This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Abhi U. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

“What If All Our Phones Died Without Warning Tomorrow?”

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I was about eleven-years-old when my extended family went on a holiday to Alibaug, a coastal town near Bombay famous for its beaches. After a long sunny day of touring the town’s historic fort and frolicking on the beach, the other children and I were just about ready to return to the hotel and drop unconscious on our beds, when the adults, in a sudden fit of piety, decided they wanted to visit the local temple.

The little ones’ protests and grumblings were ignored, and off we went. The temple was incredibly crowded, making me distinctly uncomfortable. My mother told me to firmly grasp her hand so that we wouldn’t get separated, but it was impossible in the scrum to obey her. Inevitably, I felt our interlocked fingers wrenched apart as a horde of devotees swarmed toward the sanctum sanctorum.

I still remember the primal terror I felt; I might be knocked over and stepped on, I might be abducted, I might never see my family again — all these possibilities went through my head in an instant. Fortunately, I had the good sense to go back to the main entrance and wait there until my worried father eventually came and found me.

I’ve never forgotten those moments of terror, and over the years, I’ve come to realise that at the core of that terror was the sudden and inexplicable loss of communication between my family and me. It’s hard to imagine it in the era of smartphones, but there was a time when we weren’t constantly in touch with each other on instant messaging apps or social media, and the prospect of being cut off from loved ones in an emergency was very real and very terrifying.

Image source: Goodreads.

It is that terror that propels a lot of Gavin Shoebridge’s debut novel, Unprepared (2020). The novel narrates the events that occur in the aftermath of an electromagnetic pulse attack that fries every electronic device in the United States and leaves nearly 330 million people without any means of communicating with each other.

Look around you, and you’ll see that nearly everyone is using some sort of device at any given moment. You’re probably reading this on your phone, Kindle, tablet, or PC right now! Now imagine if, in the blink of an eye, it all disappeared. Imagine if you were stranded where you were because car batteries no longer worked. Imagine food rotting away in refrigerators and meat lockers because they couldn’t cool it anymore.

Imagine aeroplanes falling out of the sky and hospital patients on life support dying in their sleep. And probably worst of all, imagine being unable to watch, hear, or even read the news and contact loved ones while all this was happening because the television and radio didn’t work, and neither did the printing press. It’s an awful picture, and Shoebridge brings it to life vividly and realistically. However, what makes the novel stand out from other post-apocalyptic works of this kind is that, after the initial introductory scene, he chooses to focus the action almost entirely on the protagonists, David and Kelly, a survivalist couple in Virginia, USA.

This is a smart decision because it keeps the narrative streamlined while losing none of its intensity and urgency. David and Kelly are your typical yuppie DINK (double income no kids) couple, but they are more prepared than most people for the disaster because they are preppers — people who enjoy being prepared for disasters. However, they are still two regular human beings enduring an unprecedented disaster, and their interactions with each other and with the people they meet are part of what makes the novel so compelling.

The attack occurs when the couple is returning from Tennessee (where they had gone to wait out a hurricane) to Virginia, leaving them stranded with their now-useless car on the highway along with thousands of other motorists. They have to make it back home on foot, and from here the pace picks up and becomes relentless. I won’t spoil it, but suffice it to say that there’s an aeroplane, a gossip-mad pregnant woman, a crazy old redneck, and an enterprising car salesman (!) involved.

Once the couple does make it home, the pace slows down, giving readers time to breathe and take in the protagonists’ altered reality. The novel leaps from action-heavy set pieces to quieter, more reflective moments with aplomb, and you never feel exhausted by the former or bored by the latter. Shoebridge brings delightful moments of beauty and levity to the darkness of the characters face.

For example, in one charming sequence, the characters are able to have a proper meal for the first time in months. The author describes their pure joy in simple but expressive language: “No one spoke during the meal, all overwhelmed with the feeling of oily, cooked meat washing over their taste buds . . . The combination of goose and rum gently lightened the forlorn mood, and after dinner they sat on the sofa, talking about life before the pulse.”

Someone starts singing while someone else keeps time with their hands and the “living room [comes] to life“. A previously frustrated David “[feels] the magic in that cold living room, allowing his embittered heart to open.” In these dreadful times, when we’re all locked in our homes because of the coronavirus and are facing an uncertain future, scenes like these have an expected resonance. In fact, nearly all the scenes with David and Kelly locked indoors will seem familiar to readers today, making them wonder if Shoebridge was prescient.

 

Image credit: gavinshoebridge.com

The book has a steep liberal slant, but this doesn’t take away from the power of its narrative. Some moments may seem a bit jarring or even offensive to certain readers, particularly when the author appears to be pushing his own liberal viewpoint. For example, the author explains David and Kelly’s decision not to have children in a long, almost sermon-like sequence. I found it interesting and thought it added depth to the characters, but I can see how more conservative readers may be offended by it — particularly when the author mentions birth control and advocates enjoying sex without the “unwanted byproduct of children”.

There are arguments about God and politics, but they are not heavy-handed (most of the time), and they are in keeping with the apocalyptic subject matter. At the same time, I imagine a professional editor at a publishing house (the book was self-published) would have checked most of the author’s excesses — like a scene where a man styling himself as ‘God’ is shot, and the author can’t resist equipping, “God was indeed dead”, or another, very serious scene (which I won’t spoil) where the author inserts himself into his work through a note to the reader.

A major event towards the end of the novel sends the narrative hurtling towards the climax, which again I won’t spoil. Safe to say it involves a race against time on bicycles and a water tank cut open to turn it into a makeshift boat, speeding down some rapids.

The ending is open-ended and can go in a hundred different directions in the sequel (which the author is already working on), especially given how creatively fertile and malleable Shoebridge’s American playground is. Shoebridge, who’s originally from New Zealand but has lived in Slovakia and currently resides in the United States, is somewhat of a renaissance man with a wide range of interests and experiences, including voiceover work and electric car conversions.

He comes from both an engineering and journalistic background, so it’s no surprise that his characters are so well etched out and instantly relatable, and his language so precise and accessible. Unprepared is a relatively short work and can be finished in a few hours, which is a pity because I for one can’t wait to find out what Shoebridge does next with this lawless, dangerous, ruthless and yet unexpectedly compassionate and even humorous narrative sandbox he has created.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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