Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Building Bridges

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Nov 18, 2012 :

India is a land of contrasts. While one half of the country is trapped in tradition, the other half straddles tradition and modernity with elan. This divide cannot be bridged in a hurry. The ‘work in progress’ sign will be up for a long time, writes Shefali Tripathi Mehta.

A girl in a burka, the veil thrown back, riding a scooter with an old man on pillion in Ahmedabad city; sprightly women in sarees, heads covered, driving two wheelers in small-town Bikaner; an LCD TV in a 10x10 room of a Mumbai chawl; the raddiwala giving me his ‘mobile’ number at my Bangalore home, once enigmatic, these are now quintessential images of modern India.

A generation that head-bangs, also plays antakshari singing Kishore Kumar hits; gorges on pizza and fries but craves for home-cooked daal-chawal; wears jeans to college but slips effortlessly into traditional attire at religious and social functions; talks ‘dude’ language with friends and switches to the vernacular at home; men and women heading teams across the world ask their parents to ‘arrange’ their marriages — our complex social mindset and conduct straddle tradition and modernity with élan.

It is also true that this picture of amazing balance still goes askew. Those that study or work together, fall in love but cannot marry because of differences in caste, religion or social class; honour killings, female infanticide, dowry demands and deaths are still unchecked; the poor struggling to make two ends meet still borrow for elaborate marriage, birth or death ceremonies due to societal pressures; highly educated Indians still employ small children as domestic help and the instances of their abuse make us want to hang our heads in shame.   

But the learning curve has been steep. We are a country today where those that lived without electricity in remote villages, walking miles to school, work in multinationals; from studying science in vernacular, we have gone on to teach in universities across the world; the house-help who mops our floors sends her kids to study in English medium, private schools. The divide cannot be bridged in a hurry. The ‘work in progress’ sign will be up for a long time.  

Trapped in tradition

More and more youngsters from smaller towns and villages, from the middle and lower income groups, many of these first generation literates, on the strength of their hard work and the fire in their bellies, move to bigger cities to study and work; to travel and live abroad.

Though every generation of youngsters demands independence — the need to live on their own terms, away from the questioning control of parents — with increased exposure and familiarity with other cultures, interaction and exchange of ideas with foreigners, we aspire to be more like the rest of the world. 

The economic liberalisation, the new jobs, the international stores, coupled with our increased purchasing power allows us to dress, eat and live like anyone else anywhere in the world.

Indian parents try to fulfil all the needs and wishes of their children well into their adulthood. A driver who rides a bicycle to work will work extra hours to buy his son a motorbike. Parents may not be able to save for their old age or illness but will provide for their kids’ education, marriage and other needs. The West is a more individualistic society. Parents do not expect their children to live with them, care for them during old age or help them financially. Children are encouraged to work and earn for their needs. 

Just as the Indian parent is culturally conditioned to support their kids well into adulthood, so are Indian children to provide for them during old age and illness. But when children feel duty-bound and confined, or when parents cannot make adjustments with the fast-paced changes modern life demands, conflicts arise.

Children who grew up perfectly happily in joint families prefer nuclear ones now, mainly because their parents or elders cannot accept the changes that they have adopted. Tradition is a guide, not a jailer, said Somerset Maugham. In these times, the tradition of ‘respect for elders’ cannot translate into undisputed acceptance of their word. 

Youngsters still need advice and guidance from elders, but they also have more information and resources to do things independently. Nor does the ‘do as told’ dictate for women work. At the time of marriage, the groom’s family which wants a qualified girl who works and earns as well as the boy does, cannot later expect her to return home on time, eat last, bear sons and not travel on work.  

Respect and tolerance  

In a country where neighbourhoods have been extended families and neighbours are still referred to as akka, didi, bhaiya, anna, bhabhiji, even strangers on the road are addressed as uncle and aunty, we slide effortlessly into the convention of calling people much older and senior to us by their names at work.  

Oprah Winfrey’s comment that “some Indian people eat with their hands still” outraged Indians for its lack of sensitivity towards our culture. At formal buffets or sit-down dinners, we use cutlery, but when the occasion demands, most of us do not hesitate to use our fingers. This is a matter of reverence for our surroundings, people and the occasion. This is culture. Eating with a spoon is not.   

Ours is a culture of respect and love for all; tolerance of every other culture. The feet touching, head bowing, namaskara, aarti, tilak application are acts of veneration and love, not to be confused with a servile or subservient outlook.

It is imperative for us to reflect on how some of our beautiful community festivals like Teej, Raksha Bandhan, Holi, Onam and Lohri have come to acquire such an indelible religious tarnish? The Holi Baraat is one of the oldest traditions of Lucknow in which Hindus and Muslims take out a procession to spread the message of peace and brotherhood. It is Ustad Bismillah Khan’s shehnai that plays at Hindu weddings.

For generations, hundreds of Muslims in Vrindavan have been stitching clothes for the Hindu deities. In the royal kingdom of Bhopal, which had a majority Hindu population and Muslim rulers, it was the Hindus who prepared the Iftaar during Ramzan and the Muslim rulers who began the Diwali celebrations. Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and Amir Khusrau loved and wrote about Holi. Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Holi phags are sung even today.

What is modernity?

‘Breaking the shackles of superstition, the grandchildren of an orthodox man, who never allowed his children to witness the solar eclipse, had their bit of freedom…Almost thirty years later, when his father is no more, Sarvesh with his wife and two children came to Lalbagh to see the celestial event with the dead man’s X-ray film, which was cut into four pieces.’ The newspapers reported. This attitude of the older generation was formed centuries ago when man feared the wrath of nature, when knowledge of celestial phenomenon was limited.

Modernity is not the rejection of culture and traditions, but a rational interpretation and forward-looking attitude. Any tradition that regresses should be dismissed, but to reject something due to ignorance or imitation is foolhardy.

As a society, we’re already divided on the basis of caste, culture, religion, socio-economic status and standing. Now the divide, spurred by rapid technological developments, threatens us.

When a woman climbing an escalator going down in a mall is laughed at and youngsters stand around making videos of her to share on social networking sites — such deceptive modernity shames our gracious culture. If we can take by the hand the bewildered, old man in his village clothes afraid to cross the busy city road, across, we are truly progressive and cultured.

An incident that exposes our general lack of sensitivity in dealing with those that are not with-it yet, as also our fallacious notion of modernity involves a middle-aged woman who entered the washroom at the Bengaluru International Airport wearing a traditional ghagra-choli, her head covered with an odhni. “Sit on the seat,” the attendant hollered from the other end, above heads crowding the limited space. The woman said she only needed to pee. “SIT on the seat!” the attendant was firm. 

