Author: Ritambhara Singh

India Connected: Boon or Bane?

Pic Credit: Clicked by me

“The Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand, the largest experiment in anarchy that we have ever had”

Eric Schmidt, Former Google-CEO & Co-founder of Schmidt Futures

#Baba Ka Dhaba, #Justice for Sushant Singh Rajput #Justice for Rhea #Justice for George Floyd #Black Lives Matter #Dalit Lives Matter #Metoo are some of the recent most popular hashtags on social media leading to huge outpouring of sentiments from the public creating a huge impact in real lives sometimes positively and sometimes negatively. This book is about the power of the smartphone and the internet which made these hashtags popular.

This book “India Connected” by Ravi Agarwal celebrates the power of the internet and smartphone that is leading to unthinkable and unpredictable changes in people’s lives. The book is quite relevant at this time as India is at the cusp of change and especially in the Covid period when a smartphone with internet looks like the driving force behind everything. As per the author, the smartphone is transforming Indian democracy in an unprecedented manner. As he also adds, “the influence of smartphones on the world’s largest democracy is pervasive and irreversible, disruptive, creative, unsettling and compelling.”

The author has travelled to different cities of India and met with innovators, founders, teachers, common people, students, government officials, villagers who are an important part of this digital revolution. This whole book seems like a conversation between the author and these people. The author has divided the book into three parts, and each part consists of two or three chapters. The first part is about the ‘opportunity’, the second part is about ‘society’ and the third part is about ‘the State’ vis a vis, their interplay with the digital revolution.

The book has provided a balanced perspective on the smartphone revolution in the country. How the smartphone with the internet is bringing about substantive changes in the lives of people, providing opportunities for education and employment and also empowering the women in villages. How a smartphone is changing people’s lives, their thinking, and their dating patterns. And also how the young generation is getting addicted to their smartphones leading to anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. How smartphone has also made pornography easily available and also provided an outlet for venting out the frustration of the youth through trolling, rumor and prejudice. In the last part of the book, the author writes about the role of the State vis a vis the whole internet saga unfolding in the country at an unprecedented level.

For the author, the internet-enabled smartphone will mean the same for India as the automobile was for America. “The smartphone is the embodiment of the new Indian dream.” A Smartphone is changing Indian people’s lives in various ways in which they live, learn, love, work and play. The stories narrated in the book make it an interesting read and let you think how differently the smartphone is impacting the people of Indian society.

However, the author also talks about the challenges of the smartphone revolution in the country. Fake news, trolling, hate crimes, cyberbullying, mass piracy, etc. are creating huge challenges for the whole society and it also impacts the society negatively leading to crimes and polarization in the society. Smartphone addiction is making teenagers depressed and anxious. Teenagers are suffering from ‘nomophobia’, and it is impacting their lives very badly. As the author mentioned in the book, smartphone addiction can neurologically damage a young person’s brain in the same way as cocaine addiction can. It seems that smartphones are destroying the younger generation, but there are millions who will not have the access of these ‘magic devices’ as the author call them because they don’t have resources and they are illiterate.

As the recent Netflix documentary, ‘The Social Dilemma’ revealed that the social media giants are manipulating our minds and we are doing what they want us to do. The recent social media circus around a tragic death of Bollywood actor and subsequent media frenzy leading to arrest of his girlfriend reflects the negativity these social media sites bringing in the people. The author has shown how the consumption of pornography has increased exponentially in our society and how some people believe that it is leading to an increase in rape cases..

The last chapters of the book show that how the State is acting as a big brother and shutting the internet as per their own interests especially in Kashmir in the name of stopping unrest and terrorism when internet started giving an outlet to Kashmiri people to show their outrage. The book also talks about the whole fiasco of free basics and internet.org and how civil-society activism led TRAI to rule against it in 2016. Digital money has become an important part of the Indian economy through some homegrown startups and obviously the government of India’s ill-conceived moves of demonetization gave them a push.

I really enjoyed reading the second and third part of the book. It’s really insightful and also scary to know how internet enabled smartphone is creating innumerable problems in the society but also if used properly making positive changes in the people’s lives. So the way the author of the book tells that “India Connected is a story about change and it is a story that has just begun and the next chapters of the story will depend on how these technologies are harnessed and regulated”, there is a need to create more awareness and sensitization among the youth about the problems emerging due to these technologies and also create mechanisms and regulations to deal with the same. The recent story of #BabakaDhaba is a great example where a smartphone & social media can bring so much positivity and hope in someone’s life.

An open slab of drain water lane on pottery road….

“Time is so strange and life is twice as strange”

Ray Bradbury

The beautiful pottery road passes the left side of my current house in Bengaluru. The road is visible to me from my balcony all the time. It’s been more than a month, I noticed one strange thing on pottery road just in front of our house. All slabs were recently repaired and cemented by the people but this one slab was kept open just behind this huge tree with full of a green canopy, almost every time, I go near this tree, I click a picture of it because it’s beautiful. Every day I notice, a few people coming and just getting down through that open slab and fill water in different sizes of the pot. And these people live in a nearby slum area.

