Thursday, September 21, 2017

#BlueWhaleChallenge: An Unworthy Cause for Death


I have spent one goosebumpy hour online reading about the Blue Whale challenge! We are inundated with so much info on an everyday basis that it is hard to keep up. We are vaguely aware of a lot of things around us. But then it's hard to ignore when something comes closer home. Someone I know has had a death in the family in a very blue whale style though investigations are still on. But something like this set me and the spouse thinking and we really sat up to read about it. And the details are gory, depressing and scary, to say the least. Writing this post is as much a catharsis for me as it is to try and put together information about this accursed game that's driving teenagers to end their lives - for no worthy cause.

What is the Blue Whale Challenge? 

The Blue Whale Challenge - simplified here - is a 50 day challenge where the curators of the game assign one task each day - all of them self destructive in incremental degrees. The last task is to end one's life. Sick, isn't it? Now, who's the brain behind this amazing shit? Phillipp Budeikin is the mastermind behind this game who confessed in court, when arrested for the suicide of teenage girls in Russia, that he was just "cleansing society" by getting rid of "biological waste" Although there are more admins apart from him who run this game for teenagers.

It is established that the most vulnerable stick around beyond the first few tasks. And the admins use psychological manipulation to goad the players on since they know that those who continue are weak victims. One boy who was saved from ending his life described his experience. He vouches for the pressure one feels and is compelled to carry out the orders. If you look at the list of tasks - which makes me all knotted in my stomach - you'll see that the task for Day 30 to 49 is waking up at 4.30 am and watching scary videos that the curators send to the players. Day 50 is to jump to your death in the wee hours of morning. And I don't think it is hard after this onslaught of destructive material to get a sleep deprived, confused teenager to fling to his/her death!!

Why teenagers?

Well! There's been a 13 year old who was found dead and the Blue Whale screen was open on his dad's phone!! You be the judge! Psychologists vouch for the fact that this demographic is the most vulnerable.

“It has been observed that some teenagers have very low self-esteem, and rely significantly on peer approval. For them, the external environment becomes a source of inspiration, which is why they are willing to do anything to (project) a certain image,” said Sameer Malhotra, director, Department of Mental Health and Behavioural Sciences, Max Super Speciality Hospital, Saket, New Delhi.

There can be more reasons like rebellion, lack of focus and interest, boredom, curiosity and teenage angst to drive them towards such games which can seem thrilling.

Why is it hard to ban it? 

Like everything else on the internet, it is hard to contain even this dangerous thing. Here are a few reasons why it is hard to ban it - ban the blue whale challenge - and also a list of the tasks involved. Be alert and the lookout for anyone who might be carrying out these to catch up with the symptoms.

Why is this so twisted? 

Let's cut the chase and come straight to what can we do? If you have kids, especially in that age group, this threat is real!! And I might sound a bit stern here and I am willing to incur parental wrath for this. Before I go on to actual steps one can take, one thing that baffles me is that no one in the family or social circle notice anything amiss with these kids. The task list is life altering even for a mature adult. I can't imagine a teen-year old person going through it and be normal. Some kids were using the parents' phones to play it. (The case of the 13 yo testifies to this) What kind of parental supervision would that be after giving kids the power of technology which can turn fatal in ignorant hands?

The first thing I'd blame is the unrestrained access to internet and gadgets that kids have today. Yes, one needs to keep up with the times. But if it is at the cost of those every kids, I think it is time to think again, reassess what we want for our kids. Teenagers are confused now more than ever. There is just too much going on and the pressure to keep up is immense. And what better than to play a game on a dare that all their friends are playing too! This can be their golden chance to prove to everyone they are worth something. Self esteem issues taken care of!

What signs to look for?

The challenge lasts long enough and has enough self destructive tasks that I don't think it can go unnoticed. Here are a few signs to watch out for:

Cuts on the body
Waking up at unearthly hours
Isolation
Being cooped up in one's room
Increasing secrecy
Silence

What can we do?

When there's chaos around the best thing to do is to simplify. And good old times where members of the family sat together for meals and caught up with each other. Internet free conversations between people who should know whats happening in each others' lives.

Find constructive, offline activities for teenagers. This is a time when they can develop precious life skills like speaking, writing, painting, photography, cooking, calligraphy - there is no dearth of hobbies one can develop interest in.

