Posts Tagged ‘guilt’

A documentary, and my thoughts afterwards

October 20, 2011

Yesterday, as part of the

Ranga Shankara Theatre Festival

I watched a documentary, “Nero’s Guests”, made by Deepa Bhatia. There was extensive footage of P Sainath, Rural Affairs Editor of the Hindu, as he showed how poverty is never properly covered by the mass media, even though farmers are regularly committing suicide. The film was made against the specific backdrop of the cotton farming areas of Vidarbha.

It was a moving documentary, and had the audience close to tears. At the end, Prakash Belawadi moderated a discussion, which, of course, ended in the air, as all such discussions do. Each of us probably came away resolved to try and do something about the tragedy of farmers pushed to the point of death…but I have been thinking about this and other documentaries, plays, and other such events…. and several rather negative thoughts occur to me. Let me state them and they are open to be debated on…or violently disagreed with.

Films of this kind, however moving they are, are not as effective as they should be. This is because the people who come to see them are NOT the consumers whose excessive materialism is fuelling the crisis…the audience usually consists of people who are already aware that there is a problem (even though they may not know the depth and complexity of it). What is the use of spreading the message amongst those who are already trying their bit to contribute to society, and right some wrongs, in whatever way they already can? Most of us in the audience, I’d say, are already people who are trying to live “green”, cut down conspicuous consumption, work with the poor or in the villages or forests. There is, sadly, only so much of spare time, money, and energy that we have. We cannot channel all of that into too many directions. The fat cats, the conspicuous consumers, the conscience-less administrators…the documentary should be viewed by them. But they never do.

Also, there seems to be a kind of guilt overload associated with such documentaries. “Nero’s Guests” seems to be particularly pointed in this…it points (as does Sainath in the documentary) directly at us, and says, let us not blame the government which has instituted such awful rules and regulations that make farmers’ lives, and livelihoods, such hell that they take their own lives. Rather, the blame is shifted to Nero’s Guests..the guests who attended the huge celebration that Nero organized when Rome was burning, and who ate and drink by the illumination of torches…that were human prisoners, who were set alight for the purpose.

I cannot agree with this viewpoint or shoulder this huge burden of guilt. Most of us (especially those watching the film) are law-abiding people, who pay our taxes, which are supposed to go for the betterment of our fellow-citizens as well a our own lives. Our own lives are not easy in India; we fight daily battles with the government and an establishment which is very user-unfriendly, and is deliberately kept so by vested interests which can then make money by bribery and corruption. To me, it looks as if the film targets those who are also victims, and says, “But you are more fortunate than these other victims, so help them.” We are those who want our elected government representatives to use the money we pay as taxes and cesses, and use them for the purposes stated…not salt them away in numbered accounts in Switzerland. It’s not we who are battening on the blood, sweat and tears of the farmers in the rural areas. We pay high prices, we pay for our fuel, are we to blame if it never reaches the sources, but is sucked away by the middlemen?

Then there is this whole “moral judgment” of such films. “I’ve brought this ill to your notice, now, if you do not do something about it, you are not a good human being.” Most of us feel that it is the job of the elected representatives and the civil servants, to administer our villages, not ours. We have our jobs, which we are doing with diligence. Surely the focus should be on revamping the administration instead of pointing accusing fingers at the citizens, and asking them to do something? And it is only those of us whose consciences are already sensitive, who feel this guilt, and squirm uncomfortably under its burden each time.The more I have a social conscience, the more I am constantly put in the dock, and asked, “What ELSE are you doing?”

Another factor, I feel, plays a role in our lack of engagement. Apart from the disconnect many of us have with the lives of people in rural areas, we are, from childhood, brought up to regard ourselves (the middle class) as the underprivileged. We are not taught to not look down, but up…at the billionaires and the magnates and the kingpins and their lifestyles. Our media and our newspapers and magazines splash pictures of malls and gadgets and cars and villas constantly in front of us…most of which we can never afford. And certainly, when our lives are so filled with strife and the need to earn our living,and face bribery, corruption and inefficiency at every level, it is difficult to see ourselves as empowered, privileged beings. The privileged people…are not us, so all we do is to strive to the extent that is reasonably possible, to lead ethical lives.

So…the constant refrain of “you must do something” begins to pall after a while. Should I teach blind children? Should I work with villagers on the edge of the forest? Should I work with spastic children? Should I only travel by public transport? Take bucket baths? Eschew our cars as much as feasible? Contribute financially to various organziations working in various fields? I’ve done..and am doing, all these, and to say so sounds as if I, too, am putting myself on some morally high ground…but I’m just trying to make the point that having done it, I am still loaded with guilt by such assaults, which point fingers directly at me, and say, “You are well-off and comfortable, you are not doing enough.”