Whenever I saw it, It compelled me to think about the people who don’t have everyday water for daily use and fill it from this somehow unusual drain water lane. This whole thing brought two kinds of emotions into my mind: the first one is that I was feeling sad that even till today people in our country don’t have access to water and they have to fulfill their basic necessities through unusual ways and the second feeling was about the Indianness way of dealing things, how did someone get to know that there is water source just below that one slab, how did those people decide not to cement that particular slab, how everyone in the slum area got to know about this water source and they started coming and filling water from there? And how come no one from the road administration department did care to know why one slab of this drain water lane is still open?

Whatever is the reason, this open slab of drain water lane is acting as a ray of hope for people leaving in nearby area and also pottery road finally living up to its name.

Is it a People’s Constitution?

“The constitution is not for the exclusive benefit of governments and states; it is not only for lawyers and politicians and officials and those highly placed. It also exists for the common man, for the poor and the humble, for those who have businesses at stake, ‘for the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick maker'”

Justice Vivian Bose, 1956

While I was reading this book that celebrates the contribution of ordinary people in shaping the constitution of India, a heinous and brutal crime was being committed in the largest State of India. A Dalit girl was brutally raped by upper caste men in the Hatharas district of UP and she subsequently succumbs to her injury in a Delhi hospital. But the Orwellian thing about the whole incident is that the girl was denied dignity even in her death. Her body was cremated in the mid-night without informing her family, and the police didn’t give access to her family to see her one last time. It shows that even after the seven decades of the enactment of the Constitution of India, justice seems very far away especially for the marginalized sections of the society though, this book paints a different picture altogether.

People’s Constitution turns out to be a unique book for me because even till now I used to think that fighting for constitutional rights and going to Supreme Court has always been the prerogative of the educated and the elites of our country. The book gives the subaltern perspective on Indian Constitutional Law and constitutional rights and how the Constitution of India was shaped and transformed by the marginalized sections of the society. As the author of this book puts it, ” the Constitution didn’t descend upon the people; it was produced and reproduced in everyday encounters.”

The book narrates the cases of constitutional significance led by ordinary people during the first two decades of the enactment of the Constitution of India. It shows that how the honest prostitutes, invisible butchers, Marwari merchants, vegetable vendors, and other ordinary citizens showed exceptional courage and also ‘constitutional consciousness’ in those days itself. They took the legal route to fight for their fundamental rights. The idea is that constitution was interpreted in different ways by the ordinary people of the country and it was not the only prerogative of the elites. And the fascinating thing about this book is that the author has taken special effort to sit in the Supreme Court archive room and go through the important government orders, notifications, documents and the arguments exchanged between both the parties and showed in his book that various things happen around an important case when the case is being heard in the Supreme Court.

And the best thing I liked about this book was that the litigation/case in the court should never be seen in terms of winning and losing. The arguments exchanged in the courtroom and the discussion outside in media and in the public have a huge significance because it brings out all the nuances of that particular issue and what was the public sentiment about it and how it was played around in the public memory.

Also, I noticed one more interesting pattern, how the document of the Constitution of India was being used by both the parties who were asking for their rights and other who were trying to prohibit or ban the particular activity. For instance: if Husna Bai was asking from the Court to protect her freedom of trade and profession of prostitution, at the same time, her critics and also Durga Bhai Deshmukh & Rameshwari Nehru had been instrumental in enactment of prohibitions laws on human trafficking and forced labor on the basis of Article 23 of the Constitution. And also in the case of banning cow-slaughter on the basis of Article 28 leading to The Hanif Querishi Case displayed that proponents and opponents of the ‘cow slaughter ban’ chose the constitutional methods to fulfill their goals.

The author claims that the Indian constitutionalism is still unexplored and understudied because it defies easy explanations. The constitutionalism as a concept is based on the desirability of the rule of law rather than the arbitrary rule of men, but the irony is that both simultaneously exist in India as we can see the ordinary people going to court to fight for their fundamental rights and at the same time there is no rule of law in many parts of the country.

The important argument of the author is that these cases filed by ordinary people were mostly related to their daily lives. And these ordinary people were from mostly minority communities or subaltern groups. And the final argument is that these people went to court to secure their economic rights which were getting hampered as the new Indian State was trying to regulate the market.

In just 228 pages the author has shown the remarkable stories of marginalized and deprived sections of the society that have already been started striving for their constitutional rights just after the enactment of the Constitution of India. The book is quite comprehensive, and most of the time feels like an academic research paper 😉 However, the book is one of the unique attempts to recognize the study of constitutionalism from below and how the constitution created a platform through which the citizens and the State can communicate with each other.