The times of autocratic parenting are over. Kids respond better to friends than controlling parents. Keep track of what your kids are upto. Look for the signs, just in case. Keep an eye on their online activities. If they get the validation and confidence they need from parents, they wont look for it elsewhere.

Teachers at school have an equal responsibility in guiding the young. Parents and teachers should actively read up on what affects youth so that they can help curb such things. Peer pressure begins in school and is the best place to get addressed.

The self esteem of kids needs to be collectively raised. Giving up their life for an unworthy cause is just insane. They might as well fight the enemy at the border and die a martyr. Find the right means to channel their boredom or sense of worthlessness. There are countless worthy causes one can devote time to - 50 worthwhile tasks coming up in the next post.

Cybermum, who creates awareness among parents about cyber threats to teens and suggest ways to keep them safe online, has the following tips









Every time I blame technology for why kids grow up so soon in today's times, I have parents defending the role that online access plays in making kids smarter. If you ask me, I'd prefer a dumb kid who's alive than a smart, tech savvy kid who is....

For now, my heart goes out to the parents of this teenager who died yesterday. They must have brought the little one in their arms and 17 years later carried him out on their shoulders. A burden that will never lighten - not in this life time! We live in hard times and pay dearly for it. But I am confident that this can be prevented. We all need to be aware and take steps that are in our control. Read up, spread awareness, be alert.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Lipstick Under My Burqa: My Thoughts



Photo credit
(Spoiler alert: Read on if you don't mind spoilers)

Lipstick under my burqa - a powerful film that has forced me out of my blogging sabbatical. Because I have to talk about it. Not just because the movie deals with an unusual subject but because I’m appalled that we’d never get to watch it thanks to some uptight, out-of-times people who did not want it released. Another attempt to silence the voice of women, hush the reality, conceal from the world that women can have feelings - sexual, no less!!! 

The movie explores the lives of 4 diverse women - across ages, professions and social strata. Yet, you wouldn’t miss how the plight of each woman is the same - trapped in her situation and confined by definitions that society binds women into. 

Rehana is a college girl on the verge of adulthood but restrained by birth in her conservative family. She is expected to adhere to what people believe a girl like her should be - burqa clad, obedient and almost invisible, drawing no attention to herself. She steals and lies to keep up with the joneses in college but is back to her miserable life once she gets home. 

Leela has a career as a beautician and runs a parlour but has to fight for her right to be with her boyfriend. Her mother, a widow, wants her daughter to get married since that is the only way a woman can have security and respect. And so she is stuck at the crossroad of whether to be with her boyfriend or do what her mother expects her to do. 

Shireen, a mother of three, has no rights. She is fettered in her marriage to a man who uses her every night for his pleasure and that’s her only function in his life. She has no say in using protection and has silently suffered 3 abortions. Sex is also the weapon he uses to dominate her and punish her when she insists she wants to continue in a job she hid about from him. His ultimate warning to the sexually abused and beaten Shireen is - Don’t try to be a husband. 

Usha, the 55 yr old widow, who has lived her life but is still not free to be herself. She reads erotica and also finds the courage to learn swimming in her small town. She finds a new self through these activities but does it in secret, because a woman is never free, at any age, to live the life she wants to. 

And then there’s Rosy, the bold character from Usha’s erotic novel who has fantasies and yearns for a man. Her story is narrated by Ratna Pathak Shah and becomes the final voice of the narrator at the end. 

I am guessing that Leela who has pre-marital sex to Usha, who reads erotica - were the main objections why the censor board did not want to release this film. Teenage rebellion is an age old theme. But portraying women as sexual beings is against Bharatiya sanskriti. It is too much for men to reveal the truth about themselves to the world - a man can use a woman for his pleasure every night because it is his right and it is right. But it’s not becoming of a woman to even think about it. She has to be shamed and thrown out of the house - like Usha is when her erotic novels are discovered by her family. 

Photo credit
The stories of these women converge at the end when all four of them find themselves in Rehana’s house - co-sufferers who find solace in each others’ company. The younger ladies help Usha gather her stuff that’s been thrown on the street and get her indoors. Sitting in each others’ presence, they realise that their predicament is the same - whether it’s Rehana who’s yet to begin her life or Usha, who has already lived hers. Their deed of rebellion is to smoke a cigarette, probably meant to be a metaphor for their freedom - but within the confines of the room. These women can wear lipstick but only under their burqa, hidden from the world. Their real desires and true selves is something the world doesn't want to deal with. 

