What will you do with our stories?

Last week I began my weekly counseling at the prison, by meeting with all the women inmates there. I was told their number is around 59-60, though I do not think that many came to meet me, in the open lawns, where we all met.

It was an unusual scenario for me – to sit and share with the ladies what my ‘job’ or presence in their midst meant. Most could not make sense of the word -counseling. For a moment I thought whether it was all a needless effort. There are a few non profits working among prison inmates, mine may be the third or fourth. I do not have a correct estimate of numbers yet. One of them is running a training program in several vocations- such as beauty culture, tailoring, adult education and even a creche for little children. On the whole the population is not very motivated, at least on a cursory glance.

As I sat there mid a whole lot of women from Haryana (the first time I was seeing so many together myself) I was just wondering in what language and expression to share the purpose of my work. Then I just began talking as we all sat in a gathering of nearly 35-40 women. I explained to them that I was here to share their lives with them and to help them cope better with the challenge of living life in a jail. I cannot imagine a bitter tragedy than imprisonment, and the seemingly futile effort of counseling those there.

Yet, not one to give up easily and wanting to make sense of life everywhere I feel I have to offer courage, the way I was offered courage by life and people in the years of my own suffering and solitude. I always believe that humans can be united in the idea of our shared or otherwise suffering- I have taken this from the Dalai Lama- the mindfulness that we all suffer, and that is the root of our common heritage as living beings.

To see so many people with hearts full of suffering, writ large on their faces is an experience of becoming humble, because you do not approach them with any solutions, nor wisdom, outcomes or legal advice- which they actually need. You just go empty handed, with a heart full of stories and ears willing to hear more. Your humility comes from the knowledge that possibly a whole lot of these in the jail are actually just innocent victims.

I spoke for awhile and then invited the women to say something if they would like to. Most did not, but some said they were trying to understand why I was there and what was the offer from me. Then one, who I find particularly bright and quite clear in her mind, asked me, “Madam I have understood why you will be here. You will hear our stories and may be note them somewhere. But will you keep our stories with yourself or will you do something more?

I thought may be I would do something later in research or write about the conditions of jails or how difficult it could be to live a life in jails for years altogether. But right now the agenda is only to work together with the women and understand what is happening in their lives. The truth is that nothing is happening- their lives are all frozen for now, and they live removed from the world in an artificial world of the prison, where nobody comes to meet them (barring stray family members when they can make the journey) and they live lives in their mind, missing loved ones, missing lives left outside the jail, lamenting the loss of what life leaches from them everyday.

What will you do with our stories, she asked me insistently. Not once, but many a times. Will you write them down and share them with the world or publish them in a newspaper? Will you write about us cropped-2014-006-2.jpgand tell the world about our lives here? Will you? Will you not?

I kept quiet for that moment and told her I appreciated her question and may be I would have to think about it. I came away and the question kept floating in front and her fierce, bright, challenging face questioning…till I arrived at a response. This is the response of me the human, the counselor that I find emerging from the recesses of my soul.

I will listen to your stories like a friend, not a judge and possibly witness their transformation, wherever possible help while you go over the difficult passages. I come in support and acknowledgement of your suffering. I am not a lawyer, nor court, nor judge- I am just a human who understands human suffering, and I am here because we all suffer. That is all. I hope to share this with her when I meet her again.

Caregiver’s stress or psychiatric emergency

On Saturday, the past week, a woman in her early forties, came with her mother and child to see me. The person who needed a counseling intervention was her mother, who came in with a deeply disturbed state of mind. I felt her inner fabric had been suddenly jolted due to a shock and catapulted her into a state from which she could not recover, with her own means.

According to the description of the daughter initially, and later corroborated by the mother herself, possibly two significant events in her life had lead to that. In the distant past, she had lost her spouse, in 2009, which possibly triggered off a grief which could not be duly addressed, or if it was it was not assimilated properly. However, the lady lived a fairly active life despite that, with one of her other daughters, in Bombay. In the recent past, the daughter who accompanied her to meet me, moved from Bombay to Goa, with her family, in response to her husband’s need for better work prospects. That set off another degree of anxiety in her heart, which remained unarticulated.

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All of a sudden the daughter became unwell (she had a bipolar diagnosis) due to adjustment stress in a new situation, whilst otherwise she had been quite stable for long years and off medication of any sort. The news of her daughter falling sick made the mother panic, and her anxiety took a turn for the worse- pushing her off the brink and rattling her fragile balance significantly.