However, the reach of the Indian Constitution for the marginalized sections of the society has not been substantive enough till now. Though the author celebrates the contribution and participation of the marginalized sections as well as minority communities of the Indian society in using the newly enacted Constitution to empower themselves. However, I still believe in the short story of “Naya Kanoon” (The New-Constitution), also mentioned in the book, by one of the greatest Urdu writers Sadaat Hasan Manto written in the context of the Government of Indian Act 1935. This story is still relevant because the ordinary poor people, (remember the migrant crisis during the lockdown), still treated in the same way by the State as the Ustaad Mangu, the tonga driver in this story was treated by the policeman. So the Kanoon is still the “old one”.

A Story of Courage & Hope

Far, far away, someone was weeping, but the world was sleeping, any dream will do.

Andrew lloyd Webber & Timothy Rice

“No women wants to get into sex work. It’s not that they made a choice, but rather that they had no choice to make. Their life is tough but sex workers so often just to live to create a better future for their kids. It is the single overriding reason why they carry on.”

Excerpt from the Book

I read this book last year, and it hit me quite hard. We can really never understand what circumstances made someone choose the profession of sex work especially at the bottom of the pyramid. However, I didn’t get enough peace and thinking space for writing the review of this book. I don’t know how to express my lack of knowledge about this topic but I still know nothing about the lives of sex-workers to comment on their profession and their lives. Honestly, I am feeling perplexed because this book shows to me that they are doing sex work out of desperation and poverty. A woman is forced to sell her body for fifty rupees or even for a meal or some milk for their infant. Thinking of this situation only makes me sad and empty. Still, these people despite facing struggles and problems in their lives, show us the courage, resilience, strength, hope, and optimism towards life and it’s so amazing, it compels the author and also me to put our problems in perspective and they seem very small.

Recently I was also reading this book called, “A People’s Constitution” where the author has dedicated one chapter that talks about sex, work and freedom in the Constitution. In this chapter, many women whose main livelihood is sex-work assert that this is their livelihood and they have the fundamental right to practice their profession that is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. However, the author of this book-Rohit Dey also informs us that the term ‘prostitution’ in India was entirely a creation of colonial law.

As the author of this book shows that there were many myths and misconceptions about sex work in India. There were absolute denial, apathy and stigma towards the idea of sex and sexuality. As per one survey, about five women in every thousand involved in sex work.

This book gives you practical lessons about public health and dealing with people and the community when they are in the most vulnerable and desperate situations. This book makes you realize how public health can be delivered through successful community participation. The role of people is very important in dealing with any virus. And we can see even during this current pandemic, the prevention of this virus is dependent on people’s following of some basic rules. And when people have the ownership and they are engaged in dealing with the problem, they will come up with innovative solutions.

As the author shows the successful role of the community in the Sonagachi area in Kolkata. And the best thing is that they have organised themselves to deliver services safely, addressing the root cause of their vulnerability and also emerged as prime agents of change. They have created their own association named Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Cooperative (DMSC) which has three parts: Service provision including clinics, a cooperative bank, and a cultural wing. And this association is also quite vocal about recognition of sex work as an occupation and preserving & protecting their occupational rights asserting that it’s their fundamental rights.

However, there are some revelations in the book: For instance, brothel sex is very minimal in the country. In fact, it is dominated by street-based sex work and also practiced in homes by middle-class women to keep their houses running and sometimes for funding the education of their kids. The author also talks about ‘Devadasi tradition’ and also met various Devadasis who practice sex-work. As the author finds out during his travel to these places and speaking to affected women, the Devadasi tradition has become a front for impoverished parents to get their young daughters into sex work. In fact, as per the Policy Brief on Devadasi legislations published by CLPR, shows that poverty, caste domination, patriarchy & religion are the main causes for the Devdasi system to still flourish.

The best thing mentioned in this book about the Avahan mission led by the author Ashok Alexander with the support of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is that it made a substantial improvement in the lives of sex-workers and halted the HIV virus among the most vulnerable people in the country. The Avahan movement helped India to achieve one of the Millenium Development Goals (Goal 6-To combat HIV/AIDS). However, this achievement was never celebrated due to the stigma attached to this disease.

The most touching part of this book was narration of those stories of hope and courage. Despite all odds and facing so many challenges, these people show us how to smile even if you are in the most desperate and vulnerable situation and how not to lose hope anytime. The story of Parvati ( an acid attack victim & also a sex worker), Kamla (who was raped by five men), Danny (got infected to HIV in his mother’s womb), Kavita( a sex-worker from Shimoga who later on became part of Avahan and Ashodaya), Shahid ( a HIV positive who later on became director of program for Ashodaya) and many others are stories of hope and courage. Our lives look so easy and comfortable as compared to their lives and even after this, we crib about many things but they are struggling and smiling and spending each day living a life of dignity in so much adversity.