Surely, we of the middle class have worked to be where we are today, and deserve what we have, without having to feel guilty about it? No one helped us, and we did not take crooked paths or cut corners to get to our present level of reasonable comfort. We still battle the establishment at every point, every government agency and social construct, that harasses us. We do not ask for mercy, we just get on with our lives; and yes, we do spare a thought for those less fortunate than we are, and try to spare whatever effort and time and money we can, for them. I like to think that the middle class is far more generous in spirit then we are ever given credit for. And yet, the message always is, “Do more, do more, do more, it is you who have to do it.”

Yes…I agree that we are the ones who have to bring in change, engage in the electoral process, and elect better leaders, and usher in transparency and accountability into the government, get rid of our attitude of apathy. But to be accused and told that it is we who have to constantly help our less fortunate brothers and sisters…we take it as much as we can, but there are times when it just turns us off, and we return to our own trials and tribulations (which no one helps us with) and decide, “We can’t do any more”. Too much of evangelism has an effect the very reverse of what it seeks to achieve.

But we will still go to see films like this, plays with a message, and still try to do whatever we can to ameliorate the lot of those who, we realize, are in far more of difficulties than we comparison with whom, we feel grateful that, but for the grace of God or Fate, those unfortunate people could be…us.

So…I wish that those who make such efforts to sensitize common citizens to the plight of others, do not load them with guilt and reduce them by implicit accusation, into defendants, held responsible for the woes our society and country is suffering from.

Voluntary Work

October 28, 2008

Some of us feel that we can contribute to the world we live in by doing voluntary work. And as long as we are able to contribute well, and regularly, this is very satisfying and is a win-win situation…some good work gets done, and we feel happy at having done something that is not just self-oriented.

But often, one cannot always combine one’s regular work and the voluntary work. Meetings happen when professional or personal commitments clash; one is out of town sometimes; and there are occasions when, on a fairly regular basis, one is not able to attend or contribute.

This often gives rise to what I call “Volunteer Guilt”. “Oh, I promised to take this issue to heart, and work for it, but here I am, unable to devote time or effort to it.” This guilt is sometimes assuaged by what is popularly called “throwing money at the problem”…instead of contributing in terms of effort and time, one contributes money instead. But the guilt never does go away, because one knows that it is the effort one wants to put in.

Sometimes, indeed, a piquant situation happens when one is volunteering one’s effort for one cause and so cannot attend some event or do something important to another one! If I have a cycling rally (advocating cycling instead of taking the car) and a meeting regarding tree-felling, I must take a decision about which to attend..and then, if a friend falls ill that morning, everything gets shelved because I am going to be with the friends through the day! So priorities are often difficult to establish, and maintain steadily.

I think it is important that we do not fall prey to Volunteer Guilt. I have to accept that there are times when my family, or my writing, or whatever, *does* take priority over the volunatary work I want to do. This is, after all, work that I have undertaken to do in my *spare* time, so, even though I try my level best, there will be times when it is not possible.

Volunteering is NOT an easy task. Very often, the time taken is NOT in one’s control. A meeting with government officials may start more than an hour after the stipulated time, and go on interminably. Initiatives may fizzle out. Scheduled meetings may not happen. In just the same way as I am unable to devote time that day, other volunteers may also have insuperable difficulties.

So those of you who feel this Volunteer Guilt…as long as you know that you ARE doing what you can, when you can, over and above the call of duty…don’t let the occasional inability get you down. On every volunteer group, there will be members whose intentions are good, but who are, for various reasons, prevented from contributing as much as they can.

But, on the other hand, do not underestimate the help which just your mere presence can make. If it is a public rally, it is easy to think, “Oh, I haven’t been going for the meetings, how will my being there help?” Most certainly your presence WILL help. So…even if just means adding your mental and physical presence to a protest, a meeting, or an initiative….that’s a great help, too.

This post was brought about by one guilt-ridden post from someone…..I think we should all learn to be a little easy on ourselves!


What did I do over the weekend? Not much in the way of festive celebrations, but we were with the only family KM and I have now, and with dear friends…that was happiness enough.

A post without pictures….!


What are we doing to our children?

November 30, 2007

I went to watch a children’s play at Ranga Shankara a couple of days ago…and though the play was very well done, it set me thinking….

We complain so often about children being made mini-adults well before their time, by all the marketing that is aimed at them, the academic load (very literal, with the amount of schoolbooks they have to lug to school in their backpacks) they carry…but have we ever thought how we seem to be loading them up with adult concerns and guilt, too?

We are such preachers. We tell our children to worry about global warming, about pollution, about water…when WE are the people who are not doing much about the mess in the first place. We fondly believe that our children will listen to our words and not to the examples we are setting. “Oh, air pollution is terrible in our city!” we exclaim to them, as we herd them into our air-conditioned cars to go across town for their tennis coaching or whatever it is. “Trees are precious! You should save our trees!” we say piously, and keep perfectly quiet when the tree in our apartment complex is chopped down.