In her anxiety, the woman left the door ajar. She first faced the seat, then turned her back to the seat, finally, unable to figure out how to use the western-style commode, left without relieving herself. Are the Eastern-style squat toilets that the whole country used not so long ago suddenly so passé that they cannot be installed in a couple of cubicles at public conveniences?

Is it better to allow a major part of the population such humiliation, distress and watch them take a dump on the roadsides? So, even though many a with-it women think it is a crap idea, many city malls have graphical illustrations inside their facilities showing how a Western-style commode should be used by women.

Reinvent, revive

The idea was a little alien at first — celebrating festivals on weekends, but in this fast-paced urban life, it has emerged as a great alternative for keeping our wonderful traditions alive. Housing societies and apartment complexes these days see people across different regions and faiths come together to celebrate all festivals in their traditional glory — with a taste of authentic food and a glimpse of traditional dress and customs.

We do not become modern by rejecting traditions, but by moulding regressive attitudes, reinventing traditions, finding new meanings to old beliefs. Can we not look afresh at the worship of animals, rivers and celestial objects and regard it as gratitude and respect for nature and natural resources so that we may stop abusing the planet we call Mother Earth? Of what use is the worshipping of kanyas during Ashtami puja if girls are not allowed the freedom to make their own life choices?

In 1905, when the British decided to divide Bengal on the basis of caste and religion, Rabindranath Tagore reinvented the festival of Raksha Bandhan, using it to promote the idea of love and brotherhood among Hindus and Muslims of Bengal and to bolster the spirit of nationalism. People censure the traditions of Karva Chauth and Raksha Bandhan as regressive. 

No woman who observes Karva Chauth today does so with the blind belief that fasting will make her husband live longer. It is more a celebration of the wonderful bond between a couple and it is also not uncommon to see husbands join the fast with their wives. Similarly, the physical ‘protection’ of a sister by her brother is not the idea behind Raksha Bandhan anymore. With siblings spread across the world, it is a day for renewing the beautiful bonds of childhood.

It is heartening to see girls increasingly taking care of parents in sickness and old age, providing financial and emotional support. Girls are not just excelling in traditionally male-dominated spheres, but taking over seamlessly whatever was once expected of boys. This is modernity. Modernity is the lifting of the stigma against divorce or remarriage of girls, allowing them economic independence. Kanya daan is a regressive term that Nandita Das, actor-filmmaker, challenged some years ago. To ‘give away’ a daughter is considered the greatest of daans, but it also ‘commodifies’ a girl. Attitudes attached to such fallacious beliefs drive many girls to kill themselves rather than walk out of difficult marriages or return to their parents.   

Assimilate change

Tradition is not all superstition. Superstitious beliefs are based on fear, not on facts or reason. These irrational fears originated at a time when people did not know better and have continued because of our insecurities. But our modern outlook must enable us to glean what is good from our age-old customs, for, as Henry James said, “It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition.”

Westerners are drawn towards the simple Indian way of life, spirituality, yoga and traditional medicine. When they approve, we take pride in these practices. We talk of cardio workouts and pilates in swank gyms while the westerners are drawn towards our total mind-body-spiritually uplifting traditional exercise of Suryanamaskar; the centuries-old dands and bethaks are back in vogue as Hindu squats and push-ups. The West with its propensity for research tells us the benefits of food like garlic, ginger, turmeric, flaxseed, onions and basil that has been a part of our diets for centuries.

Change is inevitable, we have to embrace change, those that resist it will be left behind. Those that disregard their roots will lose themselves in an illusion of modernity. Traditions are our roots, modernity our wings.

An incident that I will always regret for my lack of courage to question a traditional belief, is also my beacon. It was Holi and the world was drenched in colour and merriment. All of us were playing with colours outside, but one of our neighbours, a young widow, stood alone in her balcony watching. I was hesitant in asking her to join, afraid it might hurt or offend her sentiments or some social convention. Twenty years later, I wonder if that one step by me, someone else, or all of us collectively, would have been the one strong-arm she needed to come out of her forlorn existence, her imposed confinement.

Such social, emotional dilemmas will confront us on this path we tread balancing tradition and modernity. Some bridges will need to be crossed, others to be burned. The choice we make will determine where we go

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Waiting for Gandhi

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September 30, 2012:

On the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti, Shefali Tripathi Mehta recalls the values and principles, ideals and precepts that Gandhi stood for, propagated and preached, and rues the absence of a leader who could help us make sense of a world that’s riddled with problems.

Decades ago, ‘Gandhi Jayanti’ every year took us kids to Kamala Park overlooking the Upper Lake in Bhopal to participate in a painting competition. We drew tricolours, charkhas, Gandhi glasses and Gandhi stick figures. The year I remember with disappointment was when Archana with me drew the typical Gandhi but made XXL ears — telling me importantly that he had BIG ears. I was the artist and I scoffed at her ‘cartoon’. The prizes were announced at the Hindi Bhawan that evening and, sure enough, her lollipop Gandhi with elephant ears was displayed in the hall and won her a prize.

The Father of the Nation was someone we wrote essays about and whose life events we ‘by hearted’ to write in exams. Other than that, we remembered him only on his birth and death anniversaries. The two-minute ritual of silence that we observed on January 30 was invariably punctuated by stifled, schoolgirl giggles as we got to our feet during class when the siren went off at 11 am, the time of his martyrdom.

At home, things were different. My mother grew up in Gandhiji’s Wardha Sevagram Ashram where her parents worked — her father as the Ashram administrator (who later edited 18 editions of the Government-commissioned Sampoorn Gandhi Vangmay) and her mother as the warden/principal of the Mahila Ashram.

Mother was nine when they moved into the ashram. Her parents and elder siblings spent years in jail during the freedom struggle. She lived her early years in close proximity with stalwarts of the freedom struggle and as a child growing up in the thick of political turmoil, imbibed the values of the stringent ashram life which included spinning and wearing only khadi.

Studies in the Mahila Ashram were geared towards preparing teachers for the villages. There was no grade or class system — just three broad categories. At 11, mother was being taught life sustaining skills along with History and Math that the students were expected to pass on to the poor, illiterate women in the villages of India. Great stress was attached to swavalamban or self-help. Spinning was compulsory for everyone and no one was allowed to have more than three sets of clothes each.

The ashram legacy

The most dreaded ashram legacy that we had to abide by at home was the threat of cleansing of the tongue with cow dung for using foul language. And foul, mind you, comprised all of today’s language, including the near endearment, sala.

