Whose turn is it?
What do you do when your partner comes to you with a complaint and asks that you attend to their issue with you?
Imagine it is eight in the morning and you are sitting on your swing in the balcony with your favourite newspaper, sipping your first cup of filter coffee, enjoying the early morning pre-monsoon breeze and just being thankful for everything around you, including that CoVid has left you alone thus far and that your favourite newspaper continues to be your favourite, reporting right through the crisis, even if it has become considerably thinner. Just then, your partner comes in, says they want to have a conversation with you and starts to complain about how you have left the coffee mug from the previous evening still there in the balcony, and that this is just not on.
How would you respond? Would you retort to your partner that they have not quite done what you needed them to either, maybe they didn’t sanitize the vegetables or put away the laundry? Would you tell them to not nag you when you are trying to have a peaceful time in the morning? Would you try and pull them to sit with you and just enjoy the morning, the chores be damned? Or, would you say quietly that you are sorry for the oversight and take steps to correct it soon?
If you said the last option, you are among a rare few. For the large majority of us, the temptation is to do the first thing - point out how they were not perfect either, and worse we might not stop there but take it a few notches higher, calling them a hypocrite and making it a fight. It is so easy to do that, snap back with the hundred and one things we know they have not been great at. The temptation to bring us all down to the same level of “Not perfect” is so high, even when we tell ourselves that we want the relationship to help us grow. We don’t quite want to take the issue that is brought up and address it for itself - we feel the urge to bring the person into it and get quite personal. We ascribe motives, look for malafide intent, seek to poke at other vulnerabilities, and retort with “As if you are doing everything I tell you to,” or other whataboutery.
We have all the opportunity and time to bring up our own grievances, and yet, it is only when someone else opens the door and shares a grievance that we feel our own grievance bubble over and we blurt it out. All parties then stay in this aggrieved position and nothing really gets done. Nobody is attended to and the relationship goes one notch lower in terms of what it can be.
How would it be if we chose to address the grievance against us instead of retorting with our own? Would that actually help things get done?
As written for The New Indian Express
Back to business
With a lot of trepidation and a smattering of hope, much of India is getting back to business as usual from June 1st. We have had seventy five days and more of being locked down.
This lockdown period and all the physical distancing has been reminiscent of time outs given to kids who are exhibiting really angry behaviour, to the point of kicking and screaming. Weary adults give Time Outs to kids at such times, getting each kid into a corner, facing the wall with little to no sensory cues. The Time Outs are supposed to be periods of self-reflection and quiet times, the kid is supposed to think about their own behaviour and hopefully feel some remorse at their bad actions, want to be more positive and try something new. The Time Out and the sensory deprivation during the time is expected to get the kid to feel grateful for what they have and understand how easily it can be taken away from them, and so to behave better. The adults can and will take away their privileges at short notice and the threat is often enough to get them in line.
Once in a while though, the time outs do not have much of an effect, especially if the kids are all ganged up into their respective factions. That just makes them nurse their grievances, lick their wounds and they get even more unruly, fight even worse, sometimes disregarding the time outs altogether. It is hell then for the adults to get some control back, and often they need to resort to active detention and punishment.
For adults in loving relationships.too, this idea of a Time Out during conflicts is an important de-escalation strategy. When a conflict is building up within a relationship, and it is coming to a boiling point, being able to take time off from each other and everything else, and giving oneself time to reflect quietly and take stock often helps the couple let go of their anger, connect to each other’s points of view and what each needs, and work through their problems more effectively. If during these time outs, instead of spending time in self-reflection and self-soothing, if we are in our own little camps, our anger gets coddled and addled into something even more monstrous, and we come out raging and baying for blood. It is then no-holds barred fighting and all bets are off.
Currently, it seems like we were all sent out on Time Outs of sorts when the initial exhortations to wash our hands, self-report and self-quarantine did not work. With so many of us scrupulously following the guidelines, the Time Outs have helped but we have also been watching the curve rise inexorably, and now we have our hearts in our mouths as things get unlocked. Are we going to have massive outbreaks? Have we learned our lessons and will we voluntarily keep distances and spare ourselves the trouble? Or will we lose it? Will we need the authorities to come down on us harder than ever?
