Sunday, July 29, 2018


Our collective obsession as a nation with joint families and 'intact' families is worrisome. No matter where I go, and this includes a gathering of college professors, there's always someone waxing eloquent on joint family, and lamenting the rise of nuclear families and the godforsaken 'phoren' idea of single parenthood. This in itself is not so problematic as many people do have a wonderful experience with the joint family system and there's no doubt that single parents and parents in a nuclear family lack the support system that a joint family has the potential to provide. The problem arises when the issue takes on a moralistic tone and nuclear families and single parents are demonised.

Attaching a 'large and intact' family with happiness is so automatic for us that we don't pause to think about the fact that our good experiences may not be shared by everyone, and end up vilifying those choosing a different lifestyle from us. Maybe people can be happy in small families! Why not? And sometimes maybe people can only be happy somewhere far away from some of their toxic family members!

The sacrosanct nature attributed to families needs to be questioned. We need to start expecting good behaviour from family members, all family members regardless of age and gender, and be responsible for good behaviour towards them from our end. If a particular family member is hampering one's emotional wellbeing, that needs to be openly tackled by discussion. And if the other party doesn't own up to how their behaviour could be influencing us or isn't ready to work on the relationship, then clearly our relationship isn't a priority for them. In such a case, moving away should definitely be a legitimate option.

Age can't be one's excuse to keep engaging in toxic behaviour. I have seen verbal abuse and open emotional abuse in front of strangers having been normalised in a lot of families. Some 'bade-buzurg', full of wisdom, are sometimes those most lacking in compassion. The gender angle makes it even more complicated. You as a young girl/woman dare not question the elders or comment on their words/actions, be they male or female. "Apni maryada mein raho." Every member of the family contributes to its emotional climate, and it should be everyone's responsibility to keep peace- not just of the women or the daughters-in-law. Knowing one's worth and not tolerating abuse plus insisting on getting respect if one is giving respect could help for starters in making a change for the better. If change is not possible, why shouldn't it be alright to move away, be it emotionally or physically?

Most of the times, the argument against 'breaking up' a family is the welfare of the children. It is assumed that stability and being sorrounded by elders and their blessings would somehow neutralize any problems going on. That somehow breathing air impregnated with the poison of marital discord and domestic violence would be harmless if everyone stays under the same roof!
One needs to understand that sometimes taking a child out of a toxic family arrangement, to be raised by a single parent could actually be the most child-friendly decision possible in that context. There's no dearth of research showing the debilitating impact of domestic violence and marital discord on children, and many of these effects last well upto adulthood. Very often, these children become adults that have a tendency to either become abusers themselves or to accept abuse because that's what was modelled as normal behaviour in a marriage/family for them. Grandparents, uncles and aunts, and lots of cousins living with us, sharing in our joys and troubles, having both of our parents living with us, may well make for a wonderful life- stuff of dreams for many of us- but only as long as staying together doesn't become more important than the wellbeing of the individual members. Family can be the best thing ever- our own army against the rest of the world and the one place where we can always take refuge; family can also be the one thing that has the most potential to bring us down- an invisible soul sucking enemy. So, if some day the institution of family becomes more important than the sanity of any of the individual members, a long hard look becomes imperative at what one is getting out of the family and at what cost. 

Monday, March 12, 2018


The world demands that you get back to it. The sooner you do, the better because it's only your and your family's life that has stopped; the rest of the universe has no clue that it needs to slow down for any reason and it won't.

Even in a shared grief, one's pain is ultimately one's own. People can empathize, and even sit and cry beside you, or be there by your side on sleepless nights or for mindlessly watching television but ultimately the periodic stabbing of your heart from the inside is only for you to experience.

Will things ever be the same again? Yes, the pain will lessen (even if it doesn't seem believable right now) but no, you don't really completely recover from a brother's death whose (tithi) birthday falls on Raksha Bandhan, ever. You can't and you won't.

What is humbling and at the same time like a punch in the stomach is the realisation that there are people whose loss is unimaginably more than yours. It's not just your pain you have to deal with- the perceived pain of the parents, the grandparents and the 4 year old elder sibling, who shared their lives with him far more than you ever did... the heart breaks all over again with the weight. If I'm feeling like this, they must be feeling a thousand times worse, experiencing his absence in every waking moment. How does a parent deal with a 3 year old son's death? How does a grandparent face the taking away of their best reason for staying alive? How does a 4 year girl deal with the fact that her younger brother is not coming back? The heart breaks and breaks some more. There's a violent desire to protect my kid sister from the ugliness of what death has done. But how painfully weak we are that call ourselves adults. I am still in Delhi. I'm afraid that if I go to Bhubaneswar, I won't want to come back. Not in 3-4 days, not in a week... I'm afraid not even in a month. My self preservation instincts suggest that I should not go and I'm heeding them.

Human selfishness truly has no limits.

Or maybe it's self care. But even then I don't know how right it is. How right is this careful immersion in the pages of a colouring book, preparing myself little by little to get back to the world? How right is posting my small projects on Instagram so that I feel that I did at least one useful thing in the day? How right is this preoccupation with getting back to normalcy at the earliest? I sense that I have been doing it since the first day of my grieving. Feels like strategically cheating my heart.

The funny thing is, grieving not a linear process. You get complacent that you are handling it well, and out of nowhere there's a kick on a part of your body you didn't know could feel things.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

We need to talk about our obsession with stable marriages

We Indians love weddings. We love marriage. We love big fat weddings and marriages that last the lifetime of the two people involved. If you can boast of both, sone pe suhaaga. Also, we hate complaints about dissatisfaction in marriage, and we absolutely abhor divorce (and divorcees- only the women though). We have no patience with the present generation that treats marriage as something they can get out of and has newfangled concepts like 'romance' and 'autonomy' being important in marriage. They are misguided, we say, and can only be saved by going through the arranged marriage route and learning the value of adjustment- if you don't like where you are, you work at feeling better and not at planning how to get out.

As a culture, we take a lot of pride in our stable marriages- people sticking it out (most often for the sake of their children) no matter how miserable they are with each other; the number of years for which relationships last meaning far more than the quality of relationships. We are highly disapproving of the apparent ease with which the present generation can and does get out of marriages, and lament it as bad influence of the West. What we don't seem to recognize is the fact that there can be bad marriages too! There's a limit to how much you can achieve through best intentions and trying to adjust- not everyone can be healed/changed and not every relationship can be salvaged.  In fact, toxic relationships can be extremely damaging for people's mental health- all the more true for children! So having options other than staying put in an abusive marriage is actually a lifesaver and needs to be given due credit. No denying that there are marriages that break up in a matter of days and weeks for the most frivolous of reasons and people are right when they say that such cases are more of a recent phenomenon. During my internship in a family court in Mumbai, I came across several cases in which I sadly noticed that people don't take marriage as seriously as it deserves to be taken, cases that made me lament the fact that marriages are not considered sacrosanct anymore. Yet I also came across cases- marriages fraught with impossible levels of all sorts of abuse- that made me glad that the sanctity of marriage is not absolute. They made me think 'Thank God for Divorce.'

It is said that the best legacy parents can leave their children is their happiness. Whether you fight or choose to keep it all brushed under the carpet, children are perceptive and the impact of marital discord on children's healthy development is huge! Often children pick up similar behavior patterns, have more adjustment problems and may show a variety of internalizing and externalizing problems that may last well into adulthood*. If not anything else, the child in question is going to have no role models for a healthy relationship and may grow up believing that what happens in his family is the way relationships play out everywhere. Contrary to what we may like to believe, it's better to get out of an abusive relationship- better for the children- that staying put and roughing it out.

So you see, you don't deserve a medal simply for staying in a relationship for life! We need to talk about the quality of that relationship first. Yes, all relationships have their ups and downs- every marriage entails hard work. But there's a difference between putting effort in one's relationship to keep it healthy, and tolerating abuse simply for survival of the relationship.

This morning I woke up to this harrowing yet inspirational story from Humans of Amsterdam, which made me want to write this post in the first place.  Its the story of an Indian woman working in Amsterdam who had had a history of emotional abuse in her marriage and was looking for divorce:
"When my father found out I wanted to divorce my husband he was really upset. He suggested I would travel to India so we could talk things through. I wasn’t planning on changing my mind but in order to get my divorce settled I would have to go to India. My manager at Nike gave me two weeks off and I flew back home. When I arrived, my family was mostly emotional and angry with me for making the decision to get a divorce. Later that week we traveled to the other side of the country to my husband’s house to discuss the situation. I remember sitting in a circle in his living room and everyone was looking at me. For hours my family and his family were trying to convince me to not go through with the divorce. This went on for hours and hours and at some point I was so exhausted I had to go to sleep. That night I slept in his house. Just being there reminded me of all those terrible months. I woke up the next day and I noticed that my bag with my passport, phone and credit cards was missing. I panicked and confronted my in-laws. They said that they had nothing to do with my missing bag and that someone must have broken in and stole it. Slowly I started to realize how serious the situation was. My two weeks off were almost finished and I had to get to my job in Amsterdam. To get a new passport in India it takes at least 3 months and a signature of your father or husband."

You can read the rest of the story here

I had goosebumps while I read this woman's story, and couldn't help but think about the plight of women who are not as educated or have the financial means to actually get away from a rotten marriage. Why lay so much emphasis on staying together when the life of the relationship has been sucked out already? Why are we so tolerant of abuse; why do we think that a relationship can get back to normal after there being episodes of abuse and no measures being taken by the couple to process it and by the perpetrator to get help for it? Why make it so difficult to get out of a dead relationship? Is 'not incurring society's wrath' such a worthy goal that we as parents are ready to sacrifice our children's happiness for it? Also, why are such archaic laws still in place that require the signature of husband/father on documents? Doesn't it help keep domestic violence alive? Are we so obsessed with marriage and maintaining patriarchy that we don't care about our women's safety, let alone their well-being? Of course, we are- we still don't recognize marital rape as rape! We truly have a long, long way to go before we can claim to treat our women fairly. Happy Dusehra folks! And more power to women like Haritha who are an inspiration to women everywhere, and the true manifestation of Maa Durga.

* Jenkins, J.M., & Smith, M.A. (1991). Marital disharmony and children’s behavior problems: Aspects of a poor marriage that affect children.

This article was originally published here.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Love, and the other names it goes by

I saw a jarring quote on Facebook the other day- "Let's emotionally damage each other and call it love."
The person who had posted it had probably found it funny and so did the people who 'reacted' to it but I'm sure it had struck a chord with many beyond inciting just laughter. I think it's appeal was in straight out stating a bitter truth, and most who saw it agreed with it.

Do I agree with it? Hell yes! And ew, no. Depends how I looked at it when you asked.

So many people in intimate relationships have no idea what they are doing, to themselves and their partner, and don't really bother with learning what healthy relationships look like and how to have one. The attitude is- "What's there to learn? Doesn't it come naturally? Like parenting does once you become a father/mother?" Sure! I mean, most mental health professionals would be out of their jobs if these things came naturally to everyone, but sure! 

To be fair, we have very few models of healthy relationships in media and our schools and colleges teach us nothing about constructive relationship skills. To top that, family discussions rarely tackle such issues in our culture until one is getting married in the next 3 days and an insignificant minority actually seeks out books or therapy to 'learn' about themselves, the human nature and relationships. Still considering the widespread failure of marriages (failure is not marked just by divorce, mind you) and general unhappiness in relationships or dating that gets so much media attention, it's a mystery how people don't strive harder to learn about and be in healthy relationships. One would think that their own feelings or their partners' feelings would sometimes give them the signal that everything is not alright and that things need to be done differently, but would it work that way if people think that it's all a part of love? What if people have learnt to associate love with tumult and pain?

Even with all the platforms of learning just listed missing, if the two individuals involved have healthy templates of relationships, appreciate the need to put effort into their relationship, prioritize their relationship enough to be ready to invest in its growth even when nothing is wrong, and have honest discussions on how to go about it, a lot of heartache could be kept at bay. After all some people do end up learning to swim once they are in deep waters! Yet, this doesn't seem to work for the majority of us when it comes to relationships. Why? Because the template itself is faulty. 

You see, anything goes in the name of love- passive aggressive behavior, playing games and whatnot. Its like living on a trial and error mode of learning, and then wondering what went wrong and why relationships don't last, and then posting status updates or writing songs that blame 'love' for every unhappiness in life. So yes, I do agree that a lot of what goes around in the name of love is actually emotionally damaging oneself and one's partner. But does that imply that love is, by its very nature, a transaction of damaging each other?

