By Rasana Atreya
Published in The Times of India, Pune Edition

“The 4-wheeler class is killing theatre!” exclaims Mohan Kulkarni in despair. Kulkarni, of the theatre promotion company Manoranjan, is convinced that this class is “abandoning theatre to go to multiplexes.”

Kulkarni says, “Only the hardcore audience comes. New audience is not getting created. The youth is not interested at all in serious drama. This is because they don’t have too much knowledge about Marathi literature.”

Manoranjan does its bit for experimental theatre by offering concessions, but Kulkarni isn’t too sure about the future of serious Marathi theatre. He says comedies, or what he calls the “tapori” shows, are what bring in the crowds – the raunchier, the better. This is especially true of the younger, college-bound, mostly male audience.

Prasad Vanarase emphatically disagrees with Kulkarni. Marathi theatre, he says, is a thriving, vibrant entity. And young people today are more interested than ever. With his involvement in FLAME (Foundation for Liberal and Management Education) and as director of ACE (Academy for Creative Education), which he started, Vanarase has been involved in the promotion of experimental and amateur theatre in the city and interior Maharashtra for years. He is trying to create awareness about grants for theatre that are available from the Ministry of Culture, and the major concession the Railways offer to traveling troupes.

Vanarase, a National School of Drama graduate, credits the Maharashtra government for having taken a major initiative in 1955 to organize state-level competitions. This, he says, “actually converted many people, who would have remained theatre goers, into theatre makers.” Vanarase feels this initiative kick started a huge industry. In state-level competitions there are about 450 groups performing in 22 different centers. This involves thousands of people in acting, directing, marketing, backstage work.

Another entity, the Maharashtra Cultural Center (MCC) has been involved with theatre, both children’s and mainstream, for the last 15 years. They have their own theatre, the Sudarshan Rangamancha, where they subsidize plays.

MCC President Dr. Mohan Agashe has imported from Germany a branch of theatre called GRIPS. GRIPS portrays the world through the eyes of children, but is performed by professional adult actors. It does not offer solutions — the intent is to make children think. This has been extremely popular with school children, MCC’s Shubhangi Damle says.

About the “sleaze” factor in theatre, Vanarase says that it is like a wave, demand goes up and down. But he is convinced that serious theatre is not going anywhere. “How do you define success?” he asks rhetorically. “If you base it on the response of the theatre goers, we are very successful.”

Like Vanarase, Damle doesn’t believe either that cinema is affecting theatre, “Because theatre lovers love theatre and come to the theatre despite films.”

Published in The Times of India, Pune Edition


Modern Day Slaves

Of Inhuman Bondage
By Rasana Atreya

As edited and published by the Womens Feature Service

The Indian economy is booming and the middle class is reaping the benefits. But one section that seems to be excluded is that of the ubiquitous domestic maids. Though they play a key role in propping up the hectic work schedule and prosperous lifestyle of the middle class, they continue to lead the lives of bonded laborers. They do not enjoy any of the benefits of the labor laws in the country.

“I have not taken a single day off in the last five years. My madam told me that if I ever do so, she will make sure that I will never work again”, says Archana ruefully. Working seven days a week, she has never taken a day off even in extreme need, for fear that her employer will make good her threat. For Archana, unemployment could mean starvation for herself, her two young daughters and paralyzed husband.

Though a maid, Archana is far from illiterate. She has a Diploma in Electronics from an Industrial Training Institute (ITI). She could not find a job in her field of training because it remains an all-male domain. The employers did not budge despite her offer to work for a lower wage. As for the government agencies that employ people with her skills, the “going rate” (read bribe demanded) is Rs. 75,000 for a job that might pay Rs 4,000 per month at best.

Archana’s mother is a maid in a village near Sholapur. And she educated her daughter against all odds. “My mother wanted for me to have a better life than her own. She would die of grief if she came to know I’m working as a maid”, says Archana.

When Archana asked one of her employers – she works part-time in five homes – if he would give her a raise, she was fired. And the employer did not bother to pay wages due to her.

Unlike in the United States, where the Department of Labor can step in with mediation services to help people resolve their employment disputes, there is no similar facility offered by the government in India.

If there are laws in India similar to the American Fair Labor Standards Act, the maids have no way of knowing. The Act requires that employees receive at least the minimum wage, and not be employed for more than 40 hours in a week without receiving at least one and one-half times their regular pay for overtime.

For Chhaya, and her mother before her, domestic work is what women do. She says of her life, “My husband demands money for alcohol and prostitutes.” She adds matter-of-factly that he beats her up if she does not bring in the money. She does not believe that laws against wife battering apply to “women like her” because, she says, even the police do not seem to think it is a big deal.

The fact that domestic maids are working eight hours or more a day, 365 days a year with no vacations or proper compensation, seems to have escaped the radar of the National Commission for Women. Surprisingly, neither the National Human Rights Commission nor even Amnesty International, deem this as an instance of rights violation.

Anjali, 16, was pulled out of school by her alcoholic father and put to work as a domestic maid. This motherless girl, who is very good with languages and electronics, was so desperate to study that she moved out of her father’s home to her cousin’s, hoping he would be more supportive. It turned out to be that the cousin, an auto driver, was no better. He made Anjali do all work in his own home and take care of his children. He also kept whatever she earned.

Anjali’s employer is willing to fund her education in a hostel because she sees the girl’s potential. But the cousin is not impressed. He says that whatever she needs in life, she can get from marriage, and that she should not dream above her station in life. Anjali says in frustration, “I just want to go to college. I want to educate my sister too. Why can’t they see that I am not doing anything wrong in wanting a better life?”

A March 2000 report by the Pune-based NGO, Social Alert, puts the number of domestic workers in India at 20 million. Ninety-two per cent of them are women, girls and children, 20 per cent under 14 years of age, and 25 per cent are between the ages of 15 to 20. According to this study, Mumbai alone has 600,000 domestic workers.

PVL Ramana, Hyderabad-based sociologist and author of ‘Women in Slums‘, says that the difference between domestic workers and upper class women is that for the upper class women, work is a privilege – they can choose to work or not. Female domestic workers have no choice but to work. It is a question of survival for them.

Ramana says that his research showed that in the slums, a husband often abandons his family after one or two children. Sheer economic necessity forces the abandoned mother to seek any job that can feed her children – and more often than not, owing to lack of education, it is a job as a domestic maid.

Secretary of Pune’s Maharshi Karve Stree-Shikshan Samstha (MKSS) Ravindra Deshpande says that there are several organizations like his own that cater to destitute girls/women. When asked why women like Archana were not able to use their education to pull themselves out of the poverty trap, he said there was a need for more institutions that worked for the betterment of women.

Whether that is the only prescription out of the poverty trap is debatable. But till these women become more visible, upward mobility for these urban “bonded laborers” will continue to remain a mere dream.

February 17, 2007

Mothers Feeling Blue

By Rasana Atreya

As edited and published by the Womens Feature Service

So strong are stereotypes about the bliss of motherhood that the popular imagination allows little space for the lived reality of many women. Many women find themselves besieged by feelings of negativity – and the consequent guilt – after childbirth.

Postpartum depression (PPD) is the cause, says Dr Prathap Tharyan, Head of the Psychiatry Department in the prestigious Vellore-based Christian Medical College. In a British Journal of Psychiatry study that Tharyan and his colleagues carried out in rural Tamil Nadu and published in 2002, they found that 11 per cent of the pregnant women monitored had PPD.

Although there are no figures available for India, Planned Parenthood, USA believes that one in 10 women in the US suffer from PPD.

Unfortunately, says Tharyan, there is not enough awareness about this disease, possibly because psychiatry is not addressed adequately in medical colleges across India. While awareness levels among the general public are abysmal, even those in the medical profession are not well acquainted with PPD, he says.

PPD is a biochemical illness caused by changes in the brain chemistry. It might cause a woman to become deeply despondent and weepy; she might develop insomnia, anxiety or an aversion to touching her baby. She might feel ‘out of control’ and, more horrifying for her, develop a fear that she might harm her baby. A past history of psychiatric illnesses is a good indicator for PPD, but is not a prerequisite. And being from a ‘good Indian family’ is certainly no protection either!

In addition, Tharyan says, various factors – like bearing a female child when there was pressure to bear a male child, problems with in-laws, poverty, or a lack of help in the postpartum period – could result in PPD.

‘Baby blues’ is a milder, more common variant. (Planned Parenthood estimates that about 80 per cent women suffer from it.) The blues may cause a new mother to have mood swings – from an emotional ‘high’ of euphoria, to an emotional ‘low’ of being overwhelmed. She might also suffer from loneliness, sadness, loss of identity, irritability and decreased sexuality. The blues often resolve themselves without medical intervention. PPD however requires counseling and often medication.

According to Niloufer Ebrahim, a psychologist in Pune’s Jehangir Hospital, soon after childbirth, hormone levels in a woman’s body abruptly drop back to pre-pregnancy levels. Coupled with changes the body undergoes in order to prepare for milk production and the lack of sleep, a new mother is under immense stress. This could manifest as PPD. While the hospital’s gynecologists do refer such women for pyscho-therapy, only about one in 20 of them actually seek help, says Ebrahim. “This is unfortunate because sometimes all it takes is for a qualified person to listen to the woman, take her seriously and validate her feelings.”

Considering the high incidence of this illness, which makes it a public health problem, why are women not routinely educated about PPD in India? Dr Jyothi Unni, a gynecologist at Jehangir says that time constraint is a big factor. There are many issues, like nutrition, that she needs to cover in her brief sessions with each patient.

Tharyan believes the Indian doctor’s mindset of ‘preventing harm’ to the patients is also a factor. “We interpret that to mean a situation of ‘compassionate deceit’. For instance, we often don’t inform our patients about the potential side-effects of the medicines. There are a lot of problems in communication between doctors and patients.” So, PPD is left unaddressed.

Ebrahim says, “The word ‘depression’ is always associated with ‘mental’, and people don’t realize that the mind is also a part of your body. No one’s ashamed of going to a doctor for an upset stomach. People don’t realize that being depressed is as much a physical medical condition as that, and as treatable.”

Then there is the social and guilt factor. The new mother, Ebrahim explains, is asked questions like, “You’ve had a wonderful baby, why are you doing this to your child, to your husband?” It makes the woman doubt herself, because nobody is ready to believe in her.

Tharyan agrees. “The problem is the issue of depression is not very well recognised among clinicians, who say, ‘this woman has a difficult pregnancy, so give her some time’. There is a tendency to naturalize a process that is going to be chemically disabling.”

Ebrahim says mothers need to ignore well-meaning, conflicting advice and seek help from experts, be it for breastfeeding or getting the baby to sleep longer. What they also need is a good support system that validates their feelings. The new mother needs reassurance that it is natural to be confused and stressed with a newborn. “You should be getting positive inputs from your gynecologist, from your pediatrician – Oh! You’re breastfeeding, wonderful!”

And to husbands, she has this to say: “If your wife seems to be happy one moment, crying one moment, she doesn’t need to be told millions of women have been through this. Give her a hug, get her some juice; do whatever it takes to make her feel better.”

A severe, though much rarer, manifestation of PPD is postpartum psychosis (PPP). Tharyan says that PPP might cause a woman to feel agitated, deluded or hostile. “There is no specific category of PPP per se, because people with PPP usually have a mood disorder, are bi-polar, or more likely, it could be an exacerbation of previous psychiatric illnesses.” Without treatment, women with PPP may try to hurt themselves or those around them. Andrea Yates of the United States is an especially telling example – her church allegedly told her to ignore her psychiatrist’s recommendations; lacking proper treatment and medication, she went on to drown all five of her children on June 20, 2001.

A Pune-based pediatrician had suggested that it is unnecessary to expose new mothers to “such things” that may “give her ideas”. Ebrahim retorts sharply to this. “Nonsense! Just because you know a knife can kill someone, doesn’t mean that you go run out and do it.” In fact, knowing that her anguish has medical basis, and that many other women suffer from this, would serve the new mother better; along with psychotherapy and medication, of course.

December 3, 2006
Women’s Feature Service

Printed Nationally by Indian Express on Tuesday, Dec 26, 2006

Assam Sentinel


By Rasana Atreya 

Sachin Tendulkar recently found himself in the midst of a controversy – for cutting a cake, of all things. The Indian High Commissioner to Jamaica had arranged for Tendulkar to cut a cake decorated with the Indian National Flag. A television news channel ran a scoop on this “disrespect” to our flag. The BCCI (Board of Control of Cricket in India), in turn, felt it necessary to defend Tendulkar – by pushing the blame on to the High Commisioner. A Union Minister got into the act by saying the person who commissioned the cake should be held responsible. And now Tendulkar may be charged for this disrespect.Am I the only one that finds this situation completely ridiculous? It was just a cake, for goodness’ sake! To blow something which was conceived out of good intentions so totally out of proportion is, I feel, indicative of our misplaced priorities. I think we Indians are a confused lot when it comes to what really constitutes national pride. And if our laws say that this is unacceptable, maybe it is time we changed the law.

As a counterpoint, the American Flag is freely printed everywhere – on T-shirts, on bed sheets, even on swim wear. And yes, for the 4th of July, the American Day of Independence, a lot of cakes with the Stars and Stripes get baked, cut and eaten (I’ve eaten some myself, and not gotten into trouble with the law either. Then again, I’m no Tendulkar).

In contrast, how many Indians do you know that actually celebrate our Independence/Republic Day?

Every 4th of July is celebrated in most American households and in virtually all communities across America. At the end of the day friends and families get together, to celebrate the day with a traditional barbecue meal. Perhaps a guest who fought in any of the American wars (set aside George Bush’ ill-conceived Iraqi war for the moment) reminds the younger generation of the sacrifices that were made by the generations past, for the freedoms that Americans enjoy today. How many Indians do you know that give our Independence Day more consideration than the fact that is a holiday?

One of the most stirring Independence Day celebrations that I had the privilege to be part of was when my husband and I were vacationing in Seattle. Since it was the 4th of July weekend, we decided to go to a park attached to a public library, to be part of the celebration. Every single person there was dressed in red, white and blue, the colours of the American flag. The roads leading to this event were packed with people proudly waving their flags. There were parades where little children performed, their parents beaming with pride. There were charity drives for the war veterans, where people donated freely. And endless food stalls set up by volunteers (regular people, not shop owners), with home made food mostly in the colours of red, white and blue.

And when a disabled World War II veteran got up to share his experiences, people weren’t ashamed to let tears openly flow. After his speech, there a long line of people patiently queued up to shake hands with this veteran, to hug him, to thank him for his sacrifices. And when the festivities came to an end, the gathering rose as one, put their hands on their chests and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, and spirited sang the National Anthem. People broke up from the gathering with flags printed on their hats, clothes, bags, tattooed on their bodies. I don’t think disrespect to the American flag is what these people had in mind.

The Republic Day celebrations from my childhood that come to mind are the endless, boring speeches by politicians atop the Red Fort in New Delhi. Not quite the way to incite the masses to patriotism. It didn’t work for me then, and I sure it wouldn’t work for me now (if I could ever get myself to watch it again).

What I would like, is to be able to wear the colours of my country with pride. Instead of being constantly reminded of what our country was thousands of years ago, I’d like to be able to feel pride for what it is today – a tolerant, accepting, patriotic society.

Flawed system shelters incompetence

By Rasana Atreya

Published nationally in The Hindu

ARUNA CHANDARAJU’S article (“Do not doctor yourself,” The Hindu, January 14), while informative, brings up other issues I would like to address.

Lots of doctors actually prescribe unnecessary medication. A case in point — I was five months pregnant when I had a major bout of food poisoning. As a precautionary measure I went to a gynaecologist in Hyderabad. She prescribed 10 medicines without asking about my medical history, what other medicines I was taking (to prevent adverse reactions) or whether I was allergic to any medication. When I asked her why I needed to use so many medicines, she said she was covering all bases. I got a second opinion from a respected gynaecologist who asked me to throw all those medicines out!

Anyone who has had prenatal checks in the West will tell you that doctors are very reluctant to prescribe medication to pregnant women because a lot of times they have no idea how it will affect the baby. In the last two weeks of my second pregnancy in the U.S. I had a pelvic bone fracture. The doctor strongly advised against potent painkillers as well as x-ray, but said that the choice was mine to make. Though in excruciating pain, I accepted the doctor’s advice.

Informed consent

In India doctors expect you to take the prescribed treatment on faith. You are rarely told about the various pros and cons, or allowed to choose a treatment plan with side effects that you can live with. More often than not, the doctor decides for you.

Aside from the fact that giving the patient the right to accept or decline treatment (called informed consent) is the right thing to do, it is also a legal requirement in the U.S.

To quote another instance, I was prescribed an antibiotic for a sprained ankle in Pune. I asked the doctor why the antibiotic was necessary. He said people come in expecting lots of medicines, especially antibiotics; so if he did not satisfy them, they would just go to the doctor across the street. He said since the doctor across the street did the same thing anyway, he would rather not lose patients!

This doctor said that abuse of antibiotics is a “Western notion” not applicable to India. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (USA) sees it differently; it calls antibiotic resistance (caused by indiscriminate prescribing) one of the world’s most pressing public health problems.

In the U.S., it is very common for patients to ask doctors questions; in fact questions are encouraged because the doctors want you to make an informed choice. In India it has been my experience that doctors do not think that you are asking questions because you want to know what is happening to your body; they feel you are questioning their judgment.

But we need to remember that medical errors can and do happen. No one is infallible, least of all doctors. In November 1999, the American Institute of Medicine published a report saying that as many as 98,000 people die in American hospitals each year as a result of medical errors!

In the U.S. you can call the State Medical Board to see what qualifications the doctor has, how many malpractice complaints there have been against him/her, etc. In India doctors are not required to post their license number in their clinics, or on their prescription pads. They are not even required to periodically update their medical knowledge and get tested for it.

An additional safeguard in the U.S. is that your pharmacy’s computer keeps track of the medicines you have taken previously. The pharmacist will often warn you about medicines that have a potential to interact.

Finally, I have never forgotten a line I read in the Reader’s Digest a long time ago, “Even the guy who graduates at the bottom of his class gets to call himself a doctor.” This is especially worrisome to me because in India we have no way of tracking medical incompetence.

I am not trying to say that U.S. doctors are superior. Indian doctors are as good as their American counterparts, if not better. What I have a problem with is our flawed medical system.

Published in The Hindu, all editions
Sunday, Jan 28, 2007


By Rasana Atreya

Published in The Times of India, Pune Edition

Sini recoils in horror at the idea of sex education for kindergarteners. “They’re too young!” she exclaims. Mother of a 4 1/2 year old boy, she is fuming at the recent decision by the Central Board of Secondary Education to introduce sex education for children as young as 3 years.

Psychotherapist Niloufer Ebrahim says, “The problem is, the moment people hear the word “sex”, they think of two people doing something. They do not realize that this is more about self-awareness.” About Sini’s response, Ebrahim says, “She is frightened, because she thinks her 4 1/2 year old is going to be taught how to do it! He is not.”

According to Ebrahim, ideally sex education would be imparted to kids in very small increments, in an age-appropriate manner, taking into account the levels of understanding of the children.

Ebrahim says, “Done right, it would start with making children sensitive to the differences between men and women, an awareness of hygiene. Gradually, as the children got older, they would be more aware of their bodies, and bodily changes, which should be normal and not something to be ashamed of.” She says, “There would have to be awareness of so many things before we even touch what we call “sex”.”

Sex education would help children recognize sexual abuse, by teaching them to distinguish between “good” touch or “bad”. Ebrahim says, “Kids need to be taught that if anybody touches them in areas that are covered by clothes, it is not acceptable. That if such a thing were to happen, they should tell.” Unfortunately though, there is a common perception that such things do not happen in “good” families.

About the general disbelief that boys can be molested too, Ebrahim says, “Yes,boys do get molested, by other males, by females. Mostly, the molester is known to the family; it is person who you probably care for very much, or consider part of your family.”

Ebrahim says emphatically, “One thing we must remember, just because you teach a person what sex is, doesn’t mean they will run out and have sex. You know that if you take a knife and stab somebody; you can kill that person, does not mean you go get a knife and stab somebody.”

India Today recently did a survey about children today being sexually active from a very early age. With AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases becoming a hard reality, to not make these kids aware of responsible sexual behaviour, and the use of condoms, is an epidemic waiting to happen. Ebrahim says grimly. “They are likely to get diseases, they are likely to get pregnant. People are using plastic bags, can you imagine? Milk bags instead of condoms?”

Published in The Times of India, Pune Edition
Friday, Nov 10, 2006