Categories
The Observant Immigrant

Is Sensitivity a Strength or a Weakness?

By Candice Louisa Daquin

Rodin’s The Thinker. Courtesy: Creative Commons
“I may be a dreamer, 
 But I’m not the only one.” 
 -- John Lennon (Imagine). 

As a child I remember understanding on a very basic level the concept of cruelty. I recall vaguely thinking in the simple way children think; “Why is that person so mean?” It wasn’t because I wasn’t getting what I wanted and stomping my foot, it was more observing a cruelty and trying to make sense of it. Bottom line, children understand these things pretty early on and it forms what becomes their moral compass.

We can and do change over time but those early lessons tend to stick around. My early lesson was that I recognised that I cared. I observed that some other people did care too and some other people did not. I think ever since then I have wondered why some people are cruel.

More recently there has been a debate of sorts over the ‘value’ of being sensitive. Can you be too sensitive? Is there value in being sensitive? The issue is split. Some believe sensitivity is a weakness. Others recognise it makes life harder. Some think sensitivity is related to mental illness, whilst some believe we need more sensitivity in this world.

As a therapist I am often asked this question. I have also asked it of myself. I tend to berate myself when I am ‘too’ sensitive, but this is a learned behavior, based on being shamed for being sensitive in the past. The truth is I think you can literally speaking be too sensitive (for your own good, because it’s you who is hurt most by it) but most people who are told ‘you are too sensitive’ are being gaslighted or manipulated.

Through my life I have been told so a few times. Predictably, I felt ashamed because society perceives sensitivity as weakness. I consider myself a strong person, a resilient person, but I know the way I’m perceived by those who know I’m (also) sensitive, is weaker. This has never been truer than since moving to America, where the ‘bad ass’ mentality rules and women over-compensate by being emotionless and ‘strong’ as a rebuke against sensitivity.

Sensitivity is out of fashion; it has been for a long time. Maybe, by rejecting sensitivity, people believe they are automatically stronger (and perceived by others to be) we hold up role-models of impossibly strong people who are not depicted as sensitive. None of us seem to revere sensitive, kind people. On the contrary, we usually suspect them. We admire the person who is sarcastic, quick-witted, a little ruthless, and undefeatable. Therefore, I will seem like a sensitive person trying to justify sensitivity by writing this. And you wouldn’t be wrong. I think sensitivity has a bad rap and I’m personally tired of how insensitive people are. I don’t think this is commendable, cooler or something to aspire to, but sometimes I feel I’m in the minority.

Most recently I had two conversations within a day of each other, where I was told ‘maybe you’re being too sensitive’ and shortly after that I talked to a good friend of mine about this. Her answer got me thinking about the way sensitivity is perceived and how wrong-headed we are. She said ‘well maybe more people should be sensitive’ and those simple words were a bombshell. Exactly! We wouldn’t have to go around covered in armor if people were more sensitive! We wouldn’t have to be ‘bad ass’ if others were kind and thoughtful!

When did we become a people who worshipped coldness over warmth and compassion?

I might sound like a spiritual evangelist writing this, and ironically, I don’t believe in God, but many of my concepts are in keeping with those you might see in the Bible. Treat others as you would wish to be treated. Be compassionate and kind to those who need it. Those are not concepts we enact, instead we admire the person who is rude, emotionless, ruthless even. What happened to make this happen?

When I left university the first time, armed with my degrees I thought (naively) I could go out into the world and get a good job. Why shouldn’t I have thought that? I had worked hard I deserved it, didn’t I? When I recall how I thought back then, I was really a naïve person (though I thought I knew everything) with no comprehension of how hard the world could be. Not only was the job-market seemingly impenetrable, but nobody was impressed with anything I had to offer, and I felt utterly deflated within a short period of time.

Some would say bringing down a peg or two is a rite most young people go through when they get into the real world. But I still recall that time as being one of deep despair and sadness, to imagine a world that wasn’t fair or kind. I had genuinely thought it could be! The struggle to establish myself financially was uphill and took a long time. During which I experienced repeated knocks to my confidence and was told over and over that I was nothing/nobody. It seemed like colleagues, bosses, etc. thrived on putting down the young people who got on the first rung of the ladder.

I have never forgotten that. I ask people even now if they had the same experience(s); Some say yes, some say no. Initially I took it personally because it felt personal, but I came to realise it was a rite of passage, where young people were put down and put in their place by those who had come before them. It remains a horrible practice with no real value, after all, we need to believe in ourselves, not be trashed and put down. For some, it may be easier to get over than others. I was in the latter camp. I had grown up being put down, so the last thing I needed was for it to happen again.

This is when the idea of grin and bear it, muscle through, take it or leave it, man up, comes into play. This is but one of many times in life where the emphasis is on being ‘strong enough to endure it’ and to put aside one’s true feelings about a situation (outrage, hurt, confusion) in favor of ‘sucking it up.’ Given that I had not joined the military, I found the urge to react this way very strange. I wanted instead to ask why it had to be this way, why people let it be this way?

This relates back to my earliest understanding that some people are cruel. But our response to some people being cruel is weird. Instead of calling them out and doing something collectively about it so that they do not continue to have the power to be cruel, we seem to want to join them? The shaming of those who are sensitive seems a way to a line with those who would be cruel, even as logically all those who a line with the cruel, might once have been sensitive.

Why do we think being sensitive is such a weakness when it is far weaker to be a hard-nosed uncaring person who doesn’t give to anyone, than to be a caring person who wants to treat others as they would wish to be treated? I can’t say I understand it now any better than I did years ago. When my clients ask me, I remain as perplexed at people’s cruelty as I ever have. There simply seems no good justification for it. And moreover, why people glorify cruelty and think kindness is ‘suspect’ ‘insincere’ or ‘weak’ baffles me.

Sensitivity means you notice when someone is upset and you care. Insensitivity means you don’t care to notice what happens to anyone and you don’t give a damn. When you put that bluntly, I find it hard to understand why someone would wish to be the latter, other than it’s easier, and might be less work. But what about conscience and morality? For many of us, we have that prickling of conscience if we have mistreated someone, we want to be a good person. We try to help others, so how could we ever want to align ourselves with someone who didn’t give a damn?

