Tag Archives: Trauma

Author Prerona Mukherjee with her father.

At Bay, In a Sea of Poetry

Poetry As Sanctuary – A monthly column where poets from the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley pen their South Asian experiences.

I grew up surrounded by poetry. My father loved poems and would recite with all the passion of a Bengali man. My grandparents, who brought me up, were passionate Tagore fans.

My grandmother read poems in the afternoon, and sometimes she would cry. 

My grandfather wrote her love letters, allegedly, with a different appellation on each page.

They shared their favorite poems with each other.

My parents too were full of love and poetry. There was something very romantic about them – not just in the sense of their love for one another, but in that their whole life was a wild adventure. That is what poetry meant to me at that younger age — romance!

And I was too fierce and too alive: I wanted grit and reality, not escape and dreams.

Perhaps, because I grew up surrounded by so much poetry, I never took it seriously. If I wrote or read something, I did not work hard at it. I devoured poetry much like I would a fat mango in a Calcutta summer or how I would gulp it a delicate cup of Darjeeling tea on a misty morning. Recently, a beloved friend told me he was taking a course on reading poetry. I was stunned and awed. I did not think I could be so cerebral, so disciplined about poetry – I don’t ever want to be. 

Outside the home, the first poems I encountered were at school. I was lucky that what we read in school was spectacular: Night of the Scorpion, The Inchcape Rock, Ulysses, Bangabhumir Prati, Rabindranather Prati, Aabar Asibo Phire. I remember being arrested by a poem from time to time and writing ever so often, mostly when I should have been doing something else, as though spellbound. But even so, I did not think much of poetry then, they were just pretty words. I was too young, too caught up with living and doing.

Like in most relationships, my love for poetry evolved over time. You need a certain amount of heartache and storms to rake up the ground before words can take root. I kept discovering more poets I was entranced by: Nazim Hikmet, Pasternak, Jorge Luis Borges, Nizar Quabbani, Mary Oliver, William Carlos Williams, Buddhadeb Basu.

The older I get, the more compelled I am by the quietly strumming throb of words that is poetry. Now I see poems as feelings. Helpless impotent feelings that try to come out of the womb of our hearts and make a bid for a life of their own.

To me, poetry is madness. Most of the time, I am quite sane. I don’t think of myself as a poet, I can’t rhyme and my poems often have no set form. Yet from time to time, a thought or a feeling wells up and nags me till I write it down. 

These two poems came to me in these terrible times of Covid, which were so painful to many of us, helpless and arrested, so far from home.

Tired of writing condolence messages.

Every day to a new friend.

Every death untimely.

Each loss unfair.

I think of childhood friends. So & so?

Hope they are okay. I want a roll-call each day.

 

In the litany of deaths, some are uncounted.

An immigrant doesn’t leave with much:

An idea of home, a place lost in time,

Unreachable, outside a dream.

That dream, safely tucked away,

Is that too dying today?

 

And yet life knows no math.

There will be no reckoning.

We limp on, best we can, all of us.

And slivers of life sneak through the shrouds,

like my stubbornly optimistic son,

when I tell him I am too busy to play.

Sometimes my poems rise up almost fully formed, and I obediently play the scribe. I find it hard to think them through and even harder to edit, especially when the driving emotion is vivid and personal. This one came to me when I was missing my father, whom I lost to COVID, far away in India. I could not do anything with it, once I wrote it down. 

A Stubborn Poem that Refuses to Conform

The days at home are growing hot:

waiting for the rains, in murmuring desperation;

then often too much comes, too late.

 

I had written about you to the doctor,

and called the mayor too.

they said sorry, it was too late.

 

My dream died. And another was born,

a wish granted. A price collected –

equity in the business of souls.

 

I just wish I could have seen you once more.

though I know, it would never be enough.

I wanted you forever; I will want you forever 

 

A civilization of ants was devastated today –

I carelessly stepped on their bustle of progress.

A few, turncoats, hurried on my shoe to survive

 

They said they tried everything.

But I thought the tide was going to turn!

this “but”, this moment, this shock never ebbs

 

When an old friend has left,

little questions we never asked nag us.

When they are here, the questions hide like shy children.

 

It was inevitable, this farewell –

from the first kiss, our road to goodbye is inevitable

inescapable; from the moment I left your womb.

 

And yet it was a beautiful day. The skies were blue,

I read a new book. I thought I could tell you, then remembered…

From a dark window, I watch a square of light high on the hill.


Prerona Mukherjee is a Cognitive Neuroscientist and an aspiring writer. The common thread: people, life, and feelings. She spent most of her childhood in Calcutta, India, and adulthood in Edinburgh, Scotland before finding herself in the Bay.


 

Trinity Cares Foundation fight against COVID-19 in Jangamakote Village. (Creative Commons License 2.0)

Don’t Forget People Are Still Dying In India

It started in mid-March 2021, the many videos of grandparents hugging their kids post-vaccination in the US. Families reunited safely after a year or more of waiting to touch. Pictures of social interaction among vaccinated people started appearing on social media feeds. People sat outdoors in restaurants in the sun. The CDC guidance changed about masks for vaccinated people.  

I live in the NY area. Perhaps, we can go to Broadway shows again soon. Maybe, we can relegate to memory those days of heartbreaking pictures of daughters looking in through the windows of nursing homes to get a glimpse of their mothers through the glass and families trying to decide whether to have Thanksgiving dinners sitting as far apart as possible in different rooms.

I do like the current optimism in the US on COVID. But for some of us, the pandemic is far from over. As an immigrant from India, I wish American media covered more world news.

For me, the pandemic is still very much alive. When I check my WhatsApp in the morning, before the fog of sleep has cleared, there is news from India. It may be that again someone we knew has passed away from COVID. In Facebook groups, someone else is looking for oxygen. The lucky ones are waiting three hours in line for a vaccine, while others don’t know when they will get a dose at all. They don’t need beer, donuts, or million-dollar lottery prizes as incentives to get vaccinated. 

There is a raging pandemic going on in India and in major parts of the world. If you believe in the overarching value of human life, you ought to be worried. 

I have been living in the US for more than two decades. As an immigrant, my threshold for pain is different. Even in regular times in my community, only the lucky children get to physically run and hug their grandparents once a year on a trip to India. We are lucky if we get to attend weddings of close relatives or be present when nephews and nieces are born. Every time we leave home in India, we aren’t quite sure whether we will see the very old ever again. 

No, the pandemic hasn’t ended for me. 

My septuagenarian father in Kolkata, India, who is disoriented after losing his wife last year in August, and has been socially distancing in the pandemic for so long, can neither go to the bank to stand in line or go to the fish market like he used to. He still has not been able to return to a fully independent life of doing the things he used to do. He has been taking social distancing seriously and I just long to hug him after my mother’s passing.

My father sits in a room surrounded by buildings that block the sky on all sides. There is no place to take a walk safely without running into people, even though that number continues to decrease because of COVID-related deaths. One neighbor, who called before my mother’s shradh ceremony (which is similar to a funeral) to inform us that she couldn’t attend, passed away just a few days later from COVID.

I talk to my father on the phone every day and tell him that all this will be over soon without really knowing what to believe myself. So, I switch to a conversation about how things are looking up in New York – at least he is happy that I am safe. 

Cable news channels in the US constantly state that the pandemic is ending. Occasionally, there is some coverage of other countries on the chyron when some complex US political complication is being discussed animatedly on the main screen. While there was never very much coverage of world news through the pandemic, I had hoped that we would hear more about those that are passing, at least from here in the US.

I live in the US and have lived here for twenty years. I am hoping the pandemic ends here. I teach in a college in Manhattan. I’m fully vaccinated. I’m eager to see my students in person just like anyone else. I’m hoping everyone else will be vaccinated when I take the train to Penn Station from New Jersey in the Fall. I, too, am hoping to sit in a cafe and write. I’m glad I can bring in groceries, now, without disinfecting them obsessively. But even as I think of my life here, I’m aware of the suffering of people in other countries. That is not just because I’m an immigrant. It’s because even before I became an immigrant, I grew up with the consciousness of the world through world news in India. 

For the first year of the pandemic, my experience of the pandemic in the US and India was parallel. I was looking in through the glass at my ailing mother last year all through her 5 months of sickness in Kolkata. I couldn’t visit her during the first Indian lockdown and the first wave of COVID in India. The glass in my case was not a hospital ICU wall but a phone video screen. The video was often blurred. Sometimes, I thought she recognized me on the screen. Sometimes, I thought she only saw the phone. She lost speech and then we eventually lost her in August 2020 through indescribable hardship.

For those of us, who lost someone close in the COVID world, the post-COVID world, if and when it comes, will never be the same.

For months I have been planning on how to visit my father in India safely. I have planned various scenarios in my head through the spikes in COVID cases in the US and India, and through lockdowns, flight cancellations, planning local transportation in India, COVID tests, seat availability, vaccination – tracking every little large and small last-mile problem through my mind’s eye. 

Yet, I have only ended up reassuring my father in India over the phone that he will go to the fish market soon, that he will be able to stand in line at the bank soon, that it will be safe for him to walk on the teeming Kolkata streets soon. My visit almost worked out when I completed my second dose of the vaccine in the US, but that’s when the deadly second wave hit India in April. My travel plans are on hold again.

World news should matter. Worldwide deaths should matter. Worldwide deaths should matter and not just because a virus mutating in the developing world can put the developed world in jeopardy. 

Death should matter just because we value human life.


Madhura Bandyopadhyay is a Doctoral Lecturer in the English Department at John Jay College, City University of New York (CUNY) in Manhattan, New York. She grew up in Kolkata, India and has lived in Florida, California, and Singapore. She lives in New Jersey now. Apart from being a teacher and scholar of writing, she blogs in her spare time just for fun on her blog at bottledworder.com 


 

Why Indian Immigrants Are Facing a Unique Wellness Challenge

As America celebrates the loosening of the mask mandate, on the other side of the globe, there is a contrasting scene unfolding, complete with doom and gloom. Since April 2021, India has been battling the second wave of Coronavirus. Mass funerals, new variant reports, vaccine shortage, and an overwhelmed healthcare infrastructure are the new themes in the Indian media outlets. 

Whatsapp is abuzz with concerned messages from loved ones as well as news of losses and hospitalizations. Social media is brimming with not only political whodunnit analyses but also generous fundraising efforts.

Stories abound on how nepotism and bribery came to the forefront, especially when procuring a hospital bed. While in the same thread, we hear heart-tugging stories of kindness and sacrifices, where the human spirit has triumphed.

If you are an Indian immigrant living in the United States with family back home, then you are likely living the nightmare you have always dreaded – that late-night call. 

The fear that you are unable to be there for your family during their darkest hour.

The survivor’s guilt has possibly reached its peak within you. 

Neeta Jain worries in the US about her family in India (Image provided by Author)
Neeta Jain worries in the US about her family in India (Image provided by Author)

 The visa limitations due to outdated immigration policies and the newly imposed travel restrictions further exacerbate the situation for some immigrant families.

Indian immigrants are experiencing high levels of anxiety right now. Some are grieving, some are feeling helpless or guilty. The impact these emotions could have on their health and wellness is unimaginable. Especially given the always-on work culture in corporate America. 

As Indian immigrants continue to power through Zoom meetings, work deadlines, and deliverables, there is little empathy shown in most Corporate American settings. There are not enough conversations about the toll this second wave is taking on the wellness of Indian Immigrants in the United States.

The anxiety attacks. 

The sleepless nights.

The emotional eating disorders.

The survivor’s guilt, which is probably the hardest to reconcile.

While we continue to hope for the situation in India to improve and demand immigration policy reforms, here are five things we can do to take charge of our well being right away:

PLAN A FAMILY ACTIVITY: While our families are in lockdown in India, create a simple daily or weekly activity together, where you and a family member are bonding. Here is an example for inspiration. Bring out a new book and write down recipes from your mother, father, grandmother, or sibling. And even attempt cooking it! Food is love and food is nostalgia, and hence a powerful medium to stay connected. Also, most family recipes are hearsay and rarely documented in a structured format. So this will be a prized possession for years to come!

FOCUS on BASICS: Sleep & hydration. During extreme moments of anxiety, insomnia could surface for some of us and sleep quality and quantity may be negatively impacted. In addition, watching our water intake could take a back seat and we could be hydrating ourselves poorly. When you are going through a rough phase, it is best to keep things simple and focus on basics i.e. Sleep and Hydration. Moreover given these are emotional times, our food cravings could also come back with a vengeance. Maintaining good sleep hygiene and staying hydrated will help with those food cravings too.

GET GROUNDED IN NATURE: With the weather warming up in the northern hemisphere, getting out in the sun and soaking in the abundance that nature offers, will help destress and calm those nerves. Also, feel empowered to take a social media break, a news break, or a complete digital detox to reconnect with nature in any way that feels most aligned with you.

GRATITUDE JOURNAL: It has been hard to stay positive for even the most optimistic person in the room. And hearing for the nth time “Stay positive” or writing affirmations may neither be effective nor helpful right now. But having a gratitude practice, especially in the form of a journal can be transformational. When you bring paper and pen together, the brain is able to process the emotions a bit better, especially those of anxiety and grief. Write 3 things every morning that you are grateful for before you get immersed in the daily grind (Note: this can be the littlest thing!).

FACE THE GUILT: Lastly and likely the most challenging, as facing the Survivor’s guilt requires a great deal of vulnerability. Becoming aware and acknowledging this guilt, which may be wrecking those who have had losses amongst their families or friends is hard. Moreover, there is still a fair bit of stigma around getting help from a therapist or a counselor in the South Asian community. However, try and step beyond that stigma if you can and get help from a licensed practitioner to process this guilt.


Neeta Jain is a health coach and the founder of Her Shakti, a wellness company that helps immigrant women transform into their healthiest, strongest selves. Go from overwhelmed busy bee to nourished goddess with her free tips.


 

Cremation grounds in India (Image unrelated to ongoing currents events in India)

Firewood: Processing COVID in India From Afar

I was fully vaccinated in March 2021.

In the third week of April, I was planning to fly to India to check on my mother and extended family. My sister was in line for her second shot of the Covishield vaccine against COVID-19. We were excited to celebrate April birthdays and Mother’s day after 2 years. My bags were packed.

India, the second most populated country in the world with over 1.3 billion Indians seemed to have a decent handle on the pandemic. The world watched the initial twenty-day lockdown in India, followed by the mass exodus of migrant workers. Perhaps innate immunity to tropical diseases was helping Indians against COVID. Was the blistering heat not conducive to viral proliferation? Was the COVID-19 strain in India less infectious?

The Serum Institute of India was gearing up for vaccines for domestic and international use. Before Indian citizens were vaccinated, Indian vaccines were exported out of the country. Indian government and citizens were confident of their innate immunity. Steeped in a false sense of bravado, India reopened for business in early 2021. Unmasked gatherings, cricket matches, political rallies, and weddings continued while the B.1.617.2 variant of COVID-19 was raging in a vulnerable unvaccinated population.

Meanwhile, the weeks-long Hindu Pilgrimage congregation in Haridwar (Kumbh Mela) was not canceled. This year Hanuman Jayanti was on 26-27th of April the night of the pink full moon (Chaitra Purnima). This holy dip in the Ganga (Shahi Snan) was considered to be very auspicious. Many devotees tested positive and spread the disease in crowded trains and buses and to their contacts back home. The infectious curve changed from a plateau to a wall. The health care system was overwhelmed. Hospitals ran out of beds, oxygen, medicines. Meanwhile, there was an acute vaccine shortage, and hurdles in getting the vaccine.

My friends and family members are not fully vaccinated to date. So many innocent lives were lost! Fires burnt nonstop. In the first wave, it took five months for the 98,000 a day caseload to about 10,000 a day. This time, the peak is much higher and the downward trend of the second wave could be prolonged. The only hope is to raise herd immunity by mass vaccinations.

I composed two poems, out of my anguish. My idea is not to criticize. I am trying to process the trauma in my community. My poems document our complex human frailty. 

******

 Firewood

“I will make such a wonderful India…” @Narendra Modi 4/11/18 

Maskless. He addressed them. 

Rows upon rows, their

brains steeped in fervor. 

They cheered and rallied, then

thronged on the shores of a 

weary Ganges, sullying her body

of water. Over and over again.

Inviting Lord Yama to extinguish

their breath. 

 

He came with a vengeance. 

Coronavirus vanquished thousands. 

Breathless, their bodies crumpled on

the streets. 

No oxygen. No vaccine. No potion. 

No healers. No chant. No mantra.

No yantra. No tantra. No soothsayer. 

No friend or family member 

could save them from their own folly.

 

They burnt in communal fires in 

parking lots. The stench of death 

smearing the khadi shawl of 

Mother India. She wept

and rued their misguided deeds.

The pandemic raged on, 

mindless of caste, creed, age, gender 

or status. Even the mighty were 

snuffed out. 

 

But who will be held accountable

for cremating those innocent souls 

who died without rupees for firewood? 

*****

Flying Monkey Moon

The moon maiden was full

and deliciously pink 

A bit pompous, 

A butter macaroon, freshly baked 

Double pink peony daydream. 

Cumulus cloud carpet

Covered the midnight sky.

Sweet salutations were whispered

She smiled and lowered her veil.

 

Millions gathered on the bank of

the Holy Ganges to take a religious

dip with the Moon and floating diyas

The last day of the Kumbh was 

specially ordained to wash away 

their sins. Coronavirus raged in 

homes, hotels, sky scrapers and 

hovels. Hospitals were out of beds, 

doctors, nurses and life support ran dry.

Fires burned day and night in open 

crematoriums. Mortals chanted the 

Maha Mrityunjaya Mantra for protection.

Hanuman opened his eyes and flew

across the heavens. He thought,

they only remember me on

my birthday. 

*****

I do not want to criticize the government, their policies, or the people who helped spread this scourge.

I am very worried. I am one of the millions who do not know when they’ll be able to see their dear ones – parents, daughter, son, grandson, brother, sister.

In the interim, I keep watching the news, donate money for COVID relief, pray to Hanuman every day.


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.


 

Amma reading to Medha (Image by Author)

My Mother Kept Her Promise

Like many of us, one of my biggest fears was always that of losing my mother.  Life without her was not conceivable. 

When I was a little girl, and I was exposed to the idea of death for the first time, I remember asking her, “Amma, will you die too?” 

My mother sat me down, looked me in the eyes, and with complete confidence told me, “I will be here as long as you need me.  I will go only when you tell me that you do not need me anymore,”

In my childish mind, that was all the reassurance I wanted.  I would always “need” my mother, and that meant she could not leave me.

Life went on with my relationship with my mother evolving and changing as time went by.  By the time I was 44, my mother was older and frailer, and my relationship with her was that of one between two close buddies.  It was a two-way relationship with my relying on my mother for advice about raising my kids, and seeking comfort when some worldly affair troubled me.  My mother started relying on me to discuss her innermost worries about her health and the family.  The two of us settled into a very comfortable symbiotic relationship. 

This was until January of 2013 when my mother was diagnosed with cancer.  I was now in the US teaching at a university and raising two kids under the age of 10.   The news hit me like a ton of bricks.  I applied for a sabbatical from work to make the most of the time I had left with my mother.  The year was spent shuttling between India and the US, and trying my best to stay present wherever I was.  In March 2013, I was in India for my mother’s 74th birthday.  I got a cake, invited some neighbors, and had as normal a party as possible.   My mother and I both knew but did not acknowledge the elephant in the room – that this could be my mother’s last birthday with us.  My father was not aware of the gravity of the situation, and none of us had the courage to tell him the harsh truth. 

One of my brothers and I took turns to be in India to help our parents.  When I went back in June 2013, my mother, who by now was a lot weaker, still made trips to the local market with me.  Shopping for kitchen goods was our shared passion and, in a typical Indian steel kitchenware store, we both behaved like kids in a candy store.  I could tell that my mother was pushing herself to make the most of the time she had left.  When we sat down in a coffee shop, I could no longer hold the sorrow inside. 

I blurted out to my mother – “Amma, I cannot live without you.”

My mother looked deeply into my eyes and said, “I will leave you only when you are brave enough to let me go.”

I responded “Amma, that will never happen.”   

In my vulnerable mind, if my mother had promised not to leave me until I was ready to let her go, she couldn’t leave.  She always keeps her promises. 

Amma Sadabhishekam
Amma sadabhishekam (Image provided by Author)

September 2013 –  I traveled back to India to give my brother a break from caregiving.  My mother was in the ICU.  Her condition came as a shock to me.  She could barely talk and she could not see anymore.  We did not know this then, but the cancer had found its way to her brain.  The two weeks following that were a blur.  My mother faded into a semi-coma.  Her body was still there but we could no longer communicate with her.   It killed me to see her stare into space when we called her name. 

Then, the bad news arrived.  It was confirmed that the cancer was in the brain.  Our family doctor told us that this was the end and that we should not try any more life-saving measures. The next day, when I was in the hospital, I told the resident doctor in the ICU that we had decided to sign the “Do Not Resuscitate” order.  He pulled out a form and had me read through it.  From where I sat at the doctor’s desk in the ICU, I could see my mother – eyes taped shut, and all kinds of tubes going into her to keep her alive.  The doctor explained to me that when she fails to breathe on her own, her throat would be punctured to insert a ventilator.   Those words punctured my heart.  I looked at my mother feeling fiercely protective of her and told her in my mind: “Amma, I won’t let anyone trouble you anymore.” 

Without any hesitation and without any tears in my eyes, I signed the form.  I walked over to my mother and whispered in her ear “Amma, please go.  This body is not working anymore.  Don’t worry about Appa.  I will take care of him.  Look at me, I am not crying.  I am fine.  Please go”. 

My mother hung on for a few more days, giving my other siblings the opportunity to see her before she passed away on October 9th early in the morning.  I felt numb.  But, I also felt a strange peace.  My mother was no longer suffering.  She had escaped her cancer-ridden body.  She was free. 

A few days later, I remembered my mother’s promise to me –  “I will leave you only when you are brave enough to let me go”.  I cried.  My mother had kept her promise. 

I returned to the US back to my husband and my children. 

My 9-year-old son snuggled up with me one night and asked me, “Mamma, will you die too?” 

I said to him, “I will be here as long as you need me.  I will go only when you tell me that you do not need me anymore.” 

My son heaved a sigh of relief, hugged me tight, and fell asleep.


Shailaja Venkatsubramanyan has taught information systems at San Jose State.  She volunteers with the Plant-Based Advocates of Los Gatos.  http://www.plantbasedadvocates.com/


 

“Beti Bachao!” Ask South Asian American Women

Trigger Warning: this article discusses sexual assault, rape, and trauma. 

When 29-year-old Srishti Prabha said she was sexually assaulted by her boss at her first job, she said she did not file a complaint with human resources. She did not find a lawyer and contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. There were no courtroom dramas or scalding accusations.

Why? Because the only story that Prabha, like many other Indian American women who say they’ve suffered sexual harassment, can tell is a story of silence.

“I had to run. I didn’t understand that I could say something. I was uncomfortable,” said Srishti Prabha, Assistant Editor for India Currents, a community news website based in the Bay Area.

“Our generation didn’t have the language. Growing up, my parents didn’t understand the culture, so I had to understand these boundaries by myself,” Prabha said.

Over the past two years, the #MeToo movement has provided survivors of sexual harassment and abuse with a platform to hold their abusers accountable. What began as a grassroots social media movement has brought thousands of sexual assault cases to light, penetrating nearly every sphere of public life.

Within the South Asian community in the U.S., however, women and activists say the #MeToo movement has a long way to go.

Childhood and Cultural Taboos 

Prabha traced her silence about sexual harassment in the workplace to the cultural taboos she encountered as a child. According to Prabha, topics like sexual assault and domestic violence were left unaddressed.

“Indian culture sometimes doesn’t permit …flaws. It’s a culture that wants you to have the perception that everything is perfect, your house is perfect, your children are perfect, to give the perception of prosperity as opposed to honesty,” Prabha said. “Growing up, I didn’t understand what was going on…I didn’t know if someone’s mom was being abused. It was never a topic of conversation.”

Sex is still an unspoken and taboo subject in many Indian American households, agrees Pramila Venkateswaran, a women’s studies professor at Nassau Community College in East Garden City, New York.

“Indian Americans don’t even want to address anything sexuality-related. It’s a sort of a fear,” she said in a Zoom interview. “It’s a taboo they carry from their socialization that they bring here, and that refusal to discuss sexuality is to protect and barricade the family.”

Prabha’s personal experiences point to broader issues within the South Asian community. When dialogue about sexual assault is stifled across gendered and generational boundaries, survivors can become isolated.

“Women often carry the burden of unpacking their traumas alone,” Prabha said.

Public Speech and Private Pain

Unfortunately, laws and public pronouncements often haven’t supported those who’ve taken a stand against sexual abuse.

At a candlelight vigil in Chennai, India, a young girl mourns the death of Jyothi Singh, who was gang-raped and tortured on a private bus in Delhi.

The harrowing 2015 documentary “India’s Daughter,” a response to the infamous 2012 Delhi gang-rape case, was banned by the Indian government for fear of provoking “public disorder.” When that same rape case incited protests across the country, politician Abhijit Mukherjee called the women participating in candlelight vigils “highly painted and dented, no longer students” (“painted” denotes a woman who is sexually promiscuous). His sweeping generalizations about the protestors undermined their outcry against sexual assault.

Meanwhile, producers of the Bollywood film “PINK, which was designed to raise awareness of sexual assault, grappled with India’s Central Board of Film Certification before its release.  This movie’s arguably most pivotal scene, which discusses the kind of language that runs rampant in public discourse about rape, received multiple verbal cuts to block “abusive language against women.”

Although the film was permitted to release with a UA certificate, which means that children ages 12 and below can see the movie with parental permission, Bollywood critics found that the censorship removed impact from a movie dependent on its realism.

“The community feels more progressive than they actually are at times,” Prabha said. “They’ll say something, but their ideologies don’t match the words they speak.”

The Indian community’s reticence on sex reflects India’s inadequate, underfunded sex education curriculum. According to a 2015 article in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, sex education is banned in six major states, including Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka for fear of aggrieving Indian values. A 2013 study published by the National Library of Medicine reported that less than half of students from Mumbai colleges received sex education from schools or parents.

Unfortunately, lack of education and information leaves room for rampant misinformation about sexual health, reproductive rights, and most notably, consent. Rather than shielding the younger generation from talking about, thinking about, and having sex, these restrictions only reinforce rape culture within the Indian community and its diaspora.

What Works — And How

So what does work to help women?

New York-based nonprofit Sakhi for South Asian Women, which assists South Asian immigrant victims of violence, aims to convert #MeToo outrage into constructive change.

According to Anusha Goossens, Sakhi’s sexual assault program manager, education and intergenerational dialogue are a crucial part of the solution. As someone who works with Indian American survivors on a daily basis, Goossens says abusers use a “lack of knowledge” to gain control over women.

“It’s not something we talk about with our children,” Goossens said. “Without discussing or learning about healthy relationships, these women become vulnerable to sexual assault and ongoing abuse.”

Sakhi offers a 24-hour confidential helpline, where a trained professional can listen to and record their experience. To prevent the continuation of this cycle of abuse, Sakhi crafts a detailed safety plan and connects its clients with external services, such as defense lawyers, financial support, and mental health counselors.

Following #MeToo’s explosion on social media, Sakhi has seen a “modest increase” in the number of sexual assault survivors contacting its hotline. While Goossens conceded that a majority of Sakhi’s clients are newer immigrants who are less aware of the movement, she pointed to what one writer called a “wave” of #MeToo second-generation Indian and Bangladeshi survivors in New York who are discussing rape culture:

In response to the movement, Sakhi is actively working on youth outreach, even creating a text hotline to make young people feel more comfortable sharing their experiences. The text line was positively received by the nonprofit’s clientele and provided a necessary doorway toward intergenerational support –– the kind of support that was not available to Srishti Prabha almost 10 years ago.

The grassroots #MeToo movement has played a major role in dismantling a  power dynamic that protects rapists. Though it can be difficult to use given cultural differences, it’s a platform that allows South Asian American survivors to discuss their experiences and educate the public, a remarkable change.

Recently, the @AdivasiLivesMatter handle used #MeToo to discuss the marginalization and abuse of tribal women, including the suspension of a case of a 13-year-old girl who was reportedly raped by police after she became lost while attending a fair in the eastern Indian state of Odisha.

“(As) someone who works with feminist advocacy groups, I was pretty happy when the #Metoo movement happened,” Venkateswaran said. “It disrupts fear. It disrupts shame. That’s the kind of thing that has to happen all over.”

But #MeToo doesn’t necessarily protect Indian American women after they expose their abusers. When actress Tanushree Dutta accused film veteran Ganesh Acharya of abuse and sexual harassment, she was reportedly blacklisted in the industry, while Acharya continued to produce blockbusters and engage with the Bollywood fraternity.

And Dutta is certainly not alone. In the South Asian community, women are frequently blamed and ostracized for being honest about their experiences.

“What is not happening in (South Asia) is laws that actually help these women,” Venkateswaran said. “If some middle-class woman comes and outs her abuser, she will just be replaced. She becomes dispensable. Does she have a union protecting her? Does she have a support system that holds her job?”

But Prabha sees progress.

“I’m happy that the next generation is so much better off than I am,” Prabha said. “I’m always learning from the people younger than me. Maybe they’ll have the tools to address this. We’re late, but I think we’re really changing for the better.

If you’re struggling with sexual harassment, abuse or violence, please contact:

The Domestic Violence Hotline:                                                                                                                                 Hotline: 1-800-799-7233                                                                                                                                                Website:  https://www.thehotline.org/help/

Sakhi For South Asian Women:                                                                                                                                   Helpline: 1 (212).868.6741 or text 1 (305) 697-2544                                                                                                      Email: advocate@sakhi.org                                                                                                                                            Website: https://www.sakhi.org/ 

Maitri:                                                                                                                                                                                Helpline: 1-888-8MAITRI or 1-888-862-4874                                                                                                              Email: maitri@maitri.org                                                                                                                www.facebook.com/maitribayarea                                                                                                                                   Languages: English, South Asian languages (countries: Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Fiji Islands, amongst others)

 


Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. Aside from being the Youth Editor at India Currents, she is also the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak, the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton. This year, Kanchan was selected as a semifinalist for the National Student Poets Program. 

The piece was first published here.

Featured Image: Y2krohit / CC-BY-SA-4.0

Photo 1:  Archer Ztudios / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Love is Like an Iceberg

“Hey, did you hear from Nick?”

“It’s been a year, so yes! After their marriage, all my friends disappear. A year later, I hear from them.”

“Seriously? Why do you think so?”

“Simple! The honeymoon is over.”

Every relationship goes through three stages: 

  1. Honeymoon
  2. Plateau
  3. Trauma

A plateau in a relationship is the dying phase of love. The trauma stage is the death of it. You can re-ignite your relationship when you are in the plateau stage, but it is almost impossible from the trauma stage.

It is hard to tell exactly when one stage turns into another, but I have found that probing my clients helps them figure out when problems begin to surface in a relationship.

Three signals that your honeymoon is beginning to fade:

  1. You begin to look for distractions from your relationship, by picking up hobbies and activities which exclude your partner.  
  2. You hesitate to be honest with your partner.  If your values or beliefs are different from your partner’s you cannot speak truthfully, without trying to justify yourself.  Finances, raising children and dealing with in-laws can be major topics of contention.
  3. You begin to obsess about your relationship.  Constantly wondering about what your partner is doing when you are apart, going through his/her messages, wallet/purse or feeling jealous of your partner spending time with siblings or parents, is a call to confront your personal insecurities.

To keep your honeymoon going, you must:

  • Take frequent time-out sessions from your partner.  Going to dinner, a movie, or a trip (even a day trip) with friends, and engaging in a life outside your relationship gives it every chance to thrive.
  • Never seek advice about your relationship from friends or people in similar situations. Friends will always take your side, while people in similar situations cannot tell you what is good for you.
  • Read books by authors who have overcome a similar challenge. Pain transcends gender, ethnicity, financial net-worth and the times people live in. Reading about the experiences of others will help you gain perspective.
  • Avoid distractions, such as social media, television, alcohol, or casual relationships.  Instead, take the time to analyze your frustrations and take responsibility for your own happiness.  Harnessing your creativity (singing, dancing, painting, sports, etc.), engaging in a cause actively and focusing on those less fortunate will help you feel good.
  • Manage your expectations from your partner.  When you come home tired after work, bear in mind that your partner may also be tired. You only attract who you are – if you come home relaxed, you will find everyone is relaxed at home, but when you come home frustrated, you will find that reflected.

Love can be compared to an iceberg.  What you see of an iceberg, is the tip: the 12% that floats on top.

Your conscious mind is 12% of who you are. It contains:

  • Logic
  • Reasoning
  • Analytical abilities
  • Decision-making abilities
  • Your willpower

What you see on the surface is the glamor of love.  Submerged in your subconscious mind, is the invisible aspect of love and life, which is 88%.

Be brave and dive into the subconscious; be honest with what presents itself. The Sanskrit word swadhyaya, meaning self-analysis, is key to understanding yourself.  It is easy to blame others for our own shortcomings. Michael Jackson’s lines, “I’m talking to the man in the mirror. I’m asking him to change his ways,” should be your mantra, whenever something is not working in your favor.

I would like to leave you with three questions. Engage in this exercise in the early morning when your mind is clear.  Try this while spending time  in nature, because if you are in your house it will tend to bring up negative emotions from the past. Treat this time as your personal retreat and sit down to record your answers in a book.

  1. I have lived for ____ number of years. How do I want the next ____ number of years to be?
  2. What is my truth (story)?
  3. Who would I be without this truth (story)?

I wish you happier times.  Namaste!