More on religion

According to the Hindu calendar today is three years since my mother passed away. If I were religious, or if I were to bow to pressures from religious relatives, I would have performed a “shraadhha/tithi” today. Instead, I’m home, leading a rather normal life. In spite of it being a Sunday today, I’m actually working (I coordinate schedules with my wife, and for some reason she chose to take off this Friday and go to work on Sunday, so I followed). I’ve eaten breakfast and a very normal lunch.

Every year, twice a year (it’s remarkable that my parents’ death anniversaries have a phase difference of about six months), I begin to get requests from relatives – mostly uncles and aunts but also from the wife – that I need to “do my religious duties” and perform the shraadhhas. The last few occasions, I complied. However, as I’ve explained in this post, I’ve gotten disgusted with the general quality of priests around and decided that it’s not worth my while to enrich that community just because someone tells me it might help my parents attain salvation in their afterlives.

Since I flatly refused to do the shraadhha this time, the last few weeks have had more than their fair share of religious discussions compared to earlier. I’ve been asked how I know that priests mis-pronounce. When I say that my limited knowledge of Sanskrit is enough to identify the mispronunciations, they suggest that I try different priests. I then talk about the number of different priests I’ve encountered over various Shraadhhas over the last few years, and about how not one has really said the mantras well (except for the family priest who conducts weddings, etc. but shraadhhas are too small-time for him).

Then comes the clinching argument from my relatives – that even otherwise irreligious people like my father did their ancestors’ shraaddhas without fail. And it is at that time that I start questioning the whole purpose of the Shraadhha and trying to ascribe a believable reason for it. I argue that if the intention is to remember the deceased, I don’t need one day a year to do that since my parents come in my dreams practically every other day. The intention might have been to get all the descendants of the deceased together, but then I’m the only descendant of my parents and I’m “together with myself” all the time.

Then they try and convince me to perform what I can classify as “lesser evils” – such as giving raw rice and vegetables to a priest. I’ve done that once before and considered it to be such an unpleasant experience that I don’t want to do it again. And then I question how it will help. And the argument goes on.

So for today, finally I submitted that I’ll put food out for the crows before I eat, since in the Sanatana Dharma crows are supposed to represent your ancestors. After much haggling, this seemed like an acceptable compromise.

Later in the evening yesterday, my wife and I had a long conversation about what it is to be a Brahmin and why Brahmins are traditionally vegetarian.

Sometimes, when I don’t think enough I think it is ok to admit to the whims and fancies of other people just so that I don’t piss them off. But then when I do think about it, I find it ridiculous that saying a certain set of songs with certain pronunciation and intonation will have some bearing on my life. I find it incredible that feeding some random so-called Brahmins will help provide peace to my deceased parents.

Growing up with an ultra-religious mother and an atheist father, I never really “got” religion, I must say. In fact, the first time when I thought about religion was when I read about parts of America not believing in evolution (this was some 4 years back) – it was incredible that some people were so deluded that they didn’t accept something so fundamental. It was around the same time that I read The God Delusion (not a great book I must say – could’ve been written in < 20 pages), and the beliefs of the devout, as it described, shocked me.

It was around this time that I realized that some (nay, most) people actually take it seriously that if you pray for something it increases your chances of getting it. It shocked me to believe that some people believe that chanting a certain set of songs (mantras are just that, in Vedic language) will improve your life without any other effort on your part. It shocked me that people actually believe in afterlife and rebirth. By this time, my father had passed away, and this wasn’t a topic about which I could have a rational discussion with my mother, so I let it be.

Some temples (of various religions) make me feel calm and peaceful, and I love visiting them. There are temples which look so good I think they need to be preserved, and I make reasonably generous offerings there. There are festivals that I consider fun, and I celebrate them enthusiastically. We had a fairly large doll display at home this Navaratri. We burst fireworks and ate lots of sweets this Diwali. Last year we hosted a Christmas party. With some friends, I raided the kebap stalls in Fraser Town during Ramzan. We set up a little mandap at home for Ganesh Chaturthi, and displayed my collection of Ganesh idols.

But the concept of before-lives and after-lives and rebirth? That of prayers sans effort making a difference? That you need to feed some so-called Brahmins who can’t recite mantras for nuts just so that your parents attain peace in the afterlife? I find it all absolutely ridiculous.

I didn’t put food out for crows – I find no reason to believe that my mother has transformed into one of them, and that that particular crow will come looking for food today. I haven’t worn back my sacred thread as promised yesterday. I think my cook had put onion and garlic in my lunch today. And life goes on..

The stigma about mental illness

It saddens me deeply every time I see someone rubbish mental illnesses as a fad, and as a wall behind which the mentally weak strive to hide. Having myself being affected negatively by delayed diagnosis and treatment thanks to prevailing orthodoxies, and having seen the kind of lift timely recognition and therapy can provide, it is frustrating to know that most of the world still attaches a stigma to any kind of mental illness.

Earlier today, someone I know reasonably well complained that she’s feeling way too depressed nowadays, and that she needs to seek a counselor. Knowing her, I know that this is a deeply informed decision, but before I can throw in my support, her mother interjects saying “all this therapy and counselling is bullshit. Just move in back with us and you’ll be fine”. I had half a mind to interject with “your similar stupid judgments not so long ago drastically delayed someone’s recovery, I know. So I don’t think your daughter should listen to you”. But not feeling particularly combative, I kept my opinion to myself.

Over the last few months, I’ve been trying to do my bit, though, to help clear the stigma of mental illness. I was talking to some aunts today and told them, “Look, there’s nothing wrong in being clinically depressed. It’s just unlucky. It’s like having diabetes”. They nodded, and seemed to understand. Perhaps using analogies like this one, where people can evaluate mental illness on par with an illness that they understand well, help.