And in the end, you have nothing but these moving & memorable stories to think about and remember.

How to eradicate poverty from the world?

Nothing is more dreadfully painful than poverty, and gripping poverty robs a man of the lofty nobility of his descent”- Thiruvallur

On July 10th, 2020, a six-year-old girl fell into a stormwater drain in the Marathahalli area while playing with her friends. She is the daughter of Nityananda and Boni Koli. They are migrants from Assam, living in the nearby slum area. Her father works as a security guard and mother as a domestic worker. And there has been no update on this incident till now. Who is responsible for this tragic incident? This incident shows the ‘hazards of being poor’ as also mentioned by the authors of this book. The poor people’s lives inextricably linked to huge amounts of risks not only related to income/food but also related to health, political violence, crime, and different kinds of shocks like the recently declared lock down amid the covid-19 pandemic.

This book has always been part of my reading list but when both the authors of this book won the Nobel prize last year, I decided that I have to finish this book soon. The curiosity and the zeal to find solutions how to eradicate poverty and why they do whatever they do in their lives and why policies world over fail to bring about a substantial difference in their lives, has always intrigued me.

“Poverty leads to an intolerable waste of talent. Poverty is not just a lack of money; it is not having the capability to realize one’s full potential as a human being.”

Amartya Sen

I have always been moved by people’s lives. If I see people living in difficult circumstances, I always ask myself why life is so unfair for a few people and a bed of roses for some. And many times I felt like crying inside because I am helpless as if I can’t do anything about it. Why someone has to lose its dignity because of a lack of resources. This is inhuman. Poverty is itself so inhuman. It makes you miserable from inside and you don’t have the strength to face the world.

These are some of the pertinent questions asked by the authors in this book. Why is there still poverty in the world or India? Why well thought out policies of the government of India have been failing to eradicate poverty for a long time? Why does no one ask the poor about their choices, their priorities, and why they are making the choices what are they making? It is absolutely necessary to understand the reasons behind their choices/decisions in life to frame better policies for eradicating poverty?

It’s not that the world has not tried to eradicate poverty. However, there are different ideologies/views present in the world to solve the problem of poverty. Jeffrey Sachs in his book, “The End of Poverty” says that ‘foreign aid’ is the key. Even aid establishment institutions like the United Nations and the World Health Organization believe in spending money on aid. William Easterly, Dambisa Moyo & others are not in favor of providing aid as they both argue that aid does more harm than good. They believe that we should respect people’s freedom if they don’t want anything, there is no point in forcing it upon them. Darren Acemoglu & James A Robinson’s theory of institutions given in his famous book-“Why Nations Fail”, believes in a fundamental change of the institutions to bring about any positive change in the country. However, there is hardly any focus on understanding the choices of the people and why they do what they do.

Mostly we judge poor people about the choices they make in their lives. Why don’t they save enough for them for the difficult period? Why do they produce many kids if they can’t afford a better life for them? Why don’t they take benefits of the government schemes? Why poor people don’t want health insurance? Do the poor really have a choice to control their fertility decisions? Why children of the poor don’t learn anything despite going to schools? Why don’t they get enough nutrients?

The authors had made it clear that there is really no difference between the decision-making of the poor and other people because they are also normal human beings. They also have the same problems of temptations, lack of self-control, weak beliefs, procrastination, and the problem of ‘time inconsistency’. Through various surveys, interviews and other evidence, the authors have shown that somehow the whole system is designed or exists in a way that makes it really impossible for the poor to come out of the vicious circle of poverty. For instance, they don’t have access to formal banking institutions and if they have, they have to pay higher interest rates, they don’t have any fallback option in the condition of shocks like demonetization or the recent lockdown, poor children are not wanted in schools unless they show some exceptional capabilities and also forced to drop out, they don’t have faith in the public health system because of the combination of beliefs as well as psychological sunk cost effect. And because of all these things, the poor may become skeptical about supposed opportunities and the possibility of any radical change in their lives, and also since they suffer from low depression, they lack the capacity to make sound decisions. And the vicious circle continues.

However, it’s not all doomsday scenario as the authors have also provided ways that can be used to bring about substantial change in the lives of the people. The fundamental argument of the authors is that ‘it is not always necessary to fundamentally change the institutions to bring about any positive difference rather change can also happen at the margin.’ According to the authors, though they didn’t find any magic bullet, they certainly found out few ways to improve the lives of the poor:

  1. Poor lack of credible information. So there is a need for innovative, credible, and simple information campaigns to make people aware of various schemes and their benefits and also their rights.
  2. Use the default options and nudges to enforce positive behaviors as they don’t have enough time & resources to think about themselves to make decisions.
  3. There are reasons like moral hazards, adverse selection, and lack of self-control that prevent markets to exist for the poor.
  4. Policies are failed in poor countries because of three Is-Ideology, Inertia and Ignorance and there is a need to realize the fact that change can also happen at the margin.
  5. There is a need to change the expectations of people. There was evidence that when villagers in remote areas of Karnataka got to know that girls can get jobs if they are skilled in computers, they started sending their girls to school.

