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Writers and the rituals

Monitor News Bureau

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Last month marked the launch of the Smithsonian Institution’s ‘Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation’ travelling exhibit at the Asian American Resource Centre (AARC) in Austin, Texas, organised by my friends ArchanaVemulapalli, PoojaSethi and others associated with the South Asian Austin Moms (SAAM). The exhibit highlights signal moments in the South Asian American experience, posing a rich counterpoint to the simplistic narrative currently being projected by hyper-nationalist voices about the history and presence of this community in America.
The opening panel was with novelist ChaitaliSen and poet UshaAkella. One audience question that most intrigued me that day, and has stayed with me, concerned writers’ rituals: whether one has them, what they are and what purpose they serve. While my fellow panellists did not seem too keen on rituals, for me they were crucial 20 years ago and like my attitudes towards everything else in writing — such as ignoring publishers’ needs altogether and writing as though I didn’t expect to get published — I have come full circle about rituals, too.
I joked that day about my bright green shirt which is in very bad shape — and which I am wearing now, stains and all, as I write this — and about other objects and surroundings I rely on to push me, unthinkingly, into a concentrated frame of mind. I cannot function, as perhaps others can, in noise and stimulation. For me, the ideal is pure emptiness, a mental and physical vacuum that frees the mind and body to concentrate on the task at hand.
The more predictability that can be built into the circumstances surrounding the writing act, the more the writer is going to surprise himself with the quality of writing. To be a writer, one must negate everything that might constitute a “writer’s personality.” At the panel I mentioned as the paradigmatic example William Shakespeare, who does not exist for us as a person, because his writing takes up all the space in our imagination.
But what role do rituals play in this conception of the writer’s task? The writer, as I suggested at the panel, ideally shouldn’t function in the time-space continuum we know familiarly, what we mistakenly interpret as “reality.” Rituals are one — though certainly not the only — way to recalibrate reality in the writer’s favour, so that one is free to imagine in a pure vacuum.
A ritual — such as clocking in at a certain specified hour (for me, it is first thing in the morning before the distractions of the day, as I suspect is true for many other writers as well) or wearing certain clothes or eating certain foods or surrounding oneself with certain objects — triggers a fall into the writing mood, as though by hypnosis or auto-suggestion, like Alice falling down the rabbit hole.
But more than that, writers’ rituals are a rude thumbing of the nose at the rituals “normal people” follow in the ordinary conduct of life.
For, make no mistake about it, though writers and artists may be maligned for their eccentric behaviour, the ceremonials of any person dedicated to slaving for corporate capitalism, or any of the established occupations, appear obsessively repetitious from the first to the last waking moment: when and how one dresses and transports oneself, what one eats and how one exercises, how one speaks and conducts oneself in public, the minute attention paid to the tiniest aspects of one’s children’s lives so that they, too, grow up believing in the indispensability of such protocols for “success.”
Compared to the unending parades of everyone else’s unremarked protocols, a writer’s rituals, by highlighting a few specific ones, almost function as antidotes to the conventional idea of rituals. By following a handful of our own choosing, we try to wrench punctuality, predictability, honour and manners away from those who currently monopolise these ideas.
When we writers follow rituals, we are signalling our allegiance to our own modes of fantasy. Using an ancient typewriter (or Word 2000 on a 10-year-old IBM laptop in my case) or writing in longhand or composing only at a certain time or in a specific room, suggests not only a closing off of conventional erotic possibilities, but an opening up of the far greater erotic potential of the imagination.
Objects are everything. Every single object in nature speaks and has moods, including rocks, which look like the most inanimate things of all. But rocks, too, think and feel, as do all objects of fetish, except that writers don’t fix them within the political economy of consuming and using up, but granting them honour as independent entities.
Our sense of independence is defined by the uniqueness of the rituals we follow. To look at a writer’s rituals is to get a glimpse into what he or she considers indispensable for the imagination to take off.
Rituals make us strip down to our barest essentials: that one piece of totemic clothing or object on the desk, or a certain tree one likes to look at, or a cat who is an indispensable companion. Rituals let us compress the entire world to the sanctity of that one object or hour or place, letting us ignore all the rest of it.
It is not so much a method of compartmentalisation, the way popular psychology has it, but a splitting off of different worlds. Once this splitting off has been set in motion, the writer, ritual-bound and honour-obsessed, observes things from a great distance, as though he or she were not even alive.
So rituals are more than eccentric observances, coincidental to the act of writing. At least, that is how I see them. They hint toward an elusive magic, of non-being, of living in the absent present that writers are always trying to seize upon. They are trivial acts of desperation, as though to cling permanently to something that doesn’t even exist.
Although the world may think of them as mere superstitions, I think of them as rather more meaningful. They are enlivened dreams, shortcuts to dreaming while being awake, talismanic triggers to the unknown world.


