Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Giving a healing touch to scarred lives..!!

This year’s Academy Awards function held at Los Angeles threw up many little surprises. Among them was a previously little known documentary film which was rewarded for its bravado and the way it tries and instills hope in a rabidly conservative society. Saving Face, directed by Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the movie won the Oscar in the Best Documentary Short category, and with this win, got Pakistan its first Academy recognition. Saving Face tells the stories of two acid-attack survivors: Zakia and Rukhsana, their arduous attempts to bring their assailants to justice, and the charitable work of London-based, Pakistani-born plastic surgeon Dr. Mohammad Jawad, who strives to help these women put this horrific act behind them and move on with their lives. 

However, even more precious little is known about the film’s main NGO partners Acid Survivors Foundation- Pakistan. They are the real heroes who have been earnestly and tirelessly trying to support survivors of acid attacks in Pakistan. In their words ASF-Pak provides medical, psychosocial and legal support to the victims of acid attacks to ensure physical reconstruction and reintegration into the mainstream of the society. A dangerous and horrific crime, acid attack is very much on the rise in our country too and it is thus necessary to laud efforts like these which try and bring about a change in society. 

In an exclusive interview to yours truly Valerie Khan Yusufzai, (chairperson of the Acid Survivors Foundation- Pakistan), talks about the way ASF functions, challenges facing them currently and the probable solutions to this vicious crime.. Read on… 

Q.1. How and why did you get into working with acid survivors in Pakistan? What bought you into it?

Ironically enough, I visited a beauty parlour and met some survivors, the chock was violent and once I got to know better about acid violence I decided to do something against it.

Q.2 . Being a victim of an acid attack must be torturous. How do you deal with the victims? What is the main motive of your organization?

Indeed, acid violence is one of the worst forms of violence you can inflict to a human being.
ASF is following a holistic approach and provide comprehensive rehabilitation services to survivors of acid attack: we identify them, offer free medical, psycho social, economic support, and legal aid. ASF also works on developing local capacities to organize a better response to acid violence, but mostly the organization aims at empowering the survivors so that they can rebuild their life and get back to their community as autonomous dignified, proactive democratic CITIZENS.

Q.3. The movie Saving Face is grabbing headlines everywhere after bagging the Oscar. As the movie focuses on acid violence do you feel it would help in the decline of such cases after this? What was ASF contribution in the movie?

Well Saving Face was a partnership project between ASF and Daniel Junge /Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, which was useful to highlight the issue of acid violence at a global level, and additionally mobilize local policy makers, but frankly speaking, the real tool that will facilitate the decline of acid attacks is establishing a legal framework that addresses all issues pertaining to the problem of acid violence and that is the Acid Crime Bill 2012 along with Acid Control Act. Without a proper law, a proper implementation mechanism and then a proper or rather culture sensitive awareness and educative program, acid violence cannot be eradicated from the country.

Q.4. More than the medical aid, how much does psychological help do you feel is required for the victims?

Psychological help is essential for the victim’s healing, it needs to be there from day one; the survivor needs it to bear the pain and the treatment, to deal with the disfigurement and their “new” self, they also need this support to envisage a new life project and face all the challenges that will be their lot: the depression, the stigma, the difficulties during the trial, the fear, the threats, the tension of joining back the community and face perpetrators or other community, family members, face/deal with the violence that is still there after the attack. Without this, survivors cannot make it.

Q.5. Yours being such a conservative society how would it be possible for such victims to be inculcated back into the society? Have you had any success in this regard?

We have had many successes but it is challenging and time taking process, it cannot be done without a proper holistic and delicate cultural sensitive approach and also depends a lot upon the safety net that surrounds the survivors and the psychological state of the survivor. Usually once the survivor becomes solid and confident enough to decide to go back and design his/her life project then a further articulation with the community needs to take place; community sensitization, family counseling, socio eco rehabilitation, ongoing liaison, play role with the survivors; a lot of work is required.

Q.6. Pakistan being a relatively smaller country how far do you feel would you be able to promote your organization’s prime objectives worldwide?

ASF is national NGO, so we focus on eradicating acid violence in Pakistan, we are interested in sharing our good practices and our experience so that other countries facing acid violence may learn/get inspired from our work: I have received several demands from Indian organizations that were curious to know about our methods especially for advocacy and lobbying…
Maybe also a regional or worldwide network would be useful to engage with various countries facing acid violence and give room for quicker solutions; many international organizations have already recognized Pakistan experience/courage in addressing the issue of acid violence, I suppose more seminars and exchanges in other forums will also contribute to the cause.

