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Guest Post by Susrita Roy: Speaking aloud on the Day of Silence

A rare guest post on my blog from my colleague and friend Susrita, who thinks deep and smiles broadly. Will gladly convey your comments and feedback to her as you react to her post on a complex and contentious topic.

This year the Day of Silence is going to be celebrated on the April 17, 2015. In the myriad list of special days in a year which are celebrated in order to generate awareness, sensitize and what-have-you, this day is much the opposite. It is a day to silently protest against the bullying and harassment of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and trans-genders (LGBT) and their supportersto symbolically represent the silencing of LGBT community. This year I chose to celebrate this day by asking few questions to my heterosexual counterparts with the hope that by answering these questions they may be able to reflect better on their beliefs about homosexuality.

The set of questions I will pose are an adapted and abridged version of “Heterosexual Questionnaire” of Martin Rochlin, who was a pioneer in the field of gay-affirmative psychotherapy. Although almost four decades have passed since this questionnaire was prepared, much of this  remains relevant, especially because the mindset of heterosexual community about their homosexual counterparts has not really undergone much change in these years. It is not very uncommon for a member of the LGBT community to encounter one such question each and every day of their lives. The leading thoughts are primarily my responses which have been echoed by many like-minded individuals.

Question 1: What do you think caused your heterosexuality?

Leading thoughts: If we believe that heterosexuality came to me naturally, why is it hard to believe that it would have been the same way for a homosexual. On the other hand if we believe that there was some incident which triggered our heterosexuality then it means that prior to that incident we too were homosexual. And in that stage also we were the same human being, with same emotions and same thoughts.

Question 2:How can you enjoy an emotionally fulfilling experience with the person of the other sex when there are such vast differences between you?

Leading thoughts: How many of us believe that we connect better, have more fun and are less likely to be judged by our same sex partners? How many times have we thought that if you stayed with a same sex friend life would be much less complicated?

Question 3: A disproportionate majority of child molesters are heterosexual men, do you consider it safe to expose your children to heterosexual male teacher, pediatrician and scout master?

Leading thoughts: Rape of young girls and child sexual abuse is very often in news and the perpetrators are mainly male heterosexuals. In such a milieu do we still think that our child is unsafe with a homosexual teacher?

Question 4: Considering the menace of overpopulation how could the human race survive if everyone was heterosexual?

Leading thoughts: Isn’t it ironically, on one side we want everyone to be heterosexual and on the other side we don’t want them to reproduce? Isn’t that the only advantage of a heterosexual relationship over a homosexual one!

Question 5: Could it be that you heterosexuality stems from a neurotic fear of others of the same sex?

Leading thoughts: As a girl when do we feel more unsafe, when you surrounded by only men or where there only female around you? Thus it can be confidently said that even when we oppose homosexuality, we feel safer with same sex people around us.

My unsolicited advice to all heterosexual readers who are indifferent to homosexuality is this: Please spare some time on April 17th to understand that homosexuality is as natural as heterosexuality. It is definitely not a “disease” and homosexuals are not “abnormal”. Those who have chosen to be that way have a right to do so. They do not deserve anyone’s stare or ridicule; instead they need to treated with equal dignity like the others. I, I feel that there should not be any “other”. We all belong to the same species of homosapiens with different choices of food, clothing and in this case sexuality. Various studies trying to prove that there are biological differences between homosexuals and heterosexuals have been groundless. We can choose to change our indifference to one of inclusion rather than one of ‘othering’. As for those who vehemently oppose homosexuality, I have noting to say to you as I know that you are anyway very few in numbers.

Accepting mental illness without judgement #internationalyouthday #mentalillness

I remember her as unpredictable, but affectionate. She would have very dark moods, but she could also make me laugh. She was so much older than me, yet I thought of her as my playmate, my friend and someone who would protect me, no matter what! One day, I remember she looked at my hand and said, “I am darker than you. See?” And then she slapped me, just like that, without warning! I was seven. The tears sprang into my eyes, but I did not complain. I knew she didn’t mean to hurt me.

Mangal was my father’s first cousin. She was independent and smart, full of life but gradually, over the years, the demons seized her. Diagnosed to be schizophrenic, she drifted further and further from ‘normal’ as the years went by, till she finally gave up and passed away in her forties.