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Opinion

Growing crimes against women

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Aritry Das

For years India has grappled with the tag of being the ‘most dangerous country for women‘. Successive governments introduced measures, but there is increasing evidence that they don’t work – and are counter-productive. Indeed, in key Indian states, cases of sexual violence are on the rise.

The Constitution of India mandates that as a federal union of states, law and order issues remain primarily with state governments, unless there are overarching issues such as terrorism. This results in many states trying different methods to tackle growing violence against women, and creating a range of other problems rather than solutions.

 

States like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are the top states for registered rapes and sexual assaults, according to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), a federal body that collates statistics across states. These state governments are introducing new measures to increase women’s safety, but experts say their moves are not addressing root causes and systemic failures in India’s creaking criminal justice system.

As many as 38,947 rapes were reported in 2016, which was a rise of 12% from 2015. The number of cases reported under “sexual assault, harassment and molestation”, was 84,746 nationally. This is the second-most common crime against women after “domestic violence” cases.

When Uttar Pradesh chief minister Ajay Singh Bisht, (Yogi Adityanath) came to power in 2017, he decided to tackle the problem of women’s safety by creating the controversial ‘anti-Romeo squad’, with police roaming in civil dress to surveil public spaces to keep a check on street harassers (also known as “roadside Romeos”).

The squad was eventually disbanded. But following a spate of rapes of minors, Bisht directed the police to revive the squad with the new power to issue a warning ‘red card’ to ‘suspected harassers’. If a person is caught twice doing a similar act, he will face criminal proceedings.

The squad had earlier drawn flak after reports surfaced about them targeting and publicly shaming young men, giving moral advice to couples, while some were made to do sit-ups or had their heads shaved in public.

Vaibhav Krishna, a Senior Superintendent of Police in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, told Asia Times that police officers for 23 anti-Romeo squads were receiving gender sensitization and training programs to help them handle cases better.

The squad’s further empowerment has raised concerns. Reports of the squad “moral policing” couples and a subsequent increase in sexual violence cases indicated that the measure was not working, according to PoonamKaushik, a women’s rights activist and general secretary of PragatisheelMahilaSangathan.

In the neighboring state of Rajasthan, crimes against women under all sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) jumped by around 40% and rape cases rose by 30% in the first five months of this year compared to the same period last year. This happened despite the government setting up its own version of the anti-Romeo squad in 2018 with policewomen on two-wheelers.

“In Rajasthan, the government has not set up enough women’s help desks or One-Stop Crisis Centers [to assist rape victims]. Instead, they are trying to create these mechanisms [anti-Romeo squad] that are working against women being in public spaces due to moral policing,” said women’s rights activist KavitaSrivastava, who played a key role in the framing of the Vishakha guidelines to address sexual harassment at workplaces.

Now the Rajasthan government plans to set up special investigation units for crimes against women.

Delhi, meanwhile, had at least five rapes reported every day last year, according to NCRB data. So, the state government wants to boost safety by bringing more women into public spaces through free metro and bus rides, and installing 300,000 CCTV cameras. The Delhi Police, which reports to the Home Ministry, also launched a motorcycle-fleet of female cops to patrol the streets called Raftar.

But it is hard to spot this patrol squad on the road, according to Jaya Velankar, director of Jagori, a women’s organization that works to make city spaces safer. She also pointed out that unless roads are safe, free public transport won’t work.

Data from Delhi Police shows that sexual violence against women has only marginally decreased in recent times. In the first six months of 2019, reported cases of rape (IPC 376) were 973, down from 1,005 cases in the same period in 2018, while cases of assault on women with intent to outrage her modesty (IPC 354) decreased by 172 and insults to the modesty of women (IPC 509) decreased by 101.

Madhya Pradesh was the first state to propose the death penalty for men who rape girls under the age of 12, back in 2017. But violence against women has not gone down. Rape of minor girls in the state made headlines throughout June this year. Now the government has taken an initiative to introduce GPS tracking devices and emergency “panic buttons” in passenger vehicles such as buses and taxis.

Maharashtra assigned a 2.5-billion-rupee (US$36 million) budget for women’s safety initiatives. But sexual violence cases have risen despite this. But a survey by non-government groups Akshara and Safetipin found that 44% of areas in Mumbai, the state capital, were unsafe. It said women were only safe to walk on 22% of Mumbai’s streets.
This year the Maharashtra government finally proposed safety measures such as setting up SOS hotspots, tracking apps and installing more CCTV cameras.