I was well into teenage when I learnt that perfectly normal people woke up late, lied at home and went to movies, stole small change to buy samosas at school and had parents and elder siblings do their homework.

Growing up, we never tired of mother’s stories of Gandhiji and ashram life. When she first went to meet Bapu, she would tell us, Ba, (Kasturba) asked her if she could make something (cook). “Yes,” said mother, “Chai”. Ba laughed and warned her not to tell
Gandhiji that!

The main ashram, Sevagram, was about four kilometres from the Mahila Ashram and often when Gandhiji was visiting, the inmates of Mahila Ashram went to Sevagram for the evening prayers. He encouraged them to clean the villages and involve themselves in community service from an early age.

Gandhiji lived simply and set an example for others to not waste anything. It was his vision of an equal society that made him question every excess. Mother recounts an incident when the inmates of the Mahila Ashram invited him and prepared a large map of India with food grains. The different states were filled with dals of different colours in the form of a big rangoli. Gandhiji appreciated the effort but regretted that so much food grain had been wasted. He was assured that it would be used for making a khichdi for the evening meal. He remembered to ask for it that evening. Later, in a letter to grandfather, he mentioned his distress:

Gauhati, January 11, 1946


I have your clear letter. It is good that you have written frankly. I am dictating this also at a Mahila Ashram. It is in Gauhati. A camp of the Kasturba Fund is being held here. On one side there is a village, and on the other, Gauhati city. It is utterly peaceful.

It gave me satisfaction to know that the cereals which were used for the camp would be cooked as kedgeree. It is quite true that I like garba and this I mentioned there. In one way I liked the scene, but from another point of view, I did not like it, and felt sorry. I could not then express myself in words as I was deeply moved. My heart was already in Bengal. I can never say that there was anything wrong in what you did. There was nothing wrong. The whole scene was one of love and it was performed with my consent.

Even so I had some talk with Shriman Narayan. But its purport was quite different. I do not remember whether I was able to convey it or not. But if I could not speak out then, I am telling you now. The Mahila Ashram is an institution of the poor. It is born of a noble sentiment.
It is filled with Jamnalalji’s feelings and Vinobaji’s tapascharya. It is regarded as a good means of rendering service to poor women. And its management is in the hands of Shantabehn. And yet, what a difference between what goes on in such an institution and the almost naked condition of the millions of poor women of India and Bengal. And I being a witness to all this. It wrung my heart then. 

Even as I recall the scene, my heart weeps. Even if I could not convey my meaning, Shriman understood it and conveyed it. I dictate this early in the morning. If it calls for further explanation, or if you want to know more, ask me when I come there. You may share this letter with all.

Blessings from BAPU

In another instance, on the first death anniversary of Ba, her photo was decked with flowers and an elaborate floral rangoli was made before it. A large oil lamp remained lit in front of her picture. Gandhiji expressed his sadness, saying that the oil in the lamp could have been used to cook at least three meals by a poor family and the flowers too would have stayed longer on the bushes.

Now, mother gets invited to school functions to talk about Gandhiji. Kids touch her and ask in wonder if she has actually, really seen Mahatma Gandhi. She laughs and tells them of Gandhiji’s simple and frugal living so they may think before wasting. But she never fails to remind them that Gandhiji wasn’t such a grave old man. He laughed and joked all the time, especially when around children. He enjoyed teasing them. Once when the ashram inmates staged a play for him, he laughed out loud on seeing another Gandhi on the stage!

Gandhi, the superstar

When Richard Attenborough created his magnum opus and romanticised ‘Gan-dai’ for posterity, Gandhi became a Rockstar. Growing up, we watched the film twice a year when most TV channels played it on his birth and death anniversaries. Ben Kingsley and Gandhi became synonymous. For my generation, the one who smiled down at us from photographs in school and college walls, acquired a human persona. He faltered, he erred, but he admitted, repented and corrected himself. 

But the world seemed out to get my idol. The cynicism, scepticism of the adult world was inescapable. Biographers, confidantes, random writers were outdoing themselves in laying out Gandhi’s personal life, his oddities, threadbare. The shine of his perfect, blue-skied pictures hanging in government offices began to dull for me. The clear-eyed, smooth-skinned Kingsley wasn’t close to the scrawny, bald man with bad teeth his real pictures revealed.

The Munnabhai movies resurrected Gandhi in a more contemporary flavour for many. The rose-offering Gandhigiri caught on the imagination of a generation for a short while but petered out as fads do. Gandhi, anyway, would not have approved.

But it was Feroz Abbas Khan’s Gandhi –My Father that shattered me. It was now time to ask mother the difficult questions. Maybe, he was a little harsh on his family, she said, but that’s because, to him, all were equal. I wasn’t happy with her reply. I was sure he had neglected the son, Harilal, just so no one would think him partial.

A firm believer that a person’s first duty is to his family, then to the community, the nation, the world, I was ready to put my childhood idol through a full body scan. To fail as a parent is to fail your first duty, and to fail as a parent because you are preoccupied with ‘greater’ goals, I found unpardonable. My Gandhi picture — of a spindly Mahatma walking in a fast-forward mode in film documentaries, fell apart.

Search for the Mahatma

Every once in a while, like a high-tide, people suddenly begin to rue the loss of an idol, a saviour, a mahatma who could have given direction to the country riddled with corruption, poverty, injustice, disparity, greed, religious fundamentalism, and a people seeped in anger, violence, consumerism and deceit.

In a country where men lie dying on roads while others walk past; where small, unsuspecting lives fall prey to careless traps laid out by adults; where women are owned and servants abused; where each one wields their power over those they can suppress; where hunger and disease kill those that can be saved; the custodians of law, mock it; and those that stand for their rights are brutally killed; innocents spend their lives in jail and predators gloat in power and wealth, stealing from those that barely earn to eat; but we are assured that the economy is strong, that development is unprecedented. Swank metros, ostentatious airports, a coffee for the price of a family’s meal — a world in glass towers looks away as millions go hungry and struggle with ignorance and deprivation — the divide grows with time.

Is an idol relevant in our cynical times? Do people care? Would they listen to, follow someone, however infallible? Would the lady of the house stop kicking the little servant boy because of Gandhi’s example of non-violence? Would a city driver not bludgeon another on road for grazing his car because Gandhi said an eye for an eye would make the whole world go blind?

Last year, on January 30, during a peace march in support of the passing of the Lokpal Bill, we swore in the name of Satyagrah. Yet, when during the walk, the siren went off, neither the organisers nor the marchers stopped to observe the two-minute silence. This extremely passive form of non-violent, peacefulness of the thousands unsettled me. It was clear that idols are picked and dropped at convenience.