Yet how often, from the schooldays onward, do we see the popular kid is the mean kid, or the most liked child is the one who does nothing for others, but is considered ‘cool’ or the boss who is mean but somehow respected, or the adult who has lots of friends though they never do a thing to help others? It’s not always the kind, sensitive person who is popular, in fact their motivations are often suspected, and they might be considered weak and cloying.

Moving to America I struggled with this considerably. I tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, if I like someone, I do go out of my way to be a good friend to them. I think that’s how it should be. But my good intentions were often suspected, people would even say to me (as an insult) “you’re so NICE” (meaning: Boring) or they wouldn’t believe my kindness was genuine. As to being sensitive, I was told I was ‘too’ sensitive if I stepped over the formality people had with each other, where people didn’t really ask how someone was doing, or follow up and care enough to get closer.

In fact, I didn’t understand how people got close, because everything was so superficial and formal. I began to see that many friendships were just that, convenience based. Those who had children hung out with others who had children, and car pooled. Those who went to the gym talked to others who worked out a lot and maybe met on weekends to work out, etc. But the moment you no longer had that in common, you rarely kept in touch. The deep friendships I had sustained back home, seemed rarer.

I was told this was because you made those kinds of friendships in childhood and once you were an adult you didn’t make friends like that. I wondered why not? All the rules of friendship baffled me and the difficulty of getting meaningfully close to people seemed incredibly hard all of a sudden. With colleagues a work — those I had known for years and whom I worked with closely — I wrongly assumed we were also friends. But they saw me only as a tool for the job I did. They invested no more in me as a person as they would in someone they had just met, even if we worked side-by-side for years.

To this day that strikes me as strange. I’m not standing on a moral high horse saying that I can’t fathom these things, I think I’m just stating a fact. I find it difficult to understand why someone would be cruel. Why someone would make someone else feel bad (deliberately) or why someone would put someone else down for being ‘weak’ just because they’re sensitive and care. Since when were those ever-bad attributes? Could it be in our rejection of older morals, we have adopted ones that cut our nose off to spite our face?

Having been told people do not trust ‘nice’ people I began to understand what that meant. Sometimes socially when you meet someone who is initially really friendly, they turn out to be less than you imagined, whereas someone else, who was perhaps initially aloof, can turn out to be a great person. I have learned friendliness doesn’t always equate to good people. Sometimes it is a front or an act. However, if you are a genuine person and sensitive to others, this is more than just initial friendliness and yet, you might be suspected because of people’s previous experience with ‘kind or friendly’ people.

When did it become rare to be kind and when did we begin to be suspicious of kindness? Intellectually I understand it but emotionally it’s so strange. I have had conversations about related subjects such as why women don’t like other women (they think they are backstabbers) or why women aren’t feminists (their experience has been women are often worse to them than men, so why would they be a feminist?) and I think they’re all related themes.

When we can’t trust the motivations of others, we might suspect the worst if that is our prior experience. Nowadays we’re more liable to mistrust a kind person than someone who is aloof or sarcastic. We’ve got things around the wrong way. And all because some of us are cruel and delight in hurting others, which includes warping the truth. Because the truth hasn’t changed. Being sensitive means caring about others, and this should never be something to ridicule or deride. Nor is it weak.

If after reading this you conclude I’m writing this to justify my own sensitivity, then you wouldn’t be wrong. I hope you see it’s leading to a much bigger picture too. I also hope you know I am not justifying sensitivity emotionally but defending it based on reason and fact. After all, sensitivity isn’t all emotional. We have often mistaken sensitivity for some kind of mental illness but it’s nothing of the kind. True, some mentally ill people may be sensitive, but that’s all. Sensitivity, unless it’s pathological in its extremity, is a natural human response. But still those who wear their heart on their sleeve are humiliated by those who are still in the school yard.

I would love a world that embraced the idea you can be sensitive and strong, because I truly believe you can. I also like the idea of a world where people’s past experiences wouldn’t close them to trusting someone’s kindness, or suspecting kindness of motivation. Do we really want a world where we’re all so removed from each other we no longer care? Is that the world you want to live in? It’s not the world I want to live in. I want my boss to care if I’m struggling, I think on a logical, emotional and realistic level this will improve our relationship. I don’t think humans are robots or unconnected. I think caring is how we connect and I want to. Living in a disconnected world where nobody cares what happens to anyone else, seems a dystopian nightmare. As we grow in numbers this is logistically more likely to occur. Let’s at least let those who are sensitive, flourish rather than shut them down and shame them.

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.

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A Special Tribute

Gandhi & Our Future

Bapu or Gandhi (2 October 1869 – 30 January 1948) on India’s currency. Courtesy: Creative commons

Gandhi with his call to combat violence and hatred with non- violence and truth is perhaps a voice that needs to be  recalled out of history books on dusty shelves. His ideals cry out to be retrieved beyond the reach of currency notes, statues, buildings, names of parks and roads. Like Tagore, we may not agree with all his ideas but he put together an ideology which, perhaps, could be realised and implemented to make a better world across borders. If peace is forced by nuclear warheads and the ruthless are allowed a field day to govern any country because they have the might, perhaps it is time to question the efficacy of manmade constructs created through history, especially after the Second World War. Do we want bloodshed, chaos and the pandemic to be part of our daily news? Or, can we explore the philosophy of a man who mingled the best from the East and the West to create a system which has impacted many across the world? Leaders and great statesmen learnt from him — Martin Luther King Junior, Nelson Mandela, Al Gore, Barack Obama, John Lennon and Albert Einstein to name a few — just as he had learnt from greats across the world. 

Today, in an attempt to recall the best in Gandhi’s philosophy, we wanted to present to you a selection that tries to connect us with his ideals — give a glimpse of his dreams that might have led to a better world if we only had listened and acted. Of the pieces we are showcasing here, some have painted a world that needs a Gandhi while others have written what they imbibed from his ideals into their own lives. Can we ride on the crescendo with these voices to achieve a better future for our children by embedding and internalising his values?

Interview

Santosh Bakaya interviews Tushar Gandhi, great-grandson of Mahatma Gandhi. Click here to read.

Poetry

Gandhi & the Robot

A poem relooking at Gandhi’s ideology in the present context, written in Manipuri by Thangjam Ibopishak and translated by Robin S Ngangom. Click here to read.

A Poem for Dreamers

Michael R Burch wrote this poem under the spell of the famed “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Junior, an ardent practitioner of  Gandhi’s ideology, a student and disciple of the Mahatma. Click here to read.

Fiction

In Bapu, Denied, Sunil Sharma pulls Gandhi down from a pedestal and explores his ideals in the current world. Click here to read.

Non-Fiction

What Gandhi Teaches Me

Candice Louisa Daquin applies Gandhiism to her own lived experiences. Click here to read.

When West meets East, Greatness Blooms

From our treasury, Debraj Mookerjee reflects on how syncretism impacts greats like Gandhi, Tagore, Tolstoy, Emerson, Martin Luther King Jr and many more. Click here to read.

Categories
Independence Day Interview

In Conversation with Goutam Ghose

Goutam Ghose: Photo provided by Niyogy Books

Goutam Ghose is a well-known award-winning film director, scriptwriter and even actor. He has been the only Indian to have received the Vittorio Di Sica Award from Italy in 1997 and was awarded the Knighthood of the Star of the Italian Solidarity in July 2006. Ghose has won fifteen National Awards, besides Filmfare Awards and a number of international awards like Silver Balloon, Nantes Film Festival, UNESCO Award at Venice, Golden Semurg at Tashkent, Fipresci Award and Red Cross Award at Verna Film Festival.

But did you know he has also authored a number of books? Just as he bridges borders with his poetic films that touch the human heart with a range of emotions, he does the same with his books. He takes up burning issues with artistry, never inciting with rage or hatred but conveying by his skill with the camera and words. He has created a world without borders with his transcontinental outlook and approach.

His reaction to the Ram Janmabhoomi riots was Moner Manush (2010), a film based on Lalon Fakir’s life, knitting together the best in Muslim and Hindu traditions instead of filming the clashes and the violence. Published in English as The Quest (2013), the book is a powerful dramatisation with pictures from the film. The book, like the film, is also an emotional lesson in humanism. Based on Sunil Gangopadhyay’s novel on Lalon Fakir’s life, the film is beautiful. But the book allowed me to mull over the words, which have been translated by Sankar Sen. It is a book that needs to be read when casteism and religious divides take precedence over humanitarian values. By bringing these songs into translation to readers unfamiliar with Bengali, both Ghose and Sen have opened a world of love and tolerance to new readers, who will hopefully find the time to mull over the wisdom of these songs.

‘What was your caste when you came here,
What caste did you take on arrival, dear,
What would be your caste when it’s time to go -- 
Ponder and tell me if you know.’

-- Translated by Sankar Sen, from The Quest

 His other book that traverses the silk route and journeys through China, Beyond the Himalayas (2019), transcends boundaries and fills the reader with a sense of exhilaration. It is based on his documentary of the same name. Both these recordings of their journey along the silk route are worth viewing and reading. They show humans are the same across all borders. The book, interspersed with lovely pictures of the landscape and mature writing pauses on history at the right junctures. The narration is poetic in both the book and the documentary.

Though Ghose claims that these texts and photographs capture memories of the film, both his books transported me to a different time and space. I saw the films after reading the books, but both were energising, emotionally charged and entertaining. The journey takes one through different parts of the world and gives a new perspective to a 4000-year-old route. Initiated and organised by Major Hari Singh Ahluwalia and Deng Xiaoping’s son, the travels in Beyond the Himalayas took me across borders to areas I have never visited and now, I hope to visit post pandemic. Both the book and the film acquainted me with cultures that excite. And The Quest reinforced the belief, through the depiction of Lalon’s life, that humanism exists despite the degradations of history. That riots can be calmed with the soothing notes of Lalon’s lyrics, rich in wisdom, would be a win for the human spirit.

Like all great artistes, Ghose speaks in beautiful poetic sentences about concepts that touch the human heart and imagination. In this exclusive, he speaks not just about his film-books, but about the real journey and issues he is facing through the pandemic, including the delay of his film with an Italian male lead and his new short film on the current times, Covid-worn and waiting…

You are a very well-known film director, cinematographer, and music director. You have directed award winning Bollywood and Tollywood movies. Normally books come before films but from two of these films, you have made books. Why did you go in for making books of the films?

I have loved books since my childhood. The shape and form of it, the touch and smell of a book fascinate me. They will never die even if we read on the screen rather than by turning pages of a physical object. A certain sense of the sacred has surrounded books from civilisations’ inception. In cinema, be it fiction or non-fiction, we write a script at the pre-production stage. A film-book is all about times gone by — a book of memories, of both cyclic and linear time. My producer from Bangladesh, Habibur Rehman Khan, had liked the idea of film books and had published three wonderful books on Padma Nodir Majhi (Boatman of the Padma River, filmed in 1993), Moner Manush (filmed in 2010 ) and Shankhachil (Unbound, filmed in 2016) in Bengali. Niyogi books of India has published a beautiful pictorial English version of Moner Manush as The Quest and also Beyond the Himalayas, my journey along the Silk Road. Another lovely film book is Pratikshan’s bilingual centenary tribute to Bismillah Khan (Bismillah in Banaras the film Goutam Ghosh made, 2017).

Is dubbing or subtitling the film not an easier option than doing a film-book?

Well, dubbing or subtitling is for watching a language film, but a film book is meant for reading. It becomes a part of your book collections. I have some wonderful film books published from Europe and United States.

Moner Manush is based on Lalon Fakir’s life and on the novel by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Why did you feel there was a need for a separate book after you made a very powerful film on it?

