It’s been 30 odd years since I left the turmoil that haunted the tiny lanes of Shillong. While the unrest in Kashmir has always been in the global news, the North-Eastern part of India, which has been equally riddled with problems, remains unexplained; barely covered by the media, misunderstood by most across the country.
Shillong with its pristine beauty has always tugged at my heartstrings. The meandering lanes give way to a vast expanse of free, blue skies.
We took this freedom for granted, as the narrow lanes always held the promise of a known destination. It felt safe and secure. But we were forced to make decisions about whether we wanted to continue staying, given the political unrest.
Like countless other Bengalis who had grown up in Shillong, I too was forced away from this paradise, thrust into a life I had not chosen. Generations of non-tribals who had toiled hard to create a home in the peaceful hills of Meghalaya had to bid goodbye to the bright dahlias that grew in every corner of the state. The struggle to rebuild our lives from scratch was real and daunting.
You need to face the heartbreak of migration to truly understand what it means to leave your safe space forever. We felt dwarfed in cities, rich with ostentation and power-hungry individuals. But the flip side was that in larger cities, identity and acceptance were not linked to ethnicity but financial success; money allowed one to merge seamlessly with the rest.
I was luckier than most and was embraced easily by my peers. My command over the English language, my easy talent with the guitar, my innate ability to gel, made me blend in and forget the pain and loss of Shillong.
My mixed hill features lent me an exotic air and impressed the Hindi-speaking crowd of Delhi. In the mad city rush, I often missed the placidity of Shillong but I learned to quell those thoughts. Instead, I began learning the ways of the city folk; the way they entertained, dressed, and even spoke. On some rainy nights though, the past caught up and I was forced to acknowledge it even as I nursed a fine malt while staring out at the urban dystopia from the vantage point of my high rise.
I remembered Mr Das, his face bleeding as he walked home one evening from work. His head hung low, his shirt was torn, and blood was smeared across his sweater.
Mr Das was our neighbour. He was gentle but very strict about his routine. We could tell time just by his activities. Every morning, he sat under the mellow Shillong sun and read the papers. This was followed by a staple breakfast of rice, lentils, and vegetables. He was short in tature like many Bengali men and had well-oiled hair; a cloth bag always slung purposefully across his shoulders. He carried his tiffin to work and a copy of the Anandabazar Patrikaas well. This he devoured during his break. He waved to his kids and left for AG, the Accounts General office approximately 20 minutes away.
Mr Das could walk blindfolded on this route.
The little tree-lined lanes, small shops, and the dewy fresh mountain air were all companions on his daily route to work. It was 1981, and we knew we were not welcome there by then. We had started to sense the change in the political direction, the stiffness of the nods, and unreturned “hellos.” We were getting used to the idea that we were not safe and needed to leave.
On 24th December, Mr Das left work and went to the bakery to buy a fresh cake for the children and his shy wife. Leaving the bakery with a fresh cake in his hands, he carefully stepped over the little stream trying not to wet his polished leather shoes.
That’s when he noticed his son’s classmate, a local, approaching him. He used to come home regularly till the absurd tension had created a rift between the tribals and non-tribals. He was with four other boys, all his son’s age. Mr Das smiled at them.
As they approached, his son’s friend yanked Mr Das’s hair and punched his face with metal studded leather bike gloves, all the while yelling, “Get out of this state, you dirty pigs. Get out.”
The excerpt is from ‘Nautanki Saala’ (OakBridge Publishing).
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Unravelling surreal yet relatable world of ‘Loveflakes’
‘You are the smudge on my soul.
You are my guilty pleasure.’
writes Vibha Malhotra in her debut collection of prose poetry, aptly called ‘Loveflakes’. A collection of 53 prose poems written with gay abandon yet prudent restraint, Loveflakes explores love in its various forms and shenanigans. The collection is fierce and tame, absolute and unfinished, calm and chaos, all at once.
Each poem is a story in itself, trying to piece together and understand love. It glorifies love in one poem only to question its endurance in the next. Vibha wraps each poem delicately in layers of conflicting emotions. Starting with the star-spangled ‘Lovemaking’, full of hope, the book meanders through ravines of longing, loss, fear, and pain, to reach a crescendo with ‘Happy Ending’, which makes you question whether this is indeed a happy collection of love poems or if there is an underlying silent acceptance of the tragedy of love. Thus, Loveflakes concludes with a declaration that ‘there never was a happy ending to this.’