But back then, in those early days of her disease cycle, we bonded. On the streets of Mumbai- in her house in Andheri, at our home in Parel, on Juhu Beach. Walking together and laughing, staying home and playing make believe games, sitting around Ajjee (my grandmother) and helping her with her work. On some days, she would be full of angst and pain, and I can still hear her voice ringing out at the unfairness of what she was experiencing! “Why me, Aati?,” she would say, addressing my Ajjee. “You tell your God to make me all right. I don’t want to be sick like this. I also want to get married, have children, I also want to go to work, have friends. Why me, Aati?”

My parents, as doctors, were the natural port of call for every emergency and every incident related to Mangal’s schizophrenia. I saw a lot up close, first hand. As a child, my family did not need to teach me to accept. The acceptance was built into the fabric of my family.  I am sure there were some who were mean, but in my immediate surroundings, I only saw people being kind to Mangal, inadvertently teaching me the most valuable lessons about empathy.

Years later, I would visit Mangal and find it hard to get through. After my marriage, when Udai was born. She would refuse to speak with me and if she even looked at me, I would see the pain in her eyes.

Today, as we reflect on our attitudes to mental diseases specifically as part of celebrating the International Day of Youth, I am thinking of the value Mangal brought to my life and the enormous courage it took for her and her family to face the realities of a mental condition. I think of the happy times, the insane giggling fits and family outings, and I resolve to be there for others like my parents were there for Mangal.

As a dear friend mentioned on her FB page today, sometimes all we need is someone to talk to. Here’s hoping we can create more neutral and non-judgmental spaces, more opportunities for young people to share what they feel.

Another thing. One of the things that struck me most about the Nazi xenophobia was the elimination of the mentally ill. No, those with mental conditions need our support and acceptance, not our hatred or violence. I experienced this first hand as a child with Mangal’s story. And I know it made me a better person.

Note: Quotes in the piece are translations from Konkani, in which Mangal and me spoke back then. And Ajee too, even now!

And apologies for the slightly disjointed, hurried, emotional post today. I’m wanting to go look for a picture of Mangal’s. Wondering where to find it!

The bald story: We need migrants and we need to talk about diversity

The buzz on migration has been growing the past few years, but it is hard to connect the dots on economic, social and right-based approaches the to the issue and even harder to understand migration in the context of urbanization and globalization, both forces that are fueling and shaping the mobility of human beings across the world.

The tragedy off Italian island Lampedusa with the drowning of 300 African migrants served to highlight the conflicts and contradictions, and how confused our understanding is on the issue of migration. This morning, The Hindu carries an excellent interview of Francois Crepeau, who is United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants. A few points he states helped me put things in perspective and am paraphrasing the highlights here for you.

1- Economies need migrants (widely rewfering to low-wage, illegal migrants in the international, esp European context) because they do unskilled, low-paid jobs that no one else wants to do and are regularly exploited while doing so

2- They subsidize industries (he cites the example of strawberry picking) that have low margins. If we really want to do away with illegal migration, we would need to subsidize or improve these industries, not clamp down on migration, which clearly is the backbone on which these industries survive. This sort of analogy holds equally true of internal migrants from rural areas to cities, except that there is no question of illegality (except for countries like China where systems like hukou restrict mobility).

3- The sovereignty of nations is hugely compromised by globalization and there is a sense of loss of control, hence an over emphasis on the protection of boundaries and clamping down on migration. It’s a misfit solution to a complex problem.

4- The plain fact is that politicians are “not up to the task of telling their populations that we need migrants-doctors abd engineers, but also we need low-skilled or unskilled migrants.” Crepeau states that this is because the discussion on migrants becomes about national identity and societies are simply not ready to accept change. There is therefore the need for a great discussion on “diversity policies- on who we are and how we see ourselves in 50 or hundred years.”

I couldn’t agree more. We do not need to see migration from a perspective of paranoia and suspicion. We cannot protect our boundaries of caste, clan, class forever. We, in India and especially in urbanizing areas of India, need a civic engagement and dialogue about diversity. In our schools and colleges, in our drawings rooms, in our workplaces, we need to talk about inclusion, humanity and human rights, we need to learn to accept the ‘other’. If we refuse to do so and continue to build the walls higher around us, we will leave behind for our children a world unlivable- a battleground, a barren waste.

