Don’t over-think it bro!

I had never been to a holiday for the sake of a holiday till I was 24. This shouldn’t be surprising considering I’m born to self-realised Social Activists/AidWorkers who can never really draw the line between work and anything else and it would be hypocritical of me to complain because in this field, work is life. And I’m pretty much the same. Still, any holiday we took as children would be combined with a work detour. When we went to the beach, we also made a side visit to the fishing villages that were struck by tornados or a giant tsunami. If we went away elsewhere, there would be villages with a flood situation, with food scarcity and with sheep I could kidnap.

For every essay we had to submit on Shakespeare and the Skeletal System, we had a summer of adventure to look forward to, so much so that the idea of just getting away to do nothing seems preposterous even after all these years. I went backpacking across Europe to end up volunteering in a small village in France. I went to Africa to see the place but ended up working for 7 straight months – even in places where I went to take a break. You know where this is going right? Classic movie sequence of epiphany that hits because of something a stranger observes that you hadn’t even realized before? Yeah, that.

That was my first holiday, and like all firsts, you remember it fondly. I went to Zanzibar thinking I’d spend one day looking around and the evening at the beach and the next day, volunteering at a Madarasa. I ended up staying a week and doing nothing but sipping gin cocktails, making friends with a cat that was older than the island and taking in sunrises and sunsets on the Indian Ocean. I had quite a bit of unlearning and letting go to do.

Stone Town – Zanzibar

Earlier this year when I realised I could go away again, I picked a place because my grandmother, who I’ve come to know only through the stories I’ve been told, was born there and came away to India by a treacherous ship journey that took months and months. I learnt that she used to be royalty in Malaysia and when they came to India, they lost everything. And she had her adventures- she was the first of her family to study in a British School when they opened up the schools to Indians (It was the same school my sister and I studied in) She fell in love and married an orphan boy and lived a life she never thought she could/would.

When I booked my tickets and got my visa, people asked me why I was going – I had a massive Sméagol fit.

2 weeks on a holiday doing nothing but exploring? Not going near a volunteer project or a social cause? Not on any freelance travel writing project? An empty itinerary/list of things to do? Just going with the flow? And then I was finally able to say it.

I’m going for me.

It’s officially summer

I haven’t blogged in over a month – shocking? Not really. I’m the queen of procrastination when I’m in between travels but then, I have been busy this time. Not really trumping around the woods near Kilimanjaro, but just as exhausting and thrilling.

I was asked to facilitate a summer camp for 10-14 days for 40-50 teens, some of who were first generation learners in their communities, their parents having never been to school. More than that, they had just finished writing the big 10th Standard exam which has been a rarity in the villages from where they were coming. A few years ago, we had just 5-10. The numbers itself show that somehow, something good is being done.

It was the first time the children were getting out of their villages and experiencing this kind of freedom. They didn’t have to study Algebra and Math anymore. They could sleep in. The “lessons” were all activity based so they never had to take notes or try to take a nap subtly behind two other students which meant that apart from all the drama that comes when you put 40 teenagers in a room, there was a LOT of energy and fun to be had. I was given creative liberty so in typical fashion, I really went for it.

The activity was for the kids to draw how they saw themselves - things they loved, hated, what they identified with. Then we made a gallery to show them they're not as alone as they think they are.
The groups were given an egg which would be dropped from the highest terrace. This had the most innovative packaging
Making the longest line possible with the things they had on them at that moment
We opened a study centre in one of the villages. This is the village band celebrating
To celebrate, we treated everyone to ice-candy (for dessert)
The ice-candy man had a busy day
Back at the camp, an evening game of Kabbadi
Group Discussions under my favourite tree

Clay Modelling Day
Love how they used leaves for the keypad
Clay Modelling slowly turned into Zombie wars.
The boys making a vow in front of the girls that they will not take a Dowry.
The highlight of living in a village? Views like these.

What did I learn? That I’m more confused than ever. I love working with children and youth as much as I love writing. So instead of my life being a series of “Harry Potter > Hunger Games > Twilight” sort of equations, it’s “Travel = Writing = Art = Training = Social Work = Family = Mangoes”

Is this the balance they talk about in old Kung Fu movies? Needless to say, I’m in my happy place – instead of me whining about how restless I am to my friends, I get to listen to their problems in a Zen like fashion. It’s also a great opportunity pretend to be this wise old turtle

or this tea-brewing uncle

Or just call them “young grasshopper” . Oh yeah, I live for the cheap thrills

Adios

I wish someone told me that dreams do come true. They do. I am living proof. I probably would have saved years off whining.  There is reality and there is its heartbreaking essence but there is life and joy and the chance that that leap of faith you finally took will pay off. It always has for me.

Does that mean I’m luckier than most people? Maybe I’m just a hopeless optimist who could never say never even when it looked like a dead end road. One day it will probably come back and bite me where it hurts but for now I am okay and on my way to Africa.

This is for all of you who never gave up on me – I am who I am because you thought I could.