Lalon Fakir is an eternal savant. Scholars have been doing research on Lalon’s life and philosophy since long. It is heard that Lalon was an illiterate man. But going through the words of his songs and the implied significance, it seems as if he was an erudite scholar tutored in an age-old system of education.  His faith was not guided by any particular religion, rather it could be said to be comprised of the mysticism of Sufi and the love and forgiveness of Vaishnavism and the liberalism of the tantric sect of Buddhism. My film on Lalon fakir is research on this great man aswell. The Bengali film book contains important articles by scholars besides the script, reviews and memoirs.

Do you feel that the message of Moner Manush is relevant in a world beset by not just divides but even a pandemic? Is there something we can learn from the story?

Yes, of course the message of Moner Manush is even more relevant in today’s intolerant world, a world of greed and opportunism. The pandemic has victimised the togetherness of the human race but how can we survive without empathy? I don’t know how good the film is, but Moner Manush will serve as a gospel to those who revere humanity.

Lalon says as his own introduction “I am a human.” How important is that for humankind to see themselves as humans over titles of caste, profession, and economics?

The baul (minstrels in Bengal) community had renounced all recognised institutions of religion and revolted against long established rites, customs and faiths. Breaking down the barriers of the narrow confines of communal faith, they had found a large expanse under the sky which had served as a bountiful meeting place of many religions. Under that open sky, Lalon had found the truth in Humanism.

Lalon dreamt of a borderless world. Do you think adopting his outlook can change the outlook of nations which draw borders between the species? Do you think it is implementable at a personal, national or international level?

I think all mystics believe in borderless space of Earth where all centennial beings live in peace and harmony. But the wheel of time had moved in the direction of Divide and Rule. John Lennon’s Imagine has become the iconic song on the dream of a borderless world. It may have been a failed dream, but I confess it might have been one I shared growing up in India and will cherish till the last breath of my life. Let it be a dream and a wonderful utopia.

Beyond The Himalayas was first a documentary film. How long was it and when was it screened? How many episodes is the film?

Beyond the Himalayas was made as a documentary film during our expedition through the Silk Road in 1994. The final edited version is four-and-a-half hour long. It was shown in Discovery Channel in five parts in the late nineties. A shorter version was screened in BBC as well. The Indian national TV had screened a Hindi version of all five episodes.

The book seems to cover lesser than the documentary. Is that true or do the visuals/ music just seem to impact us more? Why did you leave out Pakistan?

Well watching the film with arresting visuals and absorbing the soundtracks of the trail is a linear viewing of our journey along the fabled Silk Road. It is very, very exciting indeed. But the film is also a journey back in time with many references and anecdotes from history. For instance, while showing the travel through the deadly Taklamakan desert, I referred to Sven Hedin’s(1865-1952) expedition of the region. I quote: ‘The first European to map this desolate region was the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin. His first expedition in 1895 was very nearly his last.  The local guide supplied enough water for four days in the desert instead of ten requested. When the caravan lost its way, the guide was the first to die. The others became insane with thirst, drinking anything — even Sheep’s blood and camel’s urine. By the fifth day, the men, camels and other livestocks were all dead except for Sven Hedin and one other man. Hedin writes in Through Asia, “If I was doomed to die in the sand, I wanted to be properly attired. I wanted my burial clothes to be both white and clean.” But fate was on its side. Spying the dark green side of an oasis, he dragged himself to safety. “I stood on the brink of a pool with fresh cool water, beautiful water. I drank, drank, drank time after time. Every blood vessel and tissue of my body sucked up the life-giving liquid like a sponge.”’

Here the film-book helps the readers. One can refer back to the time past and time present more deeply to understand time as a metaphor of history.

How many days were you on the road? What was the experience like?

We were out for almost ten weeks covering a distance of 14,000 kms. The journey was fascinating for the entire team. There can be no journey more enchanting than the route we took. The collective trove of memories has made the Silk Road so memorable. We had to negotiate extreme weather conditions in Central Asia and Tibet. In a single day, we experienced two extremes. While negotiating the desert, temperatures rose to 48 degrees Celsius, and by nightfall when we pitched camp at Tianshan mountains, the temperature fell to 2 degrees. The situation is almost like the scenes of Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne — desert to snow in the blink of an eye.

Did you travel through the part of the route Marco Polo used? Did you find it much different from what you had imagined?

Well, the travels of Marco Polo described the wonders of the silk road, cities far greater than his own and a world more significant than anything imagined by the insular backward Europe of the thirteenth century. But he was a late traveller. The silk road was one of the greatest trade routes in history and men had already been travelling along for 4,000 years. Before sea routes were discovered in the fifteenth century, this trans-Asian highway was the sole link between the East and the West. It ran from Xian in China to all the way to the Mediterranean. There were many tributaries to the mighty river, not least of which were caravan routes across the Himalayan mountain range between India and Central Asia.  We could not follow the planned route through Pakistan and Afghanistan to Central Asia via Khyber Pass because of the civil war. The government of India did not want us to take such risks. All the members of the expedition, including the jeeps and equipment, were flown from Delhi to Uzbekistan on 18th May, 1994.

With the silk route being revived, do you think this film has significance?

Xuanzang took back over 600 Sanskrit text. Courtesy: Creative Commons

Yes, the film is still significant because it carries the memories of time. We were the first group of travellers after many, many years to cross three new republics after the collapse of Soviet Union and a vast territory of China. Now, the route is open to tourists, and I was told that many travel packages are available all along the mighty river and its tributaries. I would like to revisit the cauldron once again to understand how those multi-ethnic republics have survived the onslaught of modern times with its regional rivalries, new mafias, and consumerist pressures. I wish the new silk route trade brings peace and harmony in this intolerant world. Travellers today can choose from many trails as we did during our expedition. My favourite was Xuanzang’s (602-664 AD) trail. I quote from my book. “At 27, he set out his pilgrimage until he was 43. Unconvinced by the translations available in China, he sought the true teachings of Buddha in the holy lands of India. He walked alone into the great unknown, crossing the world’s greatest deserts and its highest mountain ranges. He faced death many times and his courage and equanimity impressed kings, bandits and barbarians alike. He lectured at monasteries and debated with learned monks and by the time he reached his destination, his reputation as a great sage had already preceded him. Xuan Zhang was not the only Chinese pilgrim to visit the homeland of Buddhism, but he was the most important. Like a death star that keeps releasing energy for thousands of years, he continues to be a valuable source of knowledge and inspiration.”