However, feminists are not convinced that surveillance leads to greater safety for women or a loss of autonomy.

The rising number of crimes has put state lawmakers in a difficult position and they have criticized the police, who then discourage women from filing cases, Velankar claimed. But a higher number of reported cases also meant that more women were coming out to report violence and governments now had greater responsibility to assure they get justice, she said.

The implementation of a major national scheme to increase women’s safety is also not faring well. Recent reports revealed that between 2015 and 2018, states and union territories used less than 20% of the 8.5-billion-rupee ($124 million) budget allocated to them under the Nirbhaya Fund, which supports schemes for women’s safety. The fund was set up in the aftermath of a brutal gang-rape of a paramedical student in New Delhi in December 2012. Delhi, which has the highest rate of crime against women, fared the worst by using only 0.84% of the 350 million rupees it received.

“The Nirbhaya Fund is used as per proposals from different departments of the central and state governments. It will not be implemented if there is no will to do so,” a senior federal official of the Ministry of Women and Child Development told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity.

Experts say government initiatives and implementation of laws won’t create change if a culture of impunity has made the criminal justice system weak. Kaushik noted that some of the worst accusations against the police stem from recent rape cases of minors in Unnao and Kathua, where they are alleged to have bowed to pressure from people of influence to bury cases and evidence.

The Unnao rape victim, who claimed she was a minor at the time of the incident, tried to self-immolate last year due to the police not registering her complaint against a BJP lawmaker. In the Kathua case verdict, four police officers were convicted among the six accused in connection to rape and murder of an eight-year-old Kashmiri girl.

Another major hurdle that stops victims of sexual violence from getting justice is the low conviction rate in India, which is a mere 25.5% for rape and just under 22% for sexual assault and harassment, according to NCRB data.

(Courtesy: atimes.com)

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Opinion

Why justice matters in Jammu and Kashmir

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Harinder Baweja

Pakistan has for long sponsored terrorism in?Kashmir. But is it enough for India to point to “causality”, without introspecting on the fact that Kashmir has a long litany of documented human rights violations that have gone unpunished?

Think about it. Why does India get prickly each time allegations of human rights abuse in Jammu and Kashmir are placed at its door? Is it because there is some truth in the allegations? Does India have a lot to hide when it comes to violations committed by its men in uniform?

 

Dismissing an updated report by Office of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which faulted both India and Pakistan for not improving the situation in Kashmir, a ministry of external affairs (MEA) spokesperson said last week, “A situation created by years of cross-border terrorist attacks emanating from Pakistan has been analysed without any reference to its causality.”

Reflecting India’s indignation at being called out, the spokesperson said, the report “seems to be a contrived effort to create an artificial parity between the world’s largest and most vibrant democracy and a country that openly practices state-sponsored terrorism.”

Let us get this out of the way first.

Yes, it can be said, with no hesitation at all, that Pakistan has for long sponsored terrorism and will likely continue to practise its “bleed India through a thousand cuts” policy. It has suffered humiliation at the hands of the United Nations Security Council, which recently declared Jaish-e-Mohammad chief, MasoodAzhar, a global terrorist. But that tag too is unlikely to lead to the Pakistani deep State severing its ties with the jihadi outfits it sees as “assets.”

But is it enough for India to point to “causality”, without introspecting on the fact that Kashmir has a long litany of documented human rights violations that have gone unpunished? The Valley, in fact, has erupted in anger each time the men in uniform have crossed the line, but justice – that ever so important balm for a population as alienated as Kashmir’s – has mostly stayed elusive.

Let’s talk about the two occasions when the Valley boiled over with anger.

First, in 2010, Kashmiris took to the streets after the Indian Army, in a fake encounter, killed three civilians and passed them off as infiltrating terrorists. The gross violation was proved beyond a doubt. The unsuspecting civilians had been lured to Machil, a forward sector along the Line of Control, and killed in cold blood. Despite an Army court martial pronouncing five of its men guilty and sentencing them for life, the Armed Forces Tribunal suspended the sentence, arguing that civilians ought not to have been in a forward location, wearing “pathan suits”.

Just like in 2010, when over 100 protesting youth were shot dead, in 2016 too, the civilian toll crossed 100 after stone pelters – angry with the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani – took to the streets. Kashmir gave vent to deep anger and betrayal – not only because Wani was eliminated – but because the trust deficit between the Valley and Delhi had eroded over years, and reached break point.

