Categories
Review

A Manmade Humanitarian Crisis

Meenakshi Malhotra visits Harsh Mander’s Locking down the Poor contextualising it against the current scenario

Title: Locking down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre

Author: Harsh Mander

Publisher: Speaking Tiger Books

Harsh Mander’s Locking down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre is a moving and poignant account of a crisis that he views as preventable. He gives us a detailed account of the havoc wreaked by the sudden announcement of a nation-wide lockdown in March. In early 2020, the first cases of Covid-19 infection were confirmed in India, and on 24 March the country’s prime minister announced a nationwide lockdown, giving the population of over 1.3 billion just four hours’ notice. It became obvious within a matter of days that India had plunged into a major humanitarian crisis.

In this stringent and harsh critique, Mander, a social activist, demonstrates how grave this crisis has been, and why it has had a lasting impact, from which the economy is still reeling. The author further shows us that this impact  is the direct consequence of public policy choices that the governance made, particularly of imposing the world’s longest and most stringent lockdown, with the smallest relief package. The underprivileged were abandoned even as their livelihoods were destroyed and the blue collared work force were pushed to the brink of starvation.

Mander brings us voices of out-of-work daily-wage and informal workers, the homeless and the destitute, all overwhelmed by hunger and dread. From the highways and overcrowded quarantine centres, he brings us stories of migrant workers who walked hundreds of kilometres to their villages or were prevented from doing so and detained. His book can be seen as an expose that lays bare the callous disregard for basic needs during an emergency closure of a country where tens of crores continue to live in congested shanties or single rooms, on pavements with no toilets and no running water and no possibility of physical distancing, even though more than seven decades have passed after independence.

While the pandemic was a world-wise crisis which forced nations and countries to take emergency   measures, Mander contends that the response within the country was a betrayal of the common people, the starving millions of India who live on the edge of hunger and poverty. Their increased precariousness, the author believes, was a result not only of a natural but a man-made, humanitarian crisis. It was the result, he says, of a short-sighted governance operating with a middle-class bias, who just refused to take into cognisance the ironies of pronouncements like “wash your hands” “stay home, stay safe”.

The author’s concerns here can be framed in the larger context of his anxiety and fears about the erosion of democratic politics in India. Speaking with the authority of an ombudsman wielding a blunderbuss, Mander backs his account with facts and statistics, observation and detailed reporting. Carrying out relief work in the unauthorised urban slums of Delhi, he sees the desperate situation of the people who are more threatened by hunger than the pandemic. That the government turned a blind eye to the omnipresent reality of hunger and poverty, was appalling to the author. Further, the alarming rise of domestic violence during the pandemic has also exposed the domestic space as a precarious location for many women in India and elsewhere. This fact has been well documented across a range of platforms and though this is not a primary concern in Locking Down the Poor.

The book concerns itself with hunger, the uncertain fate of migrants, daily wage labourers, the deepening class divides and many other issues of relevance. Mander points out the neglect of food security and the dismantling of informal labour rights, the wilful blindness of the courts and the state machinery which forced people into the space of their ‘homes’ regardless of the distress or human cost which has been colossal and disastrous. Commenting on the impact of the lockdown on the upper classes, Mander comments, “For the rich and middle classes, the lockdown was disorienting and a nuisance, but largely seen as necessary.” However, in the absence of safety nets, it was the poor who had to bear the brunt of the devastation that followed.

Thus, he writes that while the “appallingly planned lockdown offered zero protection to the poor, it placed the burden of the most destructive costs on their shoulders.” He also quotes journalist Ipsita Chakravarty who wrote in stark terms that “with the nationwide lockdown, the government drew a cordon around the bodies it wished to protect…pulling up the drawbridges to guard the chosen-those who could afford to stay in. On the bodies of those outside this charmed circle, the lockdown wrought havoc.”

Looking at the crisis of the first lockdown in 2020, after a gap when some time has elapsed, we realise that much of his critique holds true even now. The lack of foresight and proper planning became evident in the second wave as well, given the colossal tragedy of humongous proportions that unfolded in front of us and made all of us — rich, poor, middle -class citizens — mute victims and witnesses. A very comprehensive account of the impact on India of the Covid crisis, Locking down the Poor is also a chronicle of our times, of brutal exclusions that we practice unthinkingly on a daily basis. The book is in a sense as the blurb says a “ledger of our accountability at a time when the poor of India have been brought to despair and abjection by a callous state and an uncaring, unequal society”.

 Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.       

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Categories
The Observant Immigrant

A Post-Pandemic Future …?

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Courtesy: Creative Commons

Having been a reluctant fan of apocalyptic fiction since I read George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949), I had studied virology when the AIDS pandemic struck and read a great number of virus-related books on infectious diseases. Despite this preparedness and the knowledge that it was not a case of IF, but WHEN, the next virus would strike, I think I speak for most of us when I say we were still all unprepared for Covid-19.

What the pandemic has taught us thus far is immeasurable and I believe it will last several generations, or I hope so. That said, it’s our human nature to want to move on. Not because we don’t care, but part of being alive is putting trauma and suffering behind us and ensuring those who survive, truly survive, which means living. Is that insensitive or just the nature of the beast? It can be insensitive, especially to the millions who have lost loved ones, but it’s also how humans generally operate.

Is it possible to move on and live a full life irrespective of this global tragedy without losing our compassion and responsibility to stop this from ever happening again?

The reality is; it will happen again, and for many of us, in our lifetime. What we can do is be better prepared and all that this entails.

What are the steps being taken to move toward the new post pandemic future? What are we doing differently? And why?

The pandemic divided us, it physically kept us apart. Some who were well versed in social skills and true extroverts, struggled when they emerged from the worst of the pandemic. They found it hard to do the things they used to be so skilled at. From lack of practice. I recall sitting at lunch with a friend who used to be the life-and-soul of any social event. She struggled for, as she put it; ‘her words’. Having become so used to speaking less and not being face-to-face, she said it felt ‘overwhelming’, ‘strange’ and she looked forward to going home.

That is a habit we must break. The comfort of the living room and the immediate family is intoxicating. We can rapidly get used to living in a smaller-seemingly safer, changed world where we see less people, go out less, and become accustomed to an intimate circle. For some of us this was always our life, and maybe not as challenging — a shift as it was for those who previously socialised a great deal.

In a way the pandemic was harder on the extrovert than the introvert. Because while introverts aren’t averse to socialising, they can find it exhausting; whereas extroverts gain energy from it. When you put an extrovert in a forced setting without social opportunity, they may struggle more than someone used to their own company.

But it’s not as simple as extrovert and introverts. Many of us are a little of both, depending on the situation. I can go out with a big group one day. But on other days I want to be alone. Few of us are extremes. Most are like ‘ambiverts’ a combination of extroverts and introverts.

For those who do thrive on socialising, the pandemic was particularly challenging, but there are many ways to be affected, not least the tension and anxiety all of us picked up on or directly experienced.

Fortunately, technology became our best friend as we Zoomed more and met via video chats throughout the world. It opened up an international stage more than we’ve ever experienced and gave children a new normal in terms of how they learned online. Learning solely online had deleterious effects on underperformers. This ‘unfinished learning’ [1] particularly impacted youth who might have already been struggling in the educational system.

Having taught Critical Thinking online for years, I genuinely believe online learning cannot replace in-class learning. There are huge draws to learning from the comfort of home, especially for adult learners who do so after work [2]. “In comparisons of online and in-person classes, however, online classes aren’t as effective as in-person classes for most students. Only a little research has assessed the effects of online lessons for elementary and high school students, and even less has used the ‘gold standard’ method of comparing the results for students assigned randomly to online or in-person courses.” [3]The amount of information retained is drastically smaller and the social engagement of a classroom has benefits that are hard to quantify but necessary for social development. When you rob children of the opportunity to socialize with each other you isolate them at a crucial stage in their development.

Some kids with learning disabilities[4] are particularly affected by this, as are those who come from unsafe or impoverished backgrounds, where they may not have equal access to technology or reliable internet. They may not have parents who can help them if they are stuck or be able to work from home or have access to lunch. All those necessary elements to the education system were lost in our need to stay home and protect each other. A generation of children will always remember this time as a result.

On the other hand, they have mastered technology in a way that few older generations can boast of, and they are conversant in all the myriad ways of communicating with a wide range of technologies and devices. They are adaptable, versatile and fearless when it comes to tackling the rigors of online learning. For some who dislike social settings, it may also be a vast improvement[5].

Women left the workforce in droves [6]when the pandemic hit, with 2 million less in the work-force. The inverse of this was men began to return to work having been dropping in numbers whilst women rose. The Pew Research Center found “What accounts for the larger labor force withdrawals among less-educated women than men during the pandemic? It is complex but there seems to be a consensus that it partly reflects how women are overrepresented in certain health care, food preparation and personal service occupations that were sharply curtailed at the start of the pandemic. Although women overall are more likely than men to be able to work remotely, they are disproportionately employed in occupations that require them to work on-site and in close proximity to others.” Jobs men traditionally do like physical labor, were in high demand, whilst many jobs traditionally filled by women, were shut down, often not returning[7].

We can be glad our restaurants are open again; we’re opening borders, we’re flying abroad, we’re living again. But let’s also spare a moment to think of those who lost so much it’s almost impossible to conceive. Covid was the third leading cause of death in America during the height of the pandemic, how did this many deaths become normal? Covid killed an estimated 13% of people over 80. Aside the tragedy of a generation of elderly dying[8] and the loss of grandparents, and parents for so many, we’ve also seen younger people dying from a virus, which has shaken the belief younger people have that they are impervious to viruses similar to the flu, what effect with this have on their sense of safety going forward?

And what of the health consequences of those who technically survived bout of the pademic but developed ‘slow Covid’ or worse, the side-effects and lingering legacy of being seriously ill with the virus?[9] How many lung transplants will occur? How will ‘long haulers’ cope with lingering serious effects? What of those who live in countries where this isn’t an option? How many chronic illnesses will continue for decades as a result of this pandemic? It’s not enough to point to those who have died but also include those who survived but at such a high cost.

Financially we have collectively poured money into research, vaccines, countermeasures and prevention, but where has that money actually come from? And can we feasibly borrow that much money from our coffers without a reckoning? Economist Anton Korinek, an associate professor with a joint appointment in the University of Virginia’s Department of Economics and the Darden School of Business thinks: “People sometimes frame the policy response to COVID-19 as a trade-off between lives and livelihoods, and they ask whether it’s worth killing our economy to save people’s lives. But what they forget is that people won’t go back to a normal life and consumer demand won’t really recover if the virus is spreading through our country and killing people.” But the result of these hard choices and repeat closures, is they now predict an impending worldwide recession of global proportions, which had already been mounting prior to the pandemic, but promises to be far greater in its aftermath. I don’t think we’ve even begun to see the fall out; it begins with massive inflation but that’s just the start[10].

History tells us when we go through challenging times and survive, ‘the near miss experience’ as it’s known as, we want to live more than ever before[11], but economically this will not be possible for so many who are robbed of their financial security because of inflation, redundancy, underemployment and post-covid illness. We should be mindful that none of us are all right if many of us are still suffering and if we can support those who struggle, this battle with covid should have taught us all that we should care more about each other.

Perhaps these are the steps we can take to move toward a new post-pandemic future, where we consider ways, we may be better prepared for an invariable future of emerging viruses. We can try to find ways to avoid spilling into areas with high disease potential. “According to a group of UN biodiversity experts, around 1.7 million unidentified viruses circulate in animal populations, of which 540,000 to 850,000 have the capacity to infect humans.” So, we can avoid wet markets, and sloppy scientific research, both of which are vectors for the spread of viruses. We can pay more emerging virus hunters [12] to seek out those emerging viruses and begin work on treatments before they devastate countries. We can be borderless in our unanimous approach to equity for all, especially access to healthcare.

In America, we learned we were far from unassailable. In a New York Times article about Covid Deaths, the authors wrote: “For all the encouragement that American health leaders drew from other countries’ success in withstanding the Omicron surge, the outcomes in the U.S. have been markedly different. Hospital admissions in the U.S. swelled to much higher rates than in Western Europe, leaving some states struggling to provide care. Americans are now dying from Covid at nearly double the daily rate of Britons and four times the rate of Germans.” Nothing can diminish that fatal statistic or rectify the unnecessary deaths[13]. Our healthcare system, considered superior, proved to be full of holes. Without some type of socialised healthcare our costs and resources are too high and scarce. We don’t value the front-line workers like nurses, porters, assistants and care staff and we do not pay them for the risks they take, and whilst we do pay doctors good wages, we have severe shortages of knowledge and progress. Finding out we didn’t have enough ventilators, masks for medical staff, PCP equipment and beyond, exposed the shame of putting profit over people. [14]

It is no surprise then that the UK and USA were among the top offenders in the rise and spread of the pandemic and their death rates exposed this. No one ethnic group appears to be at greater risker of dying from the virus based on ethnicity alone, but Hispanic, Black, and native Americans or AIAN people are about twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as their White counterparts and that Hispanic and AIAN people are at one and a half times greater risk of COVID-19 infection than White people[15]. This is caused by social reasons (inequality) not ethnicity, as can be proven by Africa and some AIAN countries having some of the lowest Covid mortality rates. In the article ‘Racism not Genetics’ in Scientific American, the authors point out “the genes that influence skin colour are distributed independently of genes that influence the risk for any particular disease. Given the heterogeneity of groups we call “black” or “white,” treating those categories as proxies for genetic variation almost always leads us astray.”[16]

Even if there are increased susceptibilities related to blood type[17] and age (More than 81% of COVID-19 deaths occur in people over age 65. The number of deaths among people over age 65 is 97 times higher than the number of deaths among people ages 18-29 years). The real risk is how healthy the population is and whether they have safe access to healthcare[18]. Both America and the UK failed because they put profit above people and have large populations of sickly people[19]. Going forward this needs to change, which means redesigning what we prioritise. People need to have access to healthcare and make lifestyle changes that will reduce their risks which they cannot do if they cannot afford to see a doctor or in the case of the UK find it hard to see a doctor because of long wait times and reduced staffing. It’s not as simple as socializing healthcare as the UK proved, this alone doesn’t save lives, what saves lives is considering the larger picture.

But politicians gain from older populations dying, consider what happened in Brazil when the President denied the danger of Covid and for a time Brazil had the highest Covid mortality[20]. This is the harsh truism rarely mentioned: It benefits those in control of a society to lose the most fragile members who will suck up precious resources, much like a form of eugenics, it behooves them to let it happen and there are many examples[21]. For a politician who is looking for ways to reduce healthcare costs, what is better than some of the potentially most expensive ‘customers’ dying? This happened in France where number of elderly people died one Summer, shockingly little was said at the time, but all signs pointed to a collective signal of relief from those in power who benefited from less older people making claim on an already taxed medical system[22].

When Italy [23]and Spain [24] and Brazil [25] became epicenters of Covid 19 deaths, they did so because of ill preparedness and it’s a cautionary tale to witness which countries succumbed to the ravages of covid 19 repeatedly, versus those who learned from them. What we have learned is more, not less, needs to be done and if a country keeps its borders open including air-travel and business-travel, then as much as they hope to save their economy, they do so at the expense of their most vulnerable. For some countries this was a conscious choice (economy over lives) whereas for others it was poor communication and slow response times. For some a lack of money, for others a desire to gain at any cost. All this speaks of the tapestry that is the pandemic’s aftermath (and truly, is it really vanquished?)[26].

I’d love to say a new post pandemic future looks rosy, but the only way that happens is if we learn from our mistakes, which history tells us, we rarely do. The most important thing is empathy, when we saw others take their masks off and simply not care if the vulnerable died, we saw how bad we as humans can fall. But we also saw how wonderful humans can be, including the infinite sacrifice and compassion of thousands who sought to help strangers. If there is a way, we can reward the good and not the bad, if we can get our priorities right and stop paying sports figures astronomical sums but perhaps emphasise on compassion, kindness, and diligence, we can all grow together.

I was particularly moved by youth who in the turmoil of the pandemic created inventions or systems to help others[27]. Believing youth are our future, and thus, our hope, it gives me great faith in the future when I see those too young to vote, care for strangers and seek to do their part. We should always encourage this as we should encourage a continued dialogue into how we can create an international rapid response to emerging diseases. It is not if, but when, and now all of us should know this and have no excuse for putting our heads in the sand again. Yes, it hurts to think of it, yes, we’d rather go off and have fun, but what fun is it if we are only postponing the inevitable return of a lethal virus? Part of being responsible for our planet and each other, is not avoiding the harsh truths; of environmental changes and devastation, global poverty, continued inequality and elitism, and of course, the increasing risk of deadly diseases.

We have within us all, the power to effect change. The steps we should take to move toward a post pandemic future must necessarily include keeping our eyes open and not taking the easy road. Sure, governments don’t want to spend the money on research, science, virus hunters, predictions. And preparedness, but I challenge anyone to say this isn’t exactly what they need to do. It is necessary we keep this in mind when we vote and protest. We should be marching about this as much as any other cause, because it affects us all and equally, brings us all together with one cause.

Thinking in terms of one world, we are less divided than ever before and whilst we were separated, I think we also found ways to come together if we choose to. I say, we should. Because, together globally, we learn more than we ever would divided. With the offensive by Russia on Ukraine, we see the lunacy of war, the futility, the devastation and waste. Instead of pouring millions into wars and keeping the rich, rich at the cost of the poor and overworked, we should consider how we can all rise out of the mire and evolve towards a better future. But in order to achieve this we cannot be complacent, and we cannot let our guard down.


[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/covid-19-and-education-the-lingering-effects-of-unfinished-learning

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/dereknewton/2021/03/31/the-worst-of-times-for-online-education/?sh=401d57623a5a

[3] https://www.edweek.org/technology/opinion-how-effective-is-online-learning-what-the-research-does-and-doesnt-tell-us/2020/03

[4] https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/05/20/students-disabilities-virtual-learning-failure/

[5] https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/how-technology-making-education-more-accessible

[6] https://www.shrm.org/resourcesandtools/hr-topics/behavioral-competencies/global-and-cultural-effectiveness/pages/over-1-million-fewer-women-in-labor-force.aspx

[7] https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/01/14/some-gender-disparities-widened-in-the-u-s-workforce-during-the-pandemic/

[8] https://www.statista.com/statistics/1191568/reported-deaths-from-covid-by-age-us/

[9] https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/coronavirus/covid-long-haulers-long-term-effects-of-covid19

[10] https://news.virginia.edu/content/economist-societal-costs-covid-19-outweigh-individual-costs

[11] https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-grief/201803/aftereffects-the-near-death-experience

[12] https://www.france24.com/en/africa/20201218-gabon-s-virus-hunters-in-search-of-the-next-covid-19

[13] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/02/01/science/covid-deaths-united-states.html

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/feb/06/us-covid-death-rate-vaccines

[15] https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html

[16] https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/racism-not-genetics-explains-why-black-americans-are-dying-of-covid-19/

[17] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8286549/

[18] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52245690

[19] https://theconversation.com/why-has-the-uks-covid-death-toll-been-so-high-inequality-may-have-played-a-role-156331

[20] https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(21)00529-8/fulltext

[21] https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/03/18/china-covid-19-killed-health-care-workers-worldwide/

[22] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/hong-kong-covid-outbreak-rcna20033

[23] https://www.france24.com/en/tv-shows/revisited/20210528-covid-19-in-europe-codogno-the-italian-town-where-it-all-began

[24] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/13/world/europe/spain-coronavirus-emergency.html

[25] https://www.scielo.br/j/rsbmt/a/8FzbQZY57WRTwYL9MnBKBQp/?lang=en

[26] https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-03003-6

[27] https://circle.tufts.edu/latest-research/deeply-affected-pandemic-youth-are-committed-helping-others

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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Categories
Musings

Cycling for my Life

What can be more scary and life-threatening than the risk of getting Covid-19? Keith Lyons finds how his daily joy has menacing dangers

Cycling in New Zealand. Photo shared by Keith Lyons

“When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.”

Arthur Conan Doyle

While out cycling recently with a friend on a weekend ride, I was reminded that the Covid-19 pandemic has been raging waning and morphing for the last two years. With Covid cases set to peak this week in my part of the world, optimistically we hope that we’ll be in a post-pandemic world by the time 2023 starts.

Many of us are wishing for a return to normal, to the good old days of 2019. But we know deep down that while enterprise and everyday life may resume again, there is no return to normal. We can’t turn back the clock. My parents in a retirement village and rest home are still shielded to ensure the virus doesn’t spread. I have people I’m close to who have died from Covid. On both hands I can count how many friends and acquaintances continue to live despite the pandemic.

Looking back on the last two- and a-bit years, one of the good things to come out of it was that I bought a bike and got into cycling. The first bicycle I found abandoned during my lockdown walks. The second one, an e-bike, I bought in mid-2020, and last year got its mountain-bike sibling, With public transport more inconvenient as well as slightly hazardous, biking would seem to be an ideal solution for commuting and recreation. I do like the freedom it gives me, though as I found out yesterday, cycling in the rain loses its romantic notions when your every item of clothing is sodden.

Cycling has been a great vehicle of joy for me, not just for the quick run to the greengrocer, or an outing to a beach, a cafe or the hills. So today when I met a buddy for an easy ride beside a meandering river to the sea, I couldn’t but feel happy to be freewheeling along, appreciating the clarity of the river, the trees turning into autumn colours, the pleasantness of it all.

However, for me, the joy of cycling has a flip side. Even in a flat city like the one I live in, which seems so well suited to cycling. Even with its network of cycle lanes and dedicated cycle paths. I’ll be honest with you, cycling scares me like nothing else in my life. What terrifies me is the vulnerability I feel when on my bike in traffic. I feel small, insignificant and sometimes invisible.

Cars, buses and trucks speed by at 50-80km/hr within touching distance away. Not only are they travelling three or fours times faster than me, but they also weigh 15 or so times my weight. If a driver is inattentive or distracted (for example, on the phone), and I get hit or clipped or rammed by a vehicle, I know that I will unlikely be able to walk away from the crash.

My rational mind fights with my fearfulness. After all, studies show that cycling is more likely to extend your life than to shorten it — physical inactivity contributes to 1-in-8 deaths. And cyclists can fall off bikes by themselves with no other vehicles around. Yet almost every time I venture out on my bike, I have a near-miss. It could be a motorist running a red light, making a turn cutting me off, opening a car door without checking, or exiting a driveway too fast.

It is not just cyclists who are vulnerable. Walkers, children, the elderly, and motorcyclists are all neglected in transport planning, where motorised vehicles are given priority over other users who aren’t shielded or protected from impact. Recent research estimates that an adult pedestrian has around 20% of dying if struck by a car at 60km/hr. The odds are worse if it is a truck. Have you ever heard of a cyclist crashing into a motorised vehicle and causing damage or injury? Probably not.

Yet, for health and fitness, for reducing emissions and for the good of the planet, getting on your bike is good for your being, your body and the world. I cycle cautiously, wishing that my fellow road users are exercising the same alertness and consideration.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

Click here to read an excerpt from the anthology.

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Categories
Interview

In Conversation with Jessica Mudditt

Keith Lyons interviews Jessica Mudditt, who spent four years in Myanmar and wrote a book about it

Jessica Mudditt holding her book. Photo sourced from author

Australian author and journalist Jessica Mudditt studied and worked in the UK, but it is the seven years she spent in Bangladesh and Myanmar which seems to have made the most significant impact on her professional career and personal life. Mainly covering business, technology and lifestyle, her articles have appeared in The Economist, BBC, The Telegraph, The Guardian, CNN, GQ and Marie Claire. 

She lived and worked in Myanmar’s former capital Yangon in the mid-2010s, and after returning to Australia, Our Home in Myanmar – Four Years in Yangon (Hembury Press, May 2021) was published with an Epilogue placing the book’s focus in the context of the military coup which stole back power in February this year following democratic elections. 

From Sydney, Jessica reflected on her time in Myanmar, and the recent events which have curtailed hopes for democracy, freedom and economic growth. 

Looking back on what happened this year, does it make your time in Myanmar seem more special?

In a way, it makes even my most happy and carefree memories bittersweet. When I was reading back over the book as part of the editing process, some of the situations I described became quite poignant, knowing what I know in hindsight. For example, after the 2015 elections, it was Senior General Min Aung Hlaing who was the first to come out and say that as the commander-in-chief, he would respect the election results and the will of the people in voting for Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. Five years later, it was he who staged this terrible coup and is holding the entire country hostage. What changed for him, I wonder, between then and now? It was like he tried the shoe on one day and decided that it didn’t fit.

If you were still in Myanmar at the time of the coup, would you get out or stay given the dangerous time for journalists right now?

I would leave. It is simply too unsafe. There are no newspapers left to write for at any rate, other than The Global New Light of Myanmar. Mizzima and Irrawaddy and others have been stripped of their operating licenses and as such, are illegal entities. If you go on The Myanmar Times website, it turns black, and then a pop-up notice announces that the newspaper has been suspended for three months. That was six months ago. There are very, very few foreign journalists left inside the country. Of course, every expat was heartbroken to leave and many have expressed that they feel guilty about the people they have left behind. Everyone is in an impossible situation right now.  

You added to the book from 2015 with updates on where some of the key players are now: The Myanmar Times co-founder Ross Dunkley was pardoned after the coup and is now back in Australia, have you had any contact with him, and if so, how do you feel about how it all panned out for him?

When Ross got a 13-year sentence in 2019 on drugs charges, I worried that he may not survive such a long period in prison. He is not a young man anymore. However, Ross turned out to be a cat with nine lives. He was released shortly after the coup (he joked in an interview that he is the only person to have benefitted from the coup). What astounded me was that despite everything he has been through in Myanmar, he expressed a wish to return there. I suppose it is his home, after all the years he has spent there. But even so! I sent him a message on Facebook just saying I was glad and relieved for him. However, I don’t think he has logged onto it since his release. 

Photos of jailed former advisor to Aung San Suu Kyi, Sean Turnell, being vaccinated were released recently; are you concerned about his fate and also that of journalist Danny Fenster from Frontier who is also in Insein?

I feel sick when I think about them. I don’t know Danny personally, but Sean was a source for a few stories, and I met him in Sydney. I have so much respect for him, and he was always so kind and helpful. I am friends with his wife, Ha Vu, on Facebook, and her anguished posts are deeply upsetting. Yesterday was her birthday and she wrote that it was the first time in a decade that her husband hadn’t been able to wish her a happy birthday. She knew it would upset him. Sean has done nothing wrong – nor has Danny, of course – and I just wish that the military would let them go – along with the other 6,000 innocent people they have arrested.

Do you think you were lucky to have been in the country during its opening up and transformation?

I was incredibly lucky. The pace of change was so fast that I often had the sensation that I was watching history unfold in front of me. That may never happen again in my life. The liberalisation of the media was incredible. As a freelance journalist, when I had an idea for a story, I would google the topic to see what had been previously written. There were many instances when there was virtually nothing at all because it had never been possible to write of such topics under the draconian censorship laws (most of these laws were lifted not long after I arrived). I wrote the first stories on Myanmar’s human hair trade, cobras being found inside peoples’   homes in Yangon, children with cancer and elderly care. Journalism was challenging in Myanmar because there was a dearth of reliable data and finding sources could be tricky, as people were not always willing to speak as they still mistrusted the military (with good reason, it turned out). But it was also rewarding because it gave people the chance to tell their stories for the first time, and to provide information to readers that had perhaps not been in the public domain before. 

What do you think attracted others from overseas to witness, take part or benefit from the changes?

One of the reasons I loved living in Yangon was because the ex-pat community was very interesting. At a party, for example, I could walk up to someone and ask, “What brought you to Myanmar?” or “What are you doing in Myanmar” and the answer would just about always be fascinating. Myanmar is a beautiful country with wonderful people, but it isn’t an easy place to live and many of the things associated with the ‘good life’ are unavailable. I think that if you moved to Myanmar, you wanted something different out of life, or to do things in a different way. 

I’m pretty sure that there were a host of motivations though, and I’m sure that a few were motivated partially by greed. Myanmar was an untapped market with a large population, although spending power is comparatively low. There were also few laws regulating business dealings, so it was a bit of a wild west and that attracted a few shandy operators. But I think, for the most part, people’s intentions were good. They were there because they wanted to make a difference as well as to witness something really historic, in a political sense.

As a woman in Myanmar how safe did you feel, and do you think that helped or hindered your work?

I felt safe in Myanmar, as it has some of the lowest crime rates in Asia. I remember reading in Lonely Planet that muggings and pickpocketing are rare, and that if you accidentally drop money on the ground in a big city like Yangon, it’s more likely that someone will come chasing after you to return it. That actually happened to me. I would sit at a beer station in the evening with my bag slung behind my chair or on the ground or whatnot, and I never gave it a second thought. I wouldn’t do that in Sydney.

Sexual harassment is nowhere near as prevalent as it is in places such as India. In saying that, I am referring to sexual harassment against expat women. There were frequent reports of Burmese women being groped on crowded buses, for example.

Someone in Yangon told me last week that even though the current situation is desperate, and millions of people are starving and displaced, there is a huge amount of cooperation among the people, who help each other in any way they can. Sadly, we all know that the criminals in Myanmar are the military. The reams of razor wire that sit atop six-foot fences around people’s homes are there not because there are a lot of burglaries, but because the military comes for people in the night. They were doing it for decades before I arrived, and they are doing it again now. 

What misconceptions about Myanmar do you think are held outside the country?

I’m not sure if it’s a misconception, but Myanmar’s political history is so complex that it can be difficult for people to get their head around it, and difficult to explain. The first thing most people say to me when the subject of Myanmar comes up is “What is the deal with Aung San Suu Kyi? I thought she was a good person – why did she fall from grace?” Or they will say they have heard of the terrible situation with the Rohingya, but they don’t understand how the genocide came about, or why they are still living in refugee camps. Most people outside Myanmar assume that Buddhism is a religion of peace, so they don’t understand why so much violence has taken place, or that Buddhism can turn militant and be infected with extreme nationalism. 

Were you more surprised about the frosty reception you got from fellow ex-pats at your first newspaper job, or the treatment you got working for a newspaper once considered a mouthpiece for the military and government?

I was more surprised by the frosty reception I got at The Myanmar Times. I was wildly excited to be working there and went through a lot of difficulties to get my first visa (I brush over it in the book, but Sherpa and I initially applied from Bangladesh and were denied visas, so in the end we had to apply from Thailand). My colleagues at newspapers in Bangladesh had always been fantastically friendly, so it just never crossed my mind that my expat colleagues in Myanmar wouldn’t be friendly. My expectations were way too high, but I was pretty crushed, I have to say. Over time though, things improved, and I ended up with a terrific group of friends at work. We had a lot of fun nights out too. 

My colleagues at The Global New Light of Myanmar were really kind and wonderful. I learnt so much about Myanmar from them, both on the job and during the casual conversations we’d have while smoking cigarettes or drinking whisky together after work. Myanmar people are so kind –so it wasn’t my colleagues’ kindness that surprised me. It was how strongly opposed to the military they were. I had not expected them to be staunch supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi, or even to themselves be former political prisoners. Many worked at the state-run newspaper because it was one of the few opportunities to use English in a professional context. To me, it showed just how pervasive the desire is for democracy and human rights among the people of Myanmar.

When did you get the idea for writing a book about your time in Myanmar?

I got the idea after I returned from Myanmar to Australia. Funnily enough, while I was living in Myanmar, I had been writing a book about Bangladesh. When I got back to Australia, I had no luck getting a publishing deal for the memoir on Bangladesh, so I decided to put it aside and start one on Myanmar. I started it in 2018 and finished it in April 2021. I’m glad that I decided to do that, because it would be hard to write the same book knowing that a coup would take place after I left. I am sure I would write it differently — with less optimism. As I mention in the epilogue, I thought I was simply writing about the ‘new Myanmar’ and that many books would follow in the same vein. I had no idea that I was inadvertently writing a history book.

In light of the events of 2021 with the military coup and Covid, do you see any hope for Myanmar, or is it a failed state?

There has possibly never been a darker time in Myanmar’s history, with the twin crises of COVID-19 and the military takeover to endure. But I don’t believe that this is how the story ends for Myanmar. It is evident that the people are unwilling to give up their democratic freedoms and human rights – I get the sense that they will fight until there is no one left standing. 

However, the country is on the brink of becoming a failed state, if it isn’t already, and the suffering has already been immense. I know from my time in Myanmar that building back after half a century of dictatorship and a mismanaged economy was already difficult enough – I worry about how much this puts the country back on the path to progress. I take a long-term view of things though, and I believe that democracy will be restored, and the military will be booted out of all aspects of civilian life, including their 25% quota of parliamentary seats. I have no idea when this may occur, but I do believe that it will.

Click here to read an excerpt of Our Home In Myanmar.

Click here to read the review of the book.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Review

Where Buddhist Monks’ Voices Ring

Book review by Keith Lyons

Title: Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon

Author: Jessica Mudditt

Publisher: Hembury Press, May 2021

Our Home in Myanmar – Four years in Yangon by Jessica Mudditt is a thought-provoking memoir about a foreigner’s experience as a journalist and outsider in Myanmar, a country emerging from decades of military rule and international isolation.

Australian Jessica Mudditt arrives in the former Burmese capital of Yangon in 2012 with her Bangladeshi husband Sherpa just as the nation is moving towards greater democracy and opening up to the world after decades of oppression, dictatorships, civil wars, and economic sanctions.

Newly arrived Mudditt discerns a fresh optimism and hope for transformation in Yangon as she negotiates the culture shocks and cultural quirks of enigmatic Myanmar (also known as Burma). Yet there are few happy endings in ‘Our Home in Myanmar’, just some sobering realities.

While their outward quest is to find a place to call home (and secure visas to legally work), the couple’s inner journey is about trying to understand the complexities and contradictions of a largely Buddhist country where monks are among the most vocal protestors — and the daughter of the independence leader and founder of the armed forces had been under house arrest for 15 years.

Covering a speech by Aung San Suu Kyi is just one of the assignments Jessica undertakes; her role as a journalist for various publications and organisations gives her access to the newsmakers as well as those seldom featured in the media. But for every door that opens, another one slams shut. Nevertheless, the reader gets a window into the machinations, superstitions, and craziness of the military regime in what appeared to be its decline. Spoiler alert: in light of current events, it turned out to be a false spring.

She gets a frosty reception from the old-hand expat editors at the major English language newspaper co-owned by an Australian maverick media mogul, but later one of the most emotional high points comes in 2015 when Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) gets a landslide victory while Mudditt worked as the first foreign editor at the newspaper considered the propaganda mouthpiece of the junta.

This underlying theme contrasting expectations and realities gives the book momentum, as do the challenges and hurdles for a naïve foreign journalist struggling to comprehend the strange yet fascinating aspects of Burmese life and governance during this turbulent time. While many visiting media have fawned over Aung San Suu Kyi, she finds the NLD leader lacking charisma, in contrast to the vibrant President Barack Obama who champions Myanmar’s freedoms during a landmark visit.

The book weaves personal narratives with political backstories and cultural backgrounders. The author’s vulnerability and bravery make it a riveting read, with the reader drawn into the risky plight of the writer as well as the precarious situation of her host country. With a clear empathetic voice, attention to detail, and well-crafted chapters, Mudditt, who has written for The Telegraph, Marie Claire, GQ, and CNN, reveals she is not just a good storyteller but has something to say. She survives sudden earthquakes, dilapidated hospitals, and tropical turbulence, often finding solace in cigarettes, alcohol, and her Sherpa. She is a social butterfly with the cool expats who have arrived in Yangon, but her work for the UN and the British Embassy shatters the dream that Myanmar has broken free of its backwardness and nastiness. Amid the moments of despair and farce, thankfully there are dashes of absurdity and humour.

The author left Myanmar in 2016 amid a rise in Buddhist nationalism, but an ‘Epilogue’ has been added to highlight the unexpected but not unsurprising military coup earlier this year. The book concludes with a ‘where are they now’ update on some of the key people depicted in its pages.

Perhaps without realising it, Mudditt has chronicled a significant period in Myanmar’s modern history. Our Home in Myanmar is a good introduction to Myanmar, as it sheds light on the intriguing former British colony, its rocky road towards freedom and democracy.  The author was fortunate to be in Myanmar during a small window of opportunity.

With Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing declaring himself prime minister at the start of this month, but promising to hold elections by 2023, Myanmar remains out-of-bounds for any outsiders. By the middle of August 2021 as much as half of Myanmar’s 55 million population could have Covid-19, experts reckon.

Burma-watchers will find it nostalgic and insightful, while democracy-watchers and those concerned about press freedoms, will find information and substance. Intrepid travellers to the Land of Golden Pagodas will find the book provides a fresh perspective on modern Myanmar, a troubled country facing a difficult uncertain future. Given Myanmar’s strategic buffer location between superpowers China and India, the former British colony will continue to play a significant role in the region’s development, direction and alliances. That’s why anyone with an interest in South Asia and South-east Asia should read this perceptive and illuminating book.

(Click here to read an excerpt of the book.)

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

Categories
Essay

A Life Well-Lived

By Candice Louisa Daquin

A life well-lived tends to be interpreted by cultural needs. In China, maybe it is portrayed as the accumulation of wealth and taking care of ones’ family; in Africa it may be about survival, integrity, and hard work; in Italy, possibly about how many friends you have, how often you laugh, if you feed stray animals.  No one country shares a defined concept of what a well-lived life looks like, but as we are more homogenized than ever before we’re all cross-influenced by other cultures.

The other day I was watching a travel documentary about The Silk Road. The idea of so many foreign countries we’ve never visited, nor know very much about, can be incredibly humbling. We talk in international terms; we talk as if we alone have the right to proclaim for the rest of the world. Even the most avid traveler hasn’t been steeped in a culture long enough to make those assumptions, nor have they visited every shore, every mountain, every tribe. As that is impossible, no one culture or group should claim to speak for what is a universal truth, there is no such thing. How can meaning being separated from being human, thus subjective?

Growing up I was deeply influenced by my mother. She didn’t live with me, but she wrote me letters from all parts of the globe she visited with amazing letterheads and stamps. Eventually this became more than an expensive hobby, she opened a travel company that published newsletters and books on high end travel. In my teen years, I might not have appreciated what she did from afar because I felt ‘high end’ was exclusionary, and it is. But despite this, I have grown to respect what my mom did, because it wasn’t for a living, it was for passion, and in this, I felt she has always lived her life to the full.

True, who wouldn’t like traveling for a living? In high end hotels? Isn’t she just another example of privilege? But she wasn’t. She created this from scratch, having left a highly successful career in media that she attained on her own merit. I think if it were not for my mom, I would not understand how far people can go if they are determined and hard working. It’s definitely why I work hard. However, my own journey has been vastly different. I found it challenging enough at times, to get through life, let alone to thrive. I recall my mom saying love what you do, feel passion in what you do! I felt I was missing a magical ingredient.

Eventually, health issues seemed to close that door to a passion-driven dimension, and I began to be more pragmatic. My thoughts were more along the lines of: how can I support myself and ensure I will have enough to survive? What can I do to overcome or compensate for my shortcomings in health? I lost the advantage of just being able to dream, because I had to survive, and sometimes for many of us, we simply don’t have the luxury to dream. That led me to understand, a life worth living is necessarily subjective. Unequal life chances versus individual effort play a bigger role in the outcome.

Even so, the question of what a well lived life looks like, is one worthy of examination. In the world there are women who are essentially still indentured to their husbands. There are castes and groups who will never be able to rise above other castes and groups because of their birth. There are those so poor they couldn’t attend school if they wanted to. I think of how the girls of Afghanistan will fare with the UK and US leaving and the Taliban gaining their former foothold. Will girls be safe? It doesn’t seem likely nor permitted their former right to education. I envision a similar outcome to what happened to women in Iran. And then there are the fabulously wealthy and the comfortable middle class. We simply don’t all have the same access to a well-lived life to begin with!

Within all these groups lie many variables, not least, our physical and mental state, our chosen career(s), where we live and how expensive it is to survive there. Then there’s just the fickleness of luck, who gets to live, who does not. To boldly state a life worth living is any one of these options, belies the truth of our differences. A child born with HIV may have a different life than one born healthy; a child born blind might have different outcomes than a child born with athletic prowess. Even then, one advantage may be nothing, we may need more advantages. To proclaim as self-help books and life coaches do, that there is one way, seems redundant and missing out on the diversity of our experiences. You can do everything right and still not succeed.

We get older and we think back and wonder, did I make the right choices, was this the direction I intended? Am I satisfied or disappointed? When we’re very young, these considerations are rarely as important, as such we simply experience. Maybe in youthful hedonism, we miss the very moment we should be thinking of the future. Some cultures do a better job of forcing their young to consider the future, such as Germany, who asks the very young to pick a career before they are even in their teens, to help mold an often vocational direction rather than leaving them to decide many years later when it could be too late?

For example, if you had a child, would you wish for the child to take philosophy or neuroscience in university? Which would be more likely to land them a secure job? This surely is part of our role as parents, to ensure our children will be financially safe when growing up. At the same time, we know the potential value of philosophy, but how translatable is that value in today’s world?

I grew up very aspirant-minded because my mom was very successful. Even as I didn’t live with her, I saw her as a role model and believed naively I could follow in her footsteps. There were many reasons I did not. The locations and cultures had changed. The times had changed as in her day it was easier to walk into jobs. By the time I was looking for work, there were thousands clamouring for fewer positions. Often people cannot understand this change because they only have their experience to refer to, but things change a lot, including what was possible and what is no longer possible. 

One might argue, then you just must be better, to do better. This is true in India, China (a Confucian principle) and many other Asian countries, where an excellent and high achieving work ethic coupled with a huge population, causes young people to be under more pressure than ever to attain those coveted positions. This causes one of the following two things as en masse more people do excellently, the bar gets pushed higher, and people from such countries can often cherry pick jobs in other countries because they excel; or a greater division between those who succeed (the minority) and those who traditionally speaking do not (the majority). It’s about sorting out the reality from the stereotype.

America, a country long thought to possess no caste or class system, perpetuates other countries’ histories by having a quiet class system that is denied by the mainstream but very alive. For many families with money, sending their kids to schools that will guarantee the best universities and thus, the best networking and jobs, there is an obvious bias. We talk of ‘The American Dream’, but for the majority, the advantages they are born into, play an equal if not larger role in determining their outcome.

This is partly why discussions about reparation exist, because if families that were traditionally exploited are now generationally paying the price by not having generational wealth and influence to hand down to their children, they come from a position of inequality and inequity even as the American dream continues to be touted. And if those families are mostly families of colour, even more so, as you must consider the racial injustice of the past, which has been carried into the future by this ongoing inequity. The same is true in other countries, the idea we’re born equal and thus, we all have the same chance at a dream is naïve at best.

But how much does this play into a life well-lived? Is it essential to be conventionally successful to achieve such a goal? I would argue it is not. Whilst there are basic essentials coined by Psychologist Abraham Maslow (Hierarchy of Needs) that must be met to even be in the running. In other words, if you cannot afford the basics such as healthcare, economic security, education etc, you’re still stuck on trying to survive. In that sense, it’s a luxury for most to even consider a life well lived, because they are too busy surviving.

Let’s assume however, some of us reach that position of being economically sound enough to consider beyond the mechanisms of survival. Then let us ask ourselves what is a life well lived? Should it be like that of my mother? Being somewhat hedonistic but, true to myself, by doing exactly what she wanted and traveling the world where she could expand. When she passes, will she have felt her life was well lived? I’m guessing she will.

That’s because of a process called reconciliation. One must reconcile one’s regrets or things we were judged for, and if we are able to do this (many of us fail), then we find inner peace. With peace comes a sense of no matter what, we did the best we could, we gave it all we could, we’re glad for the life we lived. In a sense, this summation of a life well lived, is rooted in our self-perception and then that perception projected into a larger context. It takes a lot to consider more than our immediate circle. Perhaps if we could, we would be less fractured as a planet. Less liable to turn the other cheek when atrocities occur,  or put our head in the sand and not think of future generations.

By coming together, universally, thinking in terms of all of us, not just as an individual, as touted so long by the West, we consider wholeness. Can we be whole if others are not? Should we be? And at the same time, not going so far as to lose a sense of ourselves or be merged into a homogenised, possibly too socialised loss of self? In other words, balance.

As you age you realise what mattered then doesn’t matter as much now. Or maybe, you come to realise that what you have always cared about, still matters. For myself, I am very different from my 15-year-old self, where I lived relatively hedonistically, caring about animals and injustice, but not doing enough about it. I see that at 15 , I thought mostly of having fun and generally being a little unrealistic about life. Some 15-year-olds aren’t that way. Why do some children grow up responsible and mature before their time, whilst others can be 30 and still fail to launch?

We can blame parenting, modern society, all sorts of things, but it’s probably more complicated than that. In Japan, many young people are literally shut-ins, (known as hikikomori) living on the cud of their parents income, rarely leaving their room, immersed in an unrealistic life, mostly online. Why do so few Japanese marry or have relationships comparatively speaking? Did the parents mess up? Or is this a symptom of a bigger sense of futility and despair felt by the young because some do think of the future?

I recall as a child I was unrealistic in my expectations, I truly thought I could do anything, be anything and this just wasn’t an honest evaluation of my situation. For some children, they knew they would be dentists at fifteen. For others, they did drugs and lived lost lives, before reinventing themselves. That’s the luxury of youth. But it’s not a permanent state. When you are older you realise, there isn’t as much time to ‘do anything / be anything’ and maybe that’s why I find some self-help/life coaches a little jarring. How long can we ‘do anything’ for realistically? Especially now, where different types of jobs are less than ever before, we’re being asked to homogenise into ever decreasing employment options. Many graduate law schools, formerly considered the pinnacles for employment, find no openings in an already saturated market, but should we doom a child’s dream if that’s what they want to do? The labour market doesn’t have a skills gap, it has an opportunity gap.

Many young people want to be famous, emulate some truly scary people, be unrealistically rich and have celebrity status. Less people want to heal, they want to make big bucks. Maybe they have it right. After all, when we do altruistic things but remain poor, how good does that feel when we can’t afford a car? With price hikes, standard of living seems to be improving because people have technology, but actually, we’re more in debt, without savings and living on a razor’s edge. Which might work at 25, but at 45 with children ready for college?

Again, I hark back to ‘balance’ and the need to live within one’s means, to have dreams that are capable of being pursued, and to help our kids dream up realistic jobs. The younger generations do not have the inherited wealth of the older, and immigrants often come with nothing to a country, depending upon the charity of that country, which is shrinking as our social services are overwhelmed and underfunded, even as immigration is on the rise.

Is the answer to print money? As has been discussed among Democrats? Or tax the rich and risk them leaving? Or is that a myth? With Covid 19 recently closing everything down, many formerly low wage workers were given monetary Covid compensations due to extended unemployment, which ended up being more than they were making as a badly paid waitress or shop worker. With some of those jobs vanishing forever, those that do return, see no employees willing to work for those wages again, and rightly so. But can we sustain a country if we pay what economists would consider a living wage? When $15 is already too little for someone to live on once tax and benefits are removed.

Increasingly we’re seeing a rise in people who fall through the cracks, they are the invisible workers whom we don’t know about, the underemployed, the fragile self-employed. That micro economy might not even show up on official statistics but look around, it exists. How likely can those people consider retiring in 30 years’ time? Can we blame those generations who are trapped by a system that doesn’t make it very likely to find an American Dream and what of the rest of the world, where survival comes long before the luxury of dreaming?

Where in this do we find concepts of lives well-lived? I think no such thing exists fundamentally but individually as we age, we should consider are we congruent to our concept of what a life well-lived means to us? Can we do anything to get closer to it? If so, what?

Recently I thought about this a lot and realised struggling with my health was my tipping point. For some that’s not their tipping point. A friend of mine said hers was losing her home. For me it was being told I was developing premature Macular Degeneration and with no treatment for Dry MD would lose my sight whilst still young. Facing those kinds of things forces us to consider what matters, what does not, and really think about how we value existence.

When I talk to people today, I recognise the value of clarity of purpose. When we know how best to direct our lives, we can spend more time on being the kind of person we want to be, rather than picking up the pieces from a series of failed impulses. If we remember how lucky we are to even have choices, when so many do not, even reading this on a computer puts us in a position of privilege, so rather than lamenting about what you do not have, consider what you need to live a life worth living and then do your best. Even half-way there might be enough to one day say, I have lived a life well-lived.

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Candice Louisa Daquin is a Psychotherapist and Editor, having worked in Europe, Canada and the USA. Daquins own work is also published widely, she has written five books of poetry, the last published by Finishing Line Press called Pinch the Lock. Her website is www thefeatheredsleep.com

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

Categories
Review

Murder at Daisy Apartments

Book Review by Gracy Samjetsabam

Title: Murder in Daisy Apartments

Author: Shabnam Minwalla

Publisher: Speaking Tiger, 2021

Murder in Daisy Apartments (2021) by Shabnam Minwalla is a young adult murder mystery story set in Colaba, Mumbai, India during the COVID-19 lockdown days.

Shabnam Minwalla has worked as a journalist with the Times of India. Her debut novel, The Six Spellmakers of Dorabji Street (2012) won the Rivokids Parents’ and Kids’ Choice Awards. She writes children’s fiction now. She has written a number of children’s story books including the Nimmi series, and a forward to an edition of Little Women brought out by Speaking Tiger Books.

Murder in Daisy Apartments starts on the forty-third day of the lockdown when 78-years-old Mr. Sevnani a resident of Lily Apartments, who had a bad heart, and an even worse temper was mysteriously hospitalized. The emergency that led him to be rushed to the hospital did not come as a surprise to the residents. Sevnani’s case was one in which a swarm of men wearing masks and sinister blue safety suits took him away in an ambulance.

But it happened again. On the forty-fourth day, a BMC (Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation) van drove to the housing complex to pick up a dead body. People grew apprehensive. The shock deepened as residents came to know that Raghunath, a long-time resident of these apartments had been evicted by Baman Marker, the Chairperson of the Daisy and Lily Apartments as he had tested corona positive, and the complex had been declared a containment zone. During such severe lockdowns, movements were restricted.

On the forty-sixth day, Mr. Marker was found poisoned in his apartment. Since he was murdered during the pandemic lockdown, the killing could have only been masterminded by a resident of the complex. Nandini Venkat, a 15-year-old murder mysteries enthusiast, who calls herself and her twin brother as “standard issue South Bombay brats” is glued to the details of this “OMG (o my God) moments” in the history of Daisy and Lily Apartments. She joins the dots to detect and solve Marker’s murder mystery. Honing her investigative skills, with keen observation of people and the chronology of events, Nandini turns into a detective on the fiftieth day of the lockdown. Her sunny, social and festival loving brother, Ved, and her best friend, Shanaya, join her to find out more about this mysterious death.

Who could have murdered Baman Marker? Was it the Kurians, the Carvalhos, the Khambatas, the Habibullahs, the Lambas, the Burmans, the Kapadias, Lina Almeida, Maria, Alfonso, Mr. Shetty or Chemmen Saab? Who was the mysterious man that Mrs. Kurain saw early in the morning of the fateful day? Whose were those “black legs” that Nandini spotted climbing up and down the stairs on the night of the murder? More questions assail Nandini and the air gets thicker with thrill, nervousness and excitement all at the same time. Ved sings in a low voice:

"Beware, beware, he’s out and about, 
So be careful ’bout the rumours you monger, the panic you spread. 
The Big Bum’s at the door, revenge cooking in his head."