You are making a new film I believe rooted in the present pandemic. What is it about? Will you be making that too into a book?

My 2019 film Rahagir or Wayfarer, starring Adil Hussain, Tillotama Som, Neeraj Kabir, had travelled to many festivals and received awards and appreciations but unfortunately, we could not release it in public theatres due to the pandemic. Another multilingual film is also stuck for obvious reasons. I could finish the Italian shoot in January 2020, but the Indian shoot did not happen till date. It is so frustrating.

Meanwhile, I have finished a short film Memories of Time on pandemic days. It is about a happy, cultured couple living in the heart of Kolkata. Like everyone else, they are caught in the claustrophobia of the pandemic and the consequent lockdown. The film travels back and forth in time as they try to navigate through these hard times and search for fresh air and sanity. The film is an exploration of their fears, realisation and going back to nature. It’s from my own experience — how I have navigated 2020 and moving through the course of this pandemic. I think one can really publish a film-book because it has so many elements, the fear of people and the inhuman approach of the human race and then the migrant labours — their terrible conditions, the psychological problem of people confined inside their home and the most importantly, the problem of the children. They are confined as if in a prison. They can’t go to school. They can’t really meet their friends. I think this could be a very, very interesting material for a film-book.

Thank you for giving us your time.

Click here to read an excerpt and see photographs from his book Beyond the Himalayas.

Goutam Ghose: Courtesy: Creative Commons

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty)

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

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Interview

The Evolution of a Scribe from a Cyrano de Bergerac

In Conversation with Arindam Roy, Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Different Truths

Arindam Roy and Different Truths have become synonymous with publishing anything that does not fit into genres of various literary journals. The site carries opinions, humour, semi-news stories, academic papers, poetry, stories, and you name it. Roy, who completes forty years as a journalist this month, has wide experience in his profession, including in newspapers like the Times of India and the Hindustan Times. He has mapped the history of media and journalism in India with his candid responses to questions about his latest and much appreciated venture, Different Truths, which this year has been given a registered trademark. In this exclusive, he tells us about his life experiences, including starting as a writer of love letters for his friends who were less proficient in English, much in the tradition of the French character, Cyrano de Bergerac, and ending as the bureau chief of the Allahbad branch of the Times of India, the managing editor of the Citizen Journalist portal, and a founder of an unusual online webzine.

We all know you as the founding editor of Different Truths, a platform for social journalism. Can you tell us what you mean by social journalism?

When we conceived Different Truths, in September 2015, we created its vision too. We had defined Social Journalism in our page, ‘About Us’. I quote from there, Different Truths is a Social Journalism (a form of collaborative journalism) platform. Based on the tenets of Participatory Journalism, Social Journalism creates a synergy between Citizen Journalists (any lay person, who is not trained as a journalist to voice their opinions) and Professional Journalists. I feel Citizen Journalism/Journalist is a misnomer. Journalism is as much a profession as doctor, engineer, advocate, architect, or a CA, to name a few. If we cannot have Citizen Doctor/Engineer, et al., how can we have a Citizen Journalist?

Social Journalism is a media model consisting of a hybrid of professional journalism, contributor, and reader content. It is similar to open publishing platforms, like Twitter and WordPress.com, except that some or most content is also created and/or screened by professional journalists. Examples include Forbes.com, Medium, BuzzFeed, and Gawker. The model, which in some instances has generated monthly audiences in the tens of millions, has been discussed as one way for professional journalism to thrive despite a marked decline in the audience for traditional journalism.

“Social Journalism helps to strengthen and deepen Democratic Values. It upholds the best traditions of secular, non-violent, non-racist and casteless society. Different Truths upholds non-discriminatory traditions, where Special Needs people have equal opportunities. It aims at unifying the peoples from various parts of the globe to create the world without boundaries – a Global Village where Peace and Prosperity rules.

“The visionary John Lennon’s Imagine (UNICEF: World Version) is our Guiding Light, our shared Anthem at Different Truths” (we shared the video link too). 

We are happy to inform you that we have had a good mix of trained journalists and non-journalists (erudite scholars, poets, teachers from universities, colleges and schools, research scholars, doctors, psychiatrists, people from the bank and insurance sectors, traders, quite a few social activists, artists, musicians, students…the list is exceedingly long. Almost anyone who wishes to write).    

How old is Different Truths? What made you come up with it? 

We are still young, in our sixth year. Different Truths was conceptualised in September 2015. From December 2015-January 2016, we started picking up. Initially, there were a handful of people who shared our vision. Then there was no looking back. We always have had amazing writers and poets. This trend continues. 

Interestingly, our Social Journalists (SJs) were, and are, from various countries. Editorially, we are an Indo-US venture. My Co-Founder and Managing Editor, Anumita Chatterjee Roy, is based at Columbus, Ohio, the USA. 

There were several factors that led to the start of Different Truths. Firstly, my wife passed away in April 2014, after a prolonged illness. Her kidneys had failed. I was her caregiver. Suddenly, I had nothing to do. No one to look after. My two children had left the nest. When I lost my wife, I found one of my Facebook friends, my kin, Anumita, stepped forward and talked to me, even if it was for a few minutes, every day. I would not be able to do so with such regularity – rain or shine.

Life sent a very dependable, trustworthy friend. She would admonish and chide me too. Reason was that I had lost my sleep and remained awake all night. I needed something to keep me busy. Turn another of my failures, sleeplessness, into success. 

I knew that she and I together could launch a digital publication. Though Anumita was a little uncertain, she took a leap of faith for herself and all of us. Different Truths was born.     

Secondly, as journalists, writers, and poets, most of us dream of launching a newspaper, magazine, or a TV channel. Like actors dreaming of taking on the role of directors. Before I reveal the deep personal reasons, let me tell you that after my father’s demise, I had to relocate to Allahabad. I had just married. My little sister was still in school, and my mother was shattered. My wife and I decided to return home. It was an emotional decision – perhaps this generation would not do so – and it meant that my career, which had just about taken off, would nosedive. As I look back, I realise that I was more than compensated in a different way. The Allahabad chapter of my career saw me launch several publications and supplements in newspapers. As a launcher, I had a complete overview of the publication, much like a project head. 