This is not a Bollywood blockbuster. None of these women rebel and fight societal prejudices that force them to lead a double life. Or drive them to seek refuge in a little room with each other. The narrator’s voice ends the story with Rosy walking out of the door of her house to live her life, pursue her dreams. This gives us hope that these women too may find their way out into the world and be able to live the lives each one wants to. 

What hit me the hardest about the film is how powerless and impotent these women are in their circumstances. Being born in a home with freedom and education is an urban privilege. How can Rehana fight the parents she is stuck with? The liberty to pursue one’s career and choose one’s life partner isn’t a right a woman in our society is born with. What should Leela do? Who should she choose? Once a woman is married, her own parents have nothing to do with her. And I feel the worst for Shireen, who despite being more able then her husband suffers ignominy in her marriage every day. Is it easy to walk out in her situation? And while I see so many women in their 40’s and 50’s finding a new lease of life and start afresh after their kids have moved out, that’s not something their rural counterparts can look forward to. How is Usha to live her own life and save herself the embarrassment she’s made to go through? 


And each one represents an entire tribe of such women manacled to their lot. I really don’t know what to say to end the post. Anything I say wont make any difference to the plight of real women living such lives I’m so saddened to watch on screen. I’m thankful to Alankrita who had wrote and made this film. And fought to get it released so that the world could see the truth through this wonderful piece of work. Let's just hope that there will be a time when women can live and be who they want to be without being judged or punished for it. 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What Would You Do?

(Photo Credit)

Some things set you thinking.

It was a usual weekday. My spouse stepped out of his office to grab a bite. As he was finishing his samosa standing outside the snack center, a couple approached him. The man explained his situation - his wife had a brain surgery in the recent past because of a tumour and he was back with her for a follow up. The person who was supposed to meet them with the money for the same did not turn up (Or I think the lost the scrap of paper with his details on it - I'm recalling this as the husband narrated) And hence they had no money for the check up which was important. I know - the first thought that comes to mind is, "Bullshit! There are dime a dozen such people out there to dupe you. It's just a ploy to relieve you of the contents of your wallet! Who believes them!!" My man thought the same too. So he started asking for details. This guy had hospital reports and other papers to prove the veracity of his claim. When the spouse still looked suspicious, apparently, the man started weeping and said they did not even have a place to sleep that night (it was already 9pm) And without any money they couldn't go to the doctor either for his wife's follow up.

What would you do in this situation?

We came back from our weekend dinner last night and found a person sitting on the pavement amidst some plastic garbage that seemed to need sorting. (I said person because we couldn't make out the gender. Seemed like a man with track pants and T shirt) As we parked and got out of the car, he (let's stick to male) stood up and gestured that he wanted food. Usually, we'd have some leftovers packed but we did not have any last night. The spouse started asking him questions about his house, job etc. He seemed to be a bit unstable mentally and we got garbled responses with different cities mentioned each time he tried to explain. One thing was clear - he was hungry and said he could buy food if we gave him money. The spouse told him to not spend the night on the pavement but try and get back to his home town (whichever that was)

Would you give him the money he asked for food?

Such situations leave me (and the spouse) quite pensive, wondering about the truth of these stories. And about the pathetic state of these people. Should we help such people or just shoo them away? Are we fooled if we choose to help them? We don't know. Would be it right to cast all such people in the same mould of deception and refuse money? We don't know that either. But giving them the benefit of the doubt, how helpless would a man be approach a stranger on the street and plead for money to save his wife? (I also wonder how he must have managed the cost of the surgery even given the penurious state) Would it be so bad to spare a little of what we have so that someone can eat a decent dinner before he'd find whatever comfort sleeping on the pavement? Lots of questions and no correct answers, I guess.

This is what we did: Gave money. Both times. Bear with me for a minute and I'll explain. My spouse, who is usually low on cash, thankfully had sufficient on him that night. It'd cover the doc's fees, a couple of meals and train tickets back to Nasik from where the couple said they were. (They said they'd manage sleeping at the hospital) And I say thankfully because it would be awful not to help them properly and treat them as beggars. The man on the pavement also got enough for 2 meals and probably a train ticket squeezed in. (I guess, I am not sure).

So are we world class fools who are stupid enough to get duped every time? Well!