This awareness-problem has developed to the stage where no child seems to be able to write a nice simple fantasy or draw a picture which doesn’t deal with ecological or environmental issues. And often, I find chilrden just parroting the politically correct stances that their parents and teachers spout on these issues, as their young minds, which should be busy with play and not loaded with worries, really cannot comprehend what these things mean.

“Looks are not important!” we chorus at them, and when they switch on the TV they see ads for “Fair and Lovely” and “Fair and Handsome”, in which jobs and success only follow physical beauty. “Eat healthy!” we admonish them, and then say, “if you are good, I will take you to Pizza Hut… or MacDonald’s”. How many parents serve fresh fruit juice at birthday parties instead of Fanta or Coke? I have not seen a single children’s party where chips and fried food are not on the menu.

We are not only making mini-adults of our children…we are also making mini-hypocrites of them…because the tragedy is, our children are not going to do what we say, they are going to do what we do.

Our children…so often I feel sorry for them. We drive them on in the rat-race, and make sure they can not get off the eternally turning wheel….

Volunteering and Guilt

August 23, 2007

I have been mulling over this whole concept of volunteering to do something, especially for a social cause. Every person has a regular life, and beyond that, sometimes volunteers time, or money, or effort, or all three, to something which is of deep interest.

Most social organizations are strapped for funds and they benefit from voluntary work; it is a win-win situation both ways.

Having said that, I find some drawbacks to the situation.

Volunteering, by its very nature,cannot equal the deep commitment that one gives to the primary job, and so the core group of the social organization has to contend with a contribution that can be very erratic in both quality and quantity. Added to that is the difficulty that some people do voluntary work as nominally as possible and try to garner publicity that way! The regular people, who take care of the slog work, are forgotten, and the celebrity who comes to spend one day at the organization gets the limelight. Even the non-celebrity volunteers sometimes feel that their efforts are not appreciated equally.

And then there is this whole process of “guilt-tripping” everyone to be a contributor or a volunteer. Look at the ads of any social organization. Far more than positive messages are the negative ones that lay the guilt on with spades. “Turn this page and you are committing this child to a life of penury”, it says…and you have to turn the page, but you feel sad and guilty while doing so.

Then there is the guilt-tripping about participating in social initiatives. “We had a protest against xyz,” an email recently said. “Where were you? It is so easy for you to sit at home saying how good our cause is.” I found that SO negative. I may not be able to join in the protest for various, very valid reasons. During one protest that took place on two Saturdays…the first time I was out of town, the second time, my neighbour’s father died and I was in the hospital. Why must people assume that your reasons for not participating must be somehow ignoble? Why not give someone the benefit of the doubt?

I do agree that it is very difficult to get people to participate in such activities, but surely there should be a better way of getting them to do so rather than piling guilt and shame on their heads. And the irony is that the only ones who will feel the guilt is the ones who do want to volunteer; the others will quite blithely “turn the page”.

And I feel another thing which core workers for one social initiative forget, is that the average individual has many facets and gets approached for many different activities. And yes, a good-hearted person whose social conscience is active, would like to contribute to many things.

Just in the past few days, for example, I met someone who is working to integrate puppetry as a form of communication; someone who is helping tribals who are being expelled from their ancestral land; got an appeal for volunteers for blind students preparing for their exams and also from people who are trying to bring theatre into schools; talked to someone who runs a centre for autistic children, spoke to people who are worried about the environment in my city, tried to do something about documenting the threat to wildlife; chatted with someone about the hardships faced by women prisoners in our jails, and read about people who try and make slum children’s lives better.

All these causes are equally worthy; and I would like to contribute not just to one of these…but there is only so much time available to me. And I must live my own life too…and I have a right to NOT do volunteer work if I don’t want to. People tend to forget that voluntary work IS at the person’s time and convenience, and often pull a face when the volunteer says, sorry, I can’t make it tomorrow. When I cannot make it for a protest, I am made to feel extremely guilty about having a life apart from the protest. This sometimes has the unfortunate effect of alienating the volunteer from the cause altogether. Volunteering cannot be the same as a full-time job for the cause.

And what I also find irritating is that if I donate money, sometimes, instead of thanks, all I get is “it’s so easy to give money but there is nobody to do the actual work.” And if I donate my time and effort, I am also expected to donate money as well. Every time I spend time on a project, I am asked to buy things I will never use, and am ridden with guilt if I don’t.

It is also difficult if the volunteer’s strengths are not utilized; a disorganized voluntary effort is really a waste. I recently went to help with some rescued birds; I have handled birds, and wanted to help with dosing them and treating them. But what I was doing was… nailing mesh to cage frames, which I certainly cannot do well at all.

But having volunteered, I do realize just how tough some of these social initiatives are, and really can’t blame the people involved with them for using all the methods they can, to get people to come in and help! So I guess it is six of the one and half a dozen of the other…it is I who must choose how and what I will volunteer…and prevent myself from being loaded with guilt about the rest.