Today, the country rues the absence of an idol, a leader whose thoughts and words would spring from deeply ingrained values and personal integrity; who would have the courage to own up to his mistakes and whose power on his countrymen would arise out of their unfailing love and respect for him.

A Gandhi in our midst today, I am more than convinced, would help us make sense of our world where leaders shamelessly retract their own words to stay in power and blame modern technological aids for portraying them in bad light, where religious armies spew hatred at each other, little trusting girls are raped by friendly men, tax payers’ money is hoarded in urban palaces and stolen to make handbag-carrying-auntie statues. The essential lesson and example in humanism, integrity, love, compassion for others and religious tolerance, only Gandhi could have shown us by his personal example. Being human would have meant more than a mere t-shirt slogan. Gandhi would be in, not just the topi.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Illicit Happiness of Other People

I have been harboring a half-suspicion about this for close to a decade - the ‘Chennai peoples’' inexplicable desire, pursuit and impetuous display of academic excellence. Now that Manu Joseph, who is ‘one of them’ has spewed it, I feel validated and relieved of my burden of impression.

The newspaper version of his Hindu interview, last week, has been purged of the ‘beeped’ words so one kind of loses the tone and emotion of the speaker. 

Strip away everything and it’s just boredom. And especially when you’re young and growing up in Madras: you can’t touch girls, you can’t go out with girls, it’s a s**t city; all the f****rs are doing entrance exams… Still, I did briefly lose my nerve when I was 20; I wrote some of those MBA entrance exams, went for the XLRI interview. I remember they asked me: what is the difference between “basilica” and “cathedral”? But fortunately, circumstances ensured I would come back to journalism.
Hahaha! Good sense prevailed.

My first neighbors in Bangalore were very nice, temple-going Chennai peoples. Two things wafted out of their home at all times. One, the delicious smell of sambar, and two, …I’ll come to that. 

Now, husband, mine, was at once baptised by the ‘Tamil’ sambar. He of few words but never short of praise for food had himself eating out of Mrs V’s hands - the end of her ladle that had become the extension of her hand. I was suitable ignored for confessing some knowledge of their cuisine, and was rude enough to learn to cook some too, while he at every meeting expressed spanking-new astonishment that ‘Pongal is a dish?’

Many mornings, Mrs V came with a dosa balanced on her dosa flipper and totally dismissing me as a claimant, asked smiling if ‘he’ was there. Now my ‘he’ was hers along with her own. He-Man was made to eat with both of us watching like his eating was our collectively responsibility and source of joy. Her face shone with sweat and excitement when He-Man extolled the finer points of her cooking, while I prayed that he would hurry, lest her face explode.

The second thing her home emanated was her talk with her 5-year old son. Not Tamil, not English, they spoke in numbers. Always. This was what we heard day and night, ‘Putta, 22 plus 31?’ The kid had to respond before the mother’s question mark was intoned. I have a suspicion they left their doors and windows open to let out their glee. 

Another young mother, Ms K, nose-in-the-air was telling us how no classical dance school in Bangalore was good enough for her two-year old. I stood hearing her lament till she left because ‘he’ will be home, na. Immediately, my Bangalore born and raised neighbor, stung and stung, remarked, ‘These Chennai people!’

More recently, on the train back from Chennai to Bangalore, I spotted a little girl, 3ish, with thick silver anklets looking about eagerly to make new friends. After a prolonged peek-a-boo with an older girl, she went up to her seat, her tongue hanging out with ‘shy’. 

The moment she ‘told’ her name, the mother’s ears perked up long distance and out came a sweet-sounding, cajoling but firm instruction, ‘Devika, tell the spalling of your name!’ !!

How early can one start! Non-Chennai peoples need reservation!

Monday, September 03, 2012

Like parents, like children

Ad-hoc Parenting

No job is more challenging or more rewarding than parenting. However, with the dynamics of the family system undergoing a serious makeover, parents are increasingly ‘giving up’, turning a blind eye to signs of undesirable behaviour in their children. Where is this leading us, wonders Shefali Tripathi Mehta

A 16-year-old committed suicide because she couldn’t get the TV remote from her brother; another nine-year-old hanged herself after her siblings refused to let her watch her favourite television show — just two of the countless number of news stories about children taking the extreme step over trifles — upset over being scolded in school, doing poorly in exams, being stopped from seeing a sweetheart, squabbles with siblings.

Parenting has never been more difficult, parents moan. Has it ever been less careless, more ad-hoc is what we need to introspect.
The dynamics of the family system has undergone a serious makeover with urban, closed-door living, nuclear families and our newfound fixation with the notion of ‘my time, my space’. Parents are increasingly and unhesitatingly ‘giving up’, turning a blind eye to signs of undesirable behaviour to avoid conflict situations during the little time they get to spend with their children.
When a fourteen-year-old runs his car over pavement dwellers, it is parenting that fails.When teenagers rag and drive a fresher to suicide, it is parenting that fails. When a kid stabs his teacher, it is parenting that fails. Parenting is a full-time, regular job. Frequent leaves of absence lead to such dire consequences. When parents relinquish their responsibility of proper upbringing, they put their kids as well as those around them at increased risk of harm. The very basis of family is that children need to be brought up under the guidance, supervision, care and protection of mature and wise elders till they understand action and consequence.