Not only this, micro-credit, better education for their children, good jobs, insurance against health & weather disasters, social safety-net and minimum income support can help the poor to get out of the trap. And these small initiatives will bring a little bit of hope and comfort in their lives which will give them strength and courage to think about their future. However, as even authors of this book agree that there is a lot more to know and understand regarding the lives of people. Despite that in only 273 pages, the authors have talked about all the basic problems that keep the poor in the vicious circle and what can be done and how we should not reduce all the problems to the same set of general principles. The time has come to listen the poor and the understand the logic of their choices.

Finding Meaning in Life!!

“The salvation of man is through love and in love”

“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”- Nietzsche

The human mind is an enigma. It’s nearly impossible to understand the complexity of the human mind, and what I feel is that we create assumptions, theories and try to predict the nature of human beings but we can never be one hundred percent certain what’s going on in someone’s mind. I might be wrong. But till now my experiences of extremity in my life, readings of Behavioral sciences, self-help books, and also studying a little bit of psychology because one of my aunts did post-graduation in psychology and she used to narrate various stories to me in my childhood, compel me to think like this.

The recent passing away of Sushant Singh Rajput will always be a riddle because no one knows what was going on in his bright mind. Why would he do something like this? When he was like an inspiration to the younger generation and also quite intelligent, driven, hardworking, passionate about his work. Then how he didn’t find one reason to make his life meaningful at that moment when he felt broken from inside. Why did he feel emptiness and meaninglessness in his life? By the way, I am not here to comment on his life or anything because even I also used to look up to him as an inspiration. The author of this book and Sushant Singh Rajput had one common thing. They both quoted Nietzsche. The author has used the above-mentioned quote( “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”) many times in the book. The main message of this book is hidden in this quote. If we have found out our ‘why’ to live, we can survive any circumstances in our life.

The author narrates his personal experience living as a prisoner in a concentration camp during the Holocaust period and makes the reader believe that whatever conditions and circumstances you face in your life, it’s up to you how you respond to it. It’s up to you not to give up and have hope. Because “You cannot control what happens to you in life. but you can always control what you will feel and do about what happens to you,says the author. As the author kept himself alive and also kept himself hopeful, thinking about his wife and meeting her again and also dreamt of giving lectures about the psychological sessions to be learned from the Auschwitz experience.

As per the author’s finding, life is a quest for meaning and not a quest for pleasure or power as believed by Freud and Alfred Adler respectively. There are three sources of meaning to life, according to the author:

  • In work-doing something significant
  • In love-care for another person or by experiencing something; love is the ultimate and highest goal to which man can aspire for
  • In courage-in difficult time; the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering

This book has tremendously changed my perspective on life, love, suffering, and courage. Your work/passion can be the reason for your happiness and you don’t have to run for it, you have to dedicate yourself towards it. The author has a unique perspective on love. He was deeply in love with his wife even when he was not aware of her whereabouts or sure about her being alive. Because loving someone can be the reason for your life and you don’t need that person physically present or even alive to love that person, tells the author.

His thoughts about ‘suffering’ take you on a spiritual journey. If life has a meaning, then there must be a meaning in suffering. And if suffering has a meaning or a reason, it will not remain as suffering. I don’t know what best example I can give for this but somehow, when I was preparing for Civil services, It was really tough emotionally and financially both but I still remember those days as one of the best days of my life because I had one reason: I was chasing my dream. And no power on earth can take that ‘experience’ from me even if I didn’t get final selection in that examination even after appearing for interview twice.

“That which does not kill me makes me stronger.”

Nietzsche

And the best thing about suffering as told by the author is that we can never fathom someone else’s suffering because the size of human suffering is absolutely relative. But the most amazing thing is that a tiny thing/incident can give you the greatest joys of your life.

I really can’t compare this current pandemic to the situation of concentration camps but an analogy can definitely be drawn. Even in a terrible situation like living in a concentration camp when you never know when you will be sent to gas chambers, the author kept himself sane. Similarly, surviving during this pandemic is quite hard for everyone because it has turned everyone’s life upside down. However, this is the time we need to have the courage to survive and maybe narrate the ordeals of this pandemic to our future generations or to fulfill our dreams.

So the crux of this seven-decade and only 153 pages book is that “never-give-up” and keep faith in any kind of situation because it’s you who is in charge and it’s you who can control how you respond to that particular situation. Because as the author shows through his experience of dealing with patients, his fellow prisoners, and also with people who had attempted ‘self-harm’ in past that there is a close linkage between loss of hope and the state of immunity of the body and how it can have a lethal effect on your body. In the last few pages of his book, he also talks about his logo-therapy which literally means ‘to find a meaning in one’s life’ and how this therapy re-humanized psychiatry and became the third stream of psychotherapy.