Can we leverage the current mood of discontent and hunger for change?

The disturbance goes deep in urban middle class India. The events of the past few years has certainly shaken the complacency out of the average educated city dweller. Two small incidents this morning have driven this home to me.

A lady I meet every day while dropping off the kids at the bus stop, but never really gone beyond exchanging pleasantries, started a conversation with me this morning. Her statement was- It’s cold here. We just got back from Bombay. It’s so safe there. Here in Delhi, people get raped, abducted..it’s not safe here.

Well, I had just read about the 22-year old girl in Mumbai being knifed to death by her classmate right outside college. So I was really wondering how to break it to this lady- no place is ‘safe’. It could be relatively safe, but human beings especially women are always vulnerable. I took a deep breath and launched into the conversation. She heard me out about the need to change attitudes and go beyond protesting one case. But I was struck by her urgent need to discuss and express her opinions, which were not particularly well-informed.

Later, I was walking to the gate to pick up Aadyaa when a gentleman I’ve never seen before struck up a conversation with me. He was being critical about the layout and planning of the apartment complex where I live. I was amused, of course. I am a political critic; I think negative, he said! So obviously I asked him why he wasn’t spending his time criticizing the government and picking on private builders who have no incentive to design better as pretty much anything they build sells in this market. His response: Government doesn’t listen, there is no point in criticizing or saying anything, but still we do it! I discovered in a minute or two that he has been a journalist and now heads a media company.

Neither of these conversations were bizarre, but I noted a sense of discontent, frustration; a need to drive home to our government that citizen needs deserve to be speedily addressed. A cynicism, but beyond that a support of activism, a mood that leans towards demanding our rights, not sitting around waiting for them. People need to do something….there is a restlessness, a hunger for change.

Unfortunately though, we need leaders who can anchor and channelize this growing dissent. Leaders who take a stand and who can bring some rational perspectives in. Take responsibility. Listen before talking. I’m unsure if the Aam Aadmi Party can play that role. I wonder why the BJP doesn’t set up a special committee that looks into laws related to public safety and police processes. I would think a situation like this, a mood like this, would be like a fruit ripe for picking for politician. And parties would fall over each other to woo the electorate…to make the right impression, to do the right stuff, make the right noises. But no. Our leadership is bereft of ideas. Bankrupt. Lazy. Complacent.

This is the real tragedy. We are a nation of passionate people, led by a pack of indolent hyenas! I know this is a rant, but I really do wish this mood could be converted so people think of situations through multiple perspectives, come together on a platform to debate and take forward specific agendas and also to act to create more awareness, combat misconceptions and work towards a society that embraces its plurality and does not get defeated by it.

Topkapi Palace, Museums, Blue Mosque and whirling dervishes! Istanbul Day 3- June 2012

Very small things can endear you to a city. Istanbul is very much a tourism-oriented city. At every corner, you get accosted by a smiling man asking you to come and eat in his little streetside/rooftop cafe. “Biradar (brother),” he calls. And if you refuse, he says, “Maybe tomorrow?”. Don’t break his heart by refusing him, be polite and say, another time! To me, this ritual captures the essence of this genteel culture, this fascinating mix of East and West, this city that was the seat of Christianity for a thousand years, then the seat of Islam for another several centuries. With a predominantly Muslim population, today Turkey holds forth as a beacon of tolerance and modernity in a world that is increasingly suspicious, divided and myopic in the way it views other cultures.

Today was our best day here so far. We had no game plan in mind and the entire day unfolded beautifully and effortlessly, starting with a long walk by the Sea of Marmara (marble) along the Golden Horn and right next to the old city walls. We saw the locals enjoy their Sunday in the most simple and delightful ways, fishing, sunbathing, strolling.

Remains of the city wall. Typically, Ottoman masonry had stone with a few rows of brick. We saw this in several places. Very interesting texture.

Bathers…This pic reminds me vaguely of the French Impressionists painting bourgeois bathers

We ambled through Gulhane Park and into the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, which has an impressive collection of Antiquities art, especially of the necrophiliac kind!

Mummy!

These cats in Istanbul have some character! This kitten stared at me outside the museum building, while a huge and aggressive tomcat nearly ate our Shawarma roll tonight!