We can’t make guest appearances in our kids’ lives. When we do that, they in turn put on their best behaviour till our backs are turned again. The problems begin to crop up when, like an outsider, we peep into their lives now and then. 
My friend and I entered her home late one evening to find her teenager watching TV. The friend lashed out at him for forever being glued to TV and not studying hard enough. The kid tried to explain that he’d finished studying and was taking a break. The mother gave in to an impulse. She was anxious, wondering ‘what if he is doing this all the time I’m not watching?’ In such cases, the child may try to defend himself the first couple of times and then may just stop bothering. He may even end up watching TV all the time, confirming all her worst fears. Communication and mutual trust are both done with.
Who’s the victim?
It is natural for parents to sometimes feel overwhelmed by parenting responsibilities. The child’s demands on them may weigh them down sometimes. Parents suffer when their toddlers throw tantrums and misbehave in public, making outings extremely traumatic. They feel embarrassed, angry and hopeless. 
A young mother broke down because her five-year-old creates a big scene while getting dressed. Another, whose nine-year-old does everything she asks him not to, says she’s given up. A parent cannot feel victimised or give up on their child because if children grow up with these attitudes that lead them to bully others, demand constant attention, be unduly anxious or angry, they continue to spawn distress for themselves and others.
Earlier this year, a class 9 student stabbed his teacher to death for complaining to his parents about his poor academic performance. He was struggling to cope with his studies and when failure seemed imminent, the confused child did something that not only cut short an innocent life, but also ruined his own. How did the parents miss the signs of his distress? Why could the helpless kid not share his problem with anyone? The crime may have been committed in a moment of mad fury, but his despair must have grown over time.
Bringing in the ‘IF’
It is the responsibility of us parents to bring the ‘if’ into their children’s thinking; to make them understand when fun, adventure or peer pressure can turn into tragedy and ruin lives. It has become fashionable for parents to brag, ‘My kid doesn’t listen’. If parents have given the child enough reason to trust their decisions; shared their reasoning with the child; explained the consequence of undesirable behaviour; and the child is completely assured that the parents always have their welfare in mind, there is no reason for them to not listen.
A mother who said she did not allow her 12-year-old to join a social networking site was asked derisively, ‘But did she listen?’ The mother had shared her reasoning with the daughter, encouraged her to talk and discuss. If parents make half-hearted attempts at discipline and punishment, they will never win the child’s trust and face only rebellion.
How can we expect children who do not listen to their own parents to conform to any kind of policing in the world outside? Parents who have not tried to instil the importance of regular bedtime; sharing of toys or tiffin; being courteous to visitors, cannot one day start a sermon on underage drinking, driving, drugs and expect kids to conform. Likewise, it will be foolhardy to expect that the system in place will check accidents and crimes by young adults and protect them. If your kid is drag racing, you are responsible, not the State, the police, the school or the passersby.
Flawed investment
We may engage tutors to teach, house-help to fulfil all their daily needs and drivers to take kids for sports and dance classes. But is that all? Who will talk, discuss, understand; draw out the children’s views, fears and disappointments; and reinforce the notion of action and consequence? A simple example is how a child brings home a great report card and how a not-so-good one is kept away to be shown later. This is how difficult it is to talk of tough issues and feelings. It needs gentle drawing out. It needs time.
A working parent may be ‘all there, always’ for the child and a parent at home may not have ‘the listening ear’. The mother of a little girl, asked how her daughter is with other children, was clueless. She had never been around the child’s friends. The ayah always took her to park. ‘But surely you know when her friends come home?’ ‘No, no, I take them all out to a pizza place. I can’t stand the racket in the house!’ She threw up her hands showing exasperation.
We live for a social face. We encourage our kids to be competitive in school, among friends, neighbours; and get ahead in every way they can. But dealing with failure is life’s important lesson. We teach kids to read, write, play cricket and swim. Why can’t we talk about drugs, under-age drinking, under-age driving, peer-pressure, over-speeding, physical and sexual abuse? A parent tells how of the 20 children identified with various levels of dyslexia in school, only six joined the intervention programme. Parents’ denial to accept and seek help will put these kids through an immensely trying life.
The sum of our wisdom that we pass on to them seems to be that the world is full of deceit and danger; and we need to fight our way through. Are we making them grow up overcautious? Overprotected? Kids no longer lay the table, water the plants, polish their own shoes or even get the door. We see their hands full — studies, games, tuitions, other activities that are so important for them to stay ahead. Involving them into the daily, household chores seems unfair.
Discipline & responsibility
Parents lament that in school their children are so well behaved but not so at home. In school, the rules are clearly laid out and everyone conforms. Establishing a routine at home is not a priority in households anymore. Parents who cannot switch off their phones during PTAs and watch TV at dinner time are reluctant to impose ‘rules’ on their children. A UK study found 79 per cent of school kids sleep deprived. Insufficient sleep affects cognitive ability, physical and emotional well-being. Cellphones, TVs and computers keep children up late at night. Overindulgent parents who consider fixed bedtimes harsh are surprisingly okay with waking up and sending a cranky kid to school.
Children need discipline for their own good — to remain safe, to know their limits. Also, it is discipline which helps them get along with others. Disciplining a child cannot depend on parents’ whims. When in good mood we allow every excess and when preoccupied with work or problems, we refuse perfectly legitimate demands. Kids soon begin to understand the pattern and learn how to manipulate situations to their own advantage.
In the incident where a teenager was killed when three of them were drag-racing their way to school, in Kolkata, no passersby stopped to help, to take him to hospital. A fellow racer also fled. Children see parents making their escape from difficult situations. The kid who panicked and fled did not understand right from wrong because it wasn’t instilled definitively into him. He was scared, he could not face the consequences, he did what he may have seen his elders doing — run from the mess. He could have saved his friend. As could the others who drove past the injured child.
When children bring to parents their problems with others, if parents do not assess the situation objectively, but believe in only their child and proclaim biased judgements, the child gets acceptance for his conduct, validation for his action. Reinforced, this may lead him to have a lopsided, self-righteous attitude towards others. If we tend to bail out our children from trouble every time, they fail to understand the consequences. If we do not show compassion for the house-help or respect for one another at home, children cannot be courteous or genuinely kind in the world outside.
Extreme parenting
American writer Sloan Wilson said, “The hardest part of raising a child is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realisation that this is what the child will always need can hit hard.”
While the fly-by parents pop in and out of their kids’ lives, there are the helicopter parents who are always hovering over their children. These kids will be told what to wear and asked ‘did you go to potty today’ well into their teens. Their need and ability to make independent choices and decisions is irreparably stymied.
Also known as Velcro parents, these parents tend to be over-protective. A kid came home with a scraped knee, howling. The mother first shouted at the ayah for not keeping an eye on him and then at the child, ‘How many times have I told you not to run!’ No running, no jumping, no climbing trees. Cuts, scrapes, bruises and fractures used to be an integral part of growing up. When we went home with scuffed knees, crying, we were told how brave we had been or that we had killed ants! Something to console and cheer but never to condone or curtail childhood fun and learning.
At the other end of this spectrum are parents who are against overprotection of kids — and are bringing them up ‘free-range’. Again, detractors of this style feel the world is not safe enough for such extreme parenting. The safety concern overrides everything else. So even though we understand the ills of letting our kids watch unlimited TV or play computer games, it seems like a safer option always. The dangers of a sedentary lifestyle, of online bullying or abuse are minor as opposed to the harm that may befall them in the real world outside.  
Granted that the world today is more indifferent and dangerous. Even parents look the other way if a matter does not concern their own child. Not many will caution a child leaning dangerously out of a window or parapet (even though they will scan other kids’ exam sheets and question the teacher how they got half mark more than their own kid). 
In Punjabi, the term sanjhe, meaning ‘belonging to all’, is used for children in the belief that children belong to everyone — the entire community they grow up in. Consequently, everyone is responsible for them and everyone cares for them. Now children get murdered inside their own homes in the presence of family; they are molested in the school bus; and killed in their own school. Gone are the days when the community watched over kids.
It is rightly said that ‘there is no way to be a perfect parent and a million ways to be a good one’. While there can be no ready-made, rule-of-thumb, sweeping answers to parenting issues, there still are a few excellent, time-tested ways of avoiding most young-adult troubles — expressing love, paying attention and open communication.
Children don’t learn responsible behaviour and good conduct from lectures and reprimands but from seeing it reinforced in their lives again and again. “Our children are extensions of ourselves.” As I write this, I hear a swishing noise outside and looking out see a young man thrashing the tops off the plants that stand in a neat row before my window. No, the parents aren’t away at work. Amma is right there talking on phone. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Leave of absence

You are here: Home » Supplements » Sunday Herald articulations » Leave of absence
Shefali Tripathi Mehta, July 1, 2012

The days I bunked school, I waited for it to get over, for friends to return home and after quickly having whatever it was that had to be had — lunch, mother’s scolding — call to ask, “Why didn’t you come to school today?”

That one sentence made life seem worth all the loving, missing and true friendship quotes that are set in loopy font over blue-skied pictures of hand-holding and hearts. Anyone who did not bother to ask, I remembered to ignore when they missed school next.

These mild to severe attention-seeking shenanigans of childhood led me to pull out of Facebook one day. Pleased as mango panha, I lay waiting to be missed and longed to see my friends say so on Facebook.

Someone had just to say, “Watup?” and others would follow, like they do a hot cause, to appear cool and not wanting to be left behind in their concern for the ‘sweetheart’ who they last ignored at the mall five days ago, or the one they remembered vaguely from school before someone else enlightened them, “that this was the scum who rode the same school bus and wiped her nose with the back of her hand,” 30 years ago.

So I waited. After school, this was the first real ‘test of absence’. I fixed this ‘miss me’ campaign for five days. Miss me or be unfriended, I sent out a telepathic warning to all my Facebook friends.Meanwhile, calm as a storm, I read their posts. Day one, I smashed four dinner plates to counter the emotional build-up from desisting to comment.

Day two, I managed not ‘liking’ 43 statuses, forwent the urge to tap in 11 emoticons, including three ROFLs that I wanted to, badly. Then, I almost buckled under the strain of finding no way to ignore the tedious, preachy bores! I read that people rode a tonga, wanted to keep someone’s goat. Bouncing off walls, I watched the world lose sight of me. People were drinking tomato tea, sighting sparrows, burping babies, suing their exes and clicking celebrities. I spied unguarded hints of love, jealousy and animosity. Unable to indulge in spicy ‘closed group’ gossip, I made 35 trips to the fridge to binge on chocolate.

On the third day, I dreamt of a record number of ‘where are yous’ and ‘missing yous’ — all in shouty caps and appended with three question marks. Expecting even my ‘friends of friends’ to notice my absence and ask them, “Hey, watup with your friend?” After all, everyone is candid on Facebook, friends of friends, especially. They ‘loyally’ like your every comment on the common friend’s wall, directly address you, comment on your comments, and send you requests and messages unknown to the mutual friend.

Let them not call or email, god. Let them write on my Facebook wall, I prayed. I imagined a wave of concern not different from the flood of obligatory birthday wishes. But for all its smartness, Facebook doesn’t have an app yet that would detect a user’s absence and send out an alert, “Your friend hasn’t shown up on FB for 19 hours, raise an alarm.” A little red SOS icon flashing next to it.

Finally, my friend of 20 years called and talked about family, fuel, fat, film, never once mentioning Facebook. In a desperate effort before she could hang up, I summoned up all the sadness that I was truly feeling now, and let drop, “I haven’t felt like Facebooking too.”

It was meant to elicit, “Are you okay?” Instead, like she’d discovered a mela-snatched sister, she sang, “Same here!” and was gone. On the fourth day, someone I don’t know from Shahrukh Khan (also because he has SRK for his profile picture), wrote on my wall, “looong tym, no c.” You spell trouble, you know, dood?

My break was supposed to free me, give me time for that which I had none. Earlier, I checked Facebook notifications every half-hour, now I was doing it every two seconds. People carried on with watering their plants and planting their feet, someone cooked up a storm, others stormed their party, someone’s tee said “pick me up” and another told her to “drop dead,” someone had to “eat crow” and someone else was “throwing up at both ends.” With one more day to go from this self-imposed exile, I could do nothing but twiddle my thumbs and worse, not even put that up as my status!

Friday, June 29, 2012

Loo Injustice

Pan to age 2, school nursery, story time, sitting on a durrie and... Ajaz pooped in his pants. The first tummy-tickling joke of my life that I told and retold at home for centuries. Potty jokes flowed easily but answering nature’s call as we grew out of our cotton bloomers was pissing off. Every time I stepped out of the house, the ‘did you go?’ came before the ta-ta. And if you lied and left, you could bring such shame! From having to enter a perfect stranger’s home to ask if you could ‘do bathroom’, to finding a really leafy bush next to a wall and heartbreaking stuff like forfeiting that Coca Cola for which you came in the first place. Shopping trips, outings had to be timed according to the weakest (leakiest?) link’s bladder control. One ‘I have to go’ meant end of trip.

Then came Sulabh. It worked at the psychological level alone. As long as there was a Sulabh toilet somewhere one didn’t have pinkie problems. Soon Malls toad-stool-ed and solved forever the problem of where to dump the apple juice.  

If you’re among the vast majority who on checking into a new hotel must first check out the bathroom, that is, standing precisely as far as it allows you to stand and tip-toe to super stretch your arm so it can lightly touch the ‘shower panel’ and gently tap visible and invisible buttons, knobs, bulges and bumps all the time fearing the onslaught of a sudden scalding hot or melted icicle deluge, you will understand her predicament. 

The uniformed attendant’s antennae caught her on sight. This past-middle age woman entering the washroom at BIAL (Bengaluru International Airport Ltd.) wearing a traditional ghagra, choli, her head covered with an odhini. ‘Sit on the seat,’ the attendant hollered from the other end, above heads crowding the limited space. The woman said she only needed to pee. ‘SIT on the seat!’ the attendant was firm. In her anxiety, the woman left the door ajar. She lifted her voluminous skirt, faced the seat, and wondered, then she turned, her back to the seat, and wondered, finally, totally at sea about how to do it ‘sitting on it’, she left without relieving herself. Pee in your pants all!