If you have not found ‘meaning’ still in this blog, let me make it more clear to you: It’s us who have to change our ‘attitude’ towards life and it really does not matter what we expect from our life but rather what life expects from us. It’s us who will have to give meaning to our lives by taking the responsibility in finding the right answers to our quest to live.

What matters in the End?

“Death is inevitable; Each moment is precious; Nothing matters in the End”

Recently, in a small conversation, I said, “We all are going to die” in the context of this dreaded pandemic. I could see the expression of people disliking that comment because no one wants to talk about death in our society. Death is seen as inauspicious and something bad. We all want to live in a fantasy and don’t want to think or realize that we all have limited time. And this thinking has repercussions not only on our health but also on our future. As the author says, “how we seek to spend our time may depend on how much time we perceive you will live forever.”

This book is actually about the experience of death and how the medicine and medical system have failed to understand how to deal with a finite life and make final years a joyful experience than torturous days of your life. And how do we forget the inevitability of death and the fleeting nature of life? And when we become old, we don’t want to talk about death, we talk about living.

The beauty of this book is that it has been written by a surgeon who is also a professor at Harvard Medical School. This book has his personal accounts of dealing with terminal patients and also the death of his own father. The author shows through his various interview of patients suffering from a terminal illness that how the medical system has failed to educate the medical professionals about aging, frailty, or dying. And how to inform or educate a patient about his condition? How the whole process unfolds and how does it make an impact the people around them?

I remember even I didn’t understand the value of death, and what does death means to me till someone close died in my family. The problem with us as a society is that we teach everyone, not so important things – earn a lot of money, build a big house, clear all damn exams existing in the world by memorizing all formulas, cram an entire dictionary for that GRE examination and also prepare to go abroad and earn a shit load of money. But no one teaches us how we should live our lives. What is the meaning of death? And especially, when we become old, we don’t know what we are fighting for. What are our priorities? What are the trade-offs we are willing to make? We don’t discuss what are our fears/hope for the future. What are we willing to sacrifice? What are we willing to lose, and what are we not willing to lose?

How care of the elderly changed from ‘multi-generational systems support’ provided by the family to institutionalized nursing homes in our times. Modern nursing homes act as prisons. The Elderly don’t feel good in these homes. They feel restricted, chained and their health gets worse in these nursing homes. Old people living here always felt the longing for being at home where they can have their privacy and the ‘purpose of living’ in their everyday life.

We are so engrossed in living this life that we forgot to ask the question what’s the purpose of our lives? Did we ever ask this question to us? What makes life worth living when we will become old and frail and unable to care for ourselves? To answer this question, the author discusses psychologist Abraham Maslow‘s influential paper, “A Theory of Human Motivation” which is depicted in the form of a pyramid and talks about the hierarchy of needs of the people. According to Maslow, ‘safety’ and ‘survival’ remain the primary and fundamental goals of our life even in our old age.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs

Old age only brings some slowness and calmness in our lives. People in old age focus on being rather than doing and they live in a present than the future. Old age generally functions at the peak of this pyramid and focuses on ‘self-actualization.’ “Living is a kind of skill. The calm and wisdom of old are achieved over time,” says the author. As per various experiments (discussed in this book by the author) conducted during some crises like the 9/11 attacks, the SARS epidemic 2003, etc., old and young both valued the bliss of life and focused on being rather than doing. This might be true for the current pandemic also. People these days from both young or old generation are slowly realizing the meaning of life.

This book also shows the results of experiments of assisted living done on various old people where they were given small freedoms in terms of taking care of plants, spending time with a cat, a dog or a bird, etc., helped them to live a longer life. The most important finding of the experiment was “having a reason to live” reduced the death rate. Harvard Philosopher Josiah Royce in his book, “The Philosophy of Loyalty,” inform us that people seek a cause beyond themselves. That cause could be anything: it can be small or very big. ‘We all require devotion to something more than ourselves for our lives to be endurable.’

The only way death is not meaningless is to see yourself as part of something greater: a family, a community, a society. If you don’t, mortality is only a horror. But if you do, it is not.

Josiah Royce(The Philosophy of Loyalty)

The biggest problem in the medical sector is that they never focused on the well-being of the people, rather they focused on health. They concentrated on repair/maintenance of our body parts and not the nurturing of the human soul. Not only medical field but the society as a whole needs to understand this, as people grow old and become aware of their fleeting life, they are more interested in writing the story of their lives and believe in simply being rather than doing.