Q.7. The acid violence form is extremely common in Asian countries, especially India Bangladesh and the likes. Do you feel there is a particular reason for this?

I do not know yet, more scientific research needs to be conducted, acid violence is actually a global phenomenon, so is it more prevalent in Asia because people have been willing to act against it and therefore report and expose it more, or is it because there are more cases in Asia? To date, I cannot answer this question.

Q.8. How much has the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Bill that was passed in the Senate in Pakistan last year, helped in controlling the situation?

It has helped in the sense that acid violence has now been recognized as a crime against the state and those perpetrators, if accused, cannot be bailed out or cannot negotiate their freedom at the expense of the victim as it is no more a compoundable offence. But ASF has always said that this amendment was only step one: if a acid and Burn crime bill 2012 and acid control act are not passed and implemented, acid violence will remain in the country, other issues must be addressed in a comprehensive specific legislation: investigation process, trial, state responsibility to provide free medical and rehabilitation services, funding and monitoring mechanism, regulation and monitoring of acid sale and distribution. All these last aspects cannot be touched through an amendment in the PPC, so there is still a lot of work!

Q.9. How do you plan to aware the common people in this regard and take their help in controlling the violence?

Surprise  :) 

Q.10. What are your immediate and future plans?

Get the acid and Burn Crime Bill 2012 passed at provincial level, help survivors, contribute to establishing the first government led acid and burn rehab and centre in Multan, work on implementation of amendment of HURT in the PPC.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Cons of being a superstar

The first lesson that I learnt as a journalism student was that as a journalist I can never be biased. My reporting, writing etc. can never be prejudiced for or against any particular individual. Four years have passed hence and I have always tried to keep that little and vital piece of information in my journalistic head. However, as I observe the glitzy media world surrounding me I find the lesson I learnt being squashed mercilessly as the power hungry media folks (especially the TV ones) vociferously hunting down big names and stars in the greed of getting some eyeballs.  Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan seems to be the latest victim of this greed.

Seemingly always in the limelight SRK seems to have become a victim of his own superstardom as he found himself in an ugly fracas with the Mumbai Cricket Association (MCA) folks who have banned him for 5 years from the Wankhade stadium for misbehaving and abusing the security personnel. The incident happened after the conclusion of the IPL match between SRK’s team Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) and the Mumbai Indians, which incidentally was won by KKR. If one were to believe the MCA’s version of the story SRK was highly drunk and beat up the security guards when they merely asked his daughter to move away from the boundary ropes. When I first read the story I was astounded that a person of the caliber of SRK would do something like this. The more I read into this (I chose not to follow television news as I consider them the most biased and irritating medium of our media) the more I am convinced that the MCA version is hogwash.

I have never really been an SRK fan and I thus write this without a shred of biasness and just by what my gut feeling tells me. I observed the pictures of the incident where an agitated SRK has his fists clenched and eyes seething with anger. A question pops in my head. Why would SRK be so angry? Especially after his team has convincingly beaten the Mumbai Indians that night. I then closely listen to the audio of the incident. Lots of shouting and abusing. A person, probably a security guard calls SRK a ‘bewda’ (drunkard). Another one abuses him and tells him that they would throw him away. Not one to take things lying down SRK gave them back word for word. Even if he was drunk, SRK is one of the biggest stars of our country and to call him such names is not just downright insulting it is shameful. Moreover, SRK it seems was one against 20-25 people and yet the MCA says it is SRK who should apologize.

In the press conference that he called the next day SRK stated that he found the security people roughly handling his kids and their friends who were playing alongside the boundary ropes and thus had to intervene. If I were to put myself in SRK’s shoes I would have behaved in much the same way myself. If someone dares touch my family I would try to rip them apart. Least of all when it’s my kid. I would most definitely lose my cool if someone called me a bewda, abused me and told me to get the hell out despite being the owner of the team that just played the match there. SRK was well within his rights to let his kids play alongside the boundary ropes. I am not much for generalizing but it is a known fact in India that security people can be quite arrogant and unnecessarily high-headed. I have been a victim of that myself. It is quite a familiar sight to see someone with a tag of security hanging around his neck rudely trying to shove you aside in long queues. It could have been very much possible that someone thought of trying to get his 15 minutes of fame by trying to ‘show SRK his place’. He would have thought of going back home and telling his son coolly.. “You know what beta..Aaaj maine Shahrukh Khan ko uski aukat dikha di…mere saamne koi nhi tikta..”  