His logic: If we can't share what we have with at least one person in duress, what's the point of being blessed! We take so many things for granted. And people on the street remind us that basic things like food and home could be a luxury some people cant afford. And when we come across someone so much in need, it is better to help them directly than give away to richer charities.

My logic: We are morally on strong grounds and our intentions were to purely help such people. In case they lie and cheat to extort money, Karma should take care of it. We keep our conscience clear and move on.

The spouse was a little skeptical the night of his encounter with the hospital couple. Since it was a sizeable amount, I think anyone would wonder if it was right to lend it. I have always supported him for my reasons I mentioned above. We may be fooled at times but we have also had people ask us money to buy food and bought it right there using the money. Other times, we don't know what happened. But I guess there's balance restored in some way.

I'd really like to know what's your take and what you'd do in such situations?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Fighting Gender Stereotypes: Is It Possible?

The male nanny in FRIENDS is such an aberration! (Photo credit)

When Ross and Rachel hired a male nanny, everyone is shocked at the idea! It is so hard for the group to believe that a man would want to take care of babies out of choice. The men keep wondering - it's like a woman wanting to be.... - and the women, challenging - yes, what's the end of that sentence? The debate ends only with Joey's "a penis model". Although the awkwardness doesn't. Sandy - the male nanny - knits, plays an instrument and more importantly, isn't scared to let his feminine side show with free flowing tears. For a sitcom set in times when they are okay with even same sex relations, gender stereotypes still seemed to be deeply rooted.

No matter which culture we belong to, we are hard wired to believe that everything is gendered. Come to think of it, what befits a boy or a girl is decided right when the baby is born. I am guilty of never buying my nieces a car and always look for dolls and pink things! There are clothes for boys and girls and toys for boys and girls. And then when children play house, it's the girl who stays home to cook and the boy goes out for some kind of work. Reverse the role and have the boy make make-believe tea and that'll be insulting - that's a girly thing to do! "Are you a girl?" - is the rhetorical question the little boy is asked. (Although the kiddo might have no clue what the fuss is about) Because girls take care of home and boys go out in the world and earn.

The gender debate is more relevant in todays times when we are putting them on the spot and examining their validity more closely. There is so much talk on social media and elsewhere about how the new generation of boys need to be brought up with gender sensitivity. Crime against women is a huge issue we wish to tackle through well raised boys. We want to teach them that girls can have the freedom of movement as boys do irrespective of time of the day or night. Girls are out there asserting themselves and the boys need to play catch. While those lofty goals are great in the larger picture, I think it’s the individuals who’ll make a bigger difference. And a great step towards that is how we have become more aware of mindsets that are coloured with gender bias. This awareness is the key to changing them. Although many of them show we have a long long way to go before our world becomes truly gender neutral.

I was recently sitting with some people and one of them said that his colleague carries a tube of hand cream so that his hands stay soft in winters. And he found this very weird because it’s women who have soft hands while callused, rough hands are manly! I don’t think I would have paid attention to something like this a few years ago. But now the first thought that strikes me is how gender has nothing to do with soft hands! The skin of a person is just that and needs care in winters.

While we are trying to work on changing gender stereotypes in our heads, instances like the above point out to how deeply ingrained they are in our minds. Something as simple as a hand cream has gender implications!

Like I said, we have become more aware of gendered mindsets now. I was raised in a family where I don’t remember my dad ever being in the kitchen. And now I am married to a man who’s culinary adventures are limited largely to a biannual event of spreading dosa batter on the pan proudly displaying the result on a plate! (Below) Cooking, in my head, is mainly a woman’s job! (Yes, I am a work in progress too!) Sunday chefs I know of - men who cook a special dish once a week! But its hard to believe that a man might take care of an entire dept of running a household!



And it was eye opening to get to know such men who can manage the entire show independently and rustle up proper meals!! Such men amaze and surprise me. I still sometimes find it hard to wrap my head around a friend who cooks as an everyday chore. He plans the menu for the week, shops for groceries and is completely in charge of what happens in the kitchen!!

Another heartening instance is of a stay at home dad who does exactly what people would call a woman’s job - running the household, taking care of his kid while his wife has a full time job. He’s the odd one out when mommies take kids to play in the park but that hasn’t deterred him from wearing his #SAHD status on his sleeve. And I think this is such a huge dent in the stereotypes we propagate.