Amid this pandemic, there is a need to remember our old traditions of the ‘art of dying’ and accept the death and decline as normal and eternal truth. Also, be ready to accept our lives in old age that will come along with sickness, frailty, isolation and we will need the support and care of others. We should rather not spend the last days of our life in ICU and spend it with our family members. In just 263 pages, the author has said a lot of things about life and death and most importantly how medical science/field can correct the wrong committed till today not accepting the inevitability of old age and death. Acceptance will lead to finding solutions that can make old people’s lives better and joyful in their last days.

‘Pursuit of Happiness’ in a Classroom

Education is meaningless without happiness” – Manish Sisodia
Image Credit: Clicked by me

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say and what you do are in harmony”

Mahatma Gandhi

It took one microorganism to make us aware of the fleeting nature of this life. There is a sense of realization among all of us about a lot of things. How all of us were just running a rat race to reach somewhere which we didn’t even know? We wanted to be productive 24*7 and 365 days of the year. We were collecting all material resources but we didn’t have enough time to experience the pleasure of those things. The current lock down forced us to slow down. This pandemic made us realize the value of happiness, satisfaction and living our life in the moment. This whole crisis is reminding us to be sensitive towards other human beings, nature and, especially towards our own lives.

However, a lot of us are not happy now and also we were not happy earlier. When things were so-called normal, we had other problems to talk about and now in this ‘new normal’, we are not happy because our movement is restricted, we are not able to go out and do whatever we want. As per the World Happiness Report 2020, India was ranked 144 out of 156 countries. Why do Indians not perceive themselves to be happy? What is the reason behind it? Did we ever learn about happiness in our schools or colleges? Did someone from our family ever talked about happiness or being mindful of our thoughts and emotions?

Though whenever we touched the feet of our elders, they told us to ‘be happy’, no one taught us how to be happy and what is happiness and what needs to be done to achieve happiness. We realize the value of happiness as we grow or we face some difficult phases in our life or maybe some people might be realizing the value of happiness during this lock down amid the unprecedented corona virus pandemic.

Nevertheless, the Delhi government’s experiment to start a happiness class in schools for class I to VIII has not only inspired the other Indian states but also other countries. During the recent visit by the US President, the first lady Millenia Trump visited one of the schools of Delhi government and attended the happiness class and found it “very inspiring”. This book is a story of the Delhi education model. It’s written by the education minister and the Deputy Chief Minister in the Delhi government. Written in a very simple language and a few pages, he covers all the radical reforms as well as innovative ideas taken by his team to make this idea a talking point for not only the country but also for the world.He, along with his colleagues Atishi Marlena and Shailendra Sharma took this experiment of bringing about radical reforms in the education system of the Delhi government.

These reforms are holistic as it covered almost every aspect be it infrastructure, allocation of the budget towards the education sector, empowering the principal to appoint estate managers and providing high- quality training to teachers, engaging parents through mega-PTM and School Management Committee(SMC) , and most importantly creating the education model of coexistence through happiness classes and entrepreneurship mindset curriculum.

Starting a happiness class with a happiness curriculum in a government school of India is a path-breaking step by the Delhi government towards pursuing happiness not only as a State but as a nation. Happiness curriculum is based on the “co existential thought” (Madhasth Darshan) inspired by education philosopher A Nagraj. This thought is based on understanding all aspects of life, including spiritual, intellectual behaviour, and material. The idea is to address the mental and emotional needs of the children by creating a stimulating environment through mindfulness, critical thinking, story-telling, and activity-based discussions where children reflect on their thoughts and reactions scientifically. Through these processes, the child becomes self-aware and also towards family, society, and its surroundings.

Anecdotal evidence shows that there have been noticeable changes happening among the children. Behavior of students is changing towards their teachers and parents. They are becoming inquisitive towards learning other subjects. This book mentions some interesting anecdotes from happiness class where one child started asking his mother if there is any food for her before eating dinner and one kid became aware of his father’s financial situation and stopped asking for an expensive school bag.

It is so ironic for us as a society as well as a nation that we taught our children mathematics, science, history, geography, economics, business, etc, but we never taught them how to be happy, how to be mindful of our thoughts, how to critically analyze any issue before making any judgement, how to live in harmony with nature. We learned how to make money but we didn’t know how to live our lives with satisfaction and enjoyment because it’s not about material things, a high paying job or, a big house we have but its about how do we feel inside? Are we able to understand our emotions? Why are we feeling what we are feeling?

Amid this pandemic leading to this moment of reflection, we as a family, as a society and as a nation need to realize the value of inculcating happiness, self-awareness, satisfaction, and how to live in harmony with nature. So, this is the moment we should start pursuing the feeling of happiness forever as an individual, as a family, as a society, and as a nation.

This blog has been republished by The Arm Chair Journal. Please find the link here.

The Quarantine Tree of Happiness

P.C.: Minaxi; Image only for Representation Purpose

It’s been a while since ‘new normal’ is ‘actual normal’. Everyone is living a life that none of us had ever imagined. A lot of things have changed, and are changing along with each passing day, which makes me wonder whether or not this world is going to be better or the same.