The BCCI too is quite tight-lipped on the issue. Probably relieved that the incident has taken some light away from the spot-fixing controversy involving some local players last week. Why try and resolve the issue when people are so focused on SRK  bashing at the moment isn't it??  Being a superstar does have its privileges but it does come with a fair amount of cons as well, this seems to be one of them.

Not to forget many people from our beloved Kolkata are jumping with glee on this news. The very people who in the first IPL considered SRK as the best actor of the country are now enjoying the ‘dirt’ that he is in. That has nothing to do with the ‘greatest captain’ being kicked out from SRK's team I believe?? On the flip-side there are others who are welcoming SRK at the Eden and his ‘home’ Kolkata. I am sorry to say this is not about us versus them. Not Mumbai versus Kolkata. This is not the time to take pleasure at someone else’s failings and become a jii huzoor’; something that this state’s people are known to be. The issue has larger ramifications.

SRK has been one of the biggest stars that the country has ever produced after Big B. His contribution towards Indian cinema is invaluable. I have never been an SRK fan but over the years I have really started to admire his character. The way he presents himself to the media, his sense of humour, his extreme level of passion and hard work towards his work are things that everyone can learn from. Moreover, he made his foothold in the industry without the help of any chacha or mama or papa. All on his own like Big B.  It is thus hard to fathom why someone of SRK’s stature would behave like this.

In India this always seems to be the case. When someone gets unusually famous people try and bring them down. Big B, Dhoni, Narendra Modi and SRK are all fine examples of this who have all faced the downside of their popularity. People without trying get into the real issue just lap up whatever the media tells them and start hurling stones at those figures without once sitting to think and acknowledging what the real truth is.  Once you are famous, the media gets bored of saying good things about you and is always in the hunt for delicious wrong doings that might get them eyeballs. The MCA fracas is very much the case in point. An article in the Times of India of stated that the days of brand SRK is slowly dwindling away. This, despite his last film Don 2 being a blockbuster. The very journos who were licking his feet a few weeks back are now excitedly questioning his behavior without really bothering to verify the reports. Come November and you will find these very media people hounding SRK for ‘exclusives’ on his new film.  If I sit and start talking about the disgusting levels to which the TV media has risen to it would perhaps require a book or perhaps another article now that I think of it.

The incident made me ponder and realize a few things. That the TV media is the worst medium of representation of news in our country , that security guards and officials in our country need to be properly trained for high-headedness and arrogance, that the people of our country can very easily be misled and finally that being a superstar is not an easy task in this country. I might not be a SRK fan but I shall not be persuaded to believe utter rubbish. Not that it would make a difference to him, but I a non SRK-fan stands by his side and believes that he is right in what he did. Lastly, I thank him for bringing us endless entertainment over the years and for his contribution towards Indian cinema to take it to the level it is now. To hell with those who don’t think likewise.

(PS.: To those who believe what I said is right, one small piece of advice. Do not be misled by the ‘support’ that Mamata Banerjee has shown towards SRK. She has only her political interests at heart. We would do better than to listen to such imbeciles.)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

All without his legs

We all have our set of despairs that bogs us down. We all tend to think that life plays the cruelest games on us everyday. And then you have Andre Kajilch..!! 

You will not come across many people like Andre in your daily walk of like. His specialty does not lie in the fact that he is a double amputee. It is in the fact that despite his adversities he participates in adventure races, marathons and triathlons with extraordinary zeal and passion and emerges from it as the best example of the celebration of human life.

When he lost his legs in a gruesome subway accident eight years ago, doctors doubted he would ever walk again – even with prosthetics. But he was determined to prove them wrong. In an exclusive interview to yours truly 32 year old Andre Kajilch recounts the horror tale of his accident, how he coped up after that and much more.. Read on..

Andre Kajilc

Q.1. Tell us a bit about yourself. What do you do and what are you currently occupied with?

I live in Seattle with my wife, where I work as a researcher in the Department of Rehabilitation Medicine at the University of Washington. When not working, I am usually training for triathlon, marathons, and other adventure races.

Q.2 Can you recollect the accident that made you lose your legs?

About 8 years ago, when I was 24, a subway train in Prauge, Czech Republic ran over me. I'd moved to Prague and was studying Chemistry at the same university my father attended. He was born in Slovakia and defected to the USA in 1967. On the night of the accident, I was out with friends and we were dancing and partying late into the night as we often did. I ate breakfast with some buddies and we separated to go head home. I woke up 3 weeks later, in a hospital bed. The driver of the train was the only witness. He was coming around a turn that opened to the platform and I was right there in front of him on the tracks. He had no time to slow down. Nobody knows what happened or how I ended up on the tracks. Besides losing my left leg at the hip and my right above the knee, I lacerated my liver, broke all the ribs on my right side - some of them puncturing my lungs - and I broke my arm, my scapula and had badly cut up my back. 

Q.3. What was your first reaction on knowing that both your legs would be amputated? How did you cope with its aftereffects?

When I first learnt of my amputations, I was coming back into consciousness. So, I never got hit with it all at once. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. I definitely could tell something was wrong but I could barely make out where I was or what had happened for some days. When I finally was told and could comprehend what had happened, my entire family was there and I was just too confused, I think, to be shocked or angry or sad. Then my health condition was very bad so I didn't even know if I was going to survive. That made me scared and I don't remember thinking of the loss of my legs for some time. I was in pain and uncomfortable so the fear and horror of it all was in the forefront. After sometime I started thinking about what had happened and what I would do or be like without my legs. Actually, at this time while still in the intensive care unit in the Prague hospital, I was quite positive and optimistic. This was something like an automatic response and I don't know quite where it came from. Before the accident I was normally this way so I think it had something to do with it but I also credit the disabled that have come before me and live full lives. Hearing stories and seeing documentaries that showed major achievements and breakthroughs by people that had been born with some condition or been in horrible accidents gave me some hope that things could be great.

Q.4. Being a double amputee must be really difficult. How did you bring the motivation to stand back up in life?

I had goals and wanted to be happy and enjoy my life. 

Doctors and clinicians did not think I would walk. One actually found himself laughing when he learned that I wanted to try to walk with prostheses. I’d been pretty optimistic while in the hospital -but when I heard all these negative opinions about me walking, I was really disheartened and scared. Why would they tell me this if it wasn't true. Sure, I’ve heard of numerous people, it seems, that were told they'd never walk again but were able to do it...hadn't the doctors seen those stories??? So why would they say this??? Maybe this time it was simply true- maybe it just wasn't physically possible. I managed to do it though - and this is why I think it was possible:

First of all, I had a goal. I wanted to get back to Prague to continue on the path I was on. Once I got this goal in my head...I decided i was going. Whether i had to crawl up the steps to my university, I was going.

Secondly, I began focusing on what I thought I could do and not what anyone else thought I could do...I told my doctors that I was going to be an 80 year old lady with a cane.. I could see myself doing it and this was vital.

Still, there was one more hurdle and that was this pit that i kept tumbling down into. it was a strange comfort from despair...I don't know how else to describe it. I’d cry my eyes out and push every blood vessel in my head to its bursting point...just fighting against what had happened. I’d cry "why why" wondering why this had to happen to me. Why couldn't I have done something different? It was almost like the movie you've seen multiple times where you still hope someone will change their actions or words to avoid the movie playing out the way that it has the past 10 times.

One night, in October – about 10 months after my accident – I was out of town with friends, I found myself in this state – once again. i was in my room alone and i was crying and playing out the same pointless questions. Replaying what had happened in my head and wondering why it had to be this way – why couldn't things be different – or normal. i was out with my friends having a pretty good time but I just couldn't get over the way things were and the worries of still having a good life. Well, it all came to the surface and I was able to get a little wiggle room to work some logic into the mess. I began asking what I could do. What was the right approach? i wanted to change this –but I can't change this. Yet – How could I make the best of it. I can push forwards and simply do whatever I can do. Sure, I had doubts...but I would just go for it. So I decided to be productive. No matter what – I would try – I would try to get as good as i could with these prostheses and let go of the other concerns. It really has worked – accepting this and making up my mind in such a concrete manner and since that time – since that very night...I’ve never been sad about the loss of my legs – not for a moment.

Q.5. How did friends and family react to the news? Did they play a crucial role in motivation you back up?

I was really amazed at the support I received from my community, my family and my friends. I don't think my friends treated me any differently. I was worried that they would and can remember being nervous about leaving the hospital and facing the real world again. Those fears were quickly laid to rest and I am extremely grateful for everything they did for me.

Q.6. Who or what has been your biggest source of inspiration?

My father is my hero and I've learned so much from him. He had rheumatic heart disease and when I was a little boy he had two open-heart surgeries. The implanted mechanical mitral valves in his heart. He didn't complain about his health and instead chose to do what he could do. That has been an instrumental lesson in my dealing with my own limitations. Although I cannot do everything I want - there are still infinite things I can do.

Q.7. Describe your journey on how you came into cycling after your accident despite all odds and how did you manage to be the champion you are now.

Initially, I was not interested in participating in sports - especially not wheelchair sports. I didn't want to do the things I used to do in a limited capacity. Over time I found that I wanted to be more active and when I tried these sports it was surprisingly fun and fulfilling. They have taken me to many exciting places and introduced me to great people and other dedicated athletes. My take away is to have a much more open attitude to new experiences because you never know what they might lead to. I get richly rewarded by putting in all the hard work. Training is enjoyable most of the time. Pushing myself when I don't feel like it teaches me a lot about discipline and what I am capable of.

Q.8. What are your future plans now?

I plan to keep competing in triathlons and I have planned some adventure races as well. In January I will compete in the Brazil135, an ultra marathon covering 135 miles in 48 hours. Runners climb 33,000 ft and descend 29,000 ft during the race. I will be doing it in an offroad racing wheelchair that I've built with some help. I'll be the first person to do this. Although it will be a big challenge, I am very excited to take it on.

Q.9. What would your message be to all those people across the globe suffering a fate similar to yours

The hardest thing for me was coming to the conclusion that I had to face this challenge with a productive attitude and just do what I could move forward and keep trying to live the best life I could. Once I made up my mind to push all concerns of what other people thought of me or my appearance, I was able to begin living how I wanted. There is peace in the struggle and I am an extremely happy person and just want to keep doing more. If you are in a similar situation - my advice would be to work it out in your own way. Try to figure out what your fears and uncertainties are. Realize that these things that cannot be controlled can only be tackled by making up your mind to control the things you can in a positive way. Just keep working on it and try to make progress. You may be surprised how far this attitude takes you.

(To know more about Andre, visit his website by clicking here.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Reflections of a 'normal' cricket fan..!!

26th May 1999   
Udaipur, Rajasthan    …

I sit in massive room surrounded by at least more than a dozen of my cricket crazy relatives. It is the cricket World Cup in England that has caught the imagination of one and all, not to mention all my fanatic relatives here who love to dissect the game in details. It is India vs Sri Lanka at the Taunton; an important league game for us as we haven’t fared too well before this in the tournament. A victory is imperative. India is batting first and the prince of Kolkata, Sourav Ganguly has opened the batting for India. My relatives knew very well that I was from Kolkata and of my love for Ganguly. Out came some not so nice comments, “Kya re, tera Dadaji kuch karega ki nahi..?“ .. 13 years old then, I just told them silently, “He is the best..You will see..” 

They laughed…I prayed….

Soon as the match progressed, the prince showed his class…Scoring an outstanding 183 studded with glorious drives and 7 scintillating sixes. I was over the moon. However, what was even more surprising was to see each of my relative, uncles, aunts, cousins, cheering each cover drive Ganguly stroked…With each six some of them would reply…"Dada kya mara hai…Khub bhalo…Khub bhalo....” As he got out after scoring his magical innings, all my relatives stood up and applauded; among them was a 65 year old uncle and a 9 year old kid… I watched them around fondly..They had always teased my state Bengal and Ganguly, but when it really came to it, they were cheering and egging him on.. Miles apart from his city some true blue Rajasthanis were cheering a Bengali for bringing the country some glory.. I felt elated …Felt like a true Indian..

5th May 2012
Kolkata, West Bengal   …

Its' just a game dude..Just a game...!! 
I sit in a massive cafĂ© with a couple of my friends surrounded by plenty of cricket crazy fans, or so I believed. It is the Indian Premiere League (IPL) that has caught everyone’s attention. It’s a big match today; the Kolkata Knight Riders (KKR) vs the Pune Warriors India (PWI).  Though it should have remained a normal cricket match fans here have built it up as the clash of the Prince, Sourav Ganguly who now is the captain of the Pune side, against his own state team.  Some of the unusually biased media houses here have billed it as ‘The return of the Prince to his lair”. The city supposedly would be divided in its support for its beloved Dada and their own city team.

I scoff at all this. Surely, that should not happen. There is something called the city pride, city loyalty. And moreover, no individual can be bigger than the game. No matter what.. In the end, it should remain just a normal cricket match. But as it turned out, it was far from that. As we watched the match on a giant TV , the scenes unfolding at the Eden Gardens make my brains go numb. More than half of the crowd is donning the Pune jerseys and showing placards which welcomes Dada and asks him to beat KKR to pulp. I feel sick.
The match starts..KKR have gotten off to a blazing start, but stumble later on. As some wickets fall, some people sitting nearby start cheering every fall of the wicket and making their feelings clear on whose side they are on. I am baffled. Isn’t this the same city which keeps crying about loyalty, sports love and all that?  Where is the sports love? From the looks of it all it matters was communal loyalty and love for one’s regional idol and nothing else…I felt frustrated..Ashamed to be an Indian..