This is for all of you who gave me courage when I wanted to give up – I wouldn’t have kept moving forward if it wasn’t for you.

This is for all of you who I’ve not met in years or who I’ve never laid eyes on – you give me reason to carpe this diem with a passionate intensity I had not known before.

And this … this is for all of you who laughed at my plans or who were conditioned to think this is stupid- I’m sorry you didn’t get a chance to live your dreams. I promise I will wing this one for you.

I will be posting my African adventures here. Just to have it all be in one place you know? But hopefully I can blog random stuff here too. Tell me you’ll miss me?

Big warm hugs. I love you. I really do. See you on the other side!

Into the Valley

To leap, or to handcuff myself to this city? That has been my question for a couple of months now. Ever since I quit my job to follow my dreams – somethings came up and I convinced myself that I needed to take care of them before I moved on.

I’ve always loved the idea of Canada and I thought maybe that’s where I would go first. Followed by Africa, Europe, Japan and maybe my beloved America (everyone knows of my love-hate relationship with that country)

The longer I’ve had to wait, however, the more the voices of those convinced I’m making a mistake haunts me. At 23, I am to work at my career, date with the purpose of finding someone to spend the rest of my life with, dream of making big money and running a happy family so that by the time I drive through to the other side of the twenties, I’d be more stable.

The truth is that I want none of that. I didn’t need alcohol to reach that conclusion, just the time I’ve had to myself, staying home, taking care of my grandma. I want adventure, I want to travel, see the world, crack a joke or two even if at my expense just to bring a li’l cheer and delight into someone else’s life. Show them that its okay to play in the rain and feel the sand between their toes. That it really isn’t that scary or forbidden. Isn’t that what life is all about?

And then I start to panic because what if life is not what I imagine it could be. What the people are whispering constantly in my ears about love and life is all there is? I know I have the right to make my own mistakes – I’d like nothing better. I guess I just need someone to tell me that it’s okay to jump off the edge without knowing if I’d land in a splat or fly.

My parents, friends and peers all think I’m wasting my time at home instead of taking up one of the many job offers I’ve received in the past new months. I don’t know how to explain that I need to find a new place where I can start from scratch. A place where the people at the bar recognize you and when they serve you peanut masala they always know to serve it with the lime wedges cause you like it that way. A place where I can take out my guitar and strum while listening to melancholy songs because music is the only strength you have left. A place where I can finally let myself connect with a complete stranger without my emergency systems shutting me down. I need to believe that I am strong enough and will, sometime in the future be able to do all this. My faith that it all eventually works out, however irrational it is, has to pay off, right? Right?

I finally called the African embassy today. By October, I’ll be gone.

Guest Blog: Legalizing Prostitution.

I have idolized Sangitha since the time I joined Dream a Dream and there has been no looking back. Her passion and zeal for justice always struck me at the core. For her, it doesn’t matter if the cause is animals, humans, environment – all that matters is that you speak up. For me, that is a trait I envy and before I left work, I told her just that. She is my role model and our early morning coffees made her my guide. This article really moved me. You can read more at Life and Times in Bangalore

In response to a comment to the recent SC mention of beggars, prostitutes and home makers, here is a informed view point on prostitution being legalized in India. I am not tooting my own horn – I was part of the so-called educated view point sometime ago that legalizing prostitution would make things better for prostitutes. In the past year, I have been informed by various sources, have seen the movie by Mitr Sanketa, seen and read about the state of poor women. So my post comes from some information, some emotion and an understanding of the basic dignity of having control over your own body.

Fact no. 1: Prostitution is not illegal in India. According to Indian law, a prostitute has not committed a crime. She uses her own body, does not force others or use others’ resources. The criminals here are the people who profit from prostitution, namely the pimps, madams and other parts of the ‘system’ that make money off the prostitute’s actions. Legalizing prostitution really means enabling these criminals to walk free, free to push more trafficked women and children into prostitution. Would any society want that?

Fact no. 2: The percentage of people (that would be men and women, since prostitution does not discriminate on the basis of gender, it just discriminates!) that enter into prostitution out of free will are a most miniscule percentage possible. While data is tough to come by given the nature of the problem, less than 2% of the prostitutes polled say that they entered this state willingly. Even these people do not want their sisters, friends and children to enter this state. Taking the word of one or two of such people to represent an alternate view point is absurd. We Indians have a way of arguing the extreme without recognizing that the vast majority of prostitutes are currently between 10 – 100% unwilling in doing what they are doing.

Those who say they entered prostitution freely had to provide for families, had desperate economic needs AND feeling like this was the only option because they lacked other skills, felt helpless, felt like they could not earn otherwise. No one happily states that they would love to be a prostitute even if they are not paid. That they just love the ‘fun’ of working. Like a teacher might say (I know several such teachers!).

