The News Detox

I have never been a dispassionate reader. Whether it is fiction, news, biographies, even fan-fiction. Initially, reading for me was all about the characters and the people involved. Over time I learned to appreciate writing and fiction in several layers and levels, but that first instinct to live vicariously through the characters is uncontrollable.

I remember reading The Clockwork Orange during my final year in college. I consider that one of the worst decisions of my life. Sure, the writing was great and the story dealt with some really interesting concepts. My first venture into dystopian fiction.

But it robbed me of sleep and peace for several weeks following the read. I was upset, scared, terrified of human nature. Worst of all – it ruined Beethoven for me. It’s like Stephen King’s It. Who said clowns were funny? They are monsters after my life.

With fiction, I can exercise choice. There is always the blurb which will tell me whether or not I am in a state of mind to read it. Once I read Revolutionary Road, I put off reading Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye for a whole year. It was good decision.

I don’t have the luxury of choice when it comes to news. Most of the news I read is through social media feeds – Twitter, Facebook etc. I also have apps downloaded on my phone that send regular notifications. For months (maybe even years) now, my days begin and end with news about rape, terrorism, cruelty, corruption, misogyny and the sheer apathy of mankind. And if on a rare occasion there is none of that, I am forced to read about a pointless, mind-numbing account of some random TV star’s wedding or a ridiculous catfight between celebrities who can’t act their age.

The mother has been reproaching me over my perennially vexed disposition. My temper is far more volatile than it used to be. In fact, I was rather proud of my generally calm temperament. No idea how I lost that.

I realised it has a lot with what I allow my brain to ingest. How am I to have a good day when the first thing I read in the morning is about farmers dropping dead like flies under the weight of endless debts? Or a woman in my own neighbourhood being raped mercilessly?

I am unable to congratulate friends on their pregnancy because I worry that if they have a girl, the child might get raped at some point in her life. My mother sends a prayer every day for girls forced into sexual slavery in Syria. When a politician does something worth appreciation, I cannot help but wonder if he did so only for publicity or to serve an ulterior motive. I am always either cynical or pessimistic. It’s not a good feeling to live with.

Since the past week I’ve been on what I call the news-detox-regime. I’ve unfollowed all news media on Facebook and Twitter. I don’t read the newspaper. I never watch the news on TV anyway. Complete mind-fuckery. I hoped it would help me cleanse my mind and body of the heaps of negativity.

Easier said than done. If I don’t read news, a friend will send me a Whataspp message about the shooting in Texas. Someone on the elevator will discuss the rape of two women in Uttar Pradesh. Some friend on Facebook will share a Dodo post about someone who tortured a puppy. I cannot help but feel for those people, seethe and become convinced that mine is not a country for women. Or animals. Or the poor.

I know I will get there. Cleanse was never easy. Cannot cut sugar and trans fat and dairy from one’s life in a single stroke. Takes time. Maybe start with portion control

I will get back to reading news at some point but I will have to manage my habits to ensure that what I read is simply to keep abreast of important events, and read material that is truly insightful. I want knowledge, and not just information in form of flashy headlines with twisted accounts of events, sprinkled generously with thoughtless opinions in poor language.

Meanwhile, I also need to change the way I read. I will not be left with any peace if I read everything I come across with such involvement. It makes one miserable.

A dear friend of mine writes a story on her blog. The protagonist in that story recently ended up breaking her best friend’s heart – despite her best intentions. I cried myself to sleep that night. It didn’t help that my friend writes spectacularly well.

This cannot continue. Cannot afford that. I don’t want to have to restrict my reading of fiction – which I truly believe is the best and easiest way to expand one’s experiences and understanding. Reading makes you a better person. I just don’t want it to also make me an unhappy person.

Any suggestions on where to start? Has anyone else tried this news-detox? Has it worked for you?