I saw promising, quality publications gasp for survival and shut down, while not-so-good publications (including a salacious one) become a runaway success. It’s quite similar to a meritorious good child not succeeding in later life, while the street smart, neta-type (political leader-type) succeeds and shines. Interestingly, all newspapers, magazines, books, digital platforms, and films, have no magic formula of success. Each is born with its own fortune.

My experience and understanding as a launcher of publications were invaluable. Like my editor, Krishna Raj, in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), Mumbai, used to say, “We should know what not to select before we know what to choose.” This became a lifelong mantra for me. With limited funds, digital media was the obvious choice. 

Thus, we decided that Different Truths would be an online magazine (Webzine).  Now, we have two registered trademarks, Different Truths (DT) and Kavya Kumbh (KK). These trademark registrations were received last year, amidst the gloom and doom of the pandemic. Our extended DT family – we call them DTians – and we were thrilled.  Our brands, DT and KK, have global recognition because of these trademarks.     

What is it you look for from your contributors?

Like all editors, a clean copy. But that’s quite difficult considering the divergent backgrounds, cultural, educational, etc. Also, these writers have not been through the grind. 

I remember you and I chatting the other day, between our works, on WhatsApp. After a thorough training, we found that we as cub journalists (writers and editors, much later) were green. A true journalist is forged in fire. Newsrooms are humbling experiences. Those – we have seen a few – who are full of themselves, have had a huge fall too. In frustration, quite a few indulged in substance abuse (alcohol, drugs, etc). Many of them were very promising. We lost so many talents. It saddens me.

All contributors need to trust us. We are hard-nosed professionals. They must give up their egos – though painful, we had to do it too. All writers, me included, should not be airheaded. 

Young and not-so-young poets and writers judge themselves by Facebook likes and comments. Instant gratification is like drug abuse. It gives us an instant high. Virtual reality isn’t real. It certainly alters our perception of reality pushing us toward multiple personality disorder, if not schizophrenia. 

It’s worth remembering that writing is a vulnerable process. All writers face emotional and intellectual erosion over time.  Also, it’s not fair to say that grammar does not matter in a poem. It does. Free verse is exceedingly difficult. We need long practise to be able to perfect it. It’s not just a jumble of words, heaped on each other for then it becomes a glorious heap of garbage. Such poems (and prose) are instantly rejected. I recall what one of my schoolteachers used to say, “Good riddance to bad rubbish.”  

Humility and eagerness to learn is most important for all contributors, no matter where they are writing. 

I recall a well-known quote of APJ Abdul Kalam, “If you want to shine like a sun, first burn like a sun.” 

You have a fairly popular programme called Kavya Kumbh. When did you start and why? What have been the responses to it?

It all began last year. We had decided to organise a mega poetry meet on the World Poetry Day, March 21, 2020. We had confirmed participation of around 185 poets (some with spouses and children, 223 guests) from the length and breadth of the country, from Gujarat to Sikkim, and from Kashmir to Tamil Nadu. Other than that, we had poets from five other countries. If you recall, the nationwide lockdown had begun around that time. I thanked my stars that I postponed the dates by six months around March 15 or 16. 

The event was named Kavya Kumbh (KK). We decided to get a Trademark registration for KK. Thereafter, from September beginning to mid-December we had an online poetry meet in various languages. We also discussed cinema and art during the KK meet. This event strengthened our brand DT too. 

All our future events, online or in person, will be held under the KK brand. 

What were you doing before Different Truths

Immediately before I started DT, I had been invited by the Banerjees, who own AH Wheeler Co. that has bookstalls in nearly 250 railway stations. AHW has been into selling books from 1877. An iconic brand, this company was started by a Frenchman, Émile Moreau. There’s an interesting story. Moreau was a bibliophile. He had books all over the house. His wife warned him that either the books or she would stay at home. He took it lightly at first. Her admonitions grew. One day, he took a table, a bedsheet, and his books to the Allahabad railway station, which had been set up in 1859, two years after the Sepoy Mutiny or India’s First War of Independence. He kept the books for travellers to pick up free. They paid instead. A business model was born. The rest is history. Later, Moreau inducted Tinkouri (TK) Banerjee and made him a co-founder of the company. After independence, he handed over AHW to Tinkouri Babu. Now, his fourth generation is running the company. 

I knew all about publication launches. I had no idea about the nitty-gritties of publications’ distribution and marketing. I joined as the Head, Business Strategy and Corporate Communications of AHW, on March 1, 2014. Two years later, in 2016, I left AHW. During this time, its swanky bookshop was under my wings. I got to read all the books months before these hit the stands. It was a lovely experience. Meanwhile, DT was growing by then. It needed my attention. My stint at AHW gave me first-hand experience in distribution and marketing of publications. 

Before that I was engaged in journalism, working with various publishing houses. I was asked to lead an online magazine at Gurgaon as its Managing Editor (2007 to 2009). Under my wings, it grew phenomenally. I was heading the entire editorial functions of the fifth largest Citizen Journalist portal and was responsible for bureau operations in various cities of the country with return on investment accountability. I boosted content volume by 967%, over the previous year with significant improvement in quality of that portal. I led and inspired a team of reporters and editorial desk. Enriched, I returned home, once again, now to look after my ailing wife. 

Around this time, I took a sabbatical and co-authored a novel, Rivers Run Back, with my American co-writer, Joyce Yarrow (more of it later).  

Meanwhile, from 2001 onwards, I was involved with several Coffee Table Books (CTBs). The first was for an Italian publisher, Jaca Books, based at Milan. Other than journalism, it opened a new channel of co-authoring and planning CTBs. 