Life in quarantine is difficult for many people due to various reasons yet for few this came as a blessing. People who never had time to live in the moment are realizing what it means to live in the moment. Students, who complained of shorter holidays are now enjoying a long break. Some are happy, but some are having second thoughts about the unforeseen future, yet each one of us is living, learning, or longing for things to be alright and back to normalcy.

A few years back, I met someone who gave me profound advice on how to be happy and grateful for everything you have, close your eyes and remember about a place, person or perspective that made you believe in something which you otherwise have never thought off, which made you smile even for a second or taken you somewhere, far away from your self. You are, what you make others feel about themselves.

And the big question is how to nurture your tree of happiness during this quarantine period? Why not all of us plant a sapling or bury some seeds and remember this lock down as something extraordinary, which happened to make us realize the importance of intangible feelings and emotions we have forgotten long back. I know, for some people this won’t be possible due to various constraints, but for those it is feasible they have this chance and can surely go for it and do it. Somewhere down the line, from now when we look back and realize what we did was something meaningful for the life and to mother nature, even when everything was gloomy and uncertain, the memory of our quarantine tree and its leaves would shine and beam through our thoughts and give us the feeling of sustainability worth cherishing.

Make a list of all the happy places you have been or planning to go gives you a sense of belonging to that particular place, time, and thought. Happiness binds you to the places you want to be. Rejoicing is a choice, a story which brings a tear of happiness in your eyes, a movie or play that makes you wonder, a child whose glimpse makes your day delightful, a cup of tea which brings the smile on your face, the smell of your garden, the fragrance of old perfume, the box of un-posted letters, the magic of invisibility of everything that you think in a day is amazing and is what happiness looks like.

The most important thing is to become “mindfulness of your thoughts and feelings”. If you are aware of your emotions and feelings, the process of being happy has started. There are no lesson plans, or theorems needed for happiness, or its learning outcomes, happiness is simply the treasure of your heart and how large it can be for others who can not do anything for you, a single stroke of happiness transforms everything in life, and the thread of happy feelings often weaves the best warmer to wrap around your thoughts. Taking examples of happiness are ways of telling you that nothing can deter your power if you decide What happiness means to you, and Where you truly find it, irrespective of its kind, that is Material, Behavioural, Intellectual or Experiential, based on Modal of Happiness as proposed by A. Nagaraj (1999). So the most important thing is to become ‘mindfulness of your thoughts and your feelings’

Humans have a significant capacity to transform their thoughts into invigorated learning and reach out to millions of others needing your help to be happy.

“Choose happiness above everything else, not because you have better things to do but things will be better, if you are contented and truly happy from within. Seeking happiness leads you to yourself and virtues of life which gives you clarity of thoughts and rationality of emotions.”

Stay happy and preach happiness.
Be fortunate enough and thankful for your happy thoughts which travels all through you.
Show gratitude, when you can not do anything else.
Stay humble and choose kindness.
Be buoyant.
2020 will bring out sanguine hope of thinking.

Guest Post: This blog is authored by Minaxi. She is a research scholar in education. She is a very close friend of mine. This blog has been edited by Ritambhara. All views expressed are personal.

Why Political Science & IR is the best optional for UPSC?

The pursuit of knowing was freedom to me, the right to declare your own curiosities and follow them through all manner of books. I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free. Slowly, I was discovering myself.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Many civil services aspirants reached out to me to share my experience about taking Political Science and International Relations as the optional for my UPSC attempts. I gave the mains examination thrice with Political Science and International Relations as optional and qualified twice for the interview with this optional. I believe that Political Science and International Relations is one of the best optional subjects for anyone appearing for Civil Services Examination and this is my personal experience. So, I am not forcing anyone to take this optional and it absolutely depend on the person’s own interest and ideas. In this blog post, I will be talking about the pros and cons of taking Political Science and International Relations:

PROS:

  • It helps you to prepare for the General Studies paper also as the syllabus of these optional overlaps with General Studies Paper I, II, and IV
  • Taking this optional means that you have to read not only Modern history, World history, Indian Politics but also International Relations
  • The Political Theory part of this optional make you think about ethical and philosophical issues which are helpful in Ethics, Integrity & Aptitude paper and also helpful in answer writing
  • Reading Political Science & IR also helps you to understand the context of things happening in the country and also around the world, it also helps you to interlink concepts and understand things in a better manner
  • The best advantage of taking Political Science & IR is that it also helps you during interview preparation

CONS:

  • This optional is quite vast and you need to read a lot to have a solid grip on this paper
  • If you are not a regular reader of the newspapers, you will find it difficult to prepare for this optional paper
  • For some people, the Political theory part is boring which makes you difficult to ace in the first paper.

Please also read the posts below where I list the important books, I read on Modern India, Indian Government & Politics and Comparative Politics & International Relations: