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It all began from…insomnia

Times have changed since I was 14. At that time, my school, probably with good intentions, began preparing us for the all-important SSLC (Class 10), a public examination held for students throughout the country. Just like me, many must have felt it is a make or break deal. Our school system was a throwback to the industrial age, with the onus on producing results. It is drilled to the bone of every student that failure to score well spells disaster for your entire career. So the pressure is up there as I strongly suspect it still is.

The awareness over the stress that students routinely face was less in 1990-91 than it is today. I was profoundly ill-equipped to navigate the landmine that was my up-and-coming academic career. Like a lot of my classmates, I crammed, only to forget most of what I learned during the exam. A part of me was never convinced that school, as I experienced it, was the only route to a successful career. I never felt I belonged in school. This, despite the fact that my father was a sociology major.

There are valid reasons why I harboured such an unorthodox belief system at such a young age. I wasn’t simply raised like that. My father ended his role in my studies with enrolling me in a school for which I already had the marks to qualify. He was absent in all the parent-teacher meetings, a crime that my school never did forgive him or me for. At home, as long as I stayed out of sight in my upstairs refuge, I never go into any trouble.

When I came of age, school became a dreaded affair. I only attended because I didn’t have the nerve to bunk. I was busy discovering new facets to my hometown Nagercoil, all for the first time, now that I could go out unaccompanied. I would often stop at stores to buy candy or gum. The excitement over my aimless wanderings across town was not to be exchanged for the droll confines of my class.

It is in this situation that insomnia began its cruel attack on me. My parents never openly asked me to study, but it was clear that it was expected of me. There was nothing more than the sound of the alarm clock set to ring early in the morning that I was scared of. I would wake up hours ahead of the bone-chilling sound, my heart pounding so hard that I could hear it. My shirt would be drenched with my own sweat and nightmares plagued me all year long that I had flunked. I now know that what I was facing extraordinary levels of crippling anxiety and palpitation, but back then I was more frightened because I did not know what I had. My father’s hands-off approach, frankly, did not help at all.

My mother had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system that prevented her from running the house the way she would have wanted to. My father too had lately developed alcohol dependence.

My teachers, even the ones who were good with their subjects, were unsympathetic. With the appallingly poor student-to-teacher ratio in my class, personalised attention was impossible. We were 65 students each in two different sections (more were trying to qualify) in a school that didn’t care for anything except your marks. The way they assessed character was even more bizarre. I remember being pulled up for whispering in class more than once. It turned out that I had a rather loud whisper which all present could hear anyway.

The problems of mathematics, trigonometry, in particular, haunted me. Ill-informed about the applications of this branch of maths, I found the subject obscure and trivial. And, in a way, I was right. Never in my life after those years, did I find a need to apply the elusive equations of Sin, Cos and Tan.

Maths and sociology classes were ruined by the raucousness of my classmates. They got busy making fun of the teacher as they could always make up for it in their tuitions. I had made the bold and ‘wise’ decision of not going to tuitions for Class 9. That was probably the best thing to happen to me all year. I had a very good teacher for Biology. It was he who made me realise that I did not have a head for cutting up frogs. But options are limited for students who are neither good in maths nor science.

My father, indulging in a moment of sympathy towards my brother and me, bought us a VCR on which one could play VHS tapes. Thus began my raiding of local video stores for movies. I wasn’t very particular about what I watched. My education in movies had started truly. I was a big relief to watch movies instead of watching the clock tick by every night.

I found comfort in playing cricket and escaping to the darkness of movie theatres. I must have bicycled to most parts of Nagercoil and a good many villages which strictly were not part of town. I had graduated to Agatha Christie and Perry Mason from Enid Blyton and I sought solace in these pages I found hard to get elsewhere. Not that your average murder mystery solved all the weighty philosophical problems of life.

Deep inside my heart, I was wracked with guilt and this in a most troubling way fuelled my anxiety about the future. Most people who exhibit depressive behaviour or have mental disorder usually trace their problems to this bout of insomnia they had when they were still young. I still didn’t know what fate awaited me. The trait carried well into my adulthood. When I was a reporter, I could not sleep if I had to travel for a story the next day.

In India, insomnia is prevalent in 9% of the population. As many as 30% have sleeping disorders one time or the other. At least 28% have trouble initiating and staying asleep, reports the Neurological Society of India. All of us hear stories from friends and family about how they just couldn’t sleep the other night. Most of us experience nights in which we toss and turn and can’t just switch off. But when you are 14, all of this is terrifying.

It seemed that in school there were two kinds of students: the ones who got the grades and were good at that, and the ones who flunked and cared little about it. Even among my closest friends, there was absolutely no conversation about how strenuous the process of not scoring was. Between all this, there was the odd student who was there because he was athletically inclined. Amid this group, I was isolated, alienated and alone, despite having a couple of very close, trustworthy friends.

In an all-male school, there is, as you may guess, a lot of talk about sex. We didn’t really talk about girls. I remember lunch hour whiling away in what now seems an absurd obsession about what was between our legs. Between shared omelettes and juicy titbits, my friends endlessly regaled each other about the pleasures they hadn’t known before. None of us even entertained the idea of having a girlfriend.

This is really not a healthy atmosphere to grow up in and I didn’t make the connection between my sleeplessness and the simple need to express myself. I did not know this problem was not unique to me. It constantly felt like a huge part of me was locked inside myself, aching to go out and be free. I was plainly worried about a whole of lot of things I couldn’t figure out and taking them with me to bed definitely did not help.

And, so unbeknown to my family, I began smoking. It made me, at least for a few minutes, feel like an adult, who could take on the challenges of the world. There are many harmful effects of smoking especially at a young age, one of them being that it affects your sleep pattern.

From yoga to breathing techniques, there are many ways an insomniac can combat his condition. You can stop drinking caffeine after 6pm. You can take out your frustrations in a gym. But it seems the most important thing is to not be scared when you can’t sleep and believe in yourself. There are many websites which tell you how to alleviate your problem so I will not go there. But, if you think there is a root cause to why you are not sleeping well, you should aggressively address the issue.

And oh, by the way, if you are wondering how much I scored in Class 10, it was 382/500, which got me a seat in the maths-computer science group of the Sethu Lakshmi Bai Higher Secondary School in Nagercoil.

Ooty…A while ago

The Train Of Thoughts

For people in Ooty, this winter has been really cold. In other words, this is the most biting cold the locals have faced in a while. At least since last November. Last year, the rains made life more comfortable for people in Nilgiris district. In sharp contrast, in many places temperature is expected to drop to sub zero this year. Even as people complain about the discomfort, it is rather clear that they love the cold. Nilgrites are classy dressers. You cannot see too many people without shoes in my locality, Greenfields, which is very close to the centre of town, Charing Cross. Even the most poverty stricken dress up in mufflers, sweaters, and jackets to ward off the cold. Any small change in climate brings a flood of visitors. Once they get to town, they tour touristy places like Botanical Garden and Doddabetta, the highest peak in South India. My personal favourite is the Bhavanisagar Dam. I suppose tourists return disappointed without exploring the district.

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The movie scene in Ooty sucks most of the time. People just don’t go to theatres. After having lived in places like Coimbatore, Chennai and Hyderabad, I found this trend strange. Ooty is not really an arts and culture hub. However, I am thankful to the fledgling short film festival.

On the other hand, it is quite bizarre that the most modern of arts (the movies) doesn’t really appeal to people. But DVD piracy is rampant and is a sure sign that people are not entirely immune to the charms of the silver screen. You wouldn’t be wholly wrong to assume that it’s the content of the movies that drive people away from the theatre in hordes. But the marketing of these movies is also a big problem. I am certain that people have not even heard of some of the movies that hit this town’s theatres, especially those that in languages other than Tamil. Or perhaps, people don’t really need to unwind as much as those in the big cities as they already live a calm, serene life.

But what is really depressing is the lack of a reading culture in Ooty. Apart from the Nilgiris Library and Higginbothams, there are no other places that provide people with good reading material. Even newspapers and magazines cannot be commonly bought.