Let me know? 🙂

 

On the Farcical Notion of “Health”

Last few weeks have been eventful for anyone (in India) who has ever been concerned about rampant fat-shaming and body image issues. Let me enumerate the highlights:

 

  1. A “fat” customer who visited a designer store in Mumbai received unwarranted advice from the salesman to hit the gym instead of asking for plus size ghaghras. She didn’t let that bring her down, and refused to accept such treatment. Her friend took this up on Facebook, she received a whole lot of support from the online community, and eventually the store manager apologised for the disaster.

  2. Parineeti Chopra, a fine actor and one of the few celebrities I have seen speak openly about periods, launched a weight loss campaign on Twitter. Titled “Built That Way”, it features her in athletic wear, doing squats in stilettoes with quotes about her “journey” to this new avatar. It doesn’t really talk about any fitness tips or a workout regime. It does, however, emphasise on this – “Four years ago, a chubby, childish girl was introduced to the world. Four years later, I am closer to where I want to be.

There is little I can say about this drama that hasn’t been articulated here.

I came across that article when a friend shared it on Facebook. And because I was so glad I wasn’t the only one who thought this “Built This Way” business would do more harm than good, I shared it along with my two pennies worth on the matter.

This is what I posted along with the link: “Thank you, Parineeti, for reinforcing the most harmful stereotype for women already struggling with body image issues. As if there wasn’t enough of this shit in the market already, you are here to jump the bandwagon. Thin = Pretty = Confident = Worthy. Brilliant.”

I didn’t quite expect a lot of thoughts on it because I have noticed not many on my FB circle are interested in this issue. I did get a few nods but then, unsurprisingly, there was that one crusader of good health who had to make an appearance to talk about how there is nothing wrong with being “fit” and “healthy”.

Let me not get into why that argument makes no sense here. It’s faulty on so many levels that I just… never mind. I’ll just mention that Parineeti says nearly nothing about fitness. She feels accomplished about not being “chubby” anymore, and describes herself as a “work-in-progress” on her way to “look better”.

That aside, such conversations always set in motion a never-ending chain of thoughts in my head. I’m going to try and enumerate some of them, just so I can get it out of my system.

  1. Since when did we start equating size with health? I don’t deny that it can (sometimes) be an indicator, but it’s silly to generalize that. Firstly, can one really say that every “thin” or “skinny” person is healthy or has “good” eating habits or leads an active lifestyle? Or that someone overweight is always on his/her couch with a bag of fries? You cannot look at someone and draw inferences about their life – their habits, their lifestyles, their “laziness”, their “unwillingness” to control their diet, their “irresponsible” attitude towards their bodies. We are made to believe that “fatness” is a problem, that one is to be blamed for his/her “problem” and that this problem needs to be fixed.

    Is it not possible that someone is happy about how they look regardless of what you think is “pretty”? Or that someone has made a choice to enjoy culinary delights rather than fret over calories? Don’t we all have that one friend who can eat and eat and yet never put on any weight? Wide hips could be genetic. A bulging belly could be a battle scar for someone who has been fighting with PCOS for years.  No one has a right to judge another, let alone just looking at their body type. You can’t read character into a person’s weighing scale.  

    If someone is big, they must be lazy. If someone is thin, they are sickly. One can never really get it right, isn’t it? “Normal” is that imaginary utopia we are all told to strive for, and we allow ourselves to be driven by that illusion.

    I know I have felt uncomfortable telling the saleswoman that I’ll need an XL size. I know my “thin” friend has been asked to buy push-up bras by just about everyone she knows. My other “lanky” friend has been advised to take protein supplements and hit the gym so he can look “masculine”.

    A person suffering from anorexia is reprimanded for eating very little. But an overweight person is encouraged to follow such extreme diets. At the end of the day, starving oneself is unhealthy. But who cares about that, right?

    It is so easy to lose sight of the fact that weight is simply a number.  And that life is beyond that number. We are beyond a number. It says nothing about us, our choices, or our stories.

  2. Let’s talk about “health”. What is health? What does it look like? What do we know about it?

    When I really think about it, it seems to me that “health” has come to be a societal construct as a result of production, media and marketing. In short, a product of Capitalism.

