Monday, October 28, 2013

Why do we help others?

I volunteered for a script writing workshop for kids recently. The unique feature of this workshop was that it was organized by UNICEF for HIV positive kids and adolescents from rural backgrounds. It was an eye opening experience. The youngest member of  the group was a fourth standard boy (age 8) and the oldest member was a 21 year old girl. All of them came from remote villages of Maharashtra, which are confronted by many other problems as well. We never come across the statistics of AIDS in our daily lives. It is such a taboo in certain social classes that sometimes these workshops have to drop the "HIV positive" adjective from their agenda all together. I read up on this after the workshop. The situation is grim, to say the least:

"India has an estimated 220,000 children infected by HIV/AIDS. It is estimated that 55,000 to 60,000 children are born every year to mothers who are HIV positive.  Without treatment, these newborns stand an estimated 30% chance of becoming infected during the mother’s pregnancy, labor or through breastfeeding after six months.  There is effective treatment available, but this is not reaching all women and children who need it." (UNICEF India)

What was remarkable about these kids was their happiness. They were extremely happy to be with us. All of them, barring a few exceptions, were confident,  happy and socially well adjusted. Some of them, especially the girls, were well into their first professional degree. They had chosen fields of study which were close to their hearts. One of them, a young boy about 20-22 years old, lives on his own in an organization that supports poor kids. He has chosen a masters course in social work. Many of these kids have one or no parents. Some of them lost their fathers at a very young age, leaving their uneducated and unemployed mothers vulnerable. So most of them realize how important it is to earn a living and almost all of them were on a path to do so. To keep the virus in check, these patients have to take a pill twice a day. I was moved when the slightly older teenagers were reminding the younger ones to take their pills on time. Somehow being in the same situation, had created a sad sense of belonging among them. But there was no guilt or remorse anywhere in the group because they were all dealing with their destiny.

At the end of the day, they had to write stories. Their stories were equally moving. Some of them wrote about what happened when they lost one parent to AIDS. One little boy thanked UNICEF for bringing happiness into his life. One of the popular kids (we had nicknamed  him "hero") narrated how he was able to gain weight and a muscular frame -- thanks to the ongoing medications and dumb bells provided to him by the institute. Now he wants to try his hand at acting!

Although all of this sounds positive and hopeful, it is also evident how difficult it is to control the spread of this virus. Not just in rural areas but also among the urban elite. The Indian government does a lot to stop it. Various government schemes provide counseling support, medications, tests absolutely free of cost. It is also very heartening to see that at least among these circles people talk openly about safe sexual practices. I believe that on an organization level, Indian medical community is more open and liberal and detached from religion in these respects. Women have a lot more facilities made available to them absolutely free of cost. The real hurdle is the stigma and misconceptions associated with the proper use of contraceptives. In that, unfortunately gender inequality seems to play a major role as women don't have a say in choosing the method of contraception. Ultimately, the brunt is borne by innocent kids born to infected mothers. The world is just not fair. But it is humbling to see people adjust to misfortunes and still lead a purposeful life.

I am very grateful I got this opportunity. It helped me detach from my own life. Sometimes, I feel that we help others only to help ourselves. If I had not gone their to tell them stories as "Saee Tai", someone else would have. And it would all run just as smoothly. But the fact that I could be there, made a big difference to my life. It was as if I needed that experience more than they needed my help. It made me go back to "The Happiness Hypothesis", which deals with the question of why we help others. It is not just for the people we are helping, but also for ourselves. At the end of the day, I left the place feeling much more grateful than I was before. :)

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

I miss Seinfeld

I really do. I tried getting the full seasons DVD but it is always out of stock. I even tried to go through the Comedy Central schedule in a hope that they would be showing one of the re-runs. *sigh*

So I am going to post some of my most favorite Seinfeld moments here. For me to go back to and for all of you to share!

 Elaine on the train

This is by far my most favorite scene in all of the seasons of the show. It is so funny and so feminist at the same time. Elaine's feminism has always appealed to me because she manages to be so angry and so helpless at the same time! 

Too late to be drinking coffee

This is the absolute extract of everything George stands for. I love this scene for so many reasons. It tells the story of the modern day dating scene so well. And George is so brutally honest. I love him. 

Kramers Pinky Toe Story

I will never be able to choose between Elaine & Kramer. Kramer's style is so grossly physical. His makes you laugh by doing a workout. It must have been the most difficult-to-perfect character. This story is so engrossing and the expressions on the listeners' faces are so genuine. It feels like it is all happening right there, for the first time. 


This is my favorite Seinfeld scene. And perhaps, he is my least favorite character on the show. It must be hard to compete with all the other three accomplished actors. But I love some Seinfeld scenes where he is more in a stand-up-comedian role than his actual role in the show (where he is off work). I feel the same about Geraldine Granger (Dawn French) in Vicar of Dibley. She is surrounded by people whose characters are certainly a lot more goofier and funnier than her character on the show. But she is also the focal point of the story. So without her, the others wouldn't exist, pretty much like Seinfeld.