Ved and Shanaya make the best investigating team with Nandini. Nandini’s “LIST OF SUSPECTS—Means, Motive and Rating” tactfully streamlines the possibilities of finding the murderer. The strong suspects in the list includes Mr. Carvalho, Daniel’s father and a physics teacher who took crazily expensive tuitions and has a shady history; Amrita Aunty, Shanaya’s mother, who had had major disagreements with Marker; old and mean retired principal Lina Almeida, the granny gruesome who makes fabulous immunity boosting juices and detox smoothies; Marker’s chartered accountant Ranjit Burman with whom he had a nasty fight some months back; the secretly courageous Rashida Habibullah; and, the aged and immobile Mr. Alimchandani, who had long-buried secrets.

Amidst the fearful environment of death and pandemic in the Daisy and Lily Apartments, Minwalla beautifully brings out the characters of the young investigators and the residents with many details. The role of internet and social media during the pandemic and in the present day is infused in the narrative. For instance, she has highlighted the unavoidable participation in the Apartment’s WhatsApp groups of adults, where daily updates that thrive with rumours or gossips and the Daisy-Lily kids’ group for the children who discuss school, crushes, movies, people and latest information. Nandini and Shanaya discuss TikTok and Instagram followers, zombie teenagers addicted to social media, FOMO, Zoom call with school friends, Netflix and WiFi connections. Nandini on the verge of solving the mystery says, “My mind will be thinking about nachos or the red boots on sale in H&M, while my fingers pick up my phone, click, swipe, click.”

Minwalla also uses subtle humor to make the story a delightful read. This is evident in the children calling Mr. Sevnani “the Abominable Snowman”, or in imagining Baman Marker, the shrewish Chairperson of Daisy and Lily Apartments as “an arch criminal—a sort of Macavity the Cat” or “SoBo version of Kaa the python” and more. Minwalla’s use of phrases like ‘Work from Home’, disowning someone, sealed apartment, social distancing, stay safe, compulsory registry of visitors, tested corona positive, online meetings, and mental deterioration, instantly connects us and sheds light on the shift in the usage of language for depicting the pandemic. Nostalgia, empathy, magic and mystery mingle as one reads with a sense of enjoyment, revelling in the suspense-filled clandestine moves taking the mystery forward.

Murder in Daisy Apartments is entertaining and organically Indian. It gives a flavour of Mumbaikars to those willing to step into a local residential complex and mingle with the residents.

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Gracy Samjetsabam teaches English Literature and Communication Skills at Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE, Manipal. She is also a freelance writer and copy editor. Her interest is in Indian English Writings, Comparative Literature, Gender Studies, Culture Studies, and World Literature. 

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Categories
Essay

A Prison of Our Own Making

The massive impact of a minuscule virus has been felt around the world, but what has it done to our sense of freedom and independence, asks Keith Lyons

Study of Sea and Sky, Isle of Wight by Turner (1775-1851) Courtesy: Creative Commons

The Covid-19 pandemic, which continues to ravage the world, has been like a mass experiment. The shared experience of apprehension, despair, and hope has highlighted the inter-connectedness of everybody and everything. 

Paradoxically, to combat the virus, we’ve had to give up something of our own selfishness and desire for the status quo, to unite and work together with trust that others will do the same. And we’ve had to keep our physical distance, while at the same time forging deeper bonds and more honest communication. It has been both an outer journey through these times — or more of a non-journey in being locked-down – as well as something of an inner journey as we reflect, discover what’s really important, and re-orient our lives. 

The mass experiment has revealed so many different approaches and coping mechanisms, and the reality that there is no escape, for the way out is through. Even the milestone of being personally vaccinated is no longer the endpoint, as the broader consideration is that we human beings are only as strong as the weakest link, and until everyone has trained their immune system to combat the Covid virus, its continued existence threatens us all. 

One lesson from the mass experiment on 7.674 billion people is that things will never be the same again, and that we won’t get back to the normality of pre-2020. The deeper learning from the event is that life means change. And everything is in a state of flux. As the world churns, we must find ourselves again, and realise that amidst disruptions we can still find our centre. 

There is much talk about resilience: the ability to adapt well to any challenges faced. Resilience isn’t just a personal outlook or habit. And it isn’t about being tough, having endurance, going it alone or taking on the mantra ‘think positive’. It is said those who are ‘resilient’ aren’t so despite pain, struggle and failure, but because of it. 

As we move out of stay-at-home lockdowns and into vaccination clinic queues, and then into the new world post-pandemic, towards the politicians’ goal of ‘business as usual’  and the announcement of ‘Freedom Days ’ at long last, perhaps the truth will eventually dawn on us: that we were always free. 

American writer William Faulkner, who lived through the influenza pandemic of 1918, noted in one of his letters, ‘It’s queer how the people one thinks would live forever are the first to go’. 

The novelist wrote, ‘We must be free not because we claim freedom, but because we practice it’.

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, who gave up learning to play bagpipes in a Scottish pipe band to focus on after-dark tabs of dark chocolate, early morning slow-lane swimming, and the perfect cup of masala chai tea. Find him@KeithLyonsNZ or blogging at Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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Review

Transforming Banking Practices

Book Review by Bhaskar Parichha

Title: Transformational Leadership in Banking

Author: Multiple. Edited by Anil K. Khandelwal

Publisher: SAGE Publications/ New Delhi, 2021

India’s banking system, as it has evolved in the past two hundred years, is a mixed bag. It has cooperative banks, domestic financing institutions, scheduled commercial banks, regional rural banks, pre-reform traditional private sector banks, tech-savvy private banks, and foreign banks. One can add to this protracted list are the newer entities — small finance banks, payments banks, and the large number of mobile applications.

Even as India’s banking sector has expanded tremendously in the past few years, there is a lot to be desired from these financial institutions. Banks have, of late, been the government’s whipping boys, and the so-called reforms have only been half-baked. Bank mergers have taken place but they are yet to show up on their balance sheets.

While Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs) have grabbed the space vacated by commercial banks, financial stability of banks is at crossroads. Monitoring and supervision have fallen drastically, reflecting in the persistent growth in Non-Performing Assets (NPAs). Post -Covid, there is an unfathomable shadow on India’s banks. It is in this scary backdrop that this book carries enormous importance. Transformational Leadership in Banking: Challenges of Governance, Leadership and HR in a Digital and Disruptive World by Anil K. Khandelwal comes in handy for the beleaguered leadership of the banking sector.

A thought leader, author, international speaker on leadership and governance, Anil K. Khandelwal is an acclaimed authority on human resource and leadership in the banking sector. He is a rare transformation leader. Transforming Bank of Baroda from a staid Public Sector Banks (PSB) to one of India’s most valuable international banks won him many awards, including the Asian Banker Singapore’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His brand of human resources leadership and its application in business turnaround also won him the Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Human Resource Development Network. He also chaired the government-appointed committee on HR in PSBs and was a member of the first Banks Board Bureau for banking reforms and selection of whole-time directors.

The book, as the blurb says, “offers a roadmap on leadership which is all about converting adversity into an opportunity for transformation. Through an excellent set of articles, case studies and interviews, this book offers a way forward for transformational leadership of the Indian banks.” Despite their many achievements, public sector banks continue to face several challenges, such as increasing non-performing assets, depleting market share and low market capitalization.

The volume is comprehensive because it deals with almost all aspects of Indian banking. With a Foreword by former Comptroller and Auditor General of Inida, Vinod Rai, the book has three parts. In part I there are essays from academics and practitioners. Part II deals with case studies. The last part deliberates on perspectives from experts. With  more than thirty chapters — each chapter contributed by a doyen in the banking sector and the academics — the 500 plus page book is clearly laid out with  sections on governance, leadership, human resources and of course the future of the banking environment

In the introduction, Dr Khandelwal writes: “The book comes at a time when Indian banking is undergoing crisis.” It gives a strong message that banks become robust institutions by addressing governance, leadership, talent and culture. The author’s argument is that the banking sector is likely to remain in a perpetual crisis mode, unless these measures are initiated immediately. 

The book, as the titles suggests, is on leadership in banking. Evidently, it has chapters on changing context of governance and leadership in public sector banks, the digital revolution, future of work in BFSI (Banking, Financial Services, and Insurance) organisations, human capital and ethical bank governance, leadership choices in building better governance in the context of regulation or culture, strategic human capital management and banking governance (unexplored symbiotic relationship in PSBs), honoring legacy while embracing evolution: (the ethics narrative in State Bank of India), leadership experience and fifteen actionable insights from the trenches, organizational transformational and an agenda for Indian banks, coaching and mentoring in the backdrop of the unsung and underutilized warriors of leadership development, grooming leaders in public sector banks, crafting and living in  bank culture et al. 

There are also some illuminating pieces on leadership in times of crisis. For example, lessons from COVID-19. Employer branding to build human capital advantage, trade unions in the digital economy, skilling  a new currency,  a new manifesto for chief human resource officers in the era of digital change, wellness and yoga investment for the bankers,HR as strategic business partner in SBI ,sustainable people processes and leadership development in Bank of Baroda, the human resources story of ICICI Bank, digital transformation of HR at Union Bank of India, fear psychosis in the executives, and  bank directors require training in specific areas of technology are the other chapters which make a value addition to the book.