The pellet gun became the symbol of oppression. It blinded, maimed and killed. The OHCHR report that India summarily dismissed, pointed to the basic tenets of injustice: “There is no information about any new investigation into excessive use of force leading to casualties. There is no information on the status of the five investigations launched into extrajudicial executions in 2016… No prosecutions have been reported.”

Kashmiris live with this reality every day. Why must brazen killings go unpunished? More importantly, why lash out at a report that questions excessive use of force?
The Kashmiri wound is deep and it has festered for too long. One major step forward would be to reduce the repressive security measures. Instead of negating charges of abuse and human rights violations, India ought to take steps towards setting up a truth and reconciliation commission. Why not encourage public hearings in which victims and their families are encouraged to speak?

Reaching out and admitting to violations will help rebuild trust. It is not enough to merely look at figures that point to a reduction in infiltration. The problem now centresaround home-grown militants. Violations only fuel the cycle of violence.

Admit, address and provide justice, for Kashmir is not a piece of real estate, to be ruled by force.

(Courtesy: Hindustan Times)

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Opinion

Remove stigma, report psychiatric ailments

The Kashmir Monitor

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By Dr Arif Maghribi Khan

“All patients are mad. All psychiatric medicines cause sleep.” Yes, this is the common perception in Kashmir. While the fact remains that according to easiest classifications of diseases, there are two types of psychiatric ailments – neurotic and psychotic. In neurotic diseases, patient does not lose contact with reality.

The patient can tell you his or her name, address, locality correctly while in psychotic ailments, patient’s contact with reality is lost and he or she lives in world of their own. Such patients often report seeing angels, strange figures, or hearing voices or sounds, which nobody else sitting with the patient sees or hears.

 

One example of psychotic ailments is schizophrenia, the prevalence of which is as low as 0.5 per 1000, while ailments like depression, anxiety, phobia form the bulk of psychiatric ailments. Even in this day and age, when all the world of knowledge and information is at our fingertips, we as a society have not been able to differentiate between the two.

So the stigma remains attached with psychiatric ailments thus delaying diagnosis and treatment. It is because of this stigma, people visit psychiatric settings with faces covered or masked. Young adults and children fear to disclose to their parents if they suffer from depression or anxiety disorders, which leads them to live an impaired life, wherein they struggle with issues like loss of interest in studies or even loss of employment as their inability to concentrate consistently tears apart their social and professional lives.

Parents are there to discipline and guide children but not to make them fear depression. Another problem hitting psychiatric healthcare in Kashmir is the myth that all medicines prescribed by psychiatrists cause sleep, while the fact is that psychiatric medicines work by increasing, changing or blocking activities of neurotransmitters.

Nerves carry information from the body to the brain and vice versa. The brain is composed of roughly 86 billion neurons. Chemical messengers called neurotransmitters carry messages between neurons to help the brain receive the information, decide what it means and execute a reaction. Neurotransmitters are responsible for emotional regulation, pain perception, motivation, concentration, memory energy, mood, sleep patterns, libido. Any imbalance can result in Depression, Nightmares, Mental Fatigue, Anxiety, Impaired cognition, attention, and arousal, Apathy, Lack of motivation, Poor attention, and Fatigue. Most of the time a qualified psychiatrist uses anti-depressants which do not cause sleep, in first few months of treatment depending upon the psychiatric ailment anxiolytics, also known as ‘tranquilizers’ are used.

So let’s stop assuming that all medicines cause sleep and we will be dependent on them for rest of our life.

The biggest challenge faced by doctors today and specially psychiatrists is that due to easy availability of internet most patients start Google searching medicine for 8 minutes prescribed by a doctor who studied medicine for 8 years, fact is that not all information surfers get on medicine by Google search is authenticated. Patients are well advised to seek such information from doctor rather than what is searched on internet or what a specialist from other field like education or engineering has to say!

We need to fight epidemic of psychiatric ailments including drug abuse on basis of science and not search on internet. It’s as simple as that, to aware common people doctors, counsellors from field of mental health need to work vigorously in community to clear myths and mist surrounding psychiatric ailments. We need to give patients of anxiety disorders or drug abuse respect and not scare them with unfounded information. Also next time we label some person as mad for being stressed kindly read this survey of again “Nearly 1.8 million adults (45% of the population) in the Kashmir show symptoms of significant mental distress according to a comprehensive mental health survey conducted by the medical humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) between October and December 2015. The research was done in collaboration with the Department of Psychology, Kashmir University and the Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience (IMHANS).

(Author can be mailed at [email protected])

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