Once they get in (mean the prostitutes here, not the teachers!), they are lured by the disproportional amount of money they can make compared to the effort required in prostitution. They get addicted to making more for doing less, not to prostitution. Since they are almost all illiterate or not educated beyond a few grades in school, there is no awareness of the other costs of prostitution. No mention of the psychological effects of having no control on their body….for even those who voluntarily (this really means due to poverty) became prostitutes lose control of their own bodies, since the madams and pimps run them. This is organized crime.

Fact no. 3: Attempting to give a prostitute his/her dignity is not done by calling them ‘sex workers’. It is not work. It is exploitation. Rehabilitation and support give them dignity. It is not enough to have a bunch of people around them saying they respect them (though that is necessary and currently very scarce). The person involved needs to feel worthy. At the root of it all is a lack of self esteem (something that is developed in them by aware parenting that allows an individual to stand up and say, ‘nah, not this even if it is severe economic need’) that needs to be addressed.

Fact no. 4: There is a back slide during rehabilitation due to the lure of money. Prostitution is easy for someone who is used to it for years. They have seen how much money they can make in a short period of time. When you are poor, it is tough to say ‘no’ to having some money. Change is difficult. It is like adjusting to take a salary cut with more time off. The value of the time off is difficult to appreciate when sometimes the lack of money hits hard. For someone who has not thought of themselves as worthy of respect, the value of dignity, having control over one’s own body, etc. takes a long time to appreciate. And one has to stick it out. So the fact that prostitutes drop out of rehabilitation efforts does not mean that prostitution is desirable. I think of it like an addict lapsing before sticking it out long enough for health to become an effortless habit. And then watching it every day.

Fact no. 5: There are over 3 million trafficked people; men, women and children in India. Only 2000 get rescued every year. A majority of these people are in prostitution, forced into it. Even the worst ‘look the other way’ viewpoint can’t say that the 13 year old Nepali girl who has been sold into an AIDS rampant red light district in India ‘came eagerly’! There are 2.3 million prostitutes in India. Approximately. Kind of a large enough population to do something about? Even assuming that 50% of them are not ‘volunteers’ (can you see that I am trying hard to step into the other side’s shoes?), this population is large enough for laws to protect. We don’t need enabling.

Fact no. 6: The ‘it exists because there is a ‘need’ argument? Tough. Button up, people. If you have a need to kill indiscriminately, we should legalize murder? Since this is not a service (unless you call rape a service!), there is no space for the ‘demand-supply’ argument. Because that is all it is. Some intellectual farting by people who will not do a thing but want to feel good and sleep well at night. Denial rarely solves a problem. And this is denial running rampant.
Prostitution is oppression. It is taking advantage of a vulnerable person and making them do something you would not. It is control at its worst. It is power as much as sex that is in question here. For those who say that we have to make the conditions of the people already in this state of oppression, please do. How? Put those pimps and madams behind bars, give the people involved some options that are real for them (not call center training for an illiterate person!) and then allow those who really want to be prostitutes, in control of their own actions to do what they will.

My last argument – since when has legal anything done good in India? Road rules are to be followed. Stopping at red lights is legal. Because we can’t enforce it or change mindsets, we give up and say, ‘okay, there will be a red light but stopping or not is your choice?’ Even assuming that legalizing prostitution is the thing to do (I have made my opinion clear that it is not!), laws are as good as their enforcement. You can’t control anyone through laws. You can’t change mindsets through laws. What will legalizing this do that we can’t as civil society do now? Setting up day care for prostitutes’ children? There already. Health checks? Happening already. Medical treatment? Yep, happening. You name it and there is an NGO already doing it. Is the scale of work enough? For 2.3 million people, heck no. But then what is the difference in that from real life for us non-prostitutes? Roads being laid? Yes. Enough? Heck no! Will legalizing prostitution give a prostitute her dignity? Do I need to answer this?

We need to work on the biggies – poverty and crime. Development is the answer. Instead of sitting around and wasting time/resources on the legalizing prostitution debate, let us fund and set up more and effective social programs for rehabilitation. And stop spouting nonsense that prostitution deserves its place among the various world trades and services.

What can I do daily/weekly? I can volunteer/work in the NGO sector. Put my money where my mouth is. Put my time and effort where my money is. Not a development sector person? Can design websites? Can think technology? Set up IT strategy for an NGO that will not be able to pay for it. A dancer? Find an organization that uses arts in its programs and support them with your time. A home maker? Teach, make stuff, feed, use your organizational and multi tasking skills. Volunteer like you would work. With committment…not, ‘oh, my relative is visiting today, I can’t make it’ at the last moment. Schedule a relative’s visit around your volunteering. With deadlines – NGOs are organizations that are asked to be efficient and effective. It is just right to ask that of their volunteers, is it not?

When will I believe that prostitution is entered into by free will? When a wife or husband leaves home saying ‘See ya, Honey! Be right back after the next customer. Don’t forget to pay the maid and do make sure the kids are picked up from the school bus?’ Brandishing a business card that proudly says ‘Ms. Anita/ Mr. Anand, Prostitute’.