    A standardized body size is conducive to mass production. It has come to a point where we no longer want clothes to fit us. Instead, we want us to fit into clothes. So you have an expected chest-waist-hip-thigh size with respect to your height. The only time I’ve managed to buy a pair of jeans without having to get the length altered is when I shop in the “Petite” section in some of the stores in the US.  The point is, anything outside of this prescribed body size is considered abnormal – something wrong that has to be changed.

    What does size really have to do with health anyway? What does anyone mean when they say “healthy”? To me it encompasses a lot of things – but the starting point and the end result has to be one – happiness.

    Instead, what I am sold is a tangible, physical ideal of health. To look a certain way rather than feel it.  To be honest, I feel that the general discourse on health is deeply flawed.

    The media is asking me to aspire to be a certain way they call “healthy” so that I am what can be called “attractive” or “desirable”. Men are expected to be “masculine”, dominating, “macho”. I am reduced to an object that pleases the eye alone; something that’s palatable. I am expected to have priorities as prescribed by the media – which probably starts with the color of my face and ends with how far my legs can resemble Beyoncé’s.

    I remember reading about Aishwarya Rai’s weight gain right after her delivery. These were stories that mocked her chubby arms and her plump cheeks, not one of them sparing a thought to the fact she was probably breastfeeding at the time. And what her body said about her was not that she was fat, but that she was healthy, and that she was a mother.

    If the health industry (including everything right from gyms to supplements to “health” magazines) gave a damn about my health, my mental health would not be so categorically neglected. Health is now a commodity sold to me that’s supposed to transform me. Right all that is wrong with me.

    I am told that if I somehow manage to achieve that idealistic body, I will be rewarded with happiness and love and confidence. This is pretty much the crux Parineeti’s “Built That Way”. Unfortunately, I believed that for the longest time and treated myself cruelly. Not any more.

    I know now that what the media tells me is bullshit. What they are trying to sell me an illusion. But I worry about those who can’t make that differentiation – children, teenagers. I see my young cousin cursing her genes for her wide hips. My friend’s sister worry about her breast size at 13. And it scares me. I can tell them what I know, but I wonder if the media will let me succeed at drilling that point into their heads? Because they are constantly bombarded with images and objects and temptations that will make them believe that they are imperfect and need fixing. In the summer holidays, they will have relatives comment on their weight gain or the unwanted tan or the zits.

    I try and tell my cousins to come to me or call me every time they are unhappy with what they see in the mirror. I hope they will not put themselves through what I did when I was their age.

  3. How does one define “fatness”? And why has that come to mean a bad thing? At what point do you draw a line between “curvy” and “fat” – and tell people which one is desirable and which isn’t?

    We demean the diversity of body types by slotting them into categories with names like apple and pear. Every body is different, and each one of them is to be celebrated. Not desecrated. And body type or shape is not a one-stop indication of one’s health. There is health in every size – both physical and mental.

    That aside, is “fatness” or “thinness” the only thing that defines a person? Let me for a second think of someone who is morbidly obese. Let me also presume that this obesity is a result of his/her lifestyle choices, and that this person has treated food as entertainment and indulged too much with little to no exercise.

    What then? Does this give me a right to be mean to them? Does it say that that person is a bad human being? Does that make it okay to say hurtful things to this person? Absolutely not. Kindness to others cannot come with terms and conditions. You just be kind – to everyone. Is that so difficult to understand?

    There are always those who try and explain their comments on fatness by saying that their words reflect their “concern” for such a person’s health. That there is nothing wrong with asking someone to get fit.

    Firstly, no body owes it to anyone to look pretty or be fit. Secondly, the media, and in turn the society, is already telling this person to “get fit” (read get thin), so your advice is really unnecessary. And lastly, my “fatness” does not reflect my attitude to life or my health.

  4. The media tells us that our worthiness as a person is linked directly to how we look. That prettiness is synonymous with worth, love, confidence and happiness. And we are told this so often that we have nearly no option but to believe this to be the reality.

    There are several industries that feed on us hating ourselves. Because, if, god forbid, we actually begin to love ourselves, they won’t be able to sell us a thing. No lightening creams, no plastic surgeries, no health supplements, no magic pills, no super-expensive gym memberships, no breast enhancements. Even glamour magazines would lose their appeal.

    They earn their bread when we are convinced about having to starve ourselves. So a person is objectified, commodified and sexualized till that is how we also begin to see ourselves. As objects that need to be perfected in order to be accepted.

    Here’s the thing. The media is lying to us. It’s a tool for marketing and it’s doing someone else’s bidding. And as difficult as it is, we need to remember this. We need to be kind to ourselves and to others.

  5. Fitness. Stamina. Energy. These are wonderful things. Why taint them with this negative, insensitive discourse about it?  Why not encourage positive thoughts about fitness – one that makes one feel happy and love themselves, rather than get sucked into an endless vortex of self-loathing and diffidence? To encourage people to embrace a lifestyle that brings peace and harmony to the body and the mind.

    Fuck the media. Fuck size zero. Fuck apples and pears and guavas. It took me a long time, but I have gradually conditioned myself to not let these things affect me. There are bad days, of course. I don’t like to dance because I once saw a picture of myself dancing and thought it was ugly. There are days when I lie to the saleswoman about my waist size, because I am too embarrassed about it. But these have now become exceptions, and not how I feel about myself all the time. Parineeti might disagree, but I don’t care. Chubby is not something that needs correcting. Chubby and pretty are not mutually exclusive. I am chubby and proud.

 

Some introspection as a consumer of news media

We all know what happened in Paris last week. It was all over the news, and there is not a detail that the media hasn’t told us about. My Twitter feed is constantly telling me about the progress on that matter. Each of us felt for and prayed for Paris and its people. My country, unique as always, decided to show solidary by lighting up its jewel with the Dutch flag instead of the French.

 

Where and how did I learn about what happened in Paris? To be honest, my twitter feed. That’s where I read most news because –

 

  1. It’s convenient to follow
  2. I get everything right from New York Times to Bombay Times on a single screen
  3. It’s on my cellphone, and
  4. I cannot stand most Indian news channels. I learn little and end up with a migraine.

 

Something else happened last week, something just as terrible and just as huge in magnitude. Double suicide bombings in Beirut claimed dozens of lives. This too, was perpetrated by the ISIS.

 

Where did I learn about this one? Again, from my Twitter feed. But, this time is was different. Unlike the news from Paris, I learnt about Beirut not from news media feeds, but from multiple retweets from several random handles that alleged that while the world wept for Paris, Beirut bled forgotten and ignored.

 

Facebook too, was full of such enraged posts. We all hate the media for its insensitivity and bias. And this was yet another incident where it failed. I found myself bobbing my head in agreement with many of these posts.

 

But then journalists began to pick up their pens (laptops?) to show us the mirror. Soon, these posts were all over my Twitter and Facebook feed. They make you take a step back, stop pointing fingers, and introspect for a minute.

 

Let me talk about myself here. As I said before, most of the news I read is through Twitter. Lets just say social media. What is social media? Who creates content in social media? In the first instance, it may come from figures of authority or importance, regardless of the genre. But its readership is often determined by the readers – through shares, retweets, replies, etc. Readers get to decide what gets read and how much.

 

As it turns out, the media did cover Beirut extensively. It also covered Baghdad and Abuja. We, as readers, somehow managed to ensure that everyone knew about Paris and few about the others.

 

This article from The Guardian explains it succinctly – “Social media and, more crucially, the ability of new organisations to gauge which stories get the most hits, attention and circulation, mean that we are now as guilty of determining the agenda as editors are, if not more. There is something sanctimonious, maybe even hypocritical, about placing the onus purely on the media – they are often only reflecting back our chatter and activity back at us.”

 

However, because the media has left me rather cynical – I ask myself – while all this is true, and while I share the responsibility here, should I believe all that is said in these articles? Or is this yet another skillful move by the media to manipulate us?

 

Let us assume, in this case, that we as consumers of news are almost entirely responsible for ignoring Beirut and the Middle East in general. Why did this happen? That article from The Guardian attempts to explain this by acknowledging the “simple limitations of what we can care about, its proximity to home…”

 

There is also the element of attention. We are all so accustomed to hearing about violence in the Middle East that it has almost become “normal”. But in Paris, on the other hand – the land of art and culture and fine wine – violence is an aberration. It catches the eye and we give it some time.

 

But this is not an isolated incidence. I remember there were many who complained about the lack of coverage of the suicide bombing in Nigeria because everybody was solely focused on the shootings at the office of Charlie Hebdo. That attack in Nigeria involved a 10 year old child used as a suicide bomber. Boko Haram had also killed over 2000 civilians in Baga just a few days before that.

 

Perhaps even this can be attributed to the apathetic attitude of readers towards Africa and our interest in France. The West because they can relate to it, the East because we are enchanted by all things white and beautiful.

 

But this whole phenomenon isn’t just related to who we care about and who we don’t. This also has to do with what we care about. And what the world cares about.

 

For instance, the greatest environmental disaster of this century has happened. The scale is massive, it is terrifying, and as one journalist describes, it is an eco-apocalypse. Entire cities are in flames, natural resources are depleting and species are vanishing at an unthinkable rate. And this is no tiny island no one has heard of. It’s Indonesia.

 

I did some checking. Turns out, except some reports from New York Times, The Guardian (the most extensive), CNBC, Bloomberg, BBC and few others, this event has received little to no media coverage. Indian media has absolutely nothing to say about it, and we are in the same continent. So the whole theory about the limitation of proximity doesn’t apply here.

 

Tsunami, earthquakes, volcanoes – things that one can blame the almighty for – we are ready to take notice. Whatever we are responsible for, we’d rather turn a blind eye. The forest fire in Indonesia is almost entirely because of uncontrolled and injudicious deforestation. Our own handiwork.

 

And lets face it – who has time to care about a forest fire in some Asian country when you have things like the capital markets and terrorism for worry about? Even the media decided that this event didn’t feature in the list of anybody’s priorities.

 

Clearly, the blame game isn’t going to help anyone. I wonder if this is inevitable, or if there is a way we can consciously inquire and read about all the things that matter and that should matter, and not just the ones that we just “happen” to come across. And this is while I turn a blind eye to the existence of paid news.

 

But, I will also acknowledge that the temporary guilt tripping of both sides has pushed me to check my own actions – look around, reflect on my own reading habits and decide to make some changes. Media has its issues, there is no denying that. But I am first going to make the most responsible use of what it has to offer that is of significance before I complain about its inadequacies.

 

PS – I know I was supposed to put up posts from 2nd Nov, but I went on a holiday and came back this Monday. More on that in the next post 😉

On Maggi: (Once) The Love of my Life

The Indian Media got really lucky in the past few months. There was real news to report and they didn’t have to create headlines out of new film releases.

  1. Salman Khan almost went to jail.
  2. A woman – rich and drunk and on the wheel – rammed her Audi into a cab, killing two people. Now there is a whole article about her crying in the lockup all night. Also, moral lessons about how women drinking is most immoral.
  3. The cherished love of most stomachs and tongues of India – Maggi Noodles – was found to be unfit for consumption (not unlike most of the other food we Indians enjoy – including but not limited to water) and consequently banned in several states.

The hysteria around the whole Maggi incident was slightly unreal. We rarely see authorities acting this strongly against anything that is bad for the public. In fact, we rarely see authorities acting in the first place. [But maybe I shouldn’t be surprised. We have lately been setting records for the number of things a country can ban.] And to be honest, it makes me guffaw when Indian authorities talk about quality standards.

Normally, when regulatory watchdogs find potentially dangerous elements in food items, you would expect them to order the defective items off the shelves, charge penalty and ensure corrective action. Total ban on Maggi across states and the strong action against Nestle (and the celebrities who endorsed Maggi, including those who did that more than 10 years back) just seems weird coming from a country whose ministers recently claimed that tobacco has absolutely nothing to do with cancer.

I am not saying there should be no action. I am aware that MNCs are known to compromise on quality and standards in their operations in developing countries and that Maggi would score worse on nutritional value than I did in high school Physics – but I cannot help but notice that this is yet another incident which throws light on the double standards of Indian regulatory authorities.

Firstly, here is a list of things that are probably as dangerous, if not more, than Maggi –

  1. Cigarettes. It is one thing to be enticed by the money dangled as bait by tobacco companies. But to go on record claiming that tobacco has nothing to do with cancer is ridiculous. We are prompt in banning Maggi, but continue to delay mandating larger pictorial warnings on cigarette packs.
  2. Contaminated water. A huge section of our population has little or no access to potable water. And we have all fallen sick more often after eating the roadside paani puri than we did on gobbling a double pack of Maggi all by ourselves. And there are barely any regulations for hygiene standards and quality of water that is used in hotels and restaurants across the country, let alone street vendors.
  3. Last year our Health Minister thought loyalty would stop the spread of AIDS and syphilis and prevent unwanted pregnancies. Condoms are pointless, it seems.
  4. Dirty toilets. And the lack of sanitation facilities. Open defecation is cause of millions of infections and diseases. I have myself suffered a severe case of UTI after using a public urinal.
  5. A government sponsored mid day meal, so contaminated with pesticides that it managed to kill over 20 children.
  6. A superman-cum-doctor who managed over 70 tubectomy surgeries in just 4-6 hours and ended up killing over 10 women.
  7. The air in our national capital. Enough said.

I understand these are all separate cases that come under different jurisdictions and regulatory authorities. But the point remains that I don’t remember any of these incidences being followed up by action as strict and prompt as in the case of Maggi noodles.

That aside, this FDA that has suddenly reared its head sprouting rules and regulations – where the hell has it been all these years? Never before has there been such strict scrutiny of food items in our markets. Not the fruits and vegetables laced with pesticides, not when Diwali sweets and milk are found to be adulterated, not when a whole range of other processed foods contained every harmful product one can think of, including preservatives, sub-standard artificial colours and growth hormones fed to cattle and other livestock. Moreover, large food companies and FMCGs wield a huge amount of influence on the BIS. As a result, they are able to somehow do everything they want and still conform to the vaguely defined norms.

And I am not against strict orders – but thoughtless reactions to these incidences by our authorities will probably do us more harm than good. Nestle is too big a company to suffer anything that would affect it in the long run as a result of this fiasco. India, on the other hand, has a lot to lose.

  1. The ban affects several workers and farmers who make up the supply chain for Maggi. This spice company had to sack 300 employees – because half of its revenue came from supplying spices to Nestle and now that is done with. There were farmers contracted by this company to grow spices. There have been talks to cancel these contracts in case Nestle’s units there are shut down. Several flourmills may also have to shut down. Nestle was sourcing most of its ingredients locally. Did the authorities take a minute to think about that before they decided to impose a countrywide ban? And what about the many workers employed at Nestle units across India?
  1. There are probably thousands of Maggi stalls across the country. Where does this ban leave their owners? Most stories will probably go unreported. But a permanent ban on Maggi noodles is sure to land a lot of people in a financial crunch. They can switch to other brands of instant noodles but if there are others like me, then Maggi will effectively remain irreplaceable.

I wonder how Indian companies would fair had authorities in other countries reacted the way we did now, every time their authorities found our food products to be substandard. Products manufactured by Haldiram’s and even Britannia have often been blocked by the US FDA because of quality issues. They rejected consignments but there was no ban or orders to get these products off the shelves.

What are our regulators trying to prove? Is there some ulterior motive in all this that we are unable to see? Why push the whole matter so far that it starts to look orchestrated?

Action is warranted, not some thoughtless reaction. As the writer in this article aptly describes, “Nothing shows up India as a semi-literate banana republic than this manufactured mischief…Whipping up a nationwide hysteria smacks of regulatory terrorism rather than serious action. “