Are the Eastern style squat toilets that the whole country used not so long ago suddenly so uncool that they cannot be installed in a couple of cubicles at public ‘conveniences’? Is it better to allow a major part of the population such humiliation, distress and watch them make puddles on the roadsides? We’re modernizing, opening up -  people still walk up on escalators going down, women in sarees frolic in swimming pools, international pizza chains serve peet-ja do pyaza nicely ‘hand-eled’ by their local staff. So even though many a with-it women think it is a crap idea, some mirror polished malls in the city have graphical illustrations inside the facilities on how a commode should be used by women. And then, when we’ve got them all to learn how to sit on it to pee, we will begin the next lesson of how women must not sit-sit on a public toilet seat.

The NY Times tells us that apparently, the Right to Pee movement in Mumbai has activists demanding “that the local government stop charging women to urinate, build more toilets, keep them clean, provide sanitary napkins and a trash can, and hire female attendants.”

In case, you didn’t know already, a large population don’t have toilets in their homes and they use the great Indian outdoors or public toilets on a regular, that is, daily basis. 

This movement seems like such a dream, really. I go back to BIAL because it is such a bladder-bursting distance away from town. It showcases its features ‘runways, taxiways, apron, , fuel farm, airport fire service, aircraft maintenance facilities, access roads, car parking...’ Where’s Number 1? I’m asking, da. I need to pee. Where’s the washroom? Restroom...toilet, bathroom...? Mujhe bathroom karna hai! swalpa guide maadi, dhanyawaadagalu,... I pour out all my Kannada.

Once you find the place, you’re confronted with the Rs 2/- and Re 1/- trade. The latter for the short business. But now who will time you? How can they be sure that you have not deceived them? Shit happens. So don’t mess, just pay up Rs 2 and do whatever. The loo-mafia ‘manning’ the place ensures that you don’t do it anyway - there is no running water, soap, toilet paper and they keep the better part of the loo cordoned off so they don’t have to maintain it. This happens at the country’s top international airport. 

When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go! So one needs to know how to ask for the small room. That was my single-pronged objective in learning Kannada. 

Every day we were promised that we’d be taught everyday, useful phases. What can be more ‘everyday’ or ‘useful’ than taking a leak, tell me? From namma, nannu we jumped straight to ‘I have appendicitis problem’. Ondu, yerudu, mooru,... I could manage the figures with my fingers but how to tell with gestures, expression or mime that I needed to go?  I waited each day for them to tell me just this, how to ask in Kannada, where the bathroom is. But they discussed, ‘Today the water pressure in the tap is low’. I waited for other pressures. Then one day we almost came to it, ‘How much distance to go - Yestu doora hoghabheku?’ But their destination wasn’t the pit stop. On the twenty ninth day, while discussing root words – snan, dayamadi, namaskara, swalpa... I could hold it no longer and burst out ‘shauchalaya!’ Whatta relief!

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Joy of Giving

Over the centuries, spiritual and moral thinkers have believed that charity to the      needy will lead to greater happiness over the course of a lifetime. The therapeutic benefits of helping others have long been recognised by everyday people too. Shefali Tripathi Mehta attempts to find out why altruism and generosity make us happier.

The sight of their grimy bodies in tattered clothes approaching us at a traffic signal makes us squirm. We are glad for the glass between us and them, as they press their filthy noses against it, trying to catch a glimpse of our glitzy world inside — sleek cell phones, laptops, wallet, and perhaps food. Impatiently, we wait for the traffic to move as they tap incessantly on the glass. Sometimes, we toss a few coins towards them. Our conscience at ease, we move on.

Drop the coin and move on, this is our general attitude towards giving. This is how most of us would like to do something by way of charity. It has no before and after, no emotional dilemmas. The notion that giving to beggars is wrong, that begging scams abound, allows a huge population of educated Indians to sleep easy. We can walk past the countless outstretched palms on the street and into our thousand rupee buffet lunches without a pang of guilt. The millions who go hungry, live without a means to earn a livelihood, fight diseases without comfort of medical care are too far removed from our comfortable lives. We live in denial of that world. That which we cannot see, does not exist.

But if we look around and want to see, we will notice the emaciated man licking leftovers from discarded meals at the garbage dump; the little girl turned out of school for not wearing shoes; the poor patient’s family agonising over the decision to sell their last piece of land to pay for the medical treatment.

Compassion is key

Only those that are moved by compassion will reach out to help others. An old man who waited outside a hospital everyday while his daughter fought for her life inside, kept coming back even after she died. He felt an affinity with the other patients’ attendants.

He began to help some of the poor with milk and food. But the need that began to unfold before him seemed enormous and he found his calling. Today the charitable trust started by him feeds one nutritious meal a day to patients at a government tuberculosis hospital and distributes a warm, wholesome evening meal to about 200 attendants of patients at a government hospital who are too poor to buy food for themselves. Each day there are stories of magnanimity of anonymous people who leave money, medicines, clothes or sacks full of food grains outside the humble quarters from where they operate.

Another shining example is Madurai’s Narayanan Krishnan who gave up his career as chef at a five-star hotel when he saw a man so hungry that he was feeding on his own faeces. Each day Krishnan cooks and distributes meals to 400 destitute and homeless, many of them old and mentally ill. He also distributes love and care in the form of hugs, a listening ear, and even gives them haircuts and shaves.

For those of us who grew up in another age, in safe, small towns where we could answer the door without having to put a chain across it first, thoughtfulness may have come easy. We offered the postman, the electrician, the plumber, every odd-jobs person, a glass of water unasked. We saw them as one of us and not as mere service providers.

True, that was a time before this workforce began demanding cash for chai-pani as a right. We gave our bus seats to the elderly; carried grocery for pregnant women; and cooked meals for sick neighbours. We grew up with these values and the belief that what goes around, comes around.

Apathy and greed

A drowning man was offered help by several who shouted, “Give me your hand,” but he hung back. Then a man called out, “Take my hand,” and the drowning man reached for it.

In a world so riddled with greed and corruption, where every man seems to be out to get another, it is not easy to trust. I stopped in my step seeing a poor man holding a seemingly unconscious child in his arms, pleading for help on a busy road. The moment I handed him a hundred rupee note to take it to hospital, his eyes gleamed with greed, “Please give two hundred more for the medicines.” Alarmed, I looked around, only to find other passersby shaking their heads at my naiveté. Once deceived, we steel ourselves against the feeling of compassion and are reluctant to reach out readily again.