In the context of competition and digitalization requiring new business models, the book argues for a fundamental shift in the structure and process of governance, including board-level autonomy, CEOs tenure and compensation, people process, talent development and building a leadership pipeline, to make banks resilient and future-proof. 

Transformational Leadership in Banking is both well-timed and edifying. With admirable standpoints on the issues of authority, management and HR in a digital environment, the book is a clear blueprint for makeover and restructuring. The book is, mostly, meant for public sector banks, and will be of immense value to policymakers, regulators, board members, CEOs, researchers and to all those who are  in  the leadership roles and the public on the whole. 

Dr Khandelwal’s book makes an overriding case for crucial and cohesive reforms in India’s banking sector. It offers timely solutions by focusing on several issues. A must-read for anyone interested in the well-being of Indian banking.

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Bhaskar Parichha is a journalist and author of No Strings Attached: Writings on Odisha and Biju Patnaik – A Political Biography. He lives in Bhubaneswar and writes bilingually. Besides writing for newspapers, he also reviews books on various media platforms.

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Categories
Essay

Here, There, Nowhere, Everywhere

Did life change or did I change from the events of the last year,’ ponders New Zealander Keith Lyons who was in the southern state of Kerala when the first cases of Covid-19 were detected in India last January.

Everything shifted last year. Priorities. Energies. Focus. 

Well, actually, there wasn’t much focus for me last year. For much of 2020, I felt unfocused, scattered, reactive. I was not achieving peak performance or being proactive going forward, if we were to use business language. I doubt if I was being the best version of myself either. I definitely needed to ‘pivot’, whatever that meant. 

What was initially a short holiday ‘back home’ to catch up with family and friends turned into something without a clear ending, as it dawned on me maybe I wouldn’t be travelling again for years perhaps, why, even ever. 

Usually, by May, I would be like the snowbird and migrate to warmer climes. I would head to my base in Bali’s Ubud, and then later in the year to southwest China and Myanmar, the three locations in Asia where I have caches of cotton shirts, swimming goggles, cycle shorts, hot water kettles, tea strainers and rice cookers. 

By November, I would surely be back in the country termed ‘the land of mystery, mysticism, mythology, miracles, multiculturalism and mightiness’ — India. 

When I left Kerala’s Varkala Beach near Thiruvananthapuram in February last year, after my last dip in the warm breaking waves, I always thought I would be back for chai at one of the cliff top cafes overlooking the gleaming ocean, the lunchtime Rs.90(US$1.25) thali at True Thomas and falling asleep to the whirl of the fan and the shushing of the Arabian Sea. 

But it didn’t happen last Indian winter, and I doubt if it will happen this year or even next. The seasons turn, the tides come and go, the waves roll onto the main Papanasham beach and the less-visited Black Sand beach. True Thomas is ‘temporarily closed’ according to Google. In fact, the Kerala beach destination was already impacted by Covid-19 in March 2020, when an Italian tourist visiting for a fortnight tested positive for the virus. The English boss of Coffee Temple Cafe had got in trouble with authorities for his blackboard offering of ‘Anti-Coronavirus juice’ (150 Rs) made from ginger, lemon, gooseberry. 

I wonder how the Tibetan and Nepalese who work in eateries during the season, November to May, are surviving. 

Mid-2020 I found myself unable to continue my digital semi-nomadic existence of following mild weather and hopping on AirAsia flights I’d booked up to a year earlier. Instead, because of travel restrictions during the pandemic, and my own wish to stay safe, I was lock-downed in my hometown in New Zealand, cohabiting with my parents in the house I’d lived in since aged eight years old.

A friend on Facebook sent me a message saying she couldn’t wait to walk down the aisle, with a photo of an aeroplane aisle. Another sent an image showing the perfect Covid-19 sport which requires masks, gloves and 2m distance: fencing. 

In the post from China, I received a couple of full-face snorkelling masks. In between the time of ordering and the arrival of the goods, on YouTube, there was a video on how to convert to meet the N95 respirator standards, or how to modify for use as an emergency interface with a ventilator. Researchers even had a paper in Nature about using Decathalon snorkelling masks. I wouldn’t believe much else on Youtube. What a shame that many do. 

From Bali last year, there were claims that it was one of the safest places in the world as the recovery rate was high, and mortality rate low, compared to other places. This was attributed to a mix of sunshine, high temperatures, and a better (superior) immune system. 

Sound familiar, my friends in India? Later someone posted a graph showing exponential growth, with the caption ‘Bali, what happened?’ 

New Zealand, as it turns out, has been largely protected from the ravages of Covid-19, thanks to closing the borders, a short lockdown, and citizens acting together as a ‘Team of 5 Million’.

This time last year I went on lots of walks, I gazed at cloud formations, and watched sunsets. I cut down scraggly trees, sorted through books, and gave away many of my parent’s possessions as part of downsizing. Of the bounty of childhood books I distributed, one was the beguiling ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’ by Edward Lear, penned 150 years ago, which my father would read to us when we were young:

The Owl and the Pussy-cat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note …

I even sold the family silver. 

My parents didn’t get Covid, and just last week, got the first of two Pfizer pricks in the upper arm (so far, only 10% of the population in New Zealand have received their first shot). 

What changed dramatically was their circumstances. An operation in hospital for my 85-year-old father to reverse a previous insertion of a stoma didn’t work out as expected, and in late June last year the one night back home after his surgery proved to be his last night in the house they bought in 1976. He left in the back of an ambulance. He is now in hospital-level care in a rest home, and his wife, my mother, lives nearby in a retirement village. 

Before his surgery, they considered selling the house and moving to the retirement village together, but undetected earthquake damage from 2010-2011 was discovered by the real estate agent, and I had to initiate a claim to have the damage repaired. 

Being back home, many things were familiar, some things had changed, a few things were strange. I had become the parent of my parents. My days revolved around sorting out their problems. Instead of my independent existence and free lifestyle, I found myself taking on family responsibilities. Yet I was glad that in a time of need, I had been there to do the things they couldn’t do easily. 

The year 2020 was unprecedented (and UnPresidented), with so many unknowns, so many surprises. Sharing a birth date with a friend from journalism school, we went for dinner with her family. Little did I anticipate it was the last time I saw her husband, a blood doctor, who died suddenly during a video consult with a patient. 

My side hustle — a small travel agency working with ethnic minorities in southwest China — got its first inquiries in June last year. Several guides urged me to keep it open, as it was their main source of income. Before that, I hadn’t received any inquiries for the first part of 2020.

Several of the publications I usually write for have gone into hibernation, and some projects are on hold indefinitely. Before a job interview last week, I had to reflect on what I have been doing with my life. Or at least, the last 15 years. 

But what do I do these days? I swim most days, some days join a friend at the gym who wants to improve his heart. I drink one cup of coffee a day, recently, made from green coffee beans I’ve roasted in a popcorn machine. At least once I week I go out to have an Indian meal. This week it was a Kerala thali of a dozen delicious parts. Last week my friends ordered a family dosa, which had to be carried to the table by two waiters. 

My parent’s house is now my house, and each day I attend to its restoration and renovation, learning new skills of skim-coating, tiling, and concreting. Each month I get an email reminder that most of my AirAsia BIG Loyalty points are expiring soon.

Spending time with those I love is more important for me these days. We speak more frankly about what really matters. I’ve even started attending Death Cafe events, where anyone can share about their fear of death. 

Through it all, I feel like I am becoming a better friend to myself. I am my own guru. I am my own Jedi Master — it was just that I didn’t realise it before. I’ve learned to better cope with the challenges of life. As Jedi Master Yoda once said: “Named must be your fear before banish it you can”.

All I have to do is breathe. Breathe in. Exhale. Repeat. 

Last year, just a week after traditionally the coldest day of the year (one month after the shortest day), I saw my first golden daffodils, the yellow trumpets signalling that the winter had been mild, and that the warmer days of spring were not far away. 

Today on my way to the swimming pool, weeks before the solstice, I spied a row of daffodils in a neighbour’s garden and had to smile. I don’t know what the future holds, and I acknowledge that things will not return to normal like before. Yet I walk on, carrying in my heart hope, not so much as wishful thinking or expecting a positive outcome, but knowing that whatever the rest of 2021 and beyond throw up, no matter how disruptive, that the only way out is through it. 

Keith Lyons (keithlyons.net) is an award-winning writer, author and creative writing mentor, with a background in psychology and social sciences. Keith was featured as one of the top 10 travel journalists in Roy Stevenson’s ‘Rock Star Travel Writers’ (2018). He has undertaken writer residencies in Antarctica and on an isolated Australian island, and in 2020 plans to finally work out how to add posts to his site Wandering in the World (http://wanderingintheworld.com).

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