up? We cannot go anywhere till the Coronavirus goes away, can we?”

Kabir’s own petulance, in the few moments that followed his daughter’s comments, turned into a huge smile as he said to Trishna, “But that does not mean we can’t have a yummy Sunday brunch at home missy!”

Taking his daughter into his arms, Kabir changed Trishna into a lovely floral frock, and along with Tara, the trio prepared a delectable brunch-menu, laid a special table on their balcony, and play-acted the entire brunch scenario, complete with Kabir taking the ladies’ orders, bringing out the food to the table, down to presenting a made-up bill to Trishna. The little girl’s delight was palpable as she revelled in the food, her parents’ company, and the sheer novelty of a Sunday-brunch at home.

As Trishna went to the ‘pretend-counter’ of the ‘café’ to pay the bill, Tara and Kabir held hands under the table, and looked at each other, smiling.

Shattering Glass Ceilings!

A few days back, this girl, out of nowhere, reached out to me on social media, said she was a young artist, only just beginning her journey of discovering the artist within her. I was intrigued, and as is usually the case, immediately set-up a meeting at a mutually convenient time; anything I can do to help, guide, mentor someone is always a priority. She was to bring me an original Madhubani Painting of hers, along with some hand-painted Post Cards. I was excited.

However, nothing could quite have prepared me for the amazing woman I eventually met. Sapna Mahto, unassuming yet confident, humble yet immensely gifted and creative; our half hour meeting has left such an indelible impact on me, I just had to share her story with all of you.

Sapna is a Visuals Arts Graduate from Rajasthan University. She is venturing into the world of Art through her limited yet beautifully conceived repertoire of Madhubani Paintings. In order to preserve the heritage of her origins, she also paints these lovely Madhubani motifs on Journal & Diary Covers and Postcards. She is also working as a Graphic Designer in a reputed Digital Communications Agency. And she happens to be, the daughter of someone who works as domestic help! A significant piece of information that she delivered to me, most nonchalantly!

Based on that last, tiny truth about Sapna; one could undeniably say that she has shattered many glass ceilings. What strikes you more though, is the ease with which she wears her society-imposed ‘tag’. That she has, as if with a single brush-stroke, erased the stigma that you and I often unconsciously harbour, a specific, prejudiced way in which we ‘perceive’ certain communities. It is this enviable, admirable, effortless, effervescence, an inner light in this young woman that shines forth, and makes the darkness of societal bigotry, just pale into oblivion. And it is precisely this quality of Sapna’s that had a profound effect on me.

We spend a large part of our lives just worrying about how we are perceived by the world. We go to immeasurable lengths to come across a ‘certain’ way. Especially in India, peoples’ concerns largely centre on ‘where one is from’, ‘what family one belongs to’; particularly in a small city like Jaipur, NOT belonging to the ‘right’ kind of family can spell immediate social doom. It is terribly ironic that we, the ones who hardly ‘accept’, are then so concerned with being accepted into a city’s elite. While the hoi polloi toils away at the everyday grind, our burdens seem to be much more banal – did I go the right school? Did I wear the right outfit? Was I noticed at that party?

Our shallow worries, of which I am as guilty as the next person, make me feel ashamed of myself, when I meet someone like Sapna Mahto. What this young woman has endured, battled, conquered, and triumphed, are circumstances we cannot even begin to fathom.

Whether we admit it or not, most of us do not see the less-fortunate, coming up. We go about our lives so wrapped up in our own heads and messes that we rarely pause to think of the lives of the people who serve us, who cook and bring us our daily bread. By consequence, there is little or no mind space for their children. They play with our kids but even that is disallowed beyond a certain point because we fear that it will either ‘spoil’ or dilute our own, or will be seen by someone and secretly ,or openly, be derided.

