The Elephant in the Quilt

A quilt shaking as though it has a life of its own, like an elephant in there – a pair of young female eyes  is struck into silence by what she sees…

This is how the 1942 short story, Lihaaf translated as The Quilt ends which was eventually hailed as a trailblazer in women’s writing about class, gender and sexuality in the Indian subcontinent. The author was a bold, irreverent 27 year old woman named Ismat Chugtai whose liberal upbringing and a keen awareness of patriarchal politics made her take up the pen. Later in life, her non-fiction work, Yahan se Wahan Tak would read, “The pen is my livelihood and my friend, my confidante…Whenever I want I can send for anyone via the pen’s flying carpet, and when these people arrive, I can say anything, make them cry, laugh or reduce them to ashes with my harsh words.”

Ismat-Chughtai

It is this fire from her pen that charted a new kind of writing where women could use the form of the short story in Urdu to talk about not just female sexuality but about other kinds of discrimination, oppressions they faced on a daily basis. This however did not go unopposed by patriarchal institutions as stories like Lihaaf faced court cases and others like Angaarey were banned at various times in the subcontinent.

 

Apart from Lihaaf, Chugtai is today best known for her story collections like  Chhui Mui, Thori si Pagal, Aik Baat, Do Haath, novellas like Ziddi which was made into a hit Hindi move of the same title but most of all for the novel, Tehri Lakeer or The Crooked Line which was considered her magnum opus. Later her non-fiction work like essays and memoirs especially Kaghazi hai Pehraan too received much appreciation and renown. Official recognition came in the form of a slew of media awards including the Filmfare Award for best Story for the Partition classic Garam Hawa on which she worked with noted Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi as well as state awards, including the Padma Shri in 1976.

Chugtai died in 1991 in then Bombay but not before she had been successful in ‘Lifting The Veil’ – incidentally the title given to an anthology of her stories – from the reality of gender and class politics in the subcontinent and offered women writers to come, new avenues in literary form and style.

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PTSD – How to help

On a day that our guest lecturer dealt with the topic of Stress and Trauma Management in a highly impactful way, I came back home and started pondering on PTSD. Standing for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it is a psychological condition that affects those who have suffered a major trauma to the psyche and/or the body.

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Actually I knew nothing of the acronym or what it meant the first time I saw it in action – in an Oliver Stone movie, Heaven and Earth where Tommy Lee Jones plays the role of an American soldier who returns from the Vietnam War not only with a wife but also inner demons which eventually drive him to turn the gun on himself.

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Courtesy:Warner Bros

If your loved one is suffering from PTSD, here is how can you help:

Know the symptoms

Ideally, the person should be seeing a counsellor as part of his/her recuperation process from the traumatic incident. If that has not happened, watch out for unusual behaviour. Signs that can alert you to a PTSD victim could range from apparently minor ones like sleep disturbances and a tendency to avoid social situations to extreme ones like intense fear, anxiety, helplessness, hypervigilance and even hallucinations. If such symptoms have been continuing for a month at least, it is time to look up a doctor for the right diagnosis.

Get Help

See that he/she continues with treatment which could be therapy, medication or a combination of both.  This is because though symptoms can vary from apparently mild to obviously debilitating, they can quickly take a turn where the affected person can put their own selves or those of their loved ones, in harm’s way.

Really Listen

Be available when the victim wants to talk about the incident or about anything else. Avoid arguing and interrupting him/her but when you are concerned, wait your turn and voice your feelings clearly. Above all, don’t offer advice – rather ask what you can do to help.

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Finally, offer your complete support. Invite him/her to accompany you out of doors for some time everyday – like going for a walk, feeding the ducks in a nearby park or some such peaceful activity. Encourage him/her to take small steps to get back to family and friends but never rush a victim to “snap out of it” – recovering from PTSD is a complex process and both the victim as well as his/her loved ones like you need to give it time.

 

A Lost Soul

For a fraction of a second, I lost control!

Though my hands were firmly on the steering wheel, the sight of that brown slender body darting across the road forced me to halt on a side and get out of the car.

It was a beautiful black Dachshund. And it was clearly lost.

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I strode up and down the road, looking for its owner. I even asked a few passers-by which direction it came from. I looked for a sentry on traffic duty to keep it safe – no luck. And all the while, the little creature kept darting to and away from my heels; running uncertainly on its stubby legs towards, and then almost immediately, away from my car. Clearly the dog was looking for its owner – its instinct for safety made it come near me and my car but then its senses probably told it that we were not who it was looking for.

There was not much more I could do then – I clicked a pic to circulate it in the neighbourhood Whatsapp groups. I left – wondering how it came to be stranded on a busy road – a gate left ajar? A door not latched? Or an owner who could no longer be bothered? For a moment I was even tempted to let it hop into my car but had to drop the idea since I knew someone back home would be far from welcoming.

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As I parked my car in the garage and walked up the steps of my home, Ginger – my brat of a German Shepherd – ran out to greet me. However its enthusiastic licking soon gave way to a quizzical look as it realized that, today, my thoughts were somewhere very far away…

Music and Mood

Yet another participant of Feeling Bookerish came up with a write-up on music. Adhiraj, a perceptive and inquisitive seventh-grader, is himself a passionate musician and hence he explores the intense relation between a listener’s moods and choice of music.

“Do people listen to music according to their mood?

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Almost everyone listens to music. But did you know that the music you hear is largely determined by how you are feeling at that particular moment – in other words, your choice of music is usually a reflection of you mood. For instances people tend to prefer slow songs when feeling sad; on the other hand, when happy they are likely to choose upbeat songs that may even move them to get up on the table and jive.

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Interestingly music is not just influenced by the listener’s mood but in turn has the power to move people to a particular frame of mind. So if a person who is feeling quite alright to begin with, starts listening to sad songs, it is quite possible, he/she may get pensive too. Likewise a reasonably happy listener after listening to a few intense rap numbers may start feeling restlessness and angry.

All this goes to prove music is a powerful force with strong connections to mood, feelings and emotions of the listener.

 

Joys of travelling

With the year coming to an end, I got busy wrapping up my Feeling Bookerish workshop sessions. Blogging tips turned out to be a popular topic and I agreed to the kids’ demands on condition that they each write a blog post. The first to submit was a quiet and graceful seventh-grader Sana who wrote about a memorable Trip to Kerala

“I get bored cooped up indoors – day and night – especially on weekends or on Sundays. Imagine sitting at one place for hours and not doing anything ! No wonder then, I am often pestering my parents to take us exploring new places. Travelling refreshes my thoughts and ideas as well as calms down my restlessness.

I would want to tell you about my trip from the pretty hill station of wellington in Tamil Nadu to the neighbouring state of Kerala. One bright morning, we took our packed suitcases and started off at around 7:30. After passing through picturesque tea gardens we reached Coimbatore in a couple of hours  and decided to check out a mall. A whole lot of shopping later, we were on our way again and reached Palakkad late afternoon.

Eventually our journey ended at Thrissur- the town of my ancestors. There i met my grandparents and cousins. One of the highlights of this trip was a leisurely cruise on a house-boat. Sailing through the calm backwaters of Kerala,  I took many photos of animals and birds.

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Through the backwaters of Kerala

The following day we decided to have some fun and thus found ourselves at an amusement park called Wonderla in Kochi. The rides were hugely thrilling and the day rushed by in a haze of excitement. Imagine my parents being afraid to get on rides which I found so easy – it was hilarious!

Next day it was time to head back to Wellington – but with a load of good memories. So friends, put that tab or smartphone aside, pack your bags or at least put on your walking shoes and just head out – you are sure to have a great time!

 

 

A Taste of the ‘Figs’

The first time I came across her words were actually in a collection of quotes – I forget now, on what subject. But the haunting simplicity and quiet intensity of the words had me hooked:

“My candle burns at both ends

It will not last the night

But oh my foes and ah my friends

It sheds a lovely light.”

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I dug deeper and found out that this was actually an entire poem titled ‘First Fig’ by American Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, Edna St Vincent Millay who was famed as much as for transforming the sonnet with a new sensibility as for her independent sexuality. Her life and art are filled with instances of standing up to sexual and social norms of the time and one such anecdote that caught my interest was her struggle to claim her own name early in life. Apparently despite being named Edna, she wanted to be called ‘Vincent’ and even crossed swords with her school principal on the matter.

This biographical anecdote lent a fresh perspective to yet another favourite piece of mine from Figs from Thistles, titled ‘Prisoner’:

“All Right,

Go Ahead!

What’s in a name?

I guess I’ll be locked into

As much as I am locked out of!”

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Super-powers of the Deep

Recently I came across something very interesting about certain creatures of the deep sea. At great depths of the ocean where there is no natural light, there are a few species which actually produce their own light. The angler fish and the appropriately-named flashlight fish are two such kinds. In fact the angler fish has a spinal projection from its head at the end of which is a bulb that glows – it can even switch on and off the bulb by controlling the flow of blood to the particular part of its body. Incredible!

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Photo courtesy: nationalgeographic.com

The phenomenon of living things giving off light is known as bioluminescence. And while glow worms and fireflies do this by mixing chemical compounds in their bodies, the deep-sea fish described above, do it with the help of special light-producing bacteria in their bodies.

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Photo courtesy: Ammonite Films

Then at the other end, is a kind of deep sea fish which has the ability to make itself practically invisible. Known as the hatchet fish, it has sides covered with large silver scales that act like mirrors besides two rows of light-producing organs on its underside. With any light falling on the fish being reflected back by the mirror-like scales, it can easily escape detection by its enemies and predators.

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It is only a matter of time, I guess, before DC and Marvel Comics come up with a super-hero inspired by these amazing creatures of the deep!