When she came to meet me, for her daughter thought the next intervention required would be counseling/therapy, her discomfort and constant talk made me immediately decide that this was not someone who needed counseling support but immediate relief from her ‘symptoms’. The talk was ceaseless, she was frantic, tearful, anxious, repetitive, and kept saying that she would not take any medicine. The daughter was trying her level best to seek out any intervention that would work for her. I decided within five- seven minutes of listening to her that she would not have any effect of counseling, and requested her to take homeopathy, which she had been taking earlier as well.  But it had not been effective of late. I even referred my own doctor to them, lest their doctor have a limited repertoire, which is mostly the case with homeopathy. Before coming to meet me they had tried other ‘treatment’ options of reflexology, possibly reiki and other things.

I called up my doctor and also made her talk to him, and requested him to intervene, give a prescription which would be followed here in Goa. This is not something that we do frequently- because every doctor needs to meet their patients face-to-face. Doctor sa’ab was kind enough to relent, seeing the lady hysterical, and reporting lack of interest in anything in life, suicidal ideas, and several other indicators.

However , the catch in the whole picture was that she kept saying, that, if my daughter (indicating to the woman with her) comes back to Bombay I will be fine. This was a peculiar situation, because her deepest attachment seems to be with her daughter who is already married with a child of her own. The mother is so deeply attached to her, that it is almost like a parasitic attachment.

They stayed with me for over an hour, but since I had decided earlier, I did not put a bill on the exercise. What is the point of taking money when the recipient is not ready for what you have to offer- I cannot be a mercenary like a ‘professional’ if I remain untouched by human suffering, and focus just on the money that my practice can bring me. The more I thought about it, the more ethical I thought my decision was. Of course I could have told them to leave quickly, but considering they had come a long way, I just let them stay and talk about how to go about it and of course explaining to the daughter the medicines the doctor  had prescribed, since it was me who had spoken to him not her.

The Next Action

Today is Monday, and according to me today the whole routine would have fallen in place. However the daughter called me up today before noon and said her mother was refusing to take the medicines and had gone back to her earlier prescription of homeopathy. She reported a further hardening in the head and was unstoppable. I felt anguished to hear that. I had seen the mother to be a headstrong lady and I could see she was making it difficult for everyone around her to deal with the situation and only making it worse, in every possible way.

That brought to mind the last resort of psychiatry. I thought there was no option but to sedate her to calm her down. It is a very sad thing when I myself have to recommend psychiatric medication to anyone, because I try the best that nobody should be pushed into it. But if there is no alternative left and the person is adamant, what else can the family do? Her behavior must be causing a great deal of stress to her daughter also, poor girl, who was bravely facing it, both in front of her husband and in front of her mother- keeping a calm exterior.

I thought for the time being the best option was to anyhow medicate the lady and help her calm down. Over time when things stabilize and she has had some sleep due to sedation, possibly she would look for other ways to deal with her stresses and the triggers. For now her franticness would only make others spiral into the same. Her daughter said she was herself thinking of the same, as nothing else seemed to be working for now. In other words, the difficulty a family faces, pushes a person into forcible psychiatric intervention. The only trick is that at a suitable time the person has to be weaned away from psychiatric medication, because psychiatrists themselves will never prescribe it!

On that note we parted over the phone- me with a resignation that only when people are willing to get well and be compliant to recommendation of any sort, does an intervention work. Some people make difficult patients- they resist everything, for they know the better of it. I cannot but feel sorry when people have to be administered psychiatric medication, but I always hope that it would be a short term measure. Of course if the patient is complying, like me myself, homeopathy can work very well.

I do not see any recourse except for a devious manner of giving the medication or per force- which actually amounts to a human rights abuse. So that brings in the ethical dimension, as well as the dilemma- what could have been done alternatively? What can be done now? I am not sure today and I leave this post with this query.

Everyone will have a different response to this situation, but how does one decide. I do not know if they will come back to me, because they need not. But I will be around to support them in future, if they choose to. The mother certainly needs counseling to help her deal with the sense of loss that she is suffering from, and to help her focus on what is present in her life, rather than clinging on to adult children, who need to fly away from the nest, towards greener pastures.

I also hope that the daughter would not be unduly troubled by her mother’s suffering, as it creates a scope for her own suffering to surface once again.

On the last note, I am also wondering whether the mother’s suffering is not another face of the caregiver’s burden of looking after a child with bipolar and being tuned to her needs in an obsessive, fussing manner. But there is no way to find out about that, because I had no time to talk to them about their life together. Only this much could be ascertained within the scope that we had, once I felt it would not be proper to dig further into her psychic matrix. Whether this is an ’empty nest’ syndrome, a psychiatric emergency or another form of caregiver’s hyper-reaction to her daughter’s situation, piercing through her own frame, it is difficult to ascertain at this stage.