The problem with mental illness, though, is that too few possible evangelists are “out” (while reading homosexual literature, I see several parallels between the difficulties faced by the sexually queer and the mentally ill). So many possible evangelists are involved in professions that sees “mental strength” as a necessary trait that they are afraid of jeopardizing their careers by “coming out”. The only solution, as I heard in an interview a couple of months back, is for this to be a gradual process. People with mental illness “coming out” is now a trickle, but if we sustain that trickle, perhaps it will become a flood sooner rather than later, and that might help erase the stigmas associated with this class of illnesses.

A couple of months back, I happened to listen to cricketer Iain O’Brien’s interview with The Cricket Couch, where he talked about his depression, and about why he “came out”. It was a truly inspirational talk, and there he mentioned about the trickle turning into a flood theme. He talked about Marcus Trescothick, who probably led the way among cricketers with mental illnesses “coming out”, and the effect that had on mentally ill sportspersons. He mentioned that his own coming out was a step in sustaining that trickle.

A month back, I read Trescothick’s autobiography, “Coming Back to Me“. That is again a story very simply written and well-told, and hopefully that helps educate the larger population about mental illness, and about the fact that it can strike just about anyone. In fact, Tresco makes an interesting point there that mental illness is more likely to affect the mentally stronger people, for being mentally strong, they try to fight against the tide that inhabits their mind, unaware of its presence, and in the process sink deeper into the illness. We surely need more such evangelists.

So today, on no particular occasion, I have decided to do my bit for mental illness evangelism, to make my little contribution to what is currently now a trickle and will hopefully turn into a flood. I suffer from more than one illness that gets categorized under the class of “mental illness”. For over six months now, I’ve been on anti-depressants, trying to combat my anxiety and depression. I also suffer from this condition called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) , but don’t take any medication for it.

For a while I was suffering from “second degree stigma”, and hence not “outed” myself, though in general I keep my affairs public. Because I’ve known that mental illness has stigma attached to it, I was afraid that outing myself might harm me both personally and professionally. However, I realize that by not sharing my story of incredible transformation in the past six months, I was doing a great disservice to the class of mental illness patients in general by not contributing to the trickle. Having convinced myself that I can work (for the first time in over six years I completed a couple of projects recently), and that I can work well despite my illness, I think it makes no sense holding this back any more. I thank Marcus Trescothick, Iain O’Brien, Freddie Flintoff, Lou Vincent et al for showing the way, and I think it’s my duty to join the band.

My psychiatrist informs me that I must have had ADHD for, like, forever, but lack of knowledge of the condition in India meant I was never diagnosed. Back in 2002, my parents took me to a psychiatrist because they thought I wasn’t performing up to my potential at IIT. I got administered the Rorschach Test and some questionnaires and was put on a mild dosage of sleeping pills, which I soon stopped taking without much impact. In hindsight, my ADHD should have been diagnosed then, and perhaps that might have helped me make better career choices than quitting four jobs in a bit over five years’ time.

As the more perceptive of you might have already figured out by now, this “coming out” means that I’ll probably be writing more about mental illness on this blog. I know it might make some of you uncomfortable, but it is indeed part of my effort to make people more comfortable with dealing with mental illness, and to try and erase the stigma attached to the class of illnesses. If you are a sufferer, too, I encourage you to come out, and join this trickle. And help turn it into a flood.

Ganeshana Madhuve and Challenge Gopalakrishna

Scenes from these two movies were enacted out at our wedding.

So in certain cultures (such as my wife’s; this isn’t practiced in my mother’s house at least) there is a uniform that brides need to wear – a white or off-white sari with a red border. I think this uniform is there in my father’s family also, but I’m not sure. I’m sure this is not there on my mother’s side.

Anyway, Priyanka was in her uniform, in the “bride’s room” doing “gowri pooje” that is supposed to be done before a girl gets married. There were several other women around, and for the wedding, they had all chosen to wear their own wedding saris – white or off-white with a red border. This included mostly Priyanka’s aunts and cousins and one of my aunts.

So there is this scene in Ganeshana maduve where Ganesha (YG Rao) is told that the girl in red sari is Shruti (his “pen lover”). And he goes into the bride’s room to find that everyone there was in a red sari, so he has no clue in figuring out who Shruti is. Similarly, if someone had come to the bride’s room searching for one particular woman who was in the white-red uniform, they would’ve been thoroughly confused indeed.

Then there is this scene that is oft-repeated in the other classic Anantnag starrer Challenge Gopalakrishna (I’m not able to find the link on youtube). Whenever Gopalakrishna’s dad abuses him, he reminds him of his lineage. (translating) “Being the great-grandson of Justice Gopalakrishna (loud temple gong), being the grandson of Major Radhakrishna (another loud temple gong), being the son of Rotarian Muralikrishna (yet another gong) you dare to behave like this… “. This scene is played out several times in the movie, and towards the latter half, as soon as Mukhyamantri Chandru utters “Justice Gopalakrishna”, Anantnag runs.

So as part of the wedding rituals, the bride and groom are anointed as Lakshmi and Narayana (the gods). So while I was being anointed such, the priest chanted “Venkataramanasharma nautram, Suryanarayanasharma poutram, Shashidharasharma putram Shri Karthika Sharma … ” and similarly for Priyanka (that way I got to know her great-grandfather’s name). The first couple of times it was ok. But when this bit came up later on in the rituals, we couldn’t help but burst out laughing. Thankfully there were no temple gongs to punctuate the recital.

I’m not sure if Lakshmi and Narayana are supposed to laugh.