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6 Months, A Pandemic, 70+ Books: The Saving Grace of the Act of Reading

This post is a part of YKA’s dedicated coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak and aims to present factual, reliable information. Read more.

March 25th, 2020

The day our lives completely changed, and we’d never think of the term ‘normal’ in the same way, ever again.

Prior to this, there had been some rumours of a new virus ravaging the streets of China, Europe, and parts of the US. Little did we expect this virus to knock on our doors and bring the entire country to a standstill. Nevertheless, amongst the different smells of fear and the unknown future, we said to ourselves “seh lenge thora” (we’ll deal with this).

Unfortunately, most of us, apart from brushing arms with death, did not realize how difficult it would be to keep our individual and collective sanity intact. This is especially true for those who have lived in isolation or come from troubled homes.

Man Silhouette
Representational image.

A fair disclaimer before I start with my story: I am aware that I have a relatively privileged existence; my parents have provided for me to whatever extent they could have. It was only after I left the comfort of home that I realized how to check my privilege — how to be more empathetic, for lack of a better term.

If any part of my written experience seems to trigger you, for whatever reason, I wholeheartedly apologise in advance. This is just my own phenomenological experience that I’m trying to put into words.

I hail from the small North-Eastern town of Shillong, and by the time I intended to return home, the Meghalaya government had imposed a complete lockdown and ban of vehicles from outside the state.

As a temporary solution, I had decided to isolate myself at my family’s empty apartment in Guwahati, Assam. Now, I’m habituated to living alone — I have lived alone for most of the five years I spent out of home (for my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees). I did not mind the situation – the freedom of staying alone, despite its responsibilities. However, on the days before corona, I did have a social life. Isolating in a different city, where you don’t know anyone of your age and barely speak the local language (Assamese), meant that there were other challenges to conquer.

For the first couple of months, I led a fairly easy life. Revisiting my favourite web series, movies, and studying for the final semester of my MA degree — I managed to go through the days. As the months went by, however, it all started to merge; days and nights would be difficult to differentiate, especially in terms of my circadian rhythm.

As I was a student at the University of Delhi, I was the first batch to go through the dreaded OBE (Open Book Examinations) for my final semester. As most of you would be aware, the OBE did raise a lot of questions and received a lot of flak from both the teacher and student communities. This led to the exam being postponed four times, amidst numerous court proceedings to discuss the validity of the exams themselves.

Soon enough, all this uncertainty, isolation, and numerous personal issues hit hard. I seemed incapable of studying, constantly worrying about my future. Working out and a bit of physical toil required an amount of willpower that I completely lacked at the time.

Eventually, I turned to reading.

Now, I have been an avid reader for most of my life. Nonetheless, it was only during this period that I understood how much change you could inculcate into your mental health through a few lines on pieces of paper stuck together.

The author’s bookshelf.

Most nights were spent turning page after page; book after book.

By the end of December, following a reading spree of six months, I completed about seventy different books.

Some of them were second readthroughs — these are important, as they help you cover pieces of information, metaphors, plot twists, or character developments that you might have missed in your first readthrough. From drama and social issues arising from postcolonial contexts to post-WWII era’s existentialist thought processes; I devoured them all.

Some books, such as Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Nausea” and Albert Camus’ “The Fall” helped me understand the nuances of isolation. Both of these authors/philosophers have differing worldviews, which may be difficult to differentiate for the uninitiated. The post-partition woes of Siddhartha Deb’s novel “Point of Return” walked me through bits of my childhood in Shillong, and the issues plaguing the North-Eastern part of the country. More importantly, it taught me to understand the complex emotions that you grow up with and repress, as a non-tribal resident of Shillong.

These books had minor lessons to impart — lessons that were important to learn in one of the most tumultuous times that the world has been through. Before the pandemic halted the world, mental health was an issue that was contested; outright denied by conservative institutions, and almost vehemently brought forth by the more liberalized sections of the society.

On the internet, everything seems rather distant from your very soul, something that probably couldn’t touch you or hurt you. However, when you’re backed against the proverbial walls of your mind, peeking over and seeing the edge of your sanity, that’s when you realize that you need ways to keep yourself from falling over.

Each of us may have our ways of dealing with our issues. Some people like to distract themselves; pretend that the problem doesn’t exist. A select few decide to find a particular outlet, such as exercise or cooking, to deal with their issues. Others may repress. The point that I’m trying to make here is this: the pandemic has shown us that our lives are only as good as our minds make them out to be.

Life truly is unpredictable. For those of us who are just starting this decade as adults, doubly so. Our generation is burdened with a myriad of issues on a socio-political and socio-economic level, both nationally and globally.

The least that we can do for ourselves is to allow our minds to speak to us, so that we may listen to them.

What does this have to do with my habit of reading, you ask? Truth is, I didn’t understand it at first either. It was only much, much later on, that I realized how literature, philosophy, art, and culture saved my sanity from spiralling into the depths within. I must confess that I’m still struggling with a few issues that I may have to deal with for years to come. Nonetheless, reading allowed me to expand my horizons and broaden my perspectives in a way I didn’t expect.

Maybe it’s time for more of us to turn the pages of the books on our shelves which gathered dust over the years. If the numerous lockdowns and the possibilities of catching a deadly virus have impeded our ability to broaden our horizons through our social lives, we might as well broaden the scope of our imaginations through books. Who knows? Maybe we’ll get to understand much more about ourselves, our passions, motivations, insecurities, fears, and ambitions as a result.

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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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