Okay I think this looks good enough to go back to every now and then. :)
Do watch the Vicar of Dibley scene. It is hilarious!

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What do you use your Facebook for?

Facebook is an unequivocally annoying entry on the "kids these days" list. I hear it everywhere I go and the funniest part is that although the discussion is always about somebody's adolescent kid wanting an android, I feel guilty when they start talking about it. Facebook (or the Internet) is not as evil as some Indian aunties may want to believe. But it is true that the insidious effects of social networking have already made it into research papers in psychology journals.

I  would read these papers and articles and sometimes wonder, "Man! Why didn't they call me as a subject for one of these studies?". For once upon a time, I was also bitten by the Facebook envy bug. I wasn't going through a particularly sorted/organized/conventionally happy phase in my life. So when I saw others' lives just "working out" for them, I used to feel extremely ungrateful. And I choose that word with a lot of thought because the basic feeling that drives envy is, in my humble opinion, a lack of gratitude. Even in moments of crisis, if you just take a few minutes and think about what you have, and are grateful for, the situation seems less stressful. 

When being on Facebook started making me unhappy, my first reflex was to blame all the happy people on my timeline for their happiness (and it made my situation worse). Then I did what so many others do. I deactivated my account. That did not help because it was hard to stay in touch with people I had met during my travels. So I came back and decided to filter my friend list. That helped a lot. I was down to about 200 something friends from some 700+  I had before. I chose to delete people with whom I was sure I was never going to stay in touch on a personal level. People you meet TAing or RAing during your PhD, extended social circles focused on just one activity that you no longer are a part of, friends' friends, people who read your blog but who have never actually met you -- basically people, who, I was sure won't really miss me or get hurt. 

Then I took a good  look at what was it that was actually wrong with my life. My envy was a mirror of my own mind. And covering the mirror is not the solution. I tried to fix those issues to the best of my ability at that time. One of the tools I used was meditation. I shall be eternally grateful to the guided meditations made available by Audio Dharma. This website has helped me cope with some of the hardest transitions and times in my life. And I realized that being grateful is important to feeling hopeful or happy; and there is always something to be grateful for. Just that one practice of being actively grateful helped me reduce my habit of comparing my life with that of others.

When I realized how much stress I went through just passively looking at others' pictures and posts, I decided for myself that my FB profile is going to be something that would never lead to such comparison or stress among people on my list. It was hard to come up with rules (and it is still work in progress), that satisfy this condition. But nonetheless I came up with a few. 

1. I post things that are not too personal but inspire me (and hopefully would also inspire others) such as pictures, quotes, good music, art blogs and comics.
2. I post links to videos, newspaper articles that would help me step out of my own life and look at the big picture. 
3. I don't express my own  political views (unless something really outrageous happens) on my timeline. And I try not to read these kind of posts by others, or interact with people who regularly post this kind of content.

It has been more than a year now that I have applied these rules. And when I go through my timeline, I feel happy about my choice. It has actually helped me detach from both the happy and sad parts or my everyday life. Going through my timeline is also a source of strength now because it always takes me back to things that I enjoy reading, watching and listening to. It is like a giant wall full of inspiring stuff. A little bit like Pinterest, but more interactive. 

So, I think I use my Facebook to inspire myself. What do you use it for? :)


Tuesday, October 08, 2013

The Lunch Box

Happened to watch this movie the other day.
The story emerges out of an implausible delivery mistake from a Mumbai dabbawala.  Ila's lunch box, which she prepares with a lot of effort and love for her husband, gets delivered to some Mr. Fernandes (Irrfan Khan). When she realizes that her husband is getting the wrong lunch box, she leaves a note for Mr. Fernandes, thanking him for showing so much appreciation (which she quantifies by the fact that the lunch box comes back empty every single day). Ila is trapped in a loveless marriage and Mr. Fernandes lives alone (and is sometimes lonely). Over time, their lunch box notes turn into friendship and they both start seeking strength in this every day exchange of letters.

Although the story is quite simple and at times seems rather slow, what sets this movie apart is the acting that fills the silences in the plot. Both Nimrat Kaur and Irrfan Khan display their remarkable talents of expressing what they want to convey without saying it. The movie also includes voice acting by Bharati Achrekar, who plays the role of Ila's neighbor, Mrs. Deshpande. The director takes his time with the cameras in a typical Mumbai government office, and slows you down by filling the frames with dusty files. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is delightfully annoying as Mr. Fernandes's  pesky assistant. All the fun is in the details and the execution.

I am glad I got to watch it before it left the cinemas. So if anyone is wondering whether they should watch it, well, do it right away!

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Happy Birthday PurpleMoon!

This blog turns seven today.
Happy Birthday PurpleMoon.
I hope you have a colorful, exciting new year ahead. :)