We visited the Topkapi Palace next, which was the seat of the Ottoman Empire in its hey days. In terms of scale, it was larger than Fatehpur Sikri perhaps, and much more ornate. Items from the royal treasury and armory were in display and despite the tourist hordes, it was fascinating. The palace is located at the highest point in the city, so the views were rewarding by themselves.

Throngs of people on a warm day

Baghdadi Pavilion..every time these guys won a war, they made a pavilion!

That is the first decent pic of both of us together on this trip…a good woman painstakingly took this one..thanks Lady!

We took in a show of whirling dervishes in the evening at a charming theater called the Hodja Pasha. It used to be a Turkish hammam, and now the ladies and gents bathing chambers have been converted into performing spaces. The dervishes whirled beautifully in their pristine white flowing robes, just as I had imagined them. I don’t quite think this is supposed to be a performing art form though, considering about 40% of the audience was dozing off!

As we got off the tram to head back to the hotel, we were captivated by the lighting on the two jewels of this city- the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, the latter we hadn’t seen yet. To our delight, it was still open and we had a peaceful viewing and opportunities for some night time photography.

Before I sign off, I have to say I love how the public spaces are used by residents in Istanbul. We’ve seen birthday celebrations replete with confetti happening on the streets. Lovers cuddle and families picnic in the gardens everywhere. Well-maintained infrastructure and efficient and low-key policing facilitate this, but it is also about a culture of using the city as a canvas for your life. How I wish we did this more in Delhi, which in my opinion rivals Istanbul in its legacy and character!

Sultanahmet Square by night

Lit up Aya Sofya. Note how full the open space in front of it is even at night.

Mukta Khatoon?

The Blue Mosque- one of the most beautifully symmetrical buildings I have seen. Quality tile work in blue inside lends in an ethereal feel and its name!

Blue Mosque

Migrants are no nuisance; they bring huge benefits to cities- Jan 30, 2012

One in seven people in the world are migrants. Yet, the common view of migrants is negative. Governments perceive as migrants to be those who are at the bottom of the income pyramid, do not pay taxes because they work in the informal economy, cause crime, etc. This is not only true of the opinion governments in the US, UK and continental Europe have about immigrants from East Europe and the Middle East. It is equally true of what the Delhi government thinks of migrants from Bihar and UP, though not with as much clarity perhaps!

I did some of my masters level research work on immigration and have always been fascinated by the sociology of immigration. The entire process of families relocating, sometimes out of choice and many times under duress, to an alien land, assimilating new culture even as they struggle to retain vestiges of their identity is a complex process that tells quite a tale about human behavior. Doing the research as an Asian Indian in the United States back in 2000-2002 (at a time when the suspicion of brown-skinned South Asians and Arabs hit a new high thanks to 9/11), I was always partial to the migrant community.

I do not believe migrants are bad news. Instead, I wonder where societies hope to get cheap labor from if migrants were to stop coming into urban centers of relative prosperity. Moreover, the hatred of migrants reflects the kind of intolerance in society that I am beginning to abhor and that is putting inside me a terrible fear that grows everyday! Migrants bring diversity, so essential to sustaining cities.

My views were supported by a host of experts at a UN-HABITAT and UNESCO International Seminar on ‘How could we enhance inclusiveness for international migrants in our cities: Urban policies and creative practices?’ held in Mexico City in November 2010 and the group has continued its work since. Some of the views held by researchers are worth a look:

1- Migrants have a creative potential that cannot be utilized because of their poor status in the city

2- Cities are dynamic by definition; new residents change the urban landscape and therefore, in a sense, sustain the dynamism

3- Migration tests our democratic values; in accepting migration, we are forced to open our eyes to a variety in ethnicity, religion, spoken languages, cultural traits, customs, etc.

I am, therefore, interested in a new way of evaluating cities, by their openness. The OPENCities Monitor is a new city benchmark developed by BAK Basel Economics on behalf of the British Council. A unique collaboration and learning tool to measure city openness, it is defined as “the capacity of a city to attract international populations and to enable them to contribute to the future success of the city”. Strategies for management, inclusion and integration form the core of their work with cities across the world.

It would certainly be a great idea for some Indian cities to introspect along these lines. Alas, urban consciousness and identity in India is still low; add to that poor or indifferent governance and we still have a long way to go!

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