What makes the book even more beautiful is the artwork accompanying the poems. They add depth and meaning to the poems and draw the reader deeper into the chaos of love. The book is surreal despite talking about a love that is real and modern. It makes one relive moments of love, get misty eyed with memories of what could have been, give words to one’s own fears and doubts and leaves one with a lingering longing for times lost.
‘The moments we had,
And the ones we lost,
Define our bond
And our bond is beautiful, if not perfect’
What really sets the book apart is how accessible it is for all kinds of readers. Even if you are not a poetry reader, you will find yourself flowing freely with the verses, reading and re-reading some lines, and losing yourself to them. Vibha’s language is bountiful without being pretentious. It coveys so much while leaving a lot unsaid. The reason these poems stay with the readers for a long time is because of their ability to tug at your heartstrings. You will find yourself and your experiences somewhere on these pages.
And what better way to describe the book than Vibha’s own words: ‘I have never been more in love. I have never been more free.’
The writer is a voracious reader and a whimsical writer, her short stories have been published in various Anthologies such as ‘Defiant Dreams’, ‘When they Spoke’, ‘Mock Stock’ and ‘Quarrel’, ‘Sanskaran’, and ‘Unmasked’. She also blogs about books on @bookhippo.ec.
The Music of Timeless Misery
Tarun J Tejpal’s sprawling new novel ‘The Line of Mercy’ about crime and punishment, men’s laws and god’s laws, inside and outside of the iron bars, is a modern masterpiece.
Horace, in his , writes: “We believe that Jove is in Heaven because we hear his thunders peal”, an obvious inference being that “certainties” of power begin in fear, and this terror becomes a justification for the world as it is. Assertion of power—individual or institutional—when coupled with the threat of violence, is single-mindedly directed to force compliance, rather than generate trust or respect. And against those who have fallen through the cracks of society, those who must be punished for their misdemeanours imagined or real, it becomes the whip-hand.
It is on this discomfiting premise that Tarun J. Tejpal magnificently amplifies in his recently released The Line of Mercy.
Tracking the lives of inmates in district jail, he is able to deliver a searing critique on the power-fear equation on which entire governmental and administration systems continue to be based. Characters that inhabit this space can expect no mercy, and must be made to pay, and to remember, that they are the lowest of the low, as the opening chapter of the book reminds us, “insects inside the shit of other insects”. The reduction of an individual to something less than human, so superbly presented in The Line of Mercy, is particularly reminiscent of Shalamov (Kolyma Stories) documenting not the scale of the gulag (as does Solzhenitsyn), but the existential insignificance of the inmate, made manifest in an enforced journey into debasement.
Even as the metal doors of The Line of Mercy clang behind the “condemned”, the wheels of justice start to turn. And here wheels of justice mean just one thing variously interpreted at all levels—punishment. From the intimidation of baton-wielding cops to violent bullies from within the inmates (Peter the Fist), each passing judgment and chastisement, as per their whims—for, barring brute intimidation, so customarily practised by officialdom, they have no other reference point. (“As outside the iron bars the poor and the ill-connected resigned themselves to dealing with the government’s lack of imagination….”).
Without stating it overtly even once—and the book abounds in these artfully concealed themes—it is this attribute that Tejpal deems central to the mastering of wretchedness: the individual imagination. In tracing story after story he identifies the imagination as the most important tool in the survival kit of the doomed. Those who possess it, survive, thrive, and reimagine the meaning and metaphors of their life. Those who lack it, spend their time hunting to purloin some from those who have it—Mustafa always has an audience, Babu acolytes, Bobo grand designs, Peter followers, Sparkplug lovers….And those who fail at this primal ask, become wretches, benumbed, barely able to crawl forth from day to day.
For them now remains only how to survive the system. And to wait for the miracle of a hearing, in which they may be heard.
The use of a prison as a setting is perhaps most important in that while it is real, it is also symbolic. Pushed to an extreme, the power relations are more naked, the violence more open, and the hand of fate more visible—providing a dramatic window to explore suppressed and twisted parts of our culture.
As his compelling narrative unfolds, Tejpal, more Dostoevsky (re: Notes from a Dead House) than Dickens, more Stendhal than Flaubert, more Fellini than Rossellini, goes on to peel layers revealing that while society inside the prison is crazy and oppressive, the society outside the prison is not very different. In a novel in which many characters are trapped in a literal prison, it is a neat twist that no one is truly free. Those who are not confined by the law are trapped by their personal guilts, prejudices or inflexible belief systems.
Everyone—oppressor and oppressed, witness and actor—desperately needs someone to reach out to them across the line of mercy.
Here, in another unstated, skilfully braided theme, the author suggests that whilst justice is masculine—hard, cold, even when it runs true; mercy is feminine, soft, absorptive—embracing, even if it runs flabby. Of the two, both elusive, one perhaps counts for more.
As in Shalamov, those interned are dropped into the “dungeon of despair”: “Flies all green and buzzin›/In this dungeon of despair/Prisoners grumblin’/…Fifty ugly soldier men/Holdin› spears by the iron door/…And the torture never stops/The torture never stops/…In the dungeon of despair/Who are›ll those people/That is shut away down there/Are they crazy/Are they sainted/Are they heroes someone painted/Someone painted….” (Frank Zappa, The Torture Never Stops).
While the “dungeon of despair” in The Line of Mercy is no medieval torture chamber, it is something equally gothic—as a place, and in the manner of dispensing justice. And who are these people in this dungeon of despair? “Are they heroes someone painted”?
They range from petty pilferers to kidnappers, murderers and framed innocents, each carrying his own baggage and burden. So many stories. The story of love-maddened Asambhav, the abandoned boy Godwin, the plumber Andha Kanoon, the circus performers Jogen Jabda and Atoum Bumb, Damodar Desai alias Dr Hagg, multi-murderer Bichhhoo, pimp Barretto, catamite Aslam, mad-beautiful Mustafa… And with electric detail and rare empathy, the author tracks their various paths as they become irreplaceable threads in this crowded-crazed tapestry.
Few writers of fiction from India—or elsewhere—have created more memorable, rich, varied and well-defined characters as Tejpal in The Line of Mercy. In so fecund a book, there is the one, outnumbered, only too human “Instrument of God”: the Judge, who opted for “wealthless honour”, who “believed her country was falling apart … and her duty was to be a stapler … to somehow hold the splintering pieces together…”. The space allocated to this character, the textual placement, in so vast a work, is a masterstroke. Her almost parenthetical (in the context) appearance serves to highlight even more that aching sense of the remoteness of justice.
Indeed, so well is the narrative charted, so well does one character meld into another, so intuitive is the author’s feel for language, detail, and local idiom, for that scorching insight, that Mercy pulls off the illusion of all great art—a timeless quality, a universal resonance. As the actors wait, prisoners all even if not behind any iron bars; wait hopefully, hopelessly, for some sort of deliverance; we know them to be us, our parents, our siblings, our friends, their predicaments familiar, their fate our very own.
For all the complexity and seriousness of the issues The Line of Mercy deals with, it is a very wry wit—ironic, acerbic, often laugh-out-loud—so necessary to the survival of the meanest and the most wretched, that holds the master plot together—even as a blizzard of stories dovetail into one. All the way to an inspired carnivalesque finale, to the very last words of this astonishing tour de force.
The reviewer is a Toronto-based novelist and critic. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
Deconstructing the legacy of fairy tales
Is telling children fairy tales harmful as they ‘inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism’? But why should we deprive children of creating their own magical worlds borrowed from age-old enchanting fairy tales?
The evolutionary biologist, Professor Richard Dawkins has questioned whether telling children fairy tales is harmful because they ‘inculcate a view of the world which includes supernaturalism’. Is he right?
What is a fairy tale?
A fairy tale is a story, often intended for children, that features fanciful and wondrous creatures. These tales are usually traditional and have been passed from storyteller to storyteller before being written down.
Most fairy tales have two criteria. Firstly, a female protagonist who is subject to a witch’s curse or some other illogical torture. Secondly, there must be a male protagonist who appears as a shining knight on horseback and rescues the helpless female character in the nick of time.
Now, fairy tales occupy a special place in every child’s heart. Children live and relive the fantasies of fairy tales all the time. Therefore, one can safely assume that consciously and subconsciously these stories strongly influence children’s outlook towards life. Consequently, it is essential to assure that their exposure to any archaic beliefs is seriously addressed.
In recent years, fairy tales have specifically earned a bad reputation. They have been criticised as unauthentic, violent, racial, or misogynist. Concerned parents today are practically throwing fairy tales out of the window. Why is that happening? What is the naysayer’s argument?
Fairy tales always conclude with the essence of ‘living happily ever after’ when all problems have perfectly worked out once the hero and heroine are married. Young children get the impression that all difficulties will iron out once they get married. It creates false expectations of an unreal world and could lead to terrible disappointments later in life. We are quite aware that life can be pretty hard, and one needs a great deal of strength and resilience to overcome difficulties or accept realities that cannot be changed. Would it not be better to make young children cognisant of this fact instead of building inaccurate impressions through fairy tales about a rosy future with an ideal life partner?
Incorrect gender stereotypes
Stories such as Cinderella seem to project that marriage is the only destination of a young girl’s life while her professional success or career goals are inessential. Besides, in tales such as Sleeping Beauty or Snow White, the female protagonist seems to lack the intelligence or gumption to save herself from her travails. Instead, she keeps waiting for a man to rescue her. Young girls would grow up thinking that they are less capable than boys and only men have the power to get them out of troublesome situations.
At the same time, young boys may get the impression that all men are expected to be macho and solve all problems and that women are always dependent on them. Instead of growing up with open minds, living up to stereotyped gender models could become a psychological hurdle leading to social maladjustment, later.
Women must be submissive
The domesticity of female characters is glorified in several fairy tales. Snow White becomes the darling of the dwarfs because she cleans, cooks, and sews for them. It shows that women, however beautiful or talented are expected to be submissive and domestic workers. Young minds may get the impression that being passive, gentle, and servile are desirable qualities in young girls and being outspoken, strong-minded or working outside the home are not acceptable traits.
Impossible standards of beauty
Another troublesome aspect is the unrealistic standards of beauty described in the stories. Do all female protagonists need to be slender, beautiful with long golden hair and fair skin? Why can’t princesses have dark skin or Cinderella be a chubby girl with a belly that protrudes under her beautiful gown? The only characters in the stories who wear plus-size clothes are the wicked antagonists or compassionate mother figures. These examples will only lower the self-esteem of young girls and possibly push them towards unhealthy lifestyles to achieve these impossible ideals of beauty.
While I agree with these unfavourable aspects of traditional fairy tales, let us take a moment to reflect. Are we being too hasty in absolutely putting down fairy tales? Are we making the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater? Should a blanket ban be put on fairy tales?
Before going further, let us deconstruct fairy tales to analyse whether the ideas in them oppose the accepted meaning of the story. To give you an example, Cinderella’s fairy godmother has such magical superpowers that she is able to turn a pumpkin into a carriage and mice into horses. Then how is it that she cannot make her magic last beyond midnight? That contradicts the accepted belief that a fairy godmother can do anything with her powers, doesn’t it?
Remember the Pied Piper whose flute music lures both mice and children? Why did he target the children of the town? Wouldn’t it have been better for him to lure away the mayor and officials of the town? Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get rid of our bad town managers that easily?
Coming back to Cinderella, what about her ugly stepsisters? If only beauty deserves happiness, they are fated to be unhappy forever. Where was their fairy godmother? I think the sisters needed more help than Cinderella in the looks department. All Cinderella needed was a makeover and beautiful gown, the sisters would need extensive plastic surgery!
Despite these illogical twists, Cinderella’s story has been appealing to children through the ages, so why can’t we allow them to enjoy it without breaking our heads analysing it? Besides, do fairy tales have no good lessons to teach?
Learning right from wrong
In early childhood, hearing or watching fairy tales introduces the concept of good and evil to children. That is the way they learn to differentiate right from wrong. A bad guy does wrong things and gets punished while the good guy helps people in need.
Simple moral lessons also come through fairy tales. Goldilocks and the Three Bears teaches children it is wrong to break into someone’s home. Little Red Riding Hood teaches them not to trust strangers. These are life lessons that children imbibe through fairy tales.
What about selflessness?
In The Little Mermaid, Ariel’s sisters bargain with the sea witch to turn her back into a mermaid. If Ariel remains a human, she is sure to die at sunrise because the prince had chosen to marry another girl. The catch is that Ariel can return to the sea only by murdering the prince. But Ariel refuses to do it and dies at sunrise. Her selfless decision earns Ariel an immortal soul after death.
How about patience?
Curses last a long time in fairy tales. These long curses drive home the importance of patience. It is not easy to wait 100 years for a curse to end, but protagonists in fairy tales do so all the time. Those who are not patient often end up being punished for their impatience. Today everything you wish for is available just a few clicks away, and young children are aware of popularity being measured by Facebook likes. When instant gratification is becoming the norm, it is essential to show children the value of patience which fairy tales do.
To stand our ground when the odds are stacked
The classic image most people see when thinking of fairy tales is of a knight in shining armour fighting a dragon. This is because most fairy tales inculcate the importance of bravery and courage. Heroes and heroines face all sorts of dangers in fairy tales from evil dragons to wicked witches. These examples of courage often show the protagonists standing their ground even when they are hopelessly outmatched. Lessons of finding courage within themselves are important especially when children today will have to face down the dragons of drugs, alcohol, violence, and peer pressure. They have to learn to stand their ground and fight back against what would harm them.
Boost to creativity
I believe the greatest benefit of fairy tales is that they boost children’s imagination which is a powerful and unique element. Not only does it help them make up stories and games, but imagination is also the root of their creativity and possibly defines the kind of education, career, or life they will end up having. Besides, fairy tales are often about different cultures and customs. Children learn about the cultural differences of worlds outside their own which bestows them with a healthy curiosity to learn and experience new things.
Teaches critical thinking
Dawkins later clarified that his comment referred to religious stories, not fairy tales. He wanted to say that children should be taught scientific rigour from an early age. Following on, fairy tales actually teach children critical thinking. When they see what happens to characters based on the choices they make, they realise that everything depends on one’s decisions. Wrong choices result in bad things and right choices make everything turn out okay.
Manages childhood anxiety
Not only do fairy tales help in making the right decisions, but they also help children manage inner conflict or anxiety. Most children are still too young to express their misery. But when they superimpose themselves into a fairy tale and fantasise that they have vanquished evil as the hero of the story, it calms their inner unease.
Fairy tales, like everything else, have both flaws and virtues. I believe traditional fairy tales can continue to be beloved if they are rewritten or retold. How can we retain their benefits and correct their faults so that our children keep enjoying them?
Fractured fairy tales
Today, there is an emerging trend of creating fractured fairy tales or deconstructed stories. For example, in the story of Moana, a spirited young girl embarks on a mission to save her people and fight monsters in the ocean, without waiting for her Prince Charming to come up on a white horse. Mulan is another story that fights the idea of a ‘damsel in distress’ and defies all odds sending the message of individuality and independence to the audience. When other young girls watch another girl being fearless and using her wit and strength to emerge victorious in the face of adversities, it naturally evokes the same emotions in them. Frozen is yet another Disney story that shows sisterly love overcoming all hurdles.
Another technique is to alter the ending of the story. That can be done by introducing other ideas into the plot. What if Red Riding Hood and her grandmother were karate black belts or ninjas? What would have happened to the wolf then? How would the story end?
From the point of view of antagonists
What about the antagonists in fairy tales? Can the story be told from their viewpoint? How do you think Baby Bear felt when Goldilocks broke his chair, ate his porridge, and dirtied his bed yet nobody even scolded her? Do you think the giant was wrong to chase Jack who had climbed the beanstalk and stolen his hen who laid golden eggs? Is it possible that the bad wolf came to visit in the Three Little Pigs because he was lonely and only wanted to make friends with the pigs?
Indian fairy tales
Parents, teachers and caregivers could also make the effort to flip through fairy tales from Indian regional literature. One such book that I can mention is Thakumar Jhuli from Bengali Children’s Literature.
Generations of children in Bengal have been entranced by this iconic collection of fairy tales in Bengali written by Dakshinaranjan Mitra Mazumdar and published in 1907. Amazingly, the characters of these stories are not at all retrospective or regressive. It is surprising to find modern gender roles played by bold, beautiful dark-haired princesses given that the stories reflect the societal norms of the past. Not only do they wield the sword, but even rescue princes from monsters using their wit and intelligence. They teach young readers that one can outsmart villains using brains rather than brawn. Last year, I translated these charming stories into English and published them in a collection called Princesses, Monsters and Magical Creatures (pub. Readomania Publishers).
This book is just one example, but I am sure if parents, teachers, and caregivers search, they will find more such fairy tales. However, one small piece of advice. Never hesitate to explain to children that fairy tales may mention unjust attitudes and actions of people from the past because those were the societal values followed then. It will give young readers a basis to compare the society of the past and present and realise how much more enlightened and liberated is the world today.
And the final endorsement for fairy tales is how much fun it is to read, hear or watch them. Don’t we all have fond memories of curling up with a book and disappearing into worlds where dragons fly and princesses sail boats on rivers of frothy milk? Then why should we deprive our children of creating their own magical worlds borrowed from age-old enchanting fairy tales?
Sutapa Basu is a best-selling, award-winning author as well as an educationist, poet, storyteller, and a translator.
Author-approved books that make great Mother’s Day gifts
Are you confused about what can be a thoughtful Mother’s Day gift but don’t have much time for it? It might be too late for a personalised gift, but there’s one gift you might be able to buy in a jiffy: a book. Whether your mother is a bookworm or you want to encourage her to begin reading books. This can be a good starting point. She is going to appreciate this gesture, we think. Which book should you gift her? There’s likely a novel out there that will suit her interests. Here are few author recommended books that can be amazing Mother’s Day gifts.
Books can be Cathartic, enjoyable and also revolutionary. For me, some books have been life-altering and transformational, bringing home my own evolution as a woman and as a human.
These books shine bright when I think of books that women must read.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I read this book at a young age when conditioning and gender-specific roles were the norms. For the first time, it brought home the havoc keeping silent in the face of injustice can cause. It shocked me is an understatement, but then I thought this is a dystopian setting and hence very unlikely that it could ever occur for real. Recently, as Wade vs Roe is being relooked at in the USA, we are on the precipice of the book having foretold the future of women. Hence, this book is the most pertinent in today’s time.
Jorasanko by Aruna Chakravarti
This book is a layered symphony of women trying to find themselves, fulfil their dreams, carving out love in their mundane lives constrained by a patriarchal society. This struggle for space in a man’s world has remained the same in all spectrums and verticals and through all ages. The book is the story of the women of Rabindranath Tagore’s household and their personal challenges. But I think that women of today will find women characters who are relatable and who voice their pain and longing.
Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
I don’t know of any woman who is a reader and has not read this book. It is one of the must-haves. The story of Draupadi, of the Mahabharat from her point of view. It taught me that a changed outlook can make all the difference in assessing a person. One person’s right can be another person’s wrong. Were there any winners in this Dharma Yudha? It raised more questions than answers and set me on a quest to fill the gaps that I had never even thought to question.
—Dr. Harshali Singh, author of ‘A Paradox of Dreams’
Nothing epitomises better than what Oliver Wendell Holmes said about mother, Youth fades; “love droops, the leaves of friendship fall; A mother’s secret hope outlives them all.”
Thinking about instances when a mother inspired a son or a daughter to create a new world, I always remember three books.
My Experiments with Truth By Mahatma Gandhi
This book is an inspiring account of how Mahatma Gandhi’s love and respect for his mother finally blooms into his courage and conviction to lead India to freedom.
Conqueror Series by Conn Iggulden
This book on life of Ghenghis Khan is an inspiring story of how a mother inspired a destitute child hounded by many to become the ruler of the world.
Shivaji: The Great Maratha by Ranjit Desai
This is the best example and can inspire anyone how the blessings from a mother can inspire someone to face even the unsurmountable dangers and emerge victorious every time.
—Gautam Borah, Director of and eCommerce set-up, Speaker, and author of ‘Monetising Innovation’
There are several memorable books that I can suggest but these particular ones stand out for me. In my opinion, these three books can be wonderful Mother’s Day gifts.
Family – The Ties that Bind…And Gag! by Erma Bombeck
Bombeck’s style of writing is fun, humorous, easy and full of family faux pas anecdotes. This book was like a bible for me during my early days of motherhood. The challenges of bringing up a child with many allergies, my shift into a new city, forging relationships with new in-laws as relatives, no income, stretch marks and being overweight, Bombeck kept my spirits alive.
The Mother by Maxim Gorky
This book was part of my English literature. As a young girl, literature moved me. But when I became a mother, only then I realised the sacrifices she had made for her son. ‘The Mother by Maxim Gorky’ moved me beyond words.
Aam Atir Bhepu by Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay
This is the film ‘Pather Panchali’ by Satyajit Ray that was the adaptation from the Bengali novel ‘Aam Atir Bhepu’. The story is set in rural Bengal of a poor family of 4 with a widowed aunt. The novel is poignant, full of pathos that even today some parts of the book makes me weep copiously thinking of Sarbajaya the mother. She suffers daily indignities heaped on her as a poor family. She reacts to situations against her nature while raising her rebellious daughter Durga, who one day falls ill and finally dies in the novel. Her struggles and her little moments of joy will remain etched in my heart forever. As I write these lines, I can see Sarbajaya in so many women who are mothers and are bravely fighting each day to be there for their children.
—Mohua Chinappa, author of ‘Nautanki Saala Other Stories’
A battle for health: Real foods vs ultra-processed foods
Ultra-processed foods are created in factories. They are pumped full of inexpensive commodity ingredients that are exclusively for industrial use, such as protein isolates, modified starches, dextrose, etc. To convert the industrially manufactured foods into something edible, to prolong its shelf life and to make it look appetizing, multiple difficult- to-pronounce chemicals, preservatives, colourings, enzymes, binders, bulkers, flavourings, additives, emulsifiers, trans-fats and artificial sweeteners are usually added. All of these chemicals can upset our gut communities. The industry has got around this by hiding controversial ingredients under names and varieties that sound less deadly. So artificial colours are masked under E numbers, like E110 or E104, modified starch is called E1422 and so on.
For all practical purposes, a product is identified as ultra-processed if its list of ingredients contains at least one item characteristic of the ultra-processed food group. These substances are never or rarely used in kitchens, such as high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils, hydrolysed proteins, etc. They usually appear in the beginning or in the middle of the ingredients list. The presence of classes of additives in the list of ingredients also identifies a product as ultra-processed. They are at the end of lists of ingredients and expressed as a class, such as flavourings or natural flavours or artificial flavours.
So, going by the NOVA classification, instant noodles, ice creams, chips, biscuits, cookies, ketchup, cakes, sauces, colas, sugary drinks, candies, crisps, crackers, jams, jellies, instant soups and ready-to-eat, ready-to-drink or ready-to-heat, ‘fast’ or ‘convenient’ packaged products and the like are all ultra-processed foods, and it is not difficult to understand why.
I also want to talk about foods that are assumed to be healthy but are processed junk in disguise. Many products you may not have thought about are actually ultra-processed. For instance, you’d think that multigrain bread is healthy. But the front of food packaging can be very misleading and cannot be trusted. Instead, you need to look at the back of the label. I found multigrain bread from one of India’s oldest food companies packed with over a dozen or two undesirable ingredients. So, the multigrain bread that you toast up for a healthy breakfast comes under the NOVA category of ultra-processed foods. Mass-produced, pre-packaged bread is filled with junk, irrespective of whether it is whole wheat, whole grain or multigrain. A traditional loaf needs only four ingredients: flour, water, yeast and salt. Bread that is truly healthy is the one that is close to the original recipe. It is no wonder then that according to the Supreme Court in Ireland, Subway bread is not legally bread! In October 2020, the court ruled that because of the high level of sugar it contains, Subway’s bread is legally closer to cake than bread! It cannot be denied that Subway’s slogan ‘Eat fresh’ fools us into believing that the food is healthy.
On the other hand, a samosa is often looked down upon as unhealthy and fattening because it is made from maida. As a matter of fact, when made at home, mixed with fat-burning spices like jeera, etc. and fried in good-quality filtered oil, the samosa is devoid of any ingredients characteristic of the ultra-processed food group. There isn’t any compelling reason to think of it as harmful. Not that I am advocating that one should eat samosas all day or every day. With regard to grains, a bowl of khichri, for example, sits at the top of the hierarchy, as it is packed with more nutrients than a samosa. But is a samosa healthier than the pack of mass-produced bread picked up from a swanky speciality store? Hell yes!
JUNK IN DISGUISE
Let’s discuss a few more apparently clean foods and try to interpret what their label says.
1. Nut milk alternatives: Cartons of almond milk, cashew milk lined up on the shelves of your neighbourhood supermarket scream ‘health’. But to thicken, emulsify and preserve the milk, an additive called Carrageenan (E407) is used. There is evidence that Carrageenan is associated with leaky gut, is highly inflammatory and toxic to the digestive tract. It has been found to cause cancer in lab rats.
2. Sugar-free delights: Ever asked yourself how the ‘sugar-free’ or ‘no added sugar’ desserts, frostings and sweets taste so sweet? They contain sugar alcohols (e.g., sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol). Though sugar alcohols are processed and commercially produced from sugars itself (such as from glucose in corn starch), marketers don’t need to declare them as sugar and can safely label the foods as ‘zero sugar’ products.
3. Gluten-free innocence: Gluten, the name of a wheat protein that no one outside the scientific community knew of 20 years ago; but today, everyone seems to know its name! I will address whether you should go gluten-free or not in later chapters, but for now, you should know that many of the gluten-free products are filled with highly refined modified starches (tapioca or corn or potato flour), artificial sugars, inflammatory vegetable oils, food dyes, food stabilisers and gums. Just because something is labelled ‘gluten-free’ does not mean it is a healthy choice; it is still ultra-processed junk food.
4. Low-fat miracles: Food products labelled ‘low fat’ are in reality high in sugar. They contain trans-fats and end up having a very similar calorie count to the original product. Here’s how: To maintain the taste and texture of the food that has been stripped of fats, manufacturers need to add or increase sugar in them. If you read the ingredients carefully, you will find that many low-fat products have as much sugar as a candy bar.
It should now be clear to you that what matters most about food is not calories or nutrients, but whether it has been cooked by a human being or a corporation. The quality of your food depends on who is cooking your food. The fact that there are often ingredients in the industrialised foods that don’t ‘have to’ appear on the label adds to the challenge of sorting the good from the bad. The thumb rule is to avoid foods that come in slick packaging with nutrition labels and long shelf lives.
Modern diets consist of these edible food-like products or ‘ingestibles’, as I like to call them, whereas long-established traditional dietary patterns are based on real foods that are minimally-processed and freshly-prepared. The benefits of the latter have been proven as well; let me illustrate with an example. Villagers in Burkina Faso, a country in west Africa, have continued to retain their traditional practices of eating. They subsist on a diet of mostly millet, sorghum, beans and rice. In 2010, a group of Italian microbiologists compared the microbes the young villagers harboured with those of children who were being brought up on Western diets in Florence, Italy. The study revealed that compared to the Florentines, the otherwise poor villagers seemed wealthier in a way that science is only now beginning to appreciate. Despite their relative material poverty, these villagers had higher microbial diversity, whereas a lot of these bacteria were found to be lost in the Western human microbiota. The good news is that the losses aren’t permanent and can be reversed by correcting what we eat. Eliminating ultra- processed foods and feeding your microbes with foods that your family has traditionally been eating over generations is an important first step towards this goal.
The excerpt is from ‘Yuktahaar: The Belly And Brain Diet’ (Penguin Random House India). The author is a celebrity nutritionist.
Celebrating role of grassroots women leaders during pandemic
Women who courageously supported their communities across India during the Covid-19 pandemic feature in a new book ‘The First Responders: Women Who Led India Through The Pandemic’ released at Raisina Dialogue 2022 on Wednesday.
The book, published by Reliance Foundation and Observer Research Foundation, celebrates the leading role of women in helping combat the challenges of the pandemic at the grassroots and shows the importance of supporting leadership capacity building for women. The book lists heroic stories gathered from across India in partnership with a range of partner organisations. The launch of the book at the event with international delegates from over 100 countries was followed by a panel discussion on the subject, ‘The First Responder: Women Leadership and the SDGs’.
The speakers included Smriti Irani, Minister for Women and Child Development; Kwati Candith, Deputy Minister, International Relations and Co-operation, South Africa; Waseqa Ayesha Khan, Member of Parliament, Bangladesh; Vanita Sharma, Advisor, Strategic Initiatives, Reliance Foundation; and Shombi Sharp, Resident Coordinator, India, United Nations.
The book, ‘The First Responders’, spotlights the work of 25 Indian women across governance, education and skilling, health and nutrition and entrepreneurship and livelihoods, and highlights their individual journeys to leadership over several years and how they were able to utilise those skills during the pandemic.
Each of the women featured rose up to the challenge of steering their communities forward at a time when physical contact was risky and the pandemic posed uncertainty on the way ahead, Reliance Foundation said in a statement.
From a water conservation advocate in Uttarakhand to a health worker in Madhya Pradesh and from a football coach in Manipur to a police officer in Telangana, the women leaders featured in the book are from varied walks of life.
These women do not know each other, but their stories of leadership have key similarities that represent the untold stories of many such women across the country who stepped forward to help during this time.
Their stories also illustrate the importance of creating a conducive environment to nurture a woman’s intrinsic ability to lead, promotion of sustainable livelihoods for women, promoting multi-level collaborations and communication, ways to reduce the burden on public healthcare system and recognising as well as ensuring a woman’s right to life with dignity.
The practices, methods and tools used by the ‘First Responders’ to steer their communities have learnings for policymakers and development practitioners, particularly regarding the importance of supporting capacity building for women leaders. The book exemplifies the outcomes envisaged in Goal 5 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals that calls upon the international community to ensure full and effective participation and equal opportunities for women.
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