Accepting violence, as part of ‘love’

Dear H

I have been thinking on the subject of routine violence of women’s lives and how they condone, accept or even justify it. A few days ago, Haseena, the young woman, mother of three, who works as my home assistant (I prefer this term, instead of ‘domestic help’, because I feel she assists me in my home in diverse ways, and is a part of my home, just like a member of the household) came with face that was not exactly chirpy and bright the way she does every morning. I asked her if everything was fine. She responded that her husband had hit her, because she had screamed at him, due to his parents’ calls to him, which she objected to. His father is disabled and possibly bedridden. Naturally his parents require money, even though the mother herself earns from domestic work in the homes of others.

However, when the son could not send money immediately, as his wife (Haseena) was out of work for several months before starting work with me, they grew frantic. On the other hand Haseena was also upset that they could not hold on patiently, because though she had started in her new employment she could only get money at the end of the month- not in the middle of it. So she ‘screamed’ at them! She needn’t have- but this is the circle of poverty and this is the circle of dependence, which makes and keeps people insecure.

So I asked her again, what was the response of her two young girls to the fact that her husband had hit her. She said that the children were very troubled and became anxious, fearless and tearful. What can one expect?

Yesterday those two children came to me, for I invited them to come meet me. I wanted to see her children and in general I am always concerned about children who are first generation learners, for I wish to be in their little journeys and assist them, if I can, in understanding life in different ways. I know, coming as I did from a family of college teachers, how differently we grew up- these children would never know a house full of books and parents studying. For them their father works in a scrapyard and mother works in someone home.

When I saw them and interacted with them, I saw they were no different from any children. The two girls were actually quite beautiful- and the older one expressed her desire to write stories and the younger one said she wants to be a doctor, though she is also fond of drawing. I thought it would be good if they met me with some regularity and tell me about their lives and I tell them about other things. I invited them to bring their friends as well, so that the group can have a maximum of ten children- girls and boys or only girls. And they can always bring one adult with them, since they have to walk a long way to reach my home. So i hope to add some little things in the lives of these little children in my vicinity, which opens up alternative ideas in their minds and not just the violent realities of their lives, homes and discrimination of daily living, being Muslims. It remains to be seen whether they would take up the option or how seriously.

Perhaps for Haseena, her husband slapping her in the presence of her children was not a big act, for she condoned it saying, “It is okay if he hits me, because he has a right to, but I do not think he can see how wrong his parents have been to him always.” To her mind a man hitting his wife is a right that he has earned by virtue of being husband, to my mind it is a violence perpetrated not only on her, but on the three children, who were unconsciously taught the rules of patriarchy- a man can hit a woman- both the girls saw it, the boy saw it too…and this way the circles will continue. Unless we bring these little children into new worlds of ideas where hitting anyone is not the done thing, no body in a position of power will exercise their powers in ways that can demean another human being. But we have to begin early.

So you would say, why in the world am I telling you this? Just imagine how far you are from these people in every possible way, living a world apart in the heart of developed Europe, whether women have fought and earned their rights in significant ways and routine violence is just not acceptable any longer, it is NOT the done thing, just because you are a man or anyone in a position of power. What about the fact that your university education and the fact that you hail from South Asia- how far you are from this world, where hitting a woman, because she loves you, is the done thing among men.

So what happens when a man who is a part of your life, by your choice, chooses to behave with you, the manner Haseena’s husband did? In what way is your response different from Haseena’s condoning of her husband? She has accepted the fact that being a woman she is liable to get hit- are you also? And why is that? Just because you loved someone? So what is the purpose of so much education, if it could not instill a sense of self worth? What is the value of your independent spirit, if you could choose to live alone, in a house of your own, yet be exposed to routine verbal or physical violence and take it with an attitude of submission?

The reality of education is that no matter what women are studying in universities about gender, violence, equality or any ideas- the homes that they go back to, beat them back into submission, clip their wings, abort their dreams and bring them back into the same cycle of daily abuse, which has been heaped upon women from times immemorial, because women who challenge patriarchy are best outside of their own homes. Parents and in-laws only want submissive, silent women, who will take anything because they have to carry the responsibility of their family pride, honor and social respect.