If the foundation is not right, and the material used for construction is of low quality, no wonder the house is going to crumble one day! Does that mean it's the fault of the house? I get really pissed off at material on the web, that I come across more frequently than I would like to, that equate love with pain. If your relationship didn't work out, chances are you or your partner or both had something to do with it, or circumstances made it exceedingly difficult to survive. Don't go around the city badmouthing love! Pain is an inseparable element of life, and there can be no denying that there is pain in love, just like it is in everything else in life. Why then give a bad name to love exclusively? Of course, more is the love, the more the potential for pain, but does that mean love is not a worthy pursuit? 

One needs to get one's template right. What does a healthy relationship look like? What are the red flags in a relationship that point to its having gone from unhealthy to toxic? Only once one has the right template in place, one can work towards achieving it in one's life or make the decision to opt out of one's relationship. A case in point is the distinction between good pain from bad pain. Living with abuse of any sort can never be good, no matter how good the relationship otherwise is or has been. One should never have to learn to live with such pain, and absolutely never in the name of love. But if it's say the pain of not being able to see one's partner for days or weeks on end because of being in different cities, that sort of pain is way different even if it might be as intense and can be lived with without damaging oneself or one's partner. That sort of pain is pain you can learn to live with- pain that need not be a red flag for an unhealthy relationship. Chances are you could witness personal growth and growth of your relationship thanks to that sort of pain!

No matter how common-sensical all of this sounds, the truth is, most people have no idea what they have gotten into until they are in the thick of emotions flying around, and then they go and blame love for their misery. The huge fan of love that I am, I'm going to try and do my bit in demystifying loving, healthy relationships thorough my blog in the next few posts. Based on my training in Psychology, my on-field experience with people in hospitals and family court dealing with relationship related distress, my understanding gleaned from English literature and my personal observations, in the next few blog posts, I'll write about healthy and unhealthy relationships, and try to keep it as non-academic and relatable as possible. Feel free to share your experiences, give feedback, ask questions or suggest topics you want me to tackle :)

“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don't know how to replenish its source. It dies of blindness and errors and betrayals. It dies of illness and wounds; it dies of weariness, of witherings, of tarnishings.” ~ Anais Nin

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

My Self

The following is a work of fiction.

I look at the mirror and see a stranger staring back. I keep looking, trying to grab at the threads of perception that seemingly keep tying themselves into knots. Images flash and memories tug at my heart. I take out the rubber band and let my bun unfold into long tresses that reach my waist. I put the rubber band around my right hand wrist and touch my hair, coarse yet full, and bring some of it to the front and let it lie there. I take a red bindi sticking to the wooden frame of the mirror and apply it on my forehead, high above the point where my eyebrows meet, higher than where other women put their bindis or sindoor.

With something akin to joy, I exclaim- "oh this is me! I'm still alive."

Now with everything having changed, my physical appearance is my only anchor- it keeps me grounded, and centered, and sane. It tells me that I might still have fragments of my old self intact. 

I know that I'm not the same though- no illusions there. I am no longer the woman I used to be, and I stopped fighting against acknowledging it long back. Fighting against those waves of emotions that threatened to drown me in their blackness demanded energy that I no longer had. I gave up long back, and now I'm one with the blackness. 
I have given up trying to fight the urge to escape into sleep or tears everytime the nausea of a life that could now never be hits me- I am my sleep, and I am my tears. 
Happiness seems to be a ship that keeps going further and deeper into the ocean, sinking in size and slipping into the horizon while I remain standing on the coast watching it go. I have neither the will nor the energy to go after it. I lost a part of my self when I lost my love, and since there's no way that he can come back, I count my days here on earth till there is nothing left of myself and I can find him again in the nothingness he has dissolved into. 
Yet, having a glimpse of the self I recognise in myself makes me want to push the bindi a little higher up on my forehead, just where he liked it. 
I stare at my reflection in the mirror. I notice the wrinkles on my forehead, something he wouldn't recognise. I clean the corner of my eyes with the end of my saree and blink a few times, clearing my vision. I see myself. It feels like eons have passed since we were last together but at this moment, my hair and my bindi just as he liked it, I have a sense that he is around.