I was with her when she died…

I kissed her cold, clammy cheek as tears rolled down mine. The room was filled with deathly silence interspersed with bursts of noisy tears from some. As the calming music played on softly, my grandmother lay cold and lifeless on the floor. And I was with her when she died.

Going without sleep for almost 44 hours was not how I envisaged the start to my holiday after a gruelling dissertation. I had booked my tickets to return home to Dubai 5 months in advance. An eerie coincidence, that my Dadi (father’s mother) had been put on life support just a day or two before and my presence was required immediately.

After over 24 hours of flights, food and packing, I landed in Bombay. Whisked off straight to the hospital, the guards wouldn’t let me inside the visiting area.
“It’s full,” they said.
“But I’ve come from Dubai!” I wailed, before my Fui’s (father’s sister) friend saved me from their clutches and pulled me inside without so much as backward glance at the protesting guards.

I saw the guards’ point when I arrived in the waiting area. It wasn’t very big and apart from 3-4 people I did not recognize, the entire place was crammed with my relatives. It was as if we’d taken over the place.

They took me to see her. She was hooked up to machines, her body unmoving, eyes closed…it was painful to see her the way she was. I could not stop crying.

Hours passed. It seems like days in retrospect.

When I arrived at the hospital at 9am, her heartbeat was – although helped along by the machine – around 60. By 3pm, it had gone down to perhaps 20. It was a matter of time.

I went to see her around 3.45pm. Holding her hand, I kept talking…telling her about anything I thought she might like to know. Her heart rate was steadily dropping. I called my Fui urgently. I held her left hand, my Fui her right. We kept talking to her and holding her…and at 4pm, she slipped away.

She was…my Sunday morning phone call, my only reason to revert to Gujarati (one of my mother tongues) and the maker of the best puranpolis in the world. She was my grandmother.I don’t get my Sunday calls anymore. Neither do I speak in Gujarati anymore. And I certainly won’t get puranpolis anymore.

She was my Dadi. And I was with her when she died.

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Shutdown or speak out? What November 1 means to me.

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Twitter – that wonderful giver of delightful and disastrous news – was where I first read about Communication Shutdown. The web site said:

“It’s a global initiative to raise much-needed funds for autism groups in over 40 countries. By shutting down social networks for one day on November 1, we hope to encourage a greater understanding of people with autism who find social communication a challenge.”

On the face of it, I thought: “Well that’s great…they’re raising money for a good cause!”

But somewhere in the back of my mind, a tiny itch was forming.

It eventually hit me that it was the second sentence I had a problem with. How on earth is avoiding Facebook or Twitter supposed to help understand how people with autism feel when it comes to communication?

I fully understand that currently, social networking is a major factor in communication between people. However, it’s not the end of it. Let’s say I log out of Twitter or Facebook for the entire day. I can text, call or knock on my flatmate’s door and strike up a conversation with her. My not logging on to various social networks has nothing to do with social communication. If anything, it might help wean me off my Twitter addiction (which is an entirely different story!). Say I even manage to stay offline for the day. I’ll be back to tweeting and Facebooking the next day, won’t I? I’ll be smug and self-righteous about how I played a role in Communication Shutdown and now I TRULY understand autism. Not.

My brother has autism and I still don’t understand it fully. Until I moved to UK last year, I dealt with autism on daily basis and I still don’t understand it fully.

How dare anyone think that by giving up Facebook and Twitter for 24 hours, they will understand what it is like to be autistic?

I’ve seen various reactions on the internet that don’t agree with Communication Shutdown. I know where they’re coming from, but I don’t see the point of those either. April is Autism Awareness Month and innumerable events take place then in many countries to raise awareness about autism, much like October is breast cancer awareness month, November (or Movember as it’s called!) is prostate cancer awareness month. Surely these are there to facilitate awareness of the causes. Did we really need another day – that too, a contested day – to show awareness of autism?

You want to raise money for autism, go for it. But don’t tell people they will have a better understanding of social communication problems that autistic people face. For one, not all autistic people communicate the same way: my brother can’t talk. Another child with autism can. If you’ve seen one person with autism, you’ve seen ONE person with autism. This is NOT a one-size-fits-all scenario. And second, many people with autism use the internet to communicate, or use technology to do so (my brother can’t…see why one size doesn’t fit all?) … telling “normal” people to get offline is quite possibly going against how many autistic people communicate.

If you want to understand the problems my brother faces however, get offline, chuck your phone, stop talking to everyone and don’t communicate even by signs. And shut your eyes for good measure.

Then come and tell me you understand a bit more about autism.

For the record, I’m not shutting down. It won’t give me any understanding of what my brother goes through; I’d rather continue with how I always do. Autism is a part of my life. I’d rather stay connected, engage with others and spread whatever awareness I can on a regular basis.

Shoot and Stay – an interview with Catalin Marin

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For the Travel section of In Transit, we decided to have a section dedicated to photographs, an interview with a photographer, an out-and-out travel piece and a piece on wacky vacations.

I remembered Catalin from Twitter (that bountiful source of information), and contacted him immediately. He was extremely helpful and agreed to talk to me. A quick interview later, I walked off with nuggets about how he got into photography, mad monkeys, Russian cowboys and so much more. The first piece I wrote for the magazine… it was fun to write it, simply because the interview went off so well and there was so much information to pick from.

My shorthand came in handy here; even though I conducted the interview on Skype, I hadn’t found a tool yet to record the call (I have one now, just in case!), so I took the entire conversation down in shorthand. Special shout-out to Kaye Carl, my shorthand teacher, who never let me give up on it.

Enjoy reading!

Going back to the Taj

I giggled and ran across the soft, plush carpet covering what I could only imagine was rich, old oak flooring and sat at the window booth. I looked out to the blue water and the teeming pavement below. The salty smell of the ocean was separated from me by the glass windows in ornate frames.

And then, a luxury item was placed in front of me.

I was 6 and staring at the best chocolate truffle cake I had ever had.

When I was younger, my Fui (father’s sister) used to take me to the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel , Bombay, to a place called The Sea Lounge to have their sinful chocolate truffle. I’m 23 and every time I go back to Bombay, she still takes me there. A tradition now.

The Taj was a part of my growing up years, so on November 26 2008, I sat, along with millions others, staring at my television, shocked, horrified and broken. At the end of the painful carnage across the Taj, the Oberoi and more locations, a city was wounded. A nation attacked.

Is it selfish that I’m thankful that no family or close friends were hurt? Perhaps. My cousin’s classmate’s parents (acquaintances of ours) perished. The same cousin lost a classmate to the senseless killings as well. Pain all around.

The last time I was in the Taj before 26/11 (dubbed “India’s 9/11”) was the same year in August. I sat in the Sea Lounge then, not knowing people would die there a mere 3 months later.

I returned to the Taj two months back. The changes were glaring with a hint of the lurking menace. A staggering number of police cars all around, with high security reminiscent of airports before we could enter the hotel. Inside, the refurbishments ensured the hotel retained its earlier grandeur. But subtle differences were notable to people who had been there many a time.

Alas, the Sea Lounge was closed by the time we got there so we settled for Shamiana, the 24-hour open café in the hotel.

My return to the Taj was nostalgic, with only a hint of what had happened there almost 2 years ago.

Why would you hurt my brother?

Abuse. It comes in many forms: physical, emotional and mental.

When a person cannot communicate well, when a person is unable to defend himself/herself, it’s sad that that person gets picked on in some way or the other.

I read this open letter to DQ from Alterna-Mom’s blog and was aghast. A child with infantile autism and speech delays was mocked. Simply because of the way she speaks? Do you know how much time it can take for people with autistic disorders to communicate and be comfortable with themselves in unknown situations? How is it possible that compassion, understanding and tolerance disappears when it comes to something different?

In the comments of that blogpost, a reference was made to a UK court case. I immediately Googled it and found this: an Aspergers teen was reportedly tortured for days but the people who did it were let off with a community service rap (I do object to the use of the word ‘evil’ in the first sentence; not because I don’t agree, but because that doesn’t sound like balanced reporting, no matter how depraved the act was).

According to the news report, and I quote:

They kicked and stamped on his head, repeatedly punched him in the chest, beat him with a tennis racket, scratched his arms and leg with sandpaper, and threw him down a steep hill.

The terrified teenager – who suffers from autism and Asperger’s Syndrome – was also pelted with dog mess and forced to drink alcohol until he passed out. And, in a final humiliating assault, they applied tape to his genital area before ripping it off.

Community service orders and a curfew was handed out to the offenders.

A curfew. I had a curfew – still do when I live with my parents – and the worst thing I ever did was not clean my room. And my curfew wasn’t even in place because of that!

Why would you hurt my brother or someone like him? For fun? Because you’re bored? Because you think it’s funny to hurt the defenceless? My heart bleeds for the girl who was mocked and the 17-year-old boy who endured what he did.

Really … Why would you want to hurt my brother?

Legend of the Guardians: the Owls of Ga’Hoole

Note: Many thanks to @gemkapram for giving me her tickets to the 3D red carpet premiere of the movie at Leicester Square. And I got to see Jim Sturgess within 2 feet of me and managed to not squeal and ask him to just hug me. Much to be thankful for. Also, got this cool two-sided door hanger and the tattoo set (which I’m not sure I’ll use, but it’s so cute!) at the premiere.