Meeting with Sapna has literally been an awakening for me. It has put so much prejudice I have seen within my own family, into perspective. It has made me immensely proud as an Indian, as a citizen of this city, and as an Educator who seeks to espouse an ethos of equality among his students. I have learned so many lessons, and I can only say, that more power to Sapna. She has shattered ceilings, provoked thought, inspired me, and filled me with her eternal glow.

cinder-ella

It is approaching 6 months since I quit Smoking! It is a surreal feeling, to have come out of such a chronic and longstanding addiction. To mark this momentous goodbye, some words come to mind….

cinder-ella

she was quite a fella

fingers wrapped around her

addicted to the grotesque smell of her

funky, insane, insatiable

trip-sella

 

a fool in love

blinded

blindsided

bitten

beaten

chewed

spewed

dude

abused

refused

removed

Sexual Abuse – Prepare & Prevent Your Children!

Sexual Abuse is a brutal reality of our life and times. The irony in our country is that anything relating to sex, sexuality, or even remotely body-related, is swept under the rug. Parents, a vast majority of us, are squeamish about the subject, preferring instead to let children ‘figure it out’! This can have catastrophic consequences.

So what are some ways of preparing children to prevent them from suffering Sexual Abuse?

TALK Body Parts

This might sound basic and obvious but as parents, we hardly do. We just DO NOT talk! About what? About basic awareness. We HAVE to talk to our children about aspects relating to sex, sexuality and abuse – what’s alright and what’s not alright, starting, at the most formative years, with talking about Body Parts! Its about time we called a Penis a Penis, a Vagina a Vagina, as a matter of FACT, and with PRIDE. Children have to absorb these parts, thee words, and referencing them, as ‘normal’.

TALK Privacy

What we also need to talk and educate our children about, in a non-preachy way, is the distinction between body-parts that are ‘private’ and body parts that may be, situation-depending, exposed briefly. They need to be taught and oriented also about these ‘private’ parts being strictly OFF LIMITS, that there are Boundaries that MUST be maintained and never be breached – that it is ONLY for them, and perhaps one or two more specific people (while assisting them), to view/handle these private parts, and anyone else doing anything else is a strict NO.

TALK Sharing/Reporting

In the event of a ‘breach-of-boundary’, the child must be made aware and must have had the confidence inculcated in them, to immediately REPORT the incident to parents/authorities and NEVER conceal it. Typical predatory behavior encourages secrecy, a trap into which most victims fall because that is how we are psychologically wired – to somewhere believe that it is ‘our’ (the victim’s) fault. This cycle of myth has to be broken.

TALK Exposure

In an increasingly digital & visual age, children must also be made aware and sensitized to the immense potential dangers of photographing/videographing their privates and sharing, even keeping those files with themselves as they might be targeted by potential predators, hackers, opportunists. It goes back to how emphatically it must be explained and understood, that private parts, are private! No child will voluntarily and willingly want their images to end up on any kind of public digital forum. It will be the single most humiliating thing to happen, something that can permanently scar!

TALK Situational Handling

The NO word – we say it as parents to our children through their lives, yet, ironically, we cannot teach THEM to use it, in any situation. We must be able to give them the courage, self-assuredness and confidence to be able to get out of tricky situations where they are potentially being sexually attacked/assaulted/abused, of first recognizing the act for what it might become or is, and then, irrespective of the assailant, saying NO. While one can appreciate that this may not work or be possible in every scenario, with perpetrators of these acts being overbearing at times, to be able to take some action, any action – to call attention to the wrongdoings, must be encouraged vociferously.

I worry tremendously about the world we live in, particularly since we have had our daughter, who, although is just two and a half years old; is already clear about Body Parts and what is private. I only hope that more and more parents will not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to this extremely vital education, and volunteer instead, to start talking, forthwith! It is the ONLY solution to preventing our children from being taken advantage of.

Days!

Days…
Made up of
Scans & scars
Nights…
A big bottle of
Pain, left ajar
Mornings…
A spoon full of
Sugar
A field-full of sour

Grasping at straws
Gasping for air
Inching toward the light
Cautiously, I dare…

Away, Alive!