The high-strung life of our over-crowded metros where a booster pump in the neighbour’s water pipeline means less water for your home; where a wrongly parked vehicle in front of your door can leave you stranded for hours, where there is a constant tug of war over space and resources, we become over-cautious, self-absorbed and unduly distrustful of each other. The Japanese’s quiet fortitude at the time of the recent tsunami surprised the world, which believed that this anxiety, this unbridled competition, this ruthless aggression is the way of modern life, without which one cannot survive.

Simple living, high thinking is a virtue of the past. High living is all we aspire for. There are fewer people who celebrate their significant days at orphanages and old age homes.

We are more materialistic today. We want more, better — bigger houses, fatter salaries, superior gadgets. Yes, we work hard for a good life for ourselves and are entitled to every comfort our money can buy. But to live with compassion, to not just indulge ourselves but to also contribute, would add happiness to our lives.

One reason for this seeming apathy is our completely blinkered view of society. We live in denial of the distressing. In our comfortable homes, amid superfluous consumption, we would like to believe that the person on the street, dying of hunger, does not exist.In a country where 200 million people go hungry each day, where Mother Teresa walked among us not long ago, newspapers each day tell stories of insatiable greed of people, of unbelievable corruption and looting of the poor. In one instance, a civil servant couple were found in possession of 25 flats, 400 acres of land, and suitcases stuffed with gold.

Acting from the heart

Charity is an important tenet in every religion because compassion is essential for spiritual life. Daan in Hinduism and Buddhism, tithes and offerings in Christianity; zakat in Islam, all major religions uphold the philosophy of giving. In fact, ‘tithing’ (10 per cent) which encourages one to give away 10 per cent of their earnings, is considered by new age spiritual gurus as a law that accrues boundless benefits for the giver.

Donations are given as duty and for tax benefits. Some people give to uphold their image and prestige in society. Fundraising events and charity auctions raise a large amount of money. People donate generously to temples, mosques and gurdwaras seeking personal salvation. There are those that heap ostentatious gifts of gold and jewels to temples and idols of gods, preferring this over food and comfort to the millions that sleep under the open sky, hungry, sick and vulnerable to abuse.

We do not give only due to our concern for others, but also to feel virtuous and good. The feel-good factor in giving is most important for the giver. When faced with the choice of either paying for fuel for an orphanage pick-up or for the school fee of a child, we choose the latter. There is greater satisfaction from thinking that we made a difference to a life.

People most often give to causes that they feel close to. If someone close to you suffered from cancer, you are more likely to help a cancer patient because of the empathy you feel, because of that journey you have seen closely. It is seen that people give more readily for food. Perhaps, it is because hunger is personally experienced by each of us to a certain extent.

Some give to specific causes or organisations — children’s education, food for the hungry, care for elders or people with disability, to orphanages, hospitals or hospices.

Some donate a fixed amount each year. Others give away things that they can do without or specific things others need. Many like to mark their special days by celebrating them at orphanages and old-age homes or by donating to charities and hospitals. Since Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) has evolved into an organised function in most companies, many people prefer to give through it.

Giving versus need

Christmas joy was in the air at an office. As has become customary, most parents were planning what to gift their kids on Christmas. The company’s CSR team was busy organising an event at a local orphanage. The plan was to buy a big Christmas tree, a fancy cake and toys as individual gifts. It sounded perfect and in keeping with the Christmas spirit of sharing, until they spoke with the warden of the orphanage. “Teddy bears and Barbie dolls?” she seemed taken aback. Hesitatingly, she requested, “What the girls need is pencils and notebooks. Also, in this cold, we could really do with cold cream and hair oil.” It was an eye-opener for the CSR team. Such can be the gap between the need and its fulfillment. Sometimes the enthusiasm of giving can make us overlook the receiver’s need.

In times of accidents or natural calamities, when people feel obliged to give, it is not uncommon to see them dumping away all their unwanted stuff in the name of charity — expired medicines, unusable clothes, single shoes and broken utensils.

Emotional dilemmas

There is a world out there waiting, wanting. One can never do enough. But to avoid moral, emotional dilemmas, we must decide when and how much we are prepared to give; when to say ‘no’ to a request; and how to insulate ourselves from fraud sob stories. If you wish to pay for the house help’s child’s school fee, instead of giving cash, you can offer to pay by cheque to the school account directly or ask for a receipt.

When it comes to giving, we are gripped by the middlemen phobia. Accountability and transparency of NGOs is a big concern with the donors. Being cheated is one of the biggest deterrents in giving. When giving directly for a cause is not feasible, one has to go through organisations working towards the cause. Because the voluntary sector is largely unorganised, donors are livid and apprehensive of giving.

When giving to a voluntary organisation or a charity, one can ensure better utilisation by asking a few questions about it like, does the charity practice full disclosure? Does it provide a copy of its audited financial statements to donors on request? Is information provided to donors about any programme that the donors have supported? 

True giving

Dalai Lama says, “Giving material goods is one form of generosity, but one can extend an attitude of generosity into all one’s behaviour. Being kind, attentive and honest in dealing with others, offering praise where it is due, giving comfort and advice where they are needed, and simply sharing one’s time with someone — all these are forms of generosity, and they do not require any particular level of material wealth.”

Giving is not just donating money or stuff. It means giving a little bit of yourself to help another in need. Vijay Ladha of Make a Wish Foundation that fulfils wishes of children with life threatening illnesses, says that people pick up wishes readily but cannot find time to attend the wish fulfilment event. They are generous with money, not so with time.

Apart from donations, we can ‘give’ time by volunteering for social causes. It can be as simple as spending an hour in the morning at a hospital helping illiterate patients fill forms and find their way about; or helping at an old age home reading out to the inmates, feeding or walking them; reading and writing for blind students; escorting those with physical disabilities to banks, libraries or parks; donating blood; teaching poor kids; sharing some skills like making paper bags, stitching, embroidery, knitting with unemployed women who might be able to make a livelihood out of it.

In giving we receive

Rumi, the mystic-poet, narrated this incident of a man who, walking past a beggar, asked, “Why, God, do you not do something for these people?” God replied, “I did do something. I made you.”

In a country of a 100 million homeless, of which 12 million are children, and the largest number of hungry people in the world, the statistics are grim. Mother Teresa believed, “If you can’t feed a hundred people, feed just one.” Philanthropy in India is an age-old social tradition. Ours is the land of fakirs and mystics who have proclaimed that nothing ‘belongs’ to us. According to research, altruistic behaviour has innumerable emotional and physical benefits — it makes our lives happier, fulfilled and more meaningful.

Compassion, it is rightly believed, is a two-way street. For all the sadness, poverty and distress in this world, each one of us possesses unlimited ways of helping, of making a positive difference.