As written for The New Indian Express
Hungry for touch
After close to two months of lockdown, a recent study from the World Health Organization is saying that there is likely to be a surge of close to 90 million new births that might not have happened if life had been as normal as before. A big baby boom is predicted for 2021, a much bigger and powerful baby boom compared to the last global baby boom after the end of the World War. Maybe the new Gen Z lingo of, “OK, Boomer!” that is going around now will come around to mean something else altogether in a few years to talk about this big CoVid lockdown boom, and what pressures and pleasures that it might have for everyone.
There is a lot of humour and other news floating around on physical contact in covid lockdown times, including unverified news reports of segments of people across the globe pleading to their governments to relax the lockdown just so that people can go back to work and not be at home because they are tired of demands for sex, there are reports, again unverified, about some governments advocating for finding a suitable buddy to be intimate with while in the lockdown to give themselves greater intimacy. Some doctors and public health workers also used the coincidence of May 28th being the International Masturbation Day, with all of this month being dedicated to increasing awareness on this subject and the topic of self-reliance, to further bring attention to the subject and chisel away the taboo surrounding it.
Jokes or otherwise, the reality is that we can easily become touch starved in these times. Just everyday casual contact itself is under scrutiny. No handshakes. Certainly no hugs or kissing. Even if you are with someone you are attracted to and has consented to sex with you, there is significant loss of the spontaneity now. No more jumping someone's bones immediately after entering home. You need to think of sanitizing yourself, your clothes and everything. A bath is recommended along with a quick round of laundry, especially if your everyday life gets you in proximity to the front line of covid defences. It is hard under such circumstances to get physical. Anxiety is a downer in any case, and after all the sanitation, it might feel enough to just lie down in bed and cuddle, or if you are living alone, just to watch some show on your favourite screen and hope to fall asleep.
Tinder and other online dating sites have shown a huge increase in the active messaging on their platforms. Virtual contact increased by leaps and bounds, and they were great substitutes for the first few weeks, but now with India in lockdown 4.0 and no end in sight, and the threat of being completely isolated just one positive away, there is a tiredness. There is an ache to step back from the virtual substitutes and reach out for the real thing.
We are recognizing how much touch really means for us and how hungry we can get for some affectionate physical contact.
As written for the New Indian Express
The spaces between us
After months of the lockdown, many of us are quite likely exhausted from being within our spaces, and trying to get out here and there as safely as we can. Even as we empathize with the pain that countless others are going through, especially the thousands of migrant workers making their way back to their own homes in the heartland by whatever means they can find in these hot, arid days amidst the lockdown, not to mention those that are struggling with the virus itself either as victims themselves or as front-line workers, and we wish there could be a better deal for all of us, it is only natural that we still look at our own pain, and our own circumstances and try to see if we can be a bit better off.
The spaces we have with and between each other has been tested significantly in these few months. Those living in close proximity have found ways for themselves to hold some degree of privacy and some semblance of boundaries, but it has just not been easy at all for anyone. While we are all suffering, of course the degree of pain each of us in is different.
Some years ago, when waiting in one of the then interminable and legendary traffic jams at Silk Board on the way back from a play in RangaShankara at J P Nagar, my friend and I were looking at all the traffic around us, watching two wheelers squeeze through trucks and cars to get ahead, and then even after they settled down, cyclists still managing to squeeze on ahead, and one remarked to the other with the deep insight of a Realized One, how so many people could cram into such a tiny space and how different it was compared to how traffic behaved in most other places, including parts of our own country. There was a little philosophical joke about how it didn’t matter whether you were in a Mercedes Benz or a beat up old KInetic Honda, that you were still in the same traffic jam and waiting like everyone else, but mostly we were talking about the spaces we allowed between us in public spaces and private spaces, and how here in Bangalore, space was quickly becoming a premium, especially the public spaces.
Today, with CoVid, public spaces are vast and empty. One could zip across Silk Board in seconds, and yet, at home, our private spaces are so different. We can feel the space crowd around us, even if we are the only people in a large three bedroom apartment, and we can certainly feel the space as if it is a physical oppressor if we were sharing it with a bunch of others.
Our relationship with our space is changing, just as much as it is with the people in it. We are looking at our public spaces with more longing, while holding on dearly to our private spaces. We know we need to love our spaces more.
As written for The New Indian Express
What's the hurry
The end date of the second set of three weeks of the lockdown across the country to flatten the Corona curve is almost upon us. The third of May is just a few days away, and with Labour Day a couple of days before that, we are getting plenty of opportunity to reflect upon work, the value of domestic work especially, and the value of supportive work such as domestic helpers, vendors, the people pressing your clothes and so many other jobs that we all tend to take for granted every other day, even more so when we are people living in some privilege of class, caste or community.
There is a whole lot of people recognizing that work is work and is not gendered in and of itself. For many of us, especially those locked down far from family, we are recognizing that we can and will do what it takes, never mind if those jobs were particularly reserved for one or the other person in the family or outside. There are others for whom the lack of that privilege or being trapped in oppressive spaces where their work is wholly determined by the stereotypes of what their gender is supposed to be good at, and who are fuming and fretting, or worse, in serious anxiety and distress, waiting for a time when they can be back at work.
By this time, a whole lot of us are likely to be taking ourselves that we can't wait for the lockdown to go. One hears grumbles of how some people even think to themselves that they are ok with the chances - the mortality rate of this virus isn't so high, and as someone living on their own, they would very much want the option to go ahead and get themselves the disease, get it over with and move on as a recovered covid patient. Many just want to get back to work, bored stiff of all their well meaning efforts to stay positive and connected virtually through this extended crisis times. Some are already there, planning their return to work on this Third of May, including things like where they might go for dinner after that.
Thing is, we all know in reality that we really should wait for the all clear signals, that we shouldn't really be our and that we should totally wait somewhere. Many of us will probably hold on to that space right through. Most might just go back to work and life mmediately as if nothing happened, even if they have to make do with many compromises. They tell themselves it is worth it, and that it is a better alternative for the current life
It just is not.
Like people who get into relationships just for the sake of company discover sooner or later, it just doesn't make sense to try and short circuit things. Loneliness or boredom aren't really great and lasting motives for relationships or work.
We need to wait for better times and more suitable opportunities.
As written for The New Indian Express.
The End of Humour
Have you noticed how the flood of jokes and memes at the beginning of the lockdown have now dwindled into a trickle? There isn't much that's coming around even in the innumerable family WhatsApp groups, college alumni groups, apartment society groups and all the other groups one is a part of and not even regurgitations of the old ones and that is saying a lot when most mornings are spent deleting or forwarding on countless memes and things. For retired people and others who may have had lots more time on their hands, the Whatsapp forwarding was a way of life and even for them, things have slowed down.
Humour as a way of coping with disasters seems to have a limited shelf life, especially the easy humour that is just based on laughing away nervousness. In time, as the crisis extends, the humour evolves into more sophisticated puns and displays of genuine wit and leaves the baser forms of mockery-based fun behind.
For couples and people in relationships, this holds true even more as the early attempts to laugh things off and make it lighter are ways of reassuring each other that the discomfort and fear is short-lived. In many relationships, people find themselves in fairly clearly defined roles - there is the person who makes the jokes and the person laughing at them. You'll see it all around you, even in movies and books. The comic relief is a standard trope in many works of literature - even Shakespeare is full of them, and our own Indian classics have the close friend or the sibling who provides that little relief for the central character struggling in the throes of love, lust or other such feelings.
Failure to make something light or the failure to laugh at something is a sign then of things getting in too deep and becoming really serious. With the CoVid-19 lockdown gettong extended, people everywhere are recognizing the realiity that perhaps there won't be much flying at all this year, no holidays out anywhere, no short weekend treks, no get-together or casual birthday parties or brunches for months, no escape from each other, no visiting parents or others in far away places - the reality of being where we are and learning to be ok with that much stops being funny at some time, and we are there now.
Couples who are living together and actually liking each other are recognizing how deeply grateful they are to have that. People who like each other but aren't with each other and are locked out of each other's homes are recognizing how much they miss each other. People who don't like each other much or even hurting one or the other, and those who are truly vulnerable to violence are finding how desperate the situation is and the casual humour often just doesn't have it any more to lift us up.
We need more. We need love to hold us, and hopefully we will find it, even when it is difficult.
As written for The New Indian Express
The Small World We Make
At the beginning of this Corona virus lockdown, when we were all supposed to be locked in at whatever place we happened to call home at the time and whoever we were with at the time and whatever resources we had at the time, for a lot of us who weren't with the people we really counted as our own, the first impulse was to get home, often by any means necessary. At the first rumble of the potential shutting down of flights,trains and buses, like so many birds flocking in the skies at the early rumble of an earthquake, people left in droves to be with their loved ones, even if they didn't particularly feel very loved or loving at all.
People flew thousands of miles to be with parents, buses are crowded with single people from the cities reaching back to their towns for the lockdown, and hundreds of thousands walked back in the searing sun with their families and children to their native villages, just so they could be with their own people, even if they had just left them behind a few months or years ago.
There is something about these big experiences that make us want to reach out to our immediate people and close ranks as it were. There is a reduction in the immediate term to what and who are essential for us. The shopping we do has become closed down to the basics of food and supplies - people are thinking about staples, vegetables and fruits. Maybe the occasional Chikki or chocolate if we can, but we don't really go around looking for it. Same with the people in our lives. We tend to group into our immediate circles, close rank and stay in the huddle.
The oeople we check on at these times from outside our immediate circles are quite limited. You might find the ocassional broadcast to all on whatsapp with a generic message that is carefully worded to sound personal as if it was typed for you specifically, something like, "Hey! I was thinking of you and how you are coping. Are you ok? You know you can call on me if you need anything, right?" and given that you yourself might have sent such out, even if you'd know that it is not really personal, you might still connect back for a moment.
The really personal connections are much smaller. Even with all the technology at our disposal, we tend to connect with maybe five to ten people. Not more than that, notwithstanding the large workplace zoom calls or attempts by some enthusiastic apartment society social person to get everyone on whatsapp group video calls.
Very, very few would have dinner the reverse migration at this time to some far off resort to be in their solitariness. Hardly any would have have checked into fancy hotels, unless of course you are a monarch with your retinue and an unlimited budget!
For the rest of us, our world does become quite small.
As written for The New Indian Express
Are we there yet?
This period of lock down and social isolation would be something else altogether if it had happened even ten years ago when internet and smart phones were still items of luxury. Here and now, billions of us are connected on our phones and constantly checking on each other, loved ones who are far away and keeping an eye and a ear out on the world through our screens. Memes pop up minutes after a controversial speech, old movie songs and comedy routines are dressed up to give new meaning in the current context and circulated endlessly as they strike a chord with the people reading them.
One gif in particular has two corgi dogs yipping and growling at each other, presumably without any trigger as there are no toys or food or anything around that they might otherwise be fighting over, and there is a caption: "Me and my partner on Day 12 of the lockdown." There are a number of such memes going around, largely focusing on how we are likely to bicker and fight over nothing at all after so many days locked down together. Without any absence to make the heart grow fonder, this much proximity does take its toll and we would certainly start bickering and fighting - not necessarily because we are upset with each other, but because we are feeling our helplessness and powerlessness with the situation and that frustration needs to find an outlet. If we aren't consciously looking for an outlet, then we would end up fighting.
Think of it as a long car trip. You are driving and your partner is in the front seat with you and you have three kids in the back. After about ten minutes of looking out the windows, another half an hour with a comic book or a game, they would inevitably start asking "Are we there yet?" and then start pushing and shoving each other, getting rowdier and calling out to you to mediate and since you are busy focusing on the road, you are likely to shout and yell, buy a few moments of sulky peace before the cycle repeats over and over. How do you stop the cycle?
People who have done these car trips would tell you: Make up some games! It might be "Spot the cow," or a little bit of antakshari or more competitive things like, "Name, Place, Animal, Thing." Some kids would do challenges like naming things in any category starting with a letter and literally any category like names of gods or beverages. The games would go on for half an hour or much longer, till people fall asleep or there is a restroom break.
The journey passes more peacefully.
Being locked down is something like that, only we are the kids in the back and God knows who is up front in the drivers seat. We certainly might get shouted at or worse if we misbehave, and we have to make up the games ourselves for the most part, or bicker like those two dogs.
As written for The New Indian Express
The Little Things
For couples and people in relationships who are living together, this social isolation period means being locked in together a lot more than one might have bargained for, and for people who had in the time before got used to having cooks, maids and other kinds of domestic help, now having to do all the household work themselves, is changing the dynamics of the relationship.
Even where the work load was generally uniformly shared, there is bound to be a lot more of being noticed. We see each other a lot more of the time, and see a lot more of how we are with things. Small things get the attention that they never did before.
One example could be in how things happen in the kitchen. Take cutting lemons. You might cut it length-wise and your partner might cut it breadth-wise. You might notice that one of you keeps the phone charger when not in use white the other waits for it to get completely empty. The way you dry clothes, the order in which you sweep or swab the house, the way you chop carrots and whether you peel the potatoes in a continuous spiral or in short sweeps.
The differences we see can trigger conversations on how different you are from each other. How these conversations go and where they lead is the determining factor. For some of us, it can be a warm curiosity, a continuation of the discovery each other, where we can delight in the way we are, take pleasure in our differences the way we might have if we were just beginning to date and looking at each other with desire and hope. On the other hand, they could also be triggering and make the small things balloon up into big fights that bring up everything from the past and you start thinking if you are too different, too dissimilar to ever really appreciate each other. "If we can't even think alike whether to cut carrots into round segments and then dice them, or by length first, how can we decide on the big things!" You might tell yourself.
These long periods of being isolated together have a way of making things clear one way or the other. Where earlier the times apart in each day created buffer zones that made it easier to ignore the differences, the forced togetherness reduces the buffer and makes things transparent. Some of us might try and recreate buffers to stay safe - we might be in different rooms for much of the time, or divide chores so we don't overlap too much. That works too a certain degree to keep the status quo, but for many of us, especially those who didn't care too much for the status quo in the first place, this period can be a trading period.
You might go through this and come out very much the same as before, but chances are that you are likely to come out more in love or wanting to separate.
As written for The New Indian Express
Home is supposed to be a safe space. It is supposed to be a space where one feels supported, encouraged, free to be oneself, and most importantly, safe in all its sense - physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and every other way. Thing is, not everyone of us is lucky enough to have such a safe space at home, especially in intimate relationships.
Intimate partner violence is a reality.
In India, the Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act of 2005 calls out a comprehensive list of domestic violence that includes all forms of physical, emotional, verbal, sexual, and economic violence, and covers both actual acts of such violence and threats of violence. It even recognizes marital sexual violence, and other abusive situations. While cases reported to the police are about 120 or so per 100,000 people across these categories, surveys show close to one third of women have experienced such violence with a majority not reporting them at all. For other people in intimate relationships that do not have legal protections like this law, the vulnerability to domestic violence is even higher.
In ordinary circumstances, people vulnerable to such violence take measures to keep themselves safe when they cannot for whatever reason exit the relationship altogether. Much of these safety measures are about finding safe spaces outside the home such as work, shopping spaces or social spaces including neighbours. At home, these measures are about staying close to safer people such as children or elders in whose presence the violence may not happen or be muted. Escape, whether temporary or longer, is something one is always prepared for under these circumstances.
In these CoVid-19 days of lock down and social isolation, for people experiencing intimate partner violence or domestic violence, the situation can be quite dire. This includes students who were in hostels and now forced to be back home, people who would get away to an office for respite and now cannot, people who would express their gender and sexuality more freely outside home and are now forced to live in a hostile home, people married into a loveless relationship without much choice - the list goes on.
Even for others who don't routinely experience such violence, being locked-in can exacerbate existing cracks, rocking the little everyday truces and stormy, violent episodes might occur just because of the forced isolation and cohabiting. Tempers can fray easily.
Imagine being locked in with your abuser for days or even weeks on end! It is scary.
If you are experiencing such violence or run a risk of such violence, please try and prepare ahead. Keep friends informed so they can check in. Have escape plans if it gets too heated. Watch out for CoVid-19 being used to abuse such as being denied sanitizers, or being kept away from people. Keep phones fully charged and know that you can still get help. Forced social isolation doesn't mean compulsory or helpless.
If you know someone at risk, lookout for them. Practice physical distance and social care.
As written for The New Indian Express
Ajanta, Mahesh and other InnerSight counsellors and guest contributors are happy to share their thoughts here.