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Issue 3

Stoned, Shamed, Depressed – A Conversation with author Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava

Stone, Shamed, Depressed: An Explosive Account of the Secret Lives of India’s Teens is a book that examines the lives of urban teens. Children as young as middle schoolers have started engaging in activities like social media usage, substance abuse, body-shaming, video gaming, sexual bullying and online-bullying. The author, journalist Jyotsna Mohan Bhargava, highlights the urgency of these matters. How does one deal with impressionable teenagers being exposed to virtues and vices that even adults have difficulty navigating? Why do these children, who have all possible resources and comforts at their disposal, engage in these activities? Here, I talk to the author about her observations and why she is worried.

Isha (I) – Starting with the topic of drugs, I always assumed that increased usage is a result of increasing freedom with age? Is that true or is there something else at play here? 

Jyotsna (J) – I have heard lots of stories about college and there being choices available for every budget, but I find it fascinating the easy and casual usage in very young children, even in middle school. The difference in how they use it is that it isn’t recreational, it is an effort to fit in with their peers. It isn’t even a choice for many with the enormous pressure they are under to achieve ridiculous 100% cut-offs and very often you aren’t that student. As a society, we haven’t reexamined what we keep pushing our kids into. So kids are saying look, we’ll do it but doesn’t mean we’ll do it the right way. So many of them fall back on drugs to help stay awake and study constantly. A student told me that he started having marijuana at 13 and used it as an “experience enhancer” for movies. Why do you need that, why isn’t a movie enough for you? He said we’re all trying to fill a void, fill something. So there is a lot going on and it isn’t recreational for these kids.

I – In today’s environment where drugs have been vilified so much, I feel like this book could be used by someone to back their anti-drug stance. So how do you think this book fits into that whole conversation?

J – I have been very careful to not judge any of the stakeholders in the book and let others hopefully read between the lines and judge for themselves. Because it is not at all normal for 13 and 15-year-olds to be consuming marijuana and laced drugs.  My attempt is to bring a mirror to our society because very often we don’t want to acknowledge that things happen, and if we don’t acknowledge if we don’t accept we’re never going to able to realize that some stuff is more important. We don’t really have a very cohesive drug policy or we’re not really looking at mental health when it comes to the young ones, so I think my book has been an attempt to actually bring issues out in the open so that we can accept and deal with them. If there is no acceptance there will never be any conversations and change. 

I- So regarding policy, how do you think legalising marijuana or changing legal drinking age and such will affect this issue?

J- With everything, I think the buck stops with the family. Banning has never been the solution and I think really it all comes down to where you’re coming from. I could say that schools need better policies and sex education but the truth is we need to talk about it at home. I think there is an enormous amount of wealth being substituted for parents’ time and it is doing a lot of harm in the long run. Giving devices to these kids at the age of 6 and 7 and taking them back at the age of 13, it’s not working. It’s leading to aggression. Social media is a new toy for everyone and I think parents need to figure it out first and help kids harness it in a better way. We need to teach kids about cyber safety, or about how just because everyone is having drugs, doesn’t mean you should too. We need to normalise the existence of things that happen around us and say that this is no longer a western concept that everyone is smoking, drinking. One of the first people who reacted to the book was a gentleman on Twitter who said: “This is western bullshit”. This is precisely the reason I’ve written this book we’re still caught up in what should happen versus what is happening. If a child is using drugs, they need counselling and de-addiction centres, which is so against our values. So many children only have one question for me “How do we talk to our parents?” If someone is genuinely going through an issue whether it is mental health or sexual bullying, we need to deal with it accordingly and figure out what is and isn’t a mistake. If we aren’t willing to accept that a teenager hitting his parents or talking gangrape isn’t a mistake and other things are a mistake, we won’t realise that some issues do need deeper intervention. It all depends on how we acknowledge these issues.

I- Were a majority of your interviews based in Delhi NCR or how were they located?

J- No actually I have a lot from Bombay, Bangalore, Chennai, and Hyderabad. Each of these has its own problems. I think NCR is rocking it when it comes to drugs while there is more gadget addiction in Bangalore, gaming in Chennai. A college student in Delhi told me there is a difference in how drugs are used in Delhi versus in Bombay. In Bombay it’s something done by the older lot, you hear about celebs and substance abuse but it’s done and over with. In Delhi, it’s a production. All of these kids who were already on drugs in school, they are going into harder stuff in college and I don’t think there’s anybody who’s stopped them or had a conversation to tell them that you know when you’re lacing marijuana with something else, you’re reaching another level. They’ve never had these conversations and always had money.

I- So how would you say this works in Tier 2 And 3 cities?

J- The issues are different in Tier 2 cities. But anybody today who has a smartphone, even in rural and semi-rural areas is vulnerable. The genesis of it all is that smartphone. We’re pretty much the biggest market, I think some 839 million smartphone users by 2022, and a bulk of our population is young. You can do anything on that phone. I demarcated it as an urban book simply because in the very rural the issues are very different, the addiction is very different, it comes from the frustration of having to make ends meet, versus this society where everything is on a platter By that I also mean Tier 2 towns, they have a lot of money and are giving smartphones to kids. I don’t think you can demarcate too much because that vulgar language of gangrape in Mumbai you can also possibly hear it in Patna. In Tier 3, there’s a lot of gaming going on. As a country we’re aspirational and social media has opened up everybody to it. So kids who are getting botox at 15 are no different than the 9 or 10-year-old kid who has gone on the reality dance show on TV because the parents may be from Ludhiana or wherever, they’re equally aspirational. Many parents I spoke with find no issue when it comes to privacy, They say it’s part and parcel of the game. I am talking to you about cyber safety, but in a tier 3 city where you’ve given your child a phone and he’s gone to study in a school where you’ve never been perhaps, you’re not even equipped to deal with the knowledge he has.

I- Moving on to another topic you write about which is bullying, homophobia and body-shaming. These kids exist on social media where body-positivity and pro-LGBTQ+ stances are quite prominent. How do these kids exist in that space and still manage to act this way?

J- Again this comes back to the conditioning of our society. I can actually see that with 90% of people if a child goes up to their mother and father and says that I’ve been body shamed, I can actually see that the reaction is going to be, it’s okay, it’s a part of life, you’ll get over it. As a society, we don’t deal with anything that isn’t tangible. Even with the Sushant Singh Rajput incident, we circled around the issue for months. Finally, when we did come to mental health, we were talking about older people. We haven’t touched children. It’s enormous in the 15-20-year-olds. All kind of positivity starts with a society that says we may be traditional but that doesn’t mean it’s always correct that we need to move with the times and unfortunately I think that’s a long way from now.

I- A third topic you address is teenagers exploring their sexuality and having sex. How does one deal with this, at what age is it necessary to have a conversation about this?

J- My dilemma has been, how do you deal with consent by minors, when they have consensual intimate relationships and then have been asked to leave their schools and such. A lot of children are really sexually empowered and these conversations need to start very young, at 7 or 8 years according to some counsellors. Consent to me is a very big word with not adequate importance given to it by society. A lot of mothers have come up after some of these cases and said we’re teaching our boys respect but I think that’s tokenism. We need to go beyond it. A doctor made a lot of sense when he told me that in the last few years, we have been talking about how our girls are changing, how they are driving and working late doing everything. But we forgot to tell our boys to change as well. If they still remain where they were while girls are changing, we’re going to have this clash. There’s frustration in teenage girls as to why the onus is on them and we have done this to ourselves as a society. So consent is a very important word that we need to teach them.

I- In addition to body-positivity, social media is also urging women to embrace our sexuality. I am guessing that it’s targeting slightly older women but the narrative is also being embraced by younger girls. Since increasingly younger girls are trying to fit into this narrative of let me embrace my sexuality, how do you deal with that? 

J- To be one of the girls, you have to let go of your virginity or you aren’t cool enough. Getting rid of it is like a badge of honour and very casual for 15, 16-year-olds. It really does come down to how comfortable a child is in their skin to be able to take this enormous onslaught of peer pressure. And knowledge is important when you’re, say, trying to date a boy and you send nudes over Snapchat and you think they will disappear after being seen, but somebody else has recorded it it’s in circulation. When no one speaking to them, they’re listening to their peers and going ahead so I think it boils down to really what those conversations you’re having at home, that communication channel has to always be open. 

I find that even six months make a difference. If you keep pushing social media, say a child who gets in at 13 versus at 15 or at 8 versus at 12, I find that the child is evolving and learning more things. You can’t push beyond a point but that little bit of experience keeps adding up, that ability to scope things out react accordingly adds up.

I- How do you see these phenomena of drug usage and social media and such play out as these kids enter college and parents lose even more control. You have said that drug usage tends to increase in such cases, but what else changes?

J- I find that again it all depends on how solid your base is. Some things do change, for instance, people in their 20s are using social media for activism in unimaginable ways. Drugs may become a recreational activity more than before, but then mental health is escalating in the 20s. With the whole sex thing, I think kids are taking control of their lives you’re adults, so in that sense, it’s your life. Your parents have to make sure they’re around to hold hands be there if you want to talk. 

In my interviews, this kept coming up about social media anonymity, how do you trust the world with bearing your body and soul? But we’ve all had our rebellion, unfortunately, it’s a lot to be on social media and living a public life. So the pressure to be somebody is more for your generation. We went to school and got bullied, got home and forgot about it until the next day. You go to school and get bullied and you come home you’re still getting bullied so its 24×7 now.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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My Son’s Inheritance: India’s Invisible Violence

By Aparna Vaidik

Published by Association for Asian Studies on Thursday, August 27 2020.

Mahatma Gandhi and the philosophy of non-violence are facets of Indian history that have inspired generations of world leaders from Steve Biko and Nelson Mandela to Martin Luther King Jr. Also perpetuating this image of India as a land of non-violence and tolerance are some other facets of India’s history such as the conversion of the ancient Emperor Ashoka Maurya to Buddhism; his adoption of non-violence as a state policy in 3rd century B.C.; and the existence of a composite culture known as the “Ganga-Jamni sanskriti” (the comingling of waters of rivers Ganga and Yamuna), a referent to the peaceful Hindu and Muslim cultural intermixing in the Subcontinent. Indian public intellectuals from Amartya Sen to Shashi Tharoor have invoked these elements of India’s historical past to debunk majoritarianism, to decry communal conflict, and to critique right-wing political agendas.

Violence, if at all examined, is primarily done through the Weberian lens by studying state actions such as battles, wars, or political retribution. Other than that, it is the episodes of communitarian riots, gender violence, and subaltern resistance that are scrutinized. Seeing violence as episodic phenomenon, on the one hand, pathologizes it as an aberration or turns it into an exception in need of an explanation; and, on the other, reinforces the presumption that Indian society is fundamentally peaceful, non-violent, and tolerant. My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India challenges this munificent image of India to show that the ubiquity of violence has rendered it banal and thereby historically invisible. It asks, how is the violence not visible? Why is it invisibilised? How does it turn into a secret? What allows the unconscious denial of the existence of violence? Who are the recipients and witnesses of this violence? Finally, what is this violence?

My Son’s Inheritance traverses several centuries and explores the history of Vaishnavism and warrior cults in northern India; the history of Arya Samaj, a nineteenth-century reformist organization; the role of a violent cow-protection movement in forging the Hindu majoritarian identity; and the myths of Hinduism that invisibilised the oppression of the lower castes in the Subcontinent. It uses pamphlets, popular publications, prints, poetry, and myths, as well as my own family history, to offer a cultural reading of violence. The book demonstrates how violence is secretly embedded in our myths, folklore, poetry, literature, and language, and is therefore invisible. Framing my narrative as a message to my son, I acquaint him with his ancestors—those who abet and carry out lynching as well as those who are lynched. In this way, the “son,” a metaphor, embodies both the violator and the violated, much like the country in which he will come of age. The book lays bare the heritage of violence bequeathed from generation to generation and disabuses us of the myth that holds nonviolence and tolerance as being the essence of Indian culture.

The book argues that perpetrators of this violence have not always been the state, the rulers, the police, or the army, but the ordinary Indian who thinks of India and Hinduism, the majoritarian religion of the Subcontinent, as tolerant, spiritual, and non-violent. This person is often the silent witness or a bystander to whom the violence in Indian society remains invisible. In doing so, the book addresses the “banality of evil,” a phrase coined by philosopher Hannah Arendt. She argues it was not just the big generals and the Nazi party officers who were responsible for the Jewish holocaust, or Shoah, but also the normal, ordinary, everyday people who went about their everyday lives, did their jobs and obeyed the laws. It is easier to understand the mind of thinkers and ideologues but, as Arendt shows, it is immensely hard to fathom the mind of an ordinary person. Carlo Ginzberg has attempted this in The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, which seeks to understand an ordinary miller’s notions of how the cosmos came into being. In a similar vein, My Son’s Inheritance examines an ordinary law-abiding Indian’s mentality that either denies the existence of violence or sees it as something that foreigners or wrongdoers indulge in.

The inheritance of this violence, the book demonstrates, comes to us in a form of a secret, a secret that is hidden in plain sight. It is visible and yet we don’t see it. Once the secret is unveiled the question of atonement or redemption comes up: How do we redeem ourselves? How do we atone? According to My Son’s Inheritance, atonement lies in Indians owning up to their history of violence. The choice is to either hide one’s shame and generate even more violence, or to own up to one’s historical shame and break the silence around violence. For it is our silence borne out of privilege that perpetuates violence.

This is a crossover book written as creative non-fiction. A nagging worry as I embarked on this project regarded crafting the narrative. After writing years of staid academic prose, I felt unsure about transitioning into a more conversational narrative style. Surprisingly, it was much easier than I had imagined. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, and James Baldwin’s A Letter to My Nephew served as narrative inspiration. Choosing a creative narrative strategy also required me to make “travel-style” field trips, first to my hometown, Indore in Central India and, second, to the ancestral shrine in the small town in Rajasthan. The histories of both places are woven into the book’s narrative. I was now seeing them with the eyes of a writer.

As I started conceptualizing this project, the question for me was how do I tell stories of violence? How do I narrate stories of conflict in a non-conflictual manner? How do I not fill the hearts of the audience with hate in talking about hate? How do I persuade people to pause and examine their own complicity in perpetuating structures of violence? These questions were also arising from the loss of my belief in the persuasive power of the historical mode of narration. For a while I had felt that we needed to tell historical narratives differently, ones that were more accessible to the public. This book is an acknowledgement of the fact that we as social scientists and humanists are accountable to not only one’s peers and the institutions we serve but also to the society and the times we live in.

This article was first written for https://www.asianstudies.org/. The author has commissioned it for use by OpenAxis.

Aparna Vaidik is a decorated academic and an Assistant Professor of History at Ashoka University (India). Here she writes about her new book My Son’s Inheritance: A Secret History of Lynching and Blood Justice in India (Aleph, 2020).

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).