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Nilgiris district is the tea capital of India, as you know very well. But in tea shops, the potent drink is as bad as say, Chennai. I have always wondered why. The answer is pretty simple: In tea shops it’s a business. But you would be lucky, as I have been, to have tea at Ooty’s homes. This tea made with care at home is really how tea should be and not the faintly sweet, lukewarm excuse you get in the shops. Ooty is also home to the most flavours of tea you can ever obtain. From Chocolate to Masala to Organic, tea is available in every taste you can possibly imagine. When people hit town, they would do good to buy a pack or two. It’s an ideal gift when you visit your relatives and friends in the plains.

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When I was still a kid, my parents and especially my grandparents, guessing quite wrongly that I was precocious, decided to amuse themselves by entertaining thoughts that I could be sent to Lovedale, where presumably I would bunk in the hostel and become one of the brightest in the family. Thankfully, they never decided to act on their thoughts. But it cannot be denied that Ooty is one of greatest places for education in South India. Parents here often shape their careers around the performance of their children in Ooty’s prestigious schools. Even the hostel life in these schools is an experience to be valued and treasured. Children from well-to-do families land up in Ooty not just to excel in studies, but also develop an array of skills that serve them well in their careers. Even the government school in Ooty is much better than any of those in the so-called plains.

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During this Pongal holidays, my wife and I decided to leave the cold mountainside and head for Vellakoil in Erode district, where the weather was much more warm and pleasant. My friend, a famous Tamil writer, hosted us for the good part of almost three days. I was nowhere close to guessing the rush of passengers who had caught the buses, including special vehicles for Pongal. Our travel then became an adventure and we reached my friend’s home in early hours of January 14. As you know, Pongal is the harvest festival of Tamil Nadu. January 15th, the date of Mattu Pongal, a festival in honour of cows, was spent in the company of a rich landlord from the Gounder community in Vellakoil. The ‘Chakkara Pongal’ (a delicious combination of rice and jaggery), made with special ghee, was probably the best yours truly ever had. We also invited ourselves to the continuing festivities for the next day. The landlord, is a well-read, but extremely eccentric man, who was continuously under the influence the whole time he hosted us.

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Shoppers at Uzhavar Sandhai (farmers’ market) and Ooty Municipality Vegetable Market usually have a whale of a time. The greens bought here are both fresh and nutritious. You also get a much wider range of veggies than those that can be bought anywhere in Tamil Nadu. Vegetables like brussels sprouts, leek,lettuce and broccoli, which are unavailable in the plains, can be bought here through the year.Ooty is also home to homemade chocolates, varieties of oils and, of course, the varkey. The bakeries are also a great haunt for tourists.All of this makes Ooty an ideal destination for honeymooners especially in the summer months of April and May. Darjeeling Momos are the food-on-the-go choice for tourists.

Jackie – Inside the White House

Saw Jackie, the movie on the former First Lady of the US, and want to write my thoughts on it. Natalie Portman portrays Jacqueline Kennedy as a widow, who has the inner reserves to make a difference in the crucial days following the assassination of her husband John F Kennedy.

The lead performance is towering and played with endless compassion by Portman as the camera swoops into many close-ups including the one that begins the movie. She is unlucky to have not won the Oscar this year, seeing as it were that she was up against Emma Stone’s enormously popular performance in La La Land.

The movie essays back and forth as if travelling in Jackie’s memory. The tour of the White House, flawlessly reconstructed with Jackie playing the charming hostess, was broadcast and seen by millions of viewers. This film, along with sYousuf-Karsh-John-and-Jackie-Kennedy-1957-1644x1960imilarly captured moments, form important parts of the movie. Jackie’s conversation with a priest, played by John Hurt before his death, also plays out as a riveting piece of the action, especially when the priest recounts the parable of Jesus and the blind man. The movie is also a throwback to the days when Jackie shared a close bond with Robert F Kennedy (Peter Sarsgaard), who bitterly complains about the family legacy that had gone wrong with the death of the president.

Jackie is also shown as wandering through the elegant and well-kept rooms of the White House in a daze. She is also shown self-medicating herself along with large swigs of vodka. She is also seen chain smoking through an interview with an unnamed journalist portrayed by Billy Crudup. But the show must go on, and it does.

The Oscar-nominated music by Mica Levi is haunting and provides perfect thrust at many of the movie’s dramatic moments. I thought the movie should have ended better; the ballroom sequence seemed a bit tacky. The movie is directed by Pablo Larrain and written by Noah Oppenheim.