I am thrilled to personally know these people and applaud them for what they do. We still haven’t changed as a society. But these men have thrown all gendered caution to the winds and have done exactly what suits them. And that, I think, is a great thing in creating a gender neutral world.

Although some examples have made long strides in the positive direction, are we ready to change with these change makers. How easy is it for us to dissociate ourselves with what we call girly and think of it as gender neutral? And I question this based on something that actually happened. If you ask me, this friend who cooks everyday is setting a great positive example for his son. But when the kid wrote an essay on what his dad does around the house and mentioned that his dad cooks, the teacher made him erase that information from the essay. I am not sure if Dads are still supposed to sip tea and read a newspaper around the house. Teachers are a very important influence in our lives. And I shudder to think of many many more such teachers who still tell their students that girls cook and boys, and by extension dads, don’t. That girls are docile and boy don’t cry.

Just I was about to finish this post, the same friend pointed out the most atrocious thing related to this topic. Needlessly gendered is what I'd call it. And I think it is so wrong at so many levels, reinforcing exactly what we are trying hard not to! Silly toys for boys and girls even though either gender could play with a bike!



And that is why I said that before making any changes in the outside world, we need to change from within. Challenge the notion that soft hands are feminine and callused hands are manly. There are tons of such things that I hear often:

Women cant drive
Women don’t build muscles
Men can park well
Women can’t park well
Women don’t understand finances/investment
Men are tech geeks
Women don’t drink whisky
Husbands are better decision makers
Boys don’t cry
Girls cant fix leaking taps

The change has to start from within. If we are serious about creating a gender neutral world, there are a few things which we must do:

- Stop saying its girly/not for boys and vice versa. Let games, toys and clothes be just that

- Set the right example as parents. We pick up our first cues about the how the world works right at home. I learnt men don’t cook because my father never did. What messages are you sending to your kids about gender roles at home?

- Challenge the teachers at school if they are set the wrong example. I can’t even begin to emphasize how important teachers are in shaping our world view.

- Get out of the blue and pink mindset

- Stop telling women to watch what they wear. Teach boys to look beyond a woman’s clothes and look at her as a person she is.

 - Think of boys AND girls being out at any time as normal. Let the boys know that as people, everyone has the freedom of movement.

- A woman covering her body or the lack of it doesn’t define her. So stop judging her

- Stop accepting any reason as valid to bring a woman down - her dress, the time of the night she was out, her inebriated state. Its okay for men to be out and drunk at 2 am. Why not women!

If men can be perpetrators, they can be equal partners in fostering equality too. Change the notion that a man encountered on the street is definitely going to be a perpetrator. He can also be someone who responsibly ensures the woman gets home safely. How we achieve this seemingly impossible change is up to us - maybe, one tiny step at a time. We need to take off our gendered glasses and get a fresh perspective on things. It is great to see campaigns against notions like boys don't cry and lets hope that there will be a world where girls will be kings and boys can be nannies! No eye brows raised! :)

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Chuck Those New Year Resolutions!

Break your new year resolutions! (Photo credit)
Now that you have spent almost the whole first day of the year, I guess you realised that it was pretty much like every other day. I bet you did not even make it to the gym. What did you say...you'll start from tomorrow? Well, let me tell you that if you expect to hit the gym consistently thrice a week, stick to your diet all year, be well organised, give up negativity and become all positive - it is not going to happen as perfectly from today as you imagined. You aren't going to be the perfect version of yourself just because it's the new year. Why, you ask? The year changed, not us. And although we imagine that we are going to turn a new leaf all of a sudden, the goals we strive to achieve in the new year are going to be one step at a time. 

We all want to be the best and every new year gives us a hope that we will be. While chasing perfection is an ongoing thing, I think the new year can be a great time to do so many exciting things - other than, of course, worry about how imperfect we are. Some of the things I can think of are: 

Start with a brand new DP on all your profiles
Try a new hairstyle 
Change the way you dress for something you haven't tried before
Combine the clothes you have in a different way 
Workout with new people
Try heels if you wear flats 
Get adventurous and travel alone 
Say hello to the guy you see working in the cafe all the time (I did)

The year changed overnight. We didn't. We won't. So don't bend yourself out of shape hoping you'll wake up tomorrow in an ideal state through the magic of the new year. Pick your goals wisely and work on them gradually. 

So what are your new year goals? Resolutions break, so why make them!