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On with the review:

Starring Jim Sturgess (Across the Universe, 21) and Ryan Kwanten (True Blood) as owl-brothers Soren and Kludd, supported by Helen Mirren (Nyra), Miriam Margoyles (Mrs P) and Sam Neill (Allomere). Rivalry between the two brothers Soren and Kludd already exists when they’re captued by the evil minions of the Pure Ones, an evil army of owls that want to rule the owl kingdom. Kludd, tired of his dreamer brother, decides to join the Pure Ones and abandon his brother and family. Soren eventually escapes and with a motley crew goes on a quest to find the Guardians – the legendary owls of Ga’Hoole, who once defeated the Pure Ones in battle.

That’s all I’ll say about the plot, although I wouldn’t be revealing much if I said more – the movie is based on a series of books I must confess I haven’t read before. However, it’s an interesting movie from the studio that gave us Happy Feet. The soundtrack is fun, featuring a track (To the Sky) from a band I’ve grown to love – Owl City (You see what they did there? A song about flying. From OWL city. Smart). I did enjoy the instrumentals played when Soren learns to “fly from the inside” very much. The characters are well-etched, although I felt certain spots were rushed, especially the training portions (when both Kludd and Soren undergo their respective training). I felt more could have been shown there, but I assume there were time restraints.

I saw the movie in 3D and it was quite good actually. There are some parts in the beginning of the movie where the owls really seem to fly in front of your nose. Gradually, the 3D settles down and you become actively aware of it again during battle sequences, which were fun to watch. I’m quite certain the movie is equally enjoyable in 2D, but because this is a movie where the characters are flying a lot, 3D makes it look cooler. Although, would I pay to see the movie in 3D? Personally, no. Would I go watch this movie? Yes – because I like animated movies and Jim Sturgess.

I kid. Or not.

Anyway, I do like animated movies and this one had a decent, if not an oft-told story of good and evil. As far as I know, there are more books in the series, so there is a possibility of further movies in this franchise.

Hoot if you want to see more.

*hoots*

I judge my friends by how they treat my little brother

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It’s true. I do.

When I make new friends anywhere, it’s important for me to observe them when they meet Karan. Or if I mention he’s autistic, I want to see what they say. I’ve had a few people say they’re very sorry and I immediately think of ways to avoid them. I mean, I love Karan and I’m not sorry for who he is. Yes, it would’ve been easier for everyone – and even more so for him – if he wasn’t autistic…he would’ve led a fuller life, but his autism makes him who he is and I love him for all his quirks. Yes, even when he chewed my Lil Ms Chatterbox bookmark. And tore my t-shirts. And spat over my photo frames. Okay maybe I got a little mad. Moving on… 😉

It’s important for me to see how they behave around him, if they’re comfortable or not. Another indicator of this is whether they include him in conversations. I’ve had people pretend as if he wasn’t there – their logic I suppose was that he can’t understand us (or so they thought) so no point in talking TO him. People who talk to him…I appreciate them.

So yes…I judge YOU based on how you treat my little brother. Sue me.

Finding autism everywhere

I was on the Tube (London Underground for those who may not know) last evening. On the District line to be precise (random thought: why are the Tube lines the colours they are? What makes the District line green? What makes the Central line red?).

But I digress.

I hopped on to a train and picked a seat. It was blissfully empty, mostly because I was at a stop away from central London. When I sat down, even though I had my iPod Shuffle blasting Muse into my ears, I noticed a movement from the corner of my eye. When I looked ever-so-slightly to my left, a young man (possibly mid- to late-20s) was sitting at the end of the carriage, with a soda plastic bottle in his hand and he was grinning. And giggling. My knee-jerk reaction: what’s wrong with him? Has he had too much to drink?

In another 2-4 seconds, I realized, quite shamefully, I was wrong. He started rocking, babbling and laughing. He was most definitely autistic.

People were looking at him. Staring even. Avoiding him. They were afraid of him.

I left the train a few stops later and he was still there, crushing his soda bottle and stuffing his fingers in his ears. And my wish for him as I stepped off was that he reached wherever he was going safely.

You know what struck me right after? People are going to be afraid of my beautiful baby brother. He may be 14 now (though he looks much older), he may be taller than me for a good amount and he may be a hefty guy. But he’s still a baby. A baby who cries, crushes bottles, giggles randomly, stuffs his fingers in his ears when surrounding noises are just too much, and rocks when excited.

And people are going to be afraid of him.

Because he’s different. Because they don’t know what he’s going to do next. Because he doesn’t fit society’s expectations of what is “normal”.

FYI: being “normal” is over-rated.