On the other hand when women who are educated, do not have the support, mentoring and guidance of other women who are independent, strong and clear thinking, they lose their ways in the labyrinth of emotional submission because they think that no matter what they study in their universities and classrooms, they cannot deal with the same ideas in their day-to-day lives. They have to accept day-to-day patriarchy, because otherwise they will be alone, single and unloved. The reality is that in seeking love from those men who have a power-oriented conception of relationships, women also enter into negotiating around power. That struggle enters into diverse domains- of money, sexuality, behaviours, interactions, social displays and so forth.

Relationships based on power

If you remember, Hobbes (the philosopher) had said that the essential nature of man is nasty and brutish. I do not remember what he said further, but one of the goals of education could easily be to overcome this nastiness as an endowment of birth, by appropriate socialization, in which people overcome their habitual bad manners, spiritual ugliness and shortcomings by comprehending the benefits of mutual respect, altruism and the benefits of collaboration, over dominance, submission, cruelty and misbehaviour.  In any relationship which is based on power, there will be an interplay of power, at least in the mind of one partner, the other may be completely ignorant. The one who has money may think that they hold the key to the relationship. Usually this struggle is such that all resources are vested in the hands of men, more so in marriages.

However, in your case, this is not the situation. You are not dependent on any man to pay for your bills, your home is in your name, you live in Europe far removed from the values of what women in South Asia face on a daily basis. Then why cling on to ideas of this part of the world, my girl? Your parents had enough money to take you from here and offer you the scope for this life, where you could make choices of your own and be responsible for them. I do feel that a mentoring that was required could not be offered to you, but that does not mean that the very values they wanted to shield you from your life, should dominate your mind, no matter what milieu you live in, on the outside.

Diaspora is more entrenched in old values than people within their home countries

I felt this for a long time actually- that Indians who lived in the West were less liberal and more feudal, navel gazing and parochial than Indians living in India. Their only real connection with India is very watered down, and largely defined by ideas that they have imbibed from cinema, and the cultural icons exported out of here. They do not live the dynamic life that Indians live in India, a hotbed of ideas, struggles, debates and whatnot. Diaspora lives a cocoon – neither a part of the progressive ideas of the subcontinent nor progressive ideas of the West, as though all currents of progressiveness just pass them by!

They are quite consumeristic, fond of razzle-dazzle and empty in their minds. I am especially referring to those who are born in the West. The ones who have gone from here in search for higher education, especially in the social/human sciences are doing some very wonderful work and contributing to scholarship. The ones who have gone in search of jobs are seeking escapes out of the poverty and socio-economic backwardness of our society. Anyways, this is not meant to be a critique of them, (for they merit a longer post or article) but a reminder that when they left South Asia it was decades ago. Their ideas stopped growing organically, because they had no exposure to the ideas that were developing in this society. They were on a foreign soil and they had to protect their ideas, values, culture and tradition in a foreign land- often they took the most rigid, dead ideas of the past and continued them in the name of tradition; the sort of ideas we would never accept in our own lives here.

I see you there!

And this is the underlying reason for this post- to remind you to not cut yourself from the reality of your life, but embrace it more fully. Women’s liberation or feminism is not about antagonism towards men, only the militant versions may be. The truth about women’s liberation is that it has to be a liberation from the day-to-day oppression in the lives of women, and even men need to be liberated from that oppression, which they are also victims of. Women liberation is a struggle for dignity of every person on the planet and not just women- for women are the wiser of the species (a fact proven by the animal kingdom too), and they have no need to dominate, murder, kill and maim people- they just need to be more empowered to recognize their strength, their wisdom and their abilities.

Unless women do it themselves and stronger women, mentor weaker women, old women nurture younger women into more empowering roles and positions, women will continue to get tortured in every private space- in homes, offices, relationships and you name it. Women will continue believing that it is okay to be hit in their homes and it is okay to be violated in their jobs, because they are women and this is the price they have to pay for womanhood. They just need to be reminded that women need to connect with their masculine sides, their inner man, and not be with an outer man who needs to subdue her to prove his masculinity.

This is my hope too, in writing this note to you- that you do not need a man whose need it is to abuse you or any woman in any way. You do not need a man who clings on to you because he sees you as a symbol of power, yet wants to crumble your spirit by regularly violating it with words, abuse your family, doubt your character or your friends, demand money from you and wants to escape the drudgery of his wretched existence back home, by escaping to Europe, yet not learn the liberal values of the West, that you have grown up internalizing.

I may need to write another post on how sexuality needs to be seen by the modern woman, but I will reserve that for a later date.

Your’s in concern

PS