Oft and on, I was called as a guest faculty at several Mass Comm colleges, some of these were Symbiosis Institute of Mass Communications, Pune, GB Pant Institute of Social Sciences, Allahabad, Photojournalism department of Allahabad University, Jaipuria Institute of Mass Communication, Lucknow, Amity, Lucknow, Bhavan’s Journalism Department, Allahabad, etc. (though not in this order). 

I was penning poems in between too. This was more for me. I have not been careful with my poems and have lost most that were written during school days till now. I remember that after my intermediate boards, I began participating in Yuvavani, reading poems, and earning my pocket money. 

My father was against poetry writing and reading. He saw it as a waste of time. But I saw a glint of joy in his eyes and that of my Jetha (father’s elder brother), when they heard me recite on the radio. He melted when I bought fish for home with my first earning of Rs 140/- (Rs 35/- per week). I also gave my mother Rs 40/- in the year 1977. My father was happy that poetry could help me buy fish. It gained acceptance at home. He was also against my becoming a journalist. But after I joined EPW, things changed. During one of his visits to Mumbai, he hugged me and said, “Forgive me, I was wrong. Remember, it’s not just a job. It’s a mission.” I touched his feet. Our eyes had pools of tears. 

I am happy that I followed his advice, even if it meant suffering for my wife and children. Thankfully, they understood and stood with me, through thick and thin.  

You have been a journalist for a number of years. How many? Where all have you worked?

This month, on June 4, 1981, I began my career. Today, I completed 40 years as a scribe. It’s an incredibly special day for me, Mitali. It has been a long journey. Full of highs and lows. As I look back, I find that two small magazines, immensely respected, laid the foundation stone of my career. These were Himmat (Courage in English, headed by Rajmohan Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and C. Rajagopalachari) and Economic and Political Weekly or EPW (headed by the illustrious editor, Krishna Raj). At both these places, I did everything from proofreading to subediting to writing. It taught me that no work was small. I lived value journalism here. It went amiss later in life, with many other publishing houses, big and small. I also had a stint with Associated Press before I was asked to join The Times of India at Allahabad once again. I led the East UP edition, as the bureau chief. 

How is mainstream journalism different from running a webzine?

It’s as different as chalk and cheese. Mainstream journalism needs a huge setup. It’s capital intensive. Also, it depends on advertisement revenue. When the advertisers pay the salaries of all journalists, they call the shots. Before I talk about webzine, I must add that I was at the transition of journalistic values. There was a time when the owners/managers thought twice before talking to an editor. They sought appointments from his personal assistant and would ask if he/she was in a good mood to talk. The chairman of a big media house, I was told, would ask the editor of that newspaper if he could join him for a cup of coffee. And if he weren’t free, he could check later. 

In the mid-80s, four or five years after I began my career, there was a tug-o-war. The advertisement director/manager (depending on the size of the media house) was the kamau putra or the successful son, who earned the most. The circulation department made some money that perhaps paid for the newsprint and ink. He was to emerge as the mejda (the second eldest brother), but the editors and their teams were the ones that created costs by spending money. Though they might have given the house/brand a strong image, they were marginalised.  A major media house said that they were there to fill the news-holes in the dummy – the space left in the page after the advertisement department sent the page-dummy showing advertisement placements. By the 1990s, editorial departments around the country had lost much ground. It was grabbed by the two earning sons of the family. Since they earned most, they got the creamy layer of the milk. 

Sadly, most editors compromised. Those who did not toe the line had to leave, nursing their wounds. This meant that more and more editors agreed to play the second or the third fiddle. 

In editorial meetings, one could hear that we are a newspaper, not an advertisement paper. Soon, free yellow pages emerged. These had just advertisements and perhaps a couple of rehashed stories that were written by the content writers. Somewhere in the 1990s, Advertorials began appearing. If the advertiser was ready to pay, an editorial write-up with high sales pitch was allowed. This shattered the editors and the editorial department of media houses. They had to sit and lick their wounds. The advertisement department(s) grabbed the last mile – writing – from them too. 

Meanwhile, the corporate egos of media houses were to take a huge beating in the next decade, at the turn of the millennium. New media or the webzines were emerging. The advertisers were no longer sure how much of their money resulted in actual footfalls. Now, the new mantra in the various webzines were pay per click (PPC). The circulation department was soon to be replaced by the Search Engine Optimisation (SEO) teams. Now, they too had to work in tandem with the editorial department. The webzine editors soon learnt what were keywords, which news was trending. The medium and big webzines metamorphosed soon.  Meanwhile, the webzine editor had learnt a few invaluable lessons. He was more like a commando. He was emerging as the news guerrilla. He was the product manager, and once again the blue-eyed boy of the team. He was responsible for the company’s return on investment. It was more like the return of the Prodigal Son for the webzine editors.  

Several media houses were in the doldrums. Medium and small media houses who were blind to the new media or the webzines were pushed into penury or extinction. Big media houses were forced to incorporate the new media and integrate. They not only survived, but they also thrived. 

An emerging trend that needs study is what will happen after the pandemic. Ad revenues have totally dried up. There’s no business. No buying-spending. Big media houses are seeking donations or subscriptions, something that webzines like Guardians and few others were doing, earlier.

Once again, content is the king.  

Other than the TV channel, new media is the fastest, with their huge armies of citizen and social journalists. Webzines are here to stay. It’s now a 21st century reality. There is space for big, medium, and small players (like us) in the world wide web. Newer social media tools are being integrated too.  

It’s exciting and exhilarating to witness so many changes, from hot metal (lino or mono typesetting) to offset printing and then to become paperless in the new media. Our lives had epic ramifications – at least for some of us, who began our careers in the 1980s or 90s. 

Do you write? Tell us about your writing — especially the experience you had with bringing out books with the Times group. 

Writing is my oxygen. I have been writing since my college days. First, it was nesha (addiction), then it became pesha (career). It helped me earn my pocket money. My father didn’t have to provide me with a monthly dole. 

There were weird demands. Two of my friends, in the railway colony, where I spent my formative years, decided to woo two girls. Now, they were Hindi medium students, while these two girls were ‘convent educated’. Love letters had to be written in English. I became their letter writer. When these girls agreed to date these guys, they found to their dismay they couldn’t even speak proper English. One of them had seen me with her friend. She made him confess the truth. Later, all of us had a huge laugh. 

There were others who wanted me to word the invitation cards for their sister, bhabi’s (sister-in-law’s) sister and so forth. There were demands for shraddha (funeral peace prayers) and sacred thread ceremony functions too. These grew. Then I decided to stop writing invitation card content. Kins and friends in business wanted me to word letters for them too. The list is endless.

I helped launch several small publishing houses. I became their free ghost writers too. This too had to stop. 

Meanwhile, in 1987, I decided to do copywriting for an upcoming advertisement agency. They paid well. I attended client meetings and led sales pitches too. I still do it. But I ensure that I am paid in advance.  

As I said earlier, I was contacted by an Italian publishing house in 2001. The Internet was new then. I was an early bird. I got a good deal. This book was read by my bosses and friends. When TOI was doing a Coffee Table Book (CTB project for the Information Directorate, on Kumbh) my bosses and friends remembered my Italian book and felt that I could do it. That’s how I got involved in the projects. My stories were interview-based, involved legwork, and contacting people. My friends in the Information Directorate insisted that I write the sarkari (government) version too.  Of the 10 articles in the CTB for Kumbh, I wrote five stories (later two were merged into one) and I had four stories in it. Again, when the TOI was bringing out a CTB on Uttar Pradesh, I was given the lion’s share. Out of the nine chapters, I wrote three (one-third of the book). These were: Art & Craft: Art makes us human; Folk Traditions and Festivals: Songs and dances as life discourse, and Classical Music and Gharanas: Melodious tunes from the land of harmony. 

There were many other projects, where CTBs and other books needed my inputs. I wrote and wrote. 

You co- authored a novel. Tell us about that. What was your experience in co- authoring because writing is an individual experience? How do you coordinate? 

I became a novelist rather accidentally. I have many writers and poets on my Facebook. Often, we writers talk and share what’s the work in progress. Joyce Yarrow, an American mystery writer, is a good friend. She was telling me on Skype chat (WhatsApp, Telegram, etc were not there then) that she had planned her next book’s location in Cuba. I mildly suggested that after this book, why don’t you come to India. She could weave rich materials and history into her book. Suddenly, she was all ears. Over the next month, I kept on telling her about India. I spoke of Tagore, Nazrul, Vivekananda, Premchand and many others. 

One evening, Joyce suggested that I co-author a novel with her. I developed cold feet. I had written on facts mostly, except for a few short stories. But a novel, no way!  Somewhere along the line, I agreed, though unsure. Over the next three years, we talked on Skype, phone, video chats on weekends, from about 8pm to 10pm, my time. Both of us were amazed that the entire story plot was bottled in me. I did the scaffolding of the novel, while she created its brick-and-mortar structure. We shared notes. Since there was a huge gap in our writing styles, she wrote the texts mostly, with agreements, disagreements, fights, and laughter. 

It was a great learning experience. Our novel was launched at the American Centre, New Delhi, in January 2015. My Delhi-based school buddies had come to cheer me, other than my classmate Dr Sunjoy Joshi, who is heading the Observer Research Foundation. My son and nephew had attended the launch programme, other than my cousin and his wife. One person who would have been incredibly happy was my wife, Ruma. She left us nine months before the event. 

Between editing and writing, which is a more preferred task? 

Writing is far more fulfilling than editing. I often laugh and say that editors are like safai karmacharis (cleaning crews). We are here to dust, mop and shine works that are not upto the mark. It’s a thankless job. However, on a more serious note, editors create writers – like directors create actors – and that is a huge joy. My editors made me. It’s payback time for me, I think. 

What is the future of Different Truths? What do you see as your own future? 

As a Founder, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief of Different Truths, with my Co-Founder and Managing Editor, Anumita Chatterjee Roy, we can shape the present of the webzine. We can look back in glee at the past too. But it’s impossible to say what the future holds. This uncertainty helps us put in our best. It makes us challenge ourselves too.

As I am writing today (June 4), we have 5,418 posts in Different Truths. It has taken us almost six years to achieve this. We published 17 online anthologies so far. We have published several thematic issues and are still counting. 

We are the only webzine that creates its own visuals. Anumita does a wonderful job. I remember you and most writers, columnists and poets appreciate her creative work. 

We two at the core form the nucleus, while the rest of the Editorial Team may be likened to the electrons of the smallest unit, the atom of the webzine. 

In March 2019, we were awarded the prestigious Double Cross Gold Medal. In fact, Different Truths was chosen by an illustrious person, Knt. Sir Silvano Bortolazzi, whose name was proposed eight times for the Nobel Prize, “proposed in six occasions as candidate to the Nobel Prize in Literature and proposed in two occasions as candidate to the Nobel Peace Prize.” 

Prominent writers wish to publish with us. This is a good sign for the future. As long we are honest and committed and we continue to allow all kinds of political opinions, leftist, rightist, or centrist to find space in our webzine, we shall continue to be non-partisan and democratic. We do not allow bigotry and jingoism.

No subject is taboo in Different Truths. To quote from ‘About Us’ again, we had stated, “At Different Truths (differenttruths.com), we intend to speak about issues that are kept in wraps. We wish to unravel the truth, no matter how unsavoury or bitter. We wish to challenge the taboos. We wish to be heard over the din and noise of the traditional media, most of which, we all know, has collapsed under ugly money-power. When journalists are fair, the houses are not. All media houses have their ‘Holy Cows’, areas that cannot be ever touched.”

As I look back on my 40th work anniversary today (I walked into Himmat’s office at Arun Chambers, Tardeo, Mumbai, on June 4, 1981), I am happy that we have been able to keep the promise we made to ourselves and the world, in September 2015.

Last but not the least, we two as captains are as good as our team (writers and poets). At the end of the day, they make or mar us. If we learn from our past and focus on our present, the future shall take care of itself.

I enjoyed responding to your perceptive questions. Thanks a lot.

Thanks Arindam.

The Core team of Different Truths: Arindam Roy & Anumita Chatterjee